Quartet No. 7   (source: YouTube - bartje11)

Quartets seven, eight and nine form a subset because of their dedications. Numbers seven and nine are dedicated to his first wife Nina, and his third wife Irina. Number eight's dedication is to 'The Victims of Fascism and War', but analysis shows it more concerned with humanities victims in general and even with Shostakovich himself.

The String Quartet no. 7 in F sharp minor, opus 108, completed in March 1960, is the shortest of all Shostakovich's quartets lasting only about 13 minutes. It has three linked movements marked:

  1. Allegretto, attacca
  2. Lento, attacca
  3. Allegro – Allegretto

The Quartet, the original manuscript of which is lost, was dedicated by Shostakovich "In Memoriam" to his wife Nina. She had studied at the prestigious Leningrad School of Physics. Amongst her co-students had been Lev Landau and Georgi Gamov. Shortly after leaving and working in a laboratory they had married. Their relationship had not been easy but her sudden death in December 1954, after an emergency operation for a previously undetected cancer of the colon, affected Shostakovich deeply. This is mirrored in his choice of key for the work, F sharp minor, traditionally associated with pain and suffering. Bach, for example, uses it in the St. John Passion when the penitent Peter cries out his remorse . This is also the key of Mahler's tortured and unfinished tenth symphony. His total desolation following the collapse of his marriage with Alma is witnessed in his scribbled words on the score "für dich leben! für dich sterben!" (to live for you! to die for you!) and in the poignant dissonance and screams of the music.

There can be no doubt that Shostakovich deliberately matched the choice of key to the quartet's dedication. As is explained in the article 'The tonal structure if the cycle of quartets' Shostakovich had based the key for a quartet on the submediant of the scale of the preceding quartet and whilst he had given preference to the major scale he had kept rigorously to this scheme in all of his previous quartets. But in the seventh he suddenly breaks this pattern. Had he maintained his scheme the key of the this quartet would have been E flat major. (The key chosen, F sharp minor, was only due in the twentieth quartet.) He would return to his scheme by using the key of E flat major for his Ninth Quartet and remain with it for almost forty years up until his death in 1975. Only this quartet, dedicated to his first wife but written five years after her death, would be an exception to this general rule.

Certainly the key of F sharp minor is more appropriate for bereavement than E flat major. The latter key is more associated with godliness and human heroism. Beethoven famously chose it for the Eroica Symphony and for the Emperor Concerto whilst Richard Strauss tellingly employed it in 'Ein Heldenleben'. F sharp minor is more morose. The German composer and musical theorist Johann Mattheson once wrote "F sharp minor, although it leads to great distress, nevertheless is more languid and love-sick than lethal. Moreover, it has something abandoned, singular, and misanthropic about it". It seems that for Shostakovich this choice of key for his Seventh Quartet was more important than maintaining the tonal development of his cycle of string quartets which he had begun in 1938.

It was premièred at the Leningrad Glinka Concert Hall by the Beethoven Quartet (Dmitri Tsyganov, Vasili Shirinsky, Vadim Borisovsky and Sergei Shirinsky), on May 15th, 1960. May was a month which Shostakovich associated with his first wife and their life together: he had announced his engagement to Nina Varzarin in May 1929; had married her on May 13th 1932; their first child, their daughter Galya, was born on May 30th 1936, and their only other child, their son Maxim, had been born on May 10th 1938. His quartet to her is compact and, presumably like their marriage, full of contradictory moods: the first movement being perky, agitated, but full of impish humour; the second dream-like; whilst the third, although at first violent, finally relapses into mellow contemplation.

The music in the first movement, sometimes harsh and biting, simmers with nervous energy. It opens with the first violin playing a short perky little motif starting on F sharp and ending with the same note, being played three times, first by the violin an octave lower, and then by the cello two octaves lower still. Triple notes are in abundance as the music jogs agitatedly forward. With the cello introducing a change of key to E flat major and the viola and second violin begin a series of nervous rapid pulses, which though hardly heard, gnaw at the consciousness. The sense of agitation increases when the first violin, returning to F sharp minor, begins to play pizzicato and places emphasis on some of the weaker beats. But before all this nervousness becomes oppressive the movement fades away into the restful mood of the next movement.

The three and a half minute second movement opens with a rising, then falling, four-note motif played on the muted second violin. With it we enter into a new, minimalist world which, twenty years later, Philip Glass and his factory would commercially inhabit. This world seduces through hypnosis; through the slow metamorphosis of repeated, lyrical phrases. On the fifth bar the first violin enters, and soaring an octave higher than its partner, adds a further soothing and soporific balm to the sleepiness already induced by the second violin's seductive repetitions. With a glissando on the viola from F to D flat we slip from the material world and into sleep. The first violin becomes silent and the hypnotic minimalist motif is heard again distinctly on the second violin, followed by the deeper-voiced viola recalling the soothing tune of the first violin and then the cello. Heavy and deep in sleep we can now only hear our heart beats on the doublets of the second violin and experience our deepest, subconscious thoughts, disturbing, sinister, full of remorse and nostalgic, being played out on  the viola  and the cello an octave below it. Then with the return of the first violin we gradually float back into consciousness; the heartbeats disappearing and to the minimalist motif on the viola we gradually wake. Rested but tender after this slumber we are poorly-prepared for the shock which now awaits us.

Suddenly with the commencement of the third movement we are confronted with the fortissimo yapping of an attacking dog1. Then an accusatory, vitriolic canon begins waves of ferocious assaults; first from the viola, then the second violin , followed again by the viola and finally from the first violin. But these on closer inspection are just the transformations of a dream world; the barking is just the notes which started the first movement, its "perky little motif", reversed. Even the first subject of the canon bears a close resemblance to music played on the viola as we regained consciousness at the end second movement. But before the mounting intensity becomes unbearable it is abruptly terminated by the same innocent motif, subtly changed though still full of its impish humour, with which the first movement had commenced. Suddenly, miraculously, the aggravation disperses and disappears. The pace slows down by a third,  from allegro to allegretto, and we are back  to F sharp minor. The first part of the canon reappears, but with the change of pace and tonality undergoes a metamorphosis into the dream world of the previous movement, and now rendered as a waltz, intermingles with other motifs before, after a brief echo of the first movement's pizzicato, the music loses force, collapses and dies away, morendo.

Photograph of Shostakovich, his first wife Nina and their friend Sollertinsky dated 1932

Opening Image:

The only information given in YouTube for this extract is that it is played by the Borodin Quartet. Unfortunately the date of the recording is not stated. Further information about this string quartet may be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rubio_Quartet.

Closing Image:

The photo shows Shostakovich with his first wife Nina and their friend Sollertinsky


  1. Of course the extent to which it sounds like a yapping dog depends on the recording you are hearing! My metaphor should be understood rather as a reference to another author on the affectations of keys, Christian Schubart, who lived after Johann Mattheson. Schubart wrote in 1806 in an article entitled 'Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst' that F sharp minor was 'A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.' I do not intend to suggest that Shostakovich meant this section to be canine-friendly, but I am certain that Shostakovich's choice of key signature for each quartet in the cycle was deliberate and selected to support the quartet's intended emotional or biographic reference. The affectation of keys has a long tradition in the history of music and its influence on any tonal cycle of music, particularly ones composed for instruments that are not equally tempered, must be seriously considered. back