3rd Movement (Emerson Quartet)

The String Quartet no. 2 in A major, opus 68, was written in just nineteen days in September 1944 in Ivanovo. In this town, situated about 300 kilometres north-east of Moscow, Shostakovich resided in the 'house of rest and creativity': a government retreat for writers and composers. It was a sparse abode which offered no distractions. There Shostakovich completed his Second Piano Trio, opus 67, and composed his new quartet. Both works were premièred together on 14th November 1944 with Shostakovich playing the piano in the Trio along with the first violinist and the cellist of the Beethoven String Quartet. It was this ensemble that Shostakovich chose to perform his Second Quartet. The Beethoven Quartet were to première all of Shostakovich's quartets except the last, the Fifteenth, and then only because their cellist, Sergei Shirinsky, died shortly before the planned performance.

Since Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on Sunday, 22 June 19411 Shostakovich had not written any string quartets but now with a Soviet victory over Nazi Germany considered inevitable he produced one of symphonic breadth. Along with the Fifteenth Quartet, it is the longest in the cycle, lasting approximately 35 minutes.

Yet it shows little recognition of military conflict, less than the Third, or even (should you believe that this is its theme) the Eighth Quartet. Even its key of A major is deceptive. In works by Bach, Mozart and Britten this tonality had been associated with youth and innocence, but the contrast between Shostakovich's Second and the youthful First Quartet written six years earlier could not be greater. With its allusions to Russian folk music Shostakovich's Second Quartet was undoubtedly a loyal response to the 'Great Patriotic War'. But what is interesting is the ethnic elements he uses for this music. Judith Kuhn writes that Shostakovich's 'twist' on folk music,2

was to make use of the inflections of the music of Eastern European Jewry, an ethnic group historically oppressed within Russia and Eastern Europe. 'Jewish' inflections, whether related to klezmer or to sacred sources, saturate the Second Quartet with their syncopated rhythms, 'oom-pa' accompaniments, ambivalent minor-mode dances, and 'oriental' augmented seconds.

The musicologist, Joachim Braun, divides Shostakovich's Jewish works into three periods3. The first period were works composed between 1943 and 1944 and whilst Braun omits to mention the Second Quartet he does include the last movement of the Second Piano Trio and Shostakovich's complete orchestration of Venyamin Fleishman's opera Rothschild's Violin which was the original cause of his interest in Jewish music. During this period Shostakovich's reasons for including Jewish elements in his works seems to have been principally aesthetic although, as Shostakovich was always repelled by anti-Semitism, it is possible that he wished to express his opposition to the growing anti-Jewish feeling within the USSR4.

As if to emphasis the significance of folk music in his Second Quartet Shostakovich wrote to his friend Vissarion Yakovlevich Shebalin (1902 - 1963) on the 6th September 1944 from Ivanovo5.

I remembered these days that it is exactly twenty year since I first met you......... I am occupied with composing. Have finished a Trio (4 movements). Today the second movement of the quartet, that I began composing while here, was finished. I started the third movement (the penultimate) without a pause. To commemorate the aforementioned anniversary, I would like to dedicate the quartet to you.

Shebalin was then considered to be the Soviet Union's foremost composer of quartets and had recently won the Stalin prize for his 'folksy' fifth quartet, the 'Slavonic'.

The Second Quartet has four movements marked:

  1. Overture,
  2. Recitative and Romance,
  3. Waltz, (attacca)
  4. Theme and Variations

The first movement, the 'Overture', is a robustly energetic and densely written double-exposition sonata with displaced rhythms. It begins with a bold, triumphant theme played on the first violin in A major with cello accompaniment in E, whilst the second subject, at first uncertain and nervous, becomes increasingly strident. The exposition is then repeated before, in the development section the first subject is treated as a waltz. The music becomes more pulsating and the sonata's recapitulation restates the material, albeit more concentrated and reversed.

The second movement, the 'recitative and romance' is austere and pensive in sentiment with a spiritual expressiveness reminiscent of Beethoven's last quartets. The lengthy recitative, which surrounds the romance, is a monologue sung by the first violin accompanied by simple, sustained lower chords from the other instruments. The romance recalls the sweet music of Gadfly. After the movement has terminated in a classical cadence, there linger feelings of profound sincerity.

The third movement in E flat minor is a menacing, mechanized waltz based on the second subject of the first movement. Except for agitated moments, the four instruments are muted, ghostly, shadowy and full of mystery; causing the pensive tone left after the previous movement to be slightly lightened. The attacca link to the finale is left unmarked but can be inferred by the E flat on which the Waltz finishes and the off-tonic beginning of the final movement. This is the first instance, even if unstated, of the linking of movements so prominent in the later quartets and which is the subject of discussion in the article 'The string quartets: an introduction'.

