This week’s music is the most famous of Shostakovich’s string quartets, the eighth, performed by the legendary Emerson Quartet.
Shostakovich was in East Germany to write the score for a film about the bombing of Dresden when the inspiration for the eighth string quartet arrived. Three days later, the composition was completed. Shostakovich dedicated it to the “memory of victims of war.”
The eighth string quartet is, in my opinion, the most emotionally powerful of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Indeed, it is one of the most emotionally powerful works of art to come out of the twentieth century. It is a work of shattering strength and tremendous depth, the kind of work that can leave a listener stunned in their chair, the kind of work that can raise memories long buried and remind us of the fragility and rapidity of life. It is a work that plumbs the depths of human psychology. Like Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, it is a consumate artistic masterpiece.
All five movements of the quartet feature quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier compositions. For instance, first symphony and first cello concerto are reference in the first movement, and the reference to his own initials we saw last week in his fourth string quartet is scattered throughout the second, third, and fifth movements. Shostakovich is reported to have said about the quartet that it was “written in memory of its composer,” which suggests the references to his name were a sort of preemptive requiem.
What should you listen for? If I answered that question completely, this post would turn into a PhD thesis. But here are a few things to keep an ear out for:
Shostakovich’s name. It’s everywhere. As we saw last week, Shostakovich signed his name D-E flat-C-B natural in his tenth symphony, his fourth string quartet, and now his eighth string quartet (a permutation of his initials, DSCH, with the B natural substituting the H in German musical nomenclature). Shostakovich places this little signature all over the place, in every key and instrumentation imaginable.
The second movement. There’s simply nothing like it. This is Russian music at its fire-breathing, hair-raising best.
The symbolism in the fourth movement. The start of the fourth movement features a low drone in the first violin, interrupted by three loud strikes that get repeated several times until they reach a harmonic resolution. These strikes represent the gunfire of warfare, and the droning sound of the first violin represents the sound of distant aircraft. Once the strikes resolve, the droning becomes the first four notes of the dies irae portion of the Catholic requiem mass (which is ironically the same notes as Shostakovich’s signature, DSCH, just in a different order). To call this kind of musical symbolism powerful would be a gross understatement.
The fifth movement’s tribute to Bach. As we saw last week, Shostakovich could not resist paying homage to his hero, J.S. Bach, in almost everything he wrote. And the fifth movement is structured in a classic Bach-style fugue. It’s easy to miss because of the achingly sad, elegiac beauty of the fifth movement, but the fugue is there, hiding just under the surface.
Shostakovich wrote his second string quartet while staying at a retreat center for writers and composers outside of Moscow. It was later premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble that Shostakovich ultimately chose to premiere all of his string quartets. I find this choice of ensemble particularly interesting, given that Shostakovich’s compositions, like Beethoven’s, are often divided into three chronological categories: early, middle, and late.
The fourth movement (starting at 24:04) is based on a folk tune that Shostakovich featured in his second piano trio. First, you will hear a sombre (and, in my opinion, extremely Russian-sounding) E-flat minor dialogue between the first violin and the cello. The two instruments trade the folk tune back and forth until the viola ushers the ensemble into a second folk tune in A minor. Shostakovich then puts this new theme through a series of ever-intensifying variations that culminate in a frenzy of punched chords. The movement concludes with a recapitulated variation of each theme and a full-throated and stirring rendition of the original folk tune.
This week’s music is the String Quartet, Opus 11, by the early 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber.
Barber, who ranks alongside Aaron Copland and Charles Ives as one of the greatest American composers of all time, wrote a number of famous works throughout the course of his tragically short life. None are more famous, however, than the Adagio for Strings, arguably one of the most moving pieces of music in the world today. (We listened to it a while ago – check it out here: https://thisweeksmusic.com/2020/02/08/top-25-17-barber-adagio/). As it turns out, the Adagio for Strings was not a stand-alone composition. It was originally conceived as the second movement of Barber’s string quartet, the piece we will hear today.
The structure of this piece is rather strange. Most string quartets – in fact, most multi-movement compositions in general – feature distinct movements that showcase their own unique thematic material. In addition, most string quartets have four movements. This quartet, however, includes only three movements, the first and third of which utilize the same thematic material. The third movement is essentially a reprise of the first. It is almost as if Barber wrote an extended first movement, then cut it in half and inserted the second movement. Luckily for us, that second movement turned out to be the basis for the Adagio for Strings.
