4th Movement (Emerson Quartet)

The String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, opus 110, the most loved of all Shostakovich's quartets, has a duration of about twenty minutes. Highly popular, it is performed more frequently than all of the other fourteen together. The quartet has five linked movements, marked:

  1. Largo, attacca
  2. Allegro molto, attacca
  3. Allegretto, attacca
  4. Largo, attacca
  5. Largo

Despite its popularity, the work evokes feelings of gloom and melancholy. What is it about this quartet that, in spite of its austere and tragic music, explains its outstanding appeal? It is this question that we shall be examining in the paragraphs which follow.

Unlike most of Shostakovich's other quartets, the meaning of the Eighth, like its origins, was initially believed to be easily understood. It is the only substantial work that Shostakovich composed outside Russia. It was written in 1960 whilst Shostakovich was visiting the former Communist State of East Germany. As a prominent Soviet artist he lodged in a residence reserved for high-ranking members of the East German government, on the outskirts of the spa resort of Gohrisch near Königstein, some forty kilometres to the south-east of Dresden. Officially he was there to write the score for the Soviet film 'Five Days - Five Nights'; a film concerned with the ruin of Dresden. The centre of that beautiful baroque city, known as the Florence of the Elbe, had been destroyed in the night of the 13th/14th February 1945 through an infamously sensless incendiary attack by British and American bombers1. The film used the destruction of the city as the background for a fictional story. Whilst working on the film-score he composed this quartet: it took him just three days, from the 12th to the 14th of July. In the USSR the quartet was referred to as the 'Dresden Quartet'.

All five movements of the quartet are written in the minor mode but the first and last are in the C minor key which traditionally, from Purcell through Schubert to Brahms, has been a tragic key, although some composers, notably Beethoven, have used it for works conjuring up heroism. But Shostakovich gave it a dedication which firmly identified it with the tragic: 'In Remembrance of the Victims of Fascism and War'.

The sombre dedication fits well with the gravity of the quartet whose moods throughout its five movements reflect various shades of black. The anguish of the quartet, according to Shostakovich, reflected his thoughts on visiting the ruined city. This explanation, then universally accepted, was reinforced by what seemed like a vignette of history when, at the beginning of the fourth movement, three notes are repeated against a low drone: the sound of anti-aircraft fire and the menacing whine of a bomber high in the sky above.

But this explanation did not long survive Shostakovich's death in 1975. In 1979 a book appeared in the West entitled 'Testimony' which claimed to be the composer's memoirs, told to, and subsequently edited by, an associate, Solomon Volkov. The book was highