SHOSTAKOVICH Dmitri, String Quartet No.8
Shostakovich composed the Eighth Quartet while staying at a ministerial guest-house in Gohrisch, situated in the mountainous region of former East Germany known as the ‘Saxon Switzerland’, near Dresden. He wrote the work down in just three days, 12–14 July 1960, and the first performance followed soon afterwards, on 2 October 1960 in the Leningrad Glinka Hall, played by the Beethoven Quartet. Dedicated ‘to the victims of fascism and war’, it is based almost entirely on Shostakovich’s autobiographical motif D-S-C-H (the notes D, E flat, C and B) and also includes self-quotations from several works, including the First, Fifth and Eighth Symphonies and the Second Piano Trio.
To what extent should this work be considered autobiographical? Shostakovich leaves such a potent trail of clues that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it is. On 19 July 1960, a week after finishing the quartet, he wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman: ‘I reflected that if I die someday, then it’s hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: “Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet”.’
In five linked movements, the quartet begins with the four instruments playing a brooding version the DSCH motif in imitation, starting with the cello. Quotations from the First and Fifth Symphonies are woven into the texture before the mood changes suddenly for the second movement: a violent Allegro molto that quotes from the Jewish theme in the finale of the Second Piano Trio. The third movement restores some feeling of calm before the terrifying eruption of the fourth movement, in which a three-note repeated idea is hammered out over bleak sustained notes. This is followed by the quotation of a song from the Russian Revolution (‘Exhausted by the hardships of prison’) which had been sung at Lenin’s funeral. Apart from the DSCH motif, the last movement has no significant quotations, but the contrapuntal textures move towards a final climax before the music settles uneasily in the work’s home key of C minor.
© Nigel Simeone