3rd Movement (Fine Arts Quartet)

On December 16th 1946 the String Quartet no. 3 in F major, opus 73, received its first performance in Moscow. It was performed by the Beethoven Quartet, to whom the piece is dedicated, and is just over a half an hour in duration.

Shostakovich had written it that year, the same year that Pasternak commenced writing Dr. Zhivago. It was the only piece of music that he composed that year: an indication of latent trouble. This was the last quartet before the attack on composers in 1948 by Andrei Zhdanov who was responsible under Stalin for culture. However the attack on writers had began in 1946 to be followed by ones on the cinema and theatre. Unlike the indiscriminate purges of the 1930's these were targeted at scientists and artists. The purpose was to install ideological uniformity on the intellectuals in the increasingly bitter climate of the cold war. Consequently the Third Quartet was withdrawn from public performances shortly after its première1; a fate common to other works by Shostakovich of this period. Nevertheless compositions like the Third and Fourth Quartets and his songs "From Jewish Poetry" continued to be performed in private musical circles.

The Third Quartet has five movements:

  1. Allegretto,
  2. Moderato con moto,
  3. Allegro non troppo,
  4. Adagio, attacca
  5. Moderato

a break from the conventional four movement format. Later quartets would be even more radical in structure and would become increasing enigmatic, a tendency which also begins in the third.

Presented as a "war quartet", Shostakovich initially supported the idea of a program by giving subtitles to each of the movements: "Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm"; "Rumblings of unrest and anticipation"; "The forces of war are unleashed"; "Homage to the dead"; and "The eternal question: why and to what purpose?". These descriptions, barely adequate to describe the moods of each movement, were withdrawn by Shostakovich almost immediately: he gave no explanation.

This withdrawal might have been a response to the cold official reception that his Ninth Symphony had received. This symphony was deemed to be lacking the joy appropriate to the conclusion of a victorious war over Nazi Germany. Furthermore, ever since Beethoven, a ninth symphony was infused with expectations. Shostakovich's Ninth is less of a symphony and more like a sinfonetta. Moreover it gives the impression of satiric cynicism. It was regarded by the authorities as extremely disappointing. Under these circumstances Shostakovich might have thought that giving the Third Quartet subtitles, particularly that chosen for the last movement, might prove too provocative.

However without the subtitles the quartet seems far from overt; there is an impression of codification; something is being said beneath the surface. The suspicion about a hidden message was reinforced by the cellist of the Borodin Quartet, Valentin Berlinsky.2 He disclosed that Shostakovich had quietly insisted on certain notes in the third quartet being played arco (bowed) although he admitted that they sounded better pizzicato (plucked). It was very unusual for Shostakovich to stipulate how his compositions were to be played, indeed his scores are rather barren in this respect. So why insist on the arco? Its significance still remains a mystery.

The message the third quartet does reveals, from its impish theme in the first movement to the long, melancholic pedal notes at its close, is an overpowering sense of spiritual advancement. As such it differs significantly from the more famous Eighth Quartet which, whilst more popular and intrinsically more satisfying, is in its emotional development cyclic rather than progressive.

The first movement, dominated by a theme of Haydn-like innocence, is in F major, but this "pastoral" key of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony becomes increasingly more ambiguous. The movement has a modified sonata form with the first subject, introduced by the first violin, leading to a pianissimo second subject. The counterpoint of the double fugue in the development section causes the mood to become more troubled. This feeling of unease persists until the end of the movement with the influence of the fugue being felt in the B minor key of the second subject when it is reintroduced and in the movement's coda. In a letter dated 22 April 1950 to the composer and teacher Edison Densov, Shostakovich asked that the first movement be played not forcefully but with tenderness.3

The E minor second movement starts with the first violin playing against a viola ostinato which then in turn plays to a cello ostinato. The repetition of notes is prominent throughout the movement and contribute to the movements feeling of malevolence marching towards a pastoral idyll. The scherzo of the second movement is followed by an even more violent scherzo in the third. This energetic movement, written in G sharp minor, in part dissonant and canonic, effervesces with military mockery. Its erratic variations in pulse were to be copied by Shostakovich in his scherzos for the Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies.

The fourth movement in C sharp minor returns to the simple honesty of the first movement and slowly drifts towards its key. Part passacaglia, part funeral march, its mood is of heart-rendering grief. The quartet's passacaglia refers to that in the Eighth Symphony. The unerring repetitions of the passacaglia became for Shostakovich a magnificent device for producing slow movements full of power and seemingly unstoppable, ponderous momentum. They occur frequently in his compositions between 1943 and 1948 (the Eighth Symphony (1943), the Second Quartet and the Second Piano Trio (both in 1944), the Third Quartet (1946), and perhaps the most powerful of them all used with devastating effect in the First Violin Concerto (1948). He was also to use the passacaglia in two later quartets, (the Sixth (1956) and the Tenth (1964)).

The C natural on the cello at the end of the fourth movement leads attacca into the fifth and final movement. This is a kaleidoscope of wistful, mocking, melancholic and tragic hues. A mournful melody becomes gradually agitated with tones that foretell the last movement of the Fourth Quartet. The tension gradually mounts, with instruments playing ostinato until the passacaglia theme, oozing with emotional pathos, is suddenly reintroduced. After that the music finally fades into a peaceful, if painful, conclusion far removed from the innocence with which the quartet begun. The movement ends, morendo, with three closing F major chords and a feeling of a 'mysterious transformation into eternal light and conciliation'4.

Shostakovich considered the quartet one of his finest works. It certainly held some deep associations for him. Years later he attended a rehearsal by the Beethoven String Quartet and Fyodor Druzhinin recalled5:

Only once did we see Shostakovich visibly moved by his own music. We were rehearsing his Third Quartet. He'd promised to stop us when he had any remarks to make. Dmitri Dmitriyevich sat in an armchair with the score opened out. But after each movement ended he just waved us on, saying, 'Keep playing!' So we performed the whole quartet. When we finished playing he sat quite still in silence like a wounded bird, tears streaming down his face. This was the only time that I saw Shostakovich so open and defenceless.

The programmatic titles do not appear on the published score. A reduction for two hands was written in August 1946 by Shostakovich and an arrangement for piano four hands also exists written by Yuri Nikolsky. The autographed scores of the quartet and the two-piano arrangements are preserved at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). Soon after finishing the Third String Quartet Shostakovich would begin work on what was to be one of his greatest compositions, the First Violin Concerto in A minor, opus 99.

Opening Image:

The information given in YouTube is "The Fine Arts Quartet performs the third movement (Allegro non troppo) of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 3 in F major (1946). Recorded in 1989. Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Wolfgang Laufer, cello; Jerry Horner, viola." Their official website is http://www.fineartsquartet.org/. No information regarding the artwork is provided on YouTube.


[1]. Fay states that the Third Quartet was not on the list of works explicitly banned by the Committee for Artistic Affairs on 14 February 1948. See Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.318 fn.32

[2]. Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 245

[3]. Christoph Hellmundt and K. Meyer (eds.), Dmitri Schostakowitsch: Erfahrungen, Aufsätze, Erinnerungen, Reden, Diskussionsbeiträge, Interviews, Briefe (Leipzig: Verlag Philipp Reclaim jun., 1983), p. 224

[4]. Wilson, Shostakovich, p. 390

[5]. Wilson, Shostakovich, p. 442