SHOSTAKOVICH Dmitri, String Quartet No.3 in F major Op.73

Shostakovich began his Third String Quartet in January 1946 but made no progress beyond the second movement until May when he went with his family to spend the summer at a dacha near the Finnish border. According to Beria (head of the Soviet secret police) in a letter to Shostakovich, this retreat was a personal gift from Stalin. It was a productive summer and the quartet was completed on 2 August 1946. The same day Shostakovich wrote to Vassily Shirinsky, second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet: ‘I have never been so pleased with a composition as with this Quartet. I am probably wrong, but that is exactly how I feel right now.’ The Beethoven Quartet gave the first performance at the Moscow Conservatory on 16 December 1946. Though there was an ominous silence from official critics, Shostakovich’s reputation was still high among the nation’s leaders: on 28 December he was given the Order of Lenin and each member of the Beethoven Quartet received the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. Just a year later the Third Quartet was denounced in the journal Sovetskaya musika as ‘modernist and false music.’

Although Shostakovich had no overt programme in mind, he invested a great deal of private emotion in the work – sufficient, as Fyodor Druzhinin (violist of the Beethoven Quartet) recalled, for the music to move the composer to tears when he attended a rehearsal in the 1960s, twenty years after he had written it. The start of the first movement, in F major, recalls the Haydn-like mood of the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1945) and this is followed by a contrasting idea, played pianissimo. The development includes some turbulent fugal writing, injecting a sense of unease that hovers over the rest of the movement. The Moderato con moto (in E minor) is based on a series of sinister ostinato figures and frequent repetitions while the third movement is a violent scherzo in G sharp minor. The Adagio is an extended passacaglia (ground bass) that gives way to a Moderato in which some kind of resolution is found in the closing bars, ending with three pizzicato F major chords.


Nigel Simeone


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