Strange structure aside, this piece reveals a musical genius at his best. There is not a wasted note in the entire quartet. For me, this piece has the feel of a Hemingway novel – concise, punchy, edited to the bone, and so alive you feel it might singe your eyebrows if you got too close.
This week’s music is the String Quartet No. 13 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the world-famous Borodin Quartet.
It is common knowledge in the musical world that the viola usually gets the short end of the stick. There are entire websites dedicated to “viola jokes” (I’ve tried many of them out on my sister, a violist), and most symphonies include the viola only as an accompaniment voice. So it is therefore somewhat shocking to find a string quartet being referred to as “a hymn to the viola.” That is the nickname that has come to be associated with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13.
We hear the viola right away. The quartet opens with a searing viola solo that reaches to the upper registers of the instrument in a series of 12-tone pitches. This solo sets the tone for the entire work and ushers the other instruments in, one by one, until the solo voice is absorbed in a foreboding, intense texture.
The viola takes the lead again in the third movement, so the middle movement, a scherzo, is the only opportunity for the other instruments to shine. However, instead of giving them soaring solo lines like he gave the viola, Shostakovich has them tapping their bows on the wood of their instruments. Listen for the almost metallic sound of this technique in the middle movement.
I’ll be honest: this is not a relaxing piece of music. It has been described as “harrowing,” “frightening,” and the kind of piece in which “even the most resilient emotional temperament could hardly fail to be at least uncomfortably disturbed.” Most commentators believe this aspect of the work reflects the severe ideological conflicts that Shostakovich was periodically embedded in with the Soviet authorities. Regardless of their cause, however, they make it all the more amazing when, at the very end of the piece, Shostakovich provides us with a very different atmosphere, one that—in my opinion—could be interpreted as symbolizing hope.
This week’s music is Beethoven’s string quartet No. 12 in E-flat major.
None of the three periods within Beethoven’s music made a complete break from the period that came before it. They were natural evolutions from the musical ideas Beethoven had previously explored. This is particularly true of the third period, which ran from 1817 until his death in 1827. This aspect of Beethoven’s work showcases the full flowering of his inventive capacity, complete with all the structural complexities of the heroic period and emotional tension resulting from his near-complete deafness. This maturation, combined with the personal struggles of his later life, makes the music of this late period immensely satisfying to listen to. It is humorous, yet meditative, anguished, yet peaceful, jarring, yet mysterious. It is the string quartet in its most complete form.
That is not to say, of course, that Beethoven did not begin to experiment quite often with musical ideas that would later become mainstays of the Romantic era. He certainly did. For instance, you will hear lyrical violin lines that resemble Mendelssohn more than the Haydn-esque style Beethoven began with. You’ll also hear jarring, shocking moments of explosive power, juxtaposed with serene, almost operatic serenades between the cello and the violins. In short, Beethoven’s late period exemplifies the beginning of the transition to a Romantic era that would create a musical home for Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Liszt, and many more.
This week’s music, proceeding in our series on the three musical periods of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, is Beethoven’s string quartet no. 11 in F Minor.
We discussed last week how Beethoven began in his middle period to move away from the classicism of his early years and toward the romanticism of those who would come after him (Brahms, Wagner, etc.). No. 11, the last quartet in his middle period, reveals Beethoven at the cusp of this transition.
You will hear him exploring more lyrical styles in the second and third movements in particular, and there are passages that even sound almost Mendelssohn-esque. You’ll also notice the abrupt, almost violent opening passage of the first movement that is somewhat similar to the thunderous opening of his famous Fifth Symphony, which was also composed during his middle period. By this point in his career, Beethoven was compressing the emotional tension he had learned to create in his early period. As a result, the moments of explosive power and hushed whispering are pushed closer and closer together, until, in his late period (as you will see next week), they are subsumed into one inextricable whole.
We continue our series on the three periods of Beethoven’s music by listening to the string quartet No. 7 in F Major today. This is the first of two quartets that we will hear representing the middle period of Beethoven’s work.
Let’s recap the early Beethoven quartets we listened to over the past two weeks. First, they have a typical classical structure (for the most part): presentation, slow, fast, finale. Second, they are stylistically similar to the compositions of early classical period composers like Haydn. And third, they show Beethoven’s genius with recycling phrases and motifs throughout a piece.
Beethoven’s middle period is where he began to mature and come into his own. It was during this time that he wrote most of the massive symphonic works that we have come to know and love, including his famous Fifth Symphony, his powerful Eroica Symphony, and his first two piano concertos. It is for good reason that his middle period is often referred to as his “heroic” period.
