Shostakovich: String quartet no. 8, op. 110
The intimate chamber idiom has its share of composers’ personal mottos and autobiographical references. Still, it is rare to glimpse into any composer’s memories as clearly as in the Eighth String Quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). This work contains a musical motto intended to symbolize his name, which is stated in the opening measures and reworked into each succeeding movement. Resembling J.S. Bach’s motto, B-A-C-H (B-flat, A, C, B), the Shostakovich notes are D, E-flat (Es in German), C, B-natural (H in German). Together, this sequence suggests “D. Sch.,” a German mnemonic of the composer’s initials. Still more autobiographical are the musical quotations from the composer’s earlier works and other familiar melodies, with possible references to the sounds of WW II bombers and gunfire. The words of Shostakovich’s closest biographers and of the composer himself can best complete our introduction to this quartet of 1960:
He worked on the score in Dresden. . . . The beautiful city of Dresden had been swept off the face of the earth in a single night, but was rising again from the ruins, all of which stirred old feelings seemingly locked in his past. It is not without cause that he dedicated the Eighth Quartet . . . to the memory of the victims of Nazism and war. . . . Written in no more than three days, as if poured from the depths of the artist’s soul, the quartet is autobiographical. . . . In the course of the quartet’s five continuous movements, themes from various compositions make their appearance
. . . from the opening subject of the First Symphony, which is interwoven with the Largo of the first movement, to the motifs from the movement entitled “Eternal Memory” in the Eleventh Symphony.Dmitri and Ludmilla Sollertinsky, Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich
When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of “exposing fascism.” You have to be blind and deaf to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: “Exhausted by the hardships of prison.”
And there is also the Jewish theme from the Piano Trio in this quartet. I think, if we speak of musical impressions, that Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it, it’s multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears.Solomon Volkov, ed. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich
Schubert: STring quartet in A minor, d.804
After Schubert had put aside his “Unfinished” Symphony in 1822, he did not give up the idea being a symphonist. On the contrary, he had grand plans for what would become the “Great” C Major Symphony, but he felt that he needed more seasoning in the instrumental domain. As a result, he turned his attention to chamber music, writing three string quartets and the Octet. After completing the Quartet in A Minor and the Quartet in D Minor (“Death and the Maiden”) in March 1824, he wrote to his friend, Leopold Kupelweiser, “I have written two quartets . . . and an octet, and I intend to write another quartet. In this manner, I want to pave the way to a grand symphony.” Although Schubert completed all three quartets, the A Minor was the only one in the trilogy to be published during his lifetime.
The first movement begins like one of Schubert’s songs: with a brief introduction (in fact, a little uneasy, like “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”) leading to an exquisite lyrical melody. Following a vigorous transition, the second theme is, likewise, song-like. The development reveals some wonderfully colorful key explorations before settling down to a recapitulation that turns unexpectedly to the major mode for the second theme.
For the Andante’s main theme, Schubert borrows his own Entr’Acte music from Rosamunde. This he treats in a series of variations that cover a subtle variety of moods.
Alfred Einstein called the Menuetto movement “the germ or kernel of the A Minor Quartet,” also pointing out that it is a Ländler and not a minuet. In addition, it opens with a direct quotation from Schubert’s 1819 setting of Schiller’s ode, “The Gods of Greece.” If this quartet “is ‘about’ disenchantment and the loss of innocence,” as biographer John Reed asserts, then this movement, with its wistful pre-Brahms melancholy, epitomizes the work.
The rondo finale, set in A major, dispels some of that melancholy with its rustic flavor. But Einstein describes it as appearing “in the same Hungarian disguise which Schubert was to use again in Die Winterreise in an exactly similar sense: outwardly exuberant and chevaleresque, but . . . without any real consolation….” Nevertheless, the impetuousness and rhythmic verve of the finale does much to redirect the quartet’s previous moodiness onto a more positive course.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021. All rights reserved.