Shostakovich Strings #5

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

Shostakovich Strings #3

Hello all,

We are continuing our series on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich with the fourth movement of his fourth string quartet, performed by our old friends, the Jerusalem Quartet.

For those of you familiar with Shostakovich’s work, you can hear elements of his later style in the somewhat dissonant tendencies of the fourth movement. His love of certain forms of dissonance—and in particular, flattened scale degrees—stemmed from his love of Jewish folk music. To Shostakovich, Jewish folk music was “close to my idea of what music should be.” He wrote: “Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express their despair in dance music. All folk music is lovely, but I can say that the Jewish folk music is unique.”

Yet when he was writing this string quartet in 1949, Shostakovich was adamant that it would never be performed. A year earlier, he had been fired from his position as professor at the Moscow Conservatory because of his public opposition to Soviet ideological correctness. And Stalin had banned all Jewish music and literature only a few months before the quartet was composed. Shostakovich was therefore certain that his fourth string quartet would remain unheard for the foreseeable future. As it turned out, the quartet was not heard publicly for many more years. It received its first public performance nine months after Stalin died.

The fourth movement (starting at 14:12 of the video) begins with a simple viola melody inspired by a Jewish folk tune. But don’t let its simplicity deceive you! Wait a few minutes and Shostakovich will be pounding it through dense, multi-layered fugal imitation and dozens of changing meters. He combines the sadness of the Jewish folk melody with the violent excitement of a pulsing dance motif that creates an unforgettable blend of adrenaline and terror.

Enjoy!

T  

4 – last movt starts at 14:12

Shostakovich Strings #2

Hello all,

This week’s music, as we return to our series on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, is the fourth movement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2, performed by the Jerusalem Quartet.

The dark, elusive second string quartet could not be more different than the youthful vigor of the first string quartet (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2022/12/13/shostakovich-strings-1/). Written six years after that first foray into the chamber music realm, the second string quartet reflects the recent Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the heaviness of war. It is intense, unrelenting, and often dissonant.

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.

Enjoy!

T

A Hymn to the Viola

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

Sascha

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Symphony No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Michael Sanderling and the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra.

Along with 15 masterful string quartets, Shostakovich also wrote 15 symphonies. Symphony No. 15 was premiered in 1972, which Shostakovich’s son Maxim conducting. Dmitri, nearing the end of his life, was too weak to lead to the orchestra himself.

Shostakovich once said of this symphony that it was a summation of his life in one work. He scatters little hints of this throughout the piece. For instance, the harmonic progression of the opening motif of the first movement, when written out in its German phonetic spelling, is “es-as-c-h-a,” a barely disguised representation of Shostakovich’s own nickname: “Sascha.” The second movement, which is based on a Russian funeral march, represents Shostakovich’s thoughts as he comes to the end of his life.

This symphony also quotes other great musical works quite often. It is probably safe to assume that, if this symphony is indeed Shostakovich’s life in one work, these musical references point us to pieces of music that were important to Shostakovich’s own musical development. Listen for the momentary imitation of Rossini’s William Tell Overture in the first movement (some of you may recognize it from the TV series “The Lone Ranger”). The most experienced listeners among you may recognize the quote from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde in the fourth movement. Shostakovich specifically references the famous “Ring of Nibelung” motif from the opera.

Enjoy!

T

Impromptu

Hello all,

This week’s music is Impromptu by the Russian composer Shostakovich, performed by violist Paul Neubauer and pianist Wu Han.

Shostakovich lived and composed during the mid-1900s. Some of his most famous works include his violin concerto, his pieces for solo piano, and his later symphonies. His music is a mainstay on the programs of orchestras around the world. But no one knew about Impromptu until a few years ago, when it was discovered in a back room of the Moscow State Archives.

The opening page of Shostakovich’s manuscript contains the date 1931 and a dedication to Alexander Mikhailovich, the former violist of the world-famous Glazunov Quartet. It is the second of only two works Shostakovich wrote for viola. Historians who have examined the score believe that it was written in one sitting.

It is interesting to compare this dainty, short piece to the dozens of short pieces that Shostakovich wrote for solo piano. During the few months I devoted to learning the piano in the summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to come across several of these short pieces. Like Impromptu, they combine the melodic simplicity of a nursery rhyme with the unique tonal framework that is characteristic of Shostakovich’s work.

Enjoy!

T  

Shostakovich Concerto for Piano and Trumpet

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Concerto in C Minor for Piano and Trumpet by Dmitri Shostakovich.

If you’ve been with us for a while, you’re probably scratching your head at this one. Shostakovich? Trumpet with piano? When I discovered this piece a few weeks ago, I was shocked as well. It is a very unconventional combination of instruments by a modern composer who we don’t tend to think of as a trumpet fan. As it turns out, though, this piece is a lot of fun!

Shostakovich wrote this concerto in 1933 (at only 27 years of age!) as an experiment in mixing baroque and modern musical elements. The concerto has four movements, with the energetic outer movements encapsulating a meditative waltz. The trumpet features most prominently in the waltz, so listen for it around the 12-minute mark.

The concerto is full of quotations from both the popular music of the time and previous great composers. For instance, you’ll hear the Broadway tune “California, Here I Come” in the fourth movement. You can also hear melodic echoes of Beethoven’s famous Appassionata Sonata in the first movement. Making such musical quotations was very risky for Shostakovich, who was walking a precarious tightrope between creating honest musical expressions and pleasing the Soviet officials who policed his music.

Enjoy!

T

Old Favorite

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

Kavakos plays Shostakovich

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich, performed by the Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos.

As we learned a few weeks ago when we listened to Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, Shostakovich was periodically in hot water with the Soviet leadership under which he labored. It was this pressure that caused him to tuck his First Violin Concerto away in his desk upon its completion. He feared a strong negative reaction from the government and chose to wait for a more favorable time for publication. This time arrived with the death of Stalin in 1953. David Oistrakh, the legendary father of Russian violin playing, premiered the work in Leningrad and received endless ovations. A few months later, American audiences followed suit.

The concerto is monumental. Watching Kavakos play this piece is amazing simply because he is still able to invest himself in it by the end. Shostakovich himself referred to it as his “iron man” concerto. Legend has it that Oistrakh, after the first rehearsal, begged Shostakovich to give more of the thematic material to the orchestra so that he could find time to wipe the sweat off of his brow.

The savagery of the second movement, emotional overload of the third movement, and mockery of the fourth movement are impressive. However, I find the first movement to be the most moving. It is not as impressive or flashy as the others, yet it is twice as powerful. It taps into orchestral depths that other composers are afraid to go to, and the violin line takes the listener into an eerie, other-worldly, trance-like place.

Enjoy!

T  

The Year 1905

Hello all,

Our music for today is the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #11, which carries the subtitle “The Year 1905.” The symphony was written in 1957. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs in the recording you will hear.

The subtitle refers to the political upheaval of the Russian Revolution of 1905. At the time he wrote the eleventh symphony, Shostakovich was in hot water with the Soviet administration for statements he had made several years earlier. After writing this symphony – which effectively glorified the Soviets’ military might – he was quickly accepted back into the regime’s good graces. Soon afterward, he was awarded the Lenin Prize and an official apology was issued regarding his previous mistreatment.

This second movement is one of the wildest pieces of music you’ll ever hear. It is completely out of control. It carries the subtitle “The 9th of January,” which refers to the violent events of Bloody Sunday at the Winter Palace. On that date, a group of peaceful demonstrators were gunned down by the Imperial Guard in an occurrence that is now regarded as the catalyst for the Russian Revolution of 1905.

The eerie opening theme (which is based on a folk song from Shostakovich’s childhood) represents the group of protestors walking to the Winter Palace to complain about the government’s corruption. The distant brass foreshadow the military might that is soon to confront them. Midway through the movement (at 11:18), a sudden crescendo builds into a series of explosions from the snare drum (gunfire) and strings (the footsteps of the marching soldiers). This part of the music can only be described as absolute insanity. The amount of sound that Shostakovich unleashes is overwhelming. Pounding bass drums, searing cymbals, relentless snare drum, and overwhelming brass create a mechanical and horrifying picture of the massacre. The main theme – which in my opinion is the most “Shostakovich-ian” melody of all time – comes roaring in at 13:29.

Enjoy!

T