This week’s music, which will complete our series on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, is the String Quartet No. 12, performed by the Jerusalem Quartet.
You may remember from one of the earliest installments in this series that all of Shostakovich’s string quartets were premiered by the Beethoven String Quartet. Because of this, Shostakovich dedicated each of his last four string quartets to a member of the Beethoven Quartet. The twelfth string quartet is thus dedicated to the first violinist, Dmitri Tsyganov.
Those of you who have been with us for a while are probably used to string quartets having four movements. And most of Shostakovich’s string quartets follow this pattern. The twelfth quartet, however, contains only two movements. The first movement begins with a 12-tone row on the cello, perhaps a nod to Arnold Schoenberg’s popular experiments with twelve-tone music. (Shostakovich, it should be said, was not a believer in Schoenberg’s system). This establishes a searching mood, a sense that the movement is seeking closure and is unable to find it. The second movement, however, offers the answers the first movement sought. Listen here for Shostakovich’s brilliant creativity when it comes to rhythm. He creates multiple shifting rhythmic texture that overlap in fascinating ways. After a long, dark passage for solo cello, Shostakovich brings back the initial melody in an epic, breathtaking switch to a major key, the ultimate answer to the unsettled 12-tone row that began the quartet.
It is worth mentioning that Shostakovich’s later string quartets (those composed after the eighth) are controversial. Some listeners like them, others despise them. I am not personally a fan of his later string quartets, with the possible exception of the twelfth, because they seem to get away from the brilliance of the eighth. With that said, I think there is much to enjoy in the twelfth string quartet, and its harmonic journey from dissonance to resolution is, I believe, a fitting way to end our series.
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.
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 3rd movement of Alexander Borodin’s second string quartet, performed by the aptly-named Borodin String Quartet.
Russian classical music changed in the late 19th century. Rather than attempting to copy the Italian masters, it began to focus on sharing Russian folk music with the world. Tchaikovsky was one of the early leaders of this movement, and he inspired a generation of young Russian composers that eventually came to be known as “The Russian Five”: Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov (Flight of the Bumblebee, anyone?), Mussorgsky, and – last but not least – Alexander Borodin. Borodin only wrote 21 pieces of music, and most of them were symphonies or operas. In fact, the other four members of “The Russian Five” despised chamber music and criticized Borodin for composing works for string quartet.
The third movement of Quartet No. 2 is Borodin’s most famous composition. It is titled “Nocturne,” and it’s sweet melody has captured the imaginations of listeners around the world. Written as an anniversary gift for Borodin’s wife, the Nocturne evokes a beautiful atmosphere of serenity and meditation. Listen as the main theme, which begins in the cello, gets passed around the entire quartet.