During this part of his life, Beethoven broke away from the Haydn-esque classicism and began to move toward the emotional expressivity of future composers like Brahms and Wagner. No longer was he content with simple, upbeat melodies; he now felt a drive to encompass transcendent themes like death, celebration, or grief.
The 7th string quartet (titled “Razumovsky” after the Russian duke it was written for) shows the start of this change. The first movement begins with a confident melody that is reminiscent of his early period quartets, but Beethoven soon takes us into a development section much more complex and introspective than anything we’ve heard from him before. Those of you familiar with the Eroica Symphony will hear traces of it in this development section.
I would also encourage you to listen carefully to the third movement (Adagio). Unlike his early period works, Beethoven freely explores the tragic element here with sensitivity and power. This is perhaps one of the first instances of Beethoven’s amazing capacity for communicating sadness through music.
This week’s music, continuing in our new series on the chronological development of Beethoven’s music, is the String Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, performed by the Ying Quartet.
No. 4 is the only one of the six string quartets in Beethoven’s early period to be set in a minor key. It is also unique because it is not structured as most of his string quartets were. As we noted last week, the majority of Beethoven’s string quartets (indeed, the majority of all string quartets ever composed) proceed with four movements that follow the “presentation,” “slow,” “fast,” and “finale” progression. However, No. 4 dispenses with the “fast” movement and replaces it with a C Major minuet that Beethoven referred to as “a joke.”
The first movement is the most well-known part of this quartet. In many ways, it is structured like Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony (also in C Minor). It oscillates between jagged unison chords and lyrical viola and cello solos. These solos get repeated throughout the movement, but each time they are in a different tonality. Beethoven showcases his mastery of harmony in the modulations between each of these tonalities. Listen for sharp dynamic changes as well; Beethoven was beginning to increase his use of contrasting volume levels at this point in his career.
Our music this week is an old favorite of ours here at This Week’s Music: String Quartet No. 8 by Dimitri Shostakovich, performed by the Borodin Quartet, one of the greatest ensembles in history.
The inscription on the front of Shostakovich’s manuscript for this quartet reads: “In memory of victims of war.” He wrote it while visiting Dresden, a city that had been destroyed in WWII. More lives were lost in the bombing of Dresden than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Shostakovich was so deeply affected by this experienced that he penned this entire quartet in only three days.
The quartet has a central harmonic motif that you will hear right away at the beginning. It is referred to by the composer as DSCH. Translated from the German tradition of calling B “H” and E-flat “S,” this becomes D-E flat-C-B. This is the same tonal structure Shostakovich uses in several of his other works, including his First and Tenth Symphonies.
The quartet has five movements. One can hear in the first movement the sombre, reflective shock of Shostakovich’s confrontation with death and loss. This gives way to a violent second movement (at 5:18) that depicts the fury and devastation of the Blitzkrieg. The third movement is a spooky, erie dance reflecting Shostakovich’s jarring experience of watching Jewish children dance in the streets of an obliterated Dresden. Shostakovich creates this unsettling atmosphere by constantly juxtaposing a B-natural (in the cello) against a B-flat (in the viola). The fourth movement, which begins at 12:31, expands into a powerful elegy laced with hope. Listen for the harmonic reprieve at 13:09 – this is one of those few moments of hope. After being repeatedly struck with these abrupt sets of foreboding chords, Shostakovich inserts a major chord that lifts the listener out of the pain of war and into the hope of the future. My personal favorite part of the quartet is the elegy, which starts at 15:12. I am hard pressed to think of a more powerful moment in all of music.
This week we will hear Mozart’s famous Eine kleine Nachtmusik (“a little night music”). No list of the greatest hits would be complete without it.
We may know Mozart best for his piano compositions (or even this piece), but at the peak of his popularity he was primarily an opera composer. In fact, at the time he wrote the Nachtmusik, he was simultaneously composing his famous opera Don Giovanni (which, to be honest, also could have been featured on this list). He considered the Nachtmusik as an insignificant side project that was not worth publishing. In fact, the Nachtmusik was never performed in Mozart’s lifetime. It was discovered after his death by a German researcher who convinced Mozart’s widow to sell it for publication. It is therefore ironic that it has become one of his most well-known compositions.
Everything about the Nachtmusik is quintessentially Mozartian: the lightness of the bow strokes, the sense of barely-contained excitement, the operatic solo lines, etc. Notice the similarities between this piece and the format of an opera. For instance, each movement uses the 1st violin line to introduce a solo theme (essentially an aria) that returns at the end to wrap everything together.