Shostakovich took the beautiful folk-like theme of the finale from his Second Piano Trio. There, approximately halfway through the first movement, it is played, albeit briefly, on the piano before being discarded. In this quartet, however, this very Russian-sounding theme (and one fully conform with the demands of Socialist Realism) is explored in thirteen variations. Starting as an Adagio in the key of E flat minor an introductory dialogue between the first violin and the cello occurs before the theme is heard played on the unaccompanied viola. The melody is then repeated by the second violin, to a very klezmer-sounding 'oom-pa' accompaniment by the cello. Then the first violin followed by the cello take up the theme each playing it, with hardly any alteration, in the key of A minor. In the next two variations a change of key occurs first to F sharp minor where the melody is played as triplets by the first violin and then to F minor, where the theme is fragmented. The next variations increase the tempo, the first two shifting the key back to A minor, to be followed by a variation in B flat minor and another in A flat major. The introductory theme is then repeated and the pace slows with a parody on a maggiore variation. Finally the movement concludes with two variations, one contained in the recapitulation and the other in the coda. The ending firmly in the key of A minor is unusual for a work in the major key. It is, however, a harbinger of the further deviations to be found in Shostakovich's later quartets from the classical quartet structure.

The Second Quartet was originally published as opus 69 but renumbered in 1965. The autographed manuscript is kept in the Glinka Museum in Moscow.

When Shostakovich began writing his Second String Quartet he had already completed eight of his fifteen symphonies. He was also half-way through his life. Another thirteen quartets however remained to be composed, and they would come in rapid succession.

Opening Image:

The only information given in YouTube for this extract is that it is played by the Emerson Quartet. Unfortunately the date of the recording is not stated. Their official website is http://www.emersonquartet.com. The photograph is in the public domain.


[1]. A number of factors caused Hitler to delay his attack on Russia until the 22 June almost exactly to the day when Napoleon's Grande Arme crossed the Neman river (24 June 1812). Communism and therefore the Soviet state had always been Hitler's major political enemy and having occupied France and neutralised Britain in the West he turned on Russia in the East. Stalin had ignored countless warnings both from Soviet as well as from British sources and when the invasion occurred he was taken totally by surprise. Probably he had not contemplated that Hitler would dare a war on two fronts. Shocked he retreated into his datcha seeing and speaking to nobody for a whole week. Nevertheless when the German troops approached Moscow, although having sent his government east, Stalin remained in the capital and gave a speech, on 7 November 1941, at the traditional parade marking the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Ostentatiously defiant he invoked the names Alexander Nevsky (a thirteenth century warrior who defeated the Teutonic knights; best known in the West through Eisenstein's film, and Prokofiev's score) and of Mikhail Kutuzov, the General who defied Napoleon (and is remembered in Tolstoy's 'War and Peace') .

The Nazi forces had also hoped to capture Leningrad by the end of 1941. However the Soviet army and Leningrad's citizens resisted and withstood a 900 day siege. Over 500,000 were to die there, mostly of hunger. It was there that Shostakovich composed his Seventh Symphony - 'The Leningrad' - symbolising the Russian defiance.

Unlike Napoleon Hitler failed to reach Moscow. Between September 1941 and April 1942, 926,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in the battle defending the city, more casualties in one battle than the total war dead sustained by Britain and the USA during the whole of the Second World War. In the winter of 1942/43 the war turned when the Soviet army, in a massive counter-offensive, surrounded the German sixth army in Stalingrad and started their long, bloody march towards Berlin, bitterly resisted by approximately 90% of the German army's fighting strength. Only when the Soviet troops were just a block away from the Fhrer's bunker, near Potsdamer Platz in central Berlin, did Hitler shoot himself. By that time the Red Army dead numbered nine million, a number that reflected not only the intensity of their struggle but also the ruthlessness of the Soviet command.

[2]. Judith Kuhn, 'The string quartets: in dialogue with form and tradition' in P. Fairclough and D. Fanning (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich (Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 41

[3]. Joachim Braun, 'The Double Meaning of Jewish Elements In Dimitri Shostakovich's Music', The Musical Quarterly, 71:1 (1985) 68-80.

[4]. The third possibility, that it was a reaction to the horrors of Hitler's Final Solution, is even more unlikely. Although the Allies had received intelligence of these atrocities they withheld it because of their poor experience with horrifying but ultimately false propaganda in the First World War. Of the Nazi extermination camps (as opposed to concentration camps like Dachau, Buchenwald and Belsen) all were situated in Poland apart from Janowska in the Ukraine (ref. http://history1900s.about.com/library/holocaust/blchart.htm) and therefore were all liberated by the advancing Soviet forces. The Majdanek extermination camp in Lublin, was the first to be liberated on 23 July 1944, just three weeks before the completion of the Second Piano Trio. Although the Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps were discovered quickly afterwards much of the evidence of the atrocities had been destroyed by the retreating Nazis. It would take many more months before the full extent of the Holocaust could be even imagined by the Soviet public.

[5]. Christoph Hellmundt and K. Meyer (eds.), Dmitri Schostakowitsch: Erfahrungen, Aufsätze, Erinnerungen, Reden, Diskussionsbeiträge, Interviews, Briefe (Leipzig: Verlag Philipp Reclaim jun., 1983), p.212. My translation. Laurel Fay also quotes this letter: Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.142; but gives 'Yesterday' rather than 'Today' as the date for the completion of the second movement. For those interested in investigating this discrepancy her source is: 'Shebalina, Alisa (ed). 'Eto bil zamechatel'niy drug: iz pisem D.D. Shostakovicha k V.Ya Shebalinu', Sovetskaya muzïka 7 (1982) 83