3rd Movement (Borodin Quartet)

How are we to understand the third movement of the Sixth Quartet?

Try the following experiment. Listen to the YouTube recording above and imagine that a loved-one has died. The coffin is being carried solemnly step by step to the grave and you are part of the cortège. You follow the procession mechanically but suddenly your heart breaks (at 3' 31'') and you feel the bitter loss that this death has caused.

Is that a convincing explanation of this movement?

Now listen to the piece again but forget any idea of morbidity. You are on your honeymoon in a beautiful coastal resort. The last few years have been extremely taxing but now, with your head on the lap of your beloved, you gaze at the open sky and are overcome with a feeling of peaceful contentment. Thanks to the beloved your life has become orderly, tranquil and serene. Suddenly your heart opens (at 3' 31'') and you are engulfed by sentimental happiness.

Such diverging but plausible ways to interpret the movement might indicate that there is no extra-musical significance hidden within it: it is just a piece of beautiful absolute music. Maybe that is all that it is, but if there is any hidden meaning then the short passage starting at 3' 31'' might become very significant.

The String Quartet no. 6 in G major, opus 101, was composed between the 7th and 31st August 1956.

Several events happened in the time between the completion of the Fifth Quartet in November 1953 and that of the Sixth Quartet in 1956. Stalin, whose policies had persecuted Shostakovich in 1936 and 1948, had died on the 5th March 19531. On the 9th March Shostakovich's 'official' grief for the loss of the leader was published on page 3 of 'Izvestiya'. Politically things then seemed to thaw. Khrushchev denounced Stalin and his 'cult of personality' to a closed session of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in the early morning of the 25th February 19562.

But tragedy also occurred. Shostakovich's wife, Nina, had suddenly been hospitalised on December 3rd 1954 in Yerevan in Armenia. Shostakovich, who was attending a concert in Moscow, rushed to her side but when he reached her she was in a coma. She died on December 5th, 1954. Family grief was soon followed by another death. In November 1955 Shostakovich's loving mother also died.

In late July 1956 Shostakovich (now 49) suddenly married Margarita Kainova, a thirty-two year-old Komsomol activist and instructor3. The partnership surprised his friends and indeed was not to prove a success and ended in 1959 with a divorce4, but when the Sixth Quartet was written the couple were on honeymoon in Komarovo, a Russian town to the north of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland.

G major is a key which, at least in the baroque age, tended to be happy and benedictory; indeed, despite the recent tumultuous events, Shostakovich's Sixth Quartet seems, at least at first sight, to be surprisingly carefree and relaxed. It is reminiscent of his First Quartet not only in being simple in form and melodic in nature but also in showing no indications of the world Shostakovich had recently experienced. For the first time since writing his opus 93, his Tenth Symphony, in 1953 Shostakovich declared himself satisfied with something he had composed5.

The quartet, which lasts approximately 25 minutes, has four movements marked:

  1. Allegretto,
  2. Moderato con molto,
  3. Lento, attacca
  4. Lento - Allegretto

The first movement, in the sonata form (whose second subject quotes an identical section in the third quartet) is mainly in common time. It finishes with an impressive 40 bar coda which culminates in recalling the bass motif already heard bars 11-13. This cadence in G major reoccurs at the end of each movement although in the second it is transposed into E flat.

The perky and lively mood is continued into the beginning of the second movement. Then a more thoughtful and airy theme is introduced and the two moods, the thoughtful and the perky, intertwine for the rest of the waltz-like movement.

The heart of the quartet lies in the third movement written in B flat minor. Here a passacaglia, whose base theme is repeated seven times, replaces the airy mood with one of greater solemnity. This is another example of the controlled passacaglia loved by Shostakovich but instead of displaying the First Violin Concerto's6 pent-up passion the passacaglia of the Sixth Quartet has the feeling of resigned contentment. It is as if Shostakovich after so many deaths and grief had finally found peace in his marriage to an attractive and younger woman. The final movement continues directly on from the end of the third and, whilst referring to the theme of the passacaglia and echoing its solemnity, manages to reintroduce the vitality of the first movement.

For many the result is a work which, whilst maintaining the counterpoint of previous quartets, effuses a mood reminiscent of the lyric simplicity and romanticism of the First Quartet rather than attempting profundity.

However this view is not accepted by many musicologists: for them it contains elements which contradict any sense of inner peace. Most apparent is the mournful cadence which comes at end of each movement. Its repetition seems to indicate an intended irony. This might be a self-irony because one of its elements in the cadence is the simultaneous playing of the notes DSCH. Indeed D's and E flats (S's) occur frequently throughout the work and their effect is undermine the certainty of the harmonic structure. Judith Kuhn calls these elements 'disturbing'7.

As mentioned above, the heart of the quartet lies in the third movement, the Lento, which is written in B flat minor "a dark key, favoured by dark Russian composers in the romantic period."8 On close inspection it does contain a disturbing feature. Between the fifth and sixth repeation of the theme [rehearsal number 59 on the score or starting at 3'31" in the YouTube example displayed above] Shostakovich shortly quotes a melody from the middle movement, the adagio, of Prokofiev's Second Quartet written fourteen years earlier in 1942 during the German invasion of Russia9. It is the first theme in this movement and Prokofiev has it played on the cello, but in Shostakovich's arrangement it is played on the first violin which soars graciously above the other instruments. Shostakovich's quotation is as brief as it is beautiful but why does he quote Prokofiev?

Prokofiev's quartet was based around a collection of folk-tunes, a standard ploy used by composers to fulfil the requirements of socialist realism. The melody quoted by Shostakovich from this collection was based on a Kabardian love song, 'Synilyaklik Zhir'10. But to whom was Shostakovich addressing this love song? To his second wife with whom he is now on honeymoon? Or to his first wife Nina who, Shostakovich would have been only too aware, had died in the Caucasus?

Prokofiev died on the 5th March 1953. It is the date of one of the most famous deaths in twentieth-century history but not because of Prokofiev: it was the day that Stalin died11. Any Soviet music-lover would know that Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day. Could it be that by quoting Prokofiev in a slow dirge-like movement Shostakovich was recalling not only Prokofiev's death but also that of Stalin and the deaths of the countless persons, including some of Shostakovich's closest friends, who had been murdered on Stalin's orders?

Listened to in this way Shostakovich's Lento ceases to express any resigned contentment but is seen to be a lament. A lament for his dead fellow-composer; for his murdered friends; for his first wife and perhaps, considering the signature in the closing cadence, for himself. It becomes a harbinger of the Eighth Quartet 12.

The work was premièred on 7th October 1956 at the Glinka Concert Hall in Leningrad by the Beethoven Quartet (Dmitri Tsyganov, Vasili Shirinsky, Vadim Borisovsky and Sergei Shirinsky). The autographed manuscript is preserved in Moscow at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). The quartet has no dedication although Shostakovich had told his friends that he intended to dedicate it to himself - in honour of his fiftieth birthday 13.

Shostakovich at work

Komarovo - birthplace of the Sixth Quartet

Opening Image:

The only information given in YouTube for this extract is that it is played by the Borodin String Quartet. Unfortunately the date of the recording is not stated.

Closing Image:

The photo may be found at Wikimedia Commons.


  1. There was a joke in the Soviet Union in Stalin's time. A man buys the newspaper everyday at the same kiosk. He quickly scans the front page and then disgruntled throws the newspaper to the ground. After a few weeks the kiosk-owner overcomes his curiosity and asks him what he is doing. 'I am looking to see if someone has died' the customer replies. 'Ah Comrade' says the owner 'then you should not look at front page but rather at back page because that is where obituaries are.' The customer looks the owner in the eyes, smiles, and says 'Believe me Comrade this death will be on front page'.

    Archie Brown, the Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford University, makes a comment towards the end of Chapter 4 in his book, 'The Rise and Fall of Communism':

    'Even in Stalin's time, though on a less widespread scale than in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods, Soviet citizens told political jokes. There were, indeed, jokes about political jokes, such as the response to the question: 'Who are the bravest people in the world?' The answer was: 'The Russians, for every fourth person is an informer, and still they tell political jokes.'

    Brown continues with:

    'In reality, the proportion of informers was not as high as one in four, but high enough to make a report to the political police all too grim a possibility during the 1930s and 1940s.'
    ('The Rise and Fall of Communism', The Bodley Head, 2009, Great Britain) back

  2. For Europe 1956 was a significant year both for the West as for the East.

    It was the year in which Britain's problems in finding a post-colonial role became acute. The nation had missed an opportunity one year earlier to take a dominant role in structuring the emerging Europe economic co-operation when it sent only a low-ranking observer to the Messina conference. Having rejected 'Europe' the ill-fated Anglo-French adventure in Suez in late 1956 left her with no immediate alternative than to hope for a 'special relationship' with the USA, precisely the land that had sabotaged her aspirations in Suez. France on the other hand accepted 'Europe' and was able to forge a dominant role there, particularly after Charles de Gaulle's virtual coup in May 1958 and the subsequent stability of the Fifth Republic. France's dominant influence in the European Community was to last until the reunification of Germany in October 1990.

    In the East, and more relevant to Shostakovich, the 20th Party Congress of the Soviet Communist Party took place in February 1956. During this Khrushchev made his famous 'secret speech' in which he condemned Stalin, his personality cult and his purges. Ever since the dictator's death in 1953 conditions had eased and some five million prisoners held in the Gulag had been freed. But now with Khrushchev's denunciation it seemed that a new age had dawned. It was in August of this new era of hope that Shostakovich composed his Sixth Quartet.

    Unfortunately shortly after the quartet's completion hope died. On November 4th 1956 at 4 a.m. (when the West was preoccupied with Suez) Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and the attempts of a 'free, democratic and independent' Hungary to free itself from 'the leading role of the Party' were brutally suppressed. With its repression the reputation of Soviet communism took a fatal blow in the West and Party members left in droves. They had recognised that the failure of the system was endemic and not a function of personality.

    With this background Shostakovich's Sixth Quartet must be seen as unique: it was the only quartet in the cycle that he was to compose in a period of political hope. back

  3. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.197. Margarita Kainova tends to be a "non-person" in biographies of Shostakovich: her name is scarcely mentioned. It remains just as unknown why Shostakovich married her as why he divorced her. Fay's book contains a photograph of her taken in 1958. I am not acquainted with any other photograph of her. back

  4. How Shostakovich dealt with the divorce was, as Wendy Lesser correctly says, not his finest hour (see Wendy Lesser, Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets (Yale University Press, 2011), p.134). back

  5. Fay, Shostakovich, p.198, fn.64. back

  6. Written at the height of the Zhdanov offensive in 1948 the First Violin Concerto had been finally premièred on 29 October 1955 after languishing almost eight years 'in the drawer'. back

  7. 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. 48 back

  8. Wilfrid Mellers, CD-Notes to the Keith Jarrett recordings of Shostachovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues op.87, in July 1991 in the Salle de Musique, La Chaux de Fonds. (ECM 1469/70 437 189-2, 1992). Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 (subtitled Babi Yar) op. 113 is also in B flat minor. back

  9. At the end of the second movement there is a reference to Hitler's attack. After the rehearsal number 51 the viola and cello, then later the second violin and the cello, play the invasion motif pizzicato from the first movement of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony ('The Leningrad'). This motif also reappears in the last, death-laden, movement of Shostakovich's last symphony – his Fifteenth.

    The Fifteenth Symphony's final movement begins earnestly. Wagner's 'Ring' is quoted - the death of Siegfried - but any gravity is swiftly and amusingly dissolved into almost Mozartian tenderness. The movement ends amazingly not with a heavy bombastic flourish to mark the demise of arguably the greatest symphonist of the twentieth century but with sounds which recall a mechanical clock that suddenly stops with a ping. It brings to mind T.S.Eliot: 'This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper'.

    However just before the movement enters its final phase the music rises to a climax and the invasion theme - associated with the horror of the siege of Leningrad - is heard. This movement in the symphony, despite any first impression, is impregnated with dark associations. That the quote from the Seventh Symphony is also included in the Sixth Quartet seems to vindicate Ms Kuhn's claim (see footnote 6) that it too contains disturbing elements which contradict any initial 'light' impression. back

  10. Kabardian is spoken in the Caucasus. It is one of the five Northwest Caucasian languages. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabardian_language. For a description of Prokofiev's Second String Quartet see, for example, Joseph Way's program notes http://www.sierrachamber.com/08_program3.pdf. back

  11. There were no flowers at Prokofiev's funeral because any available were being used for Stalin's. See Walter G. Moss, A History of Russia vol.2, (Anthem Press, London, UK, 2005), p.388. For a short account of Prokofiev's funeral, which Shostakovich attended, see Alex Ross The Rest is Noise (Picador, New York, USA, 2007), p.282. back

  12. But listen to the Mandelring Quartet's recordings, from 2005 to 2009, of the Shostakovich cycle (audite 21.411) where the third movement of the Sixth Quartet is played much quicker but with an exquisitely breath-taking beauty. The passage which occurs at 3' 31'' in the recording above can be heard in their interpretation over an minute earlier at 2' 20''. Whilst the rendering is wonderfully tender its tempo is totally incompatible with any sense of a cortège. It is an example of how an aesthetically pleasing performance can emerge from an inherently ambiguous original intent.

    This website does not aspire to define the meaning of Shostakovich's quartets. A rare Nietzschean sobriety is more appropriate: 'There are no facts, just interpretations.' back

  13. Kuhn, The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich, p.49 fn.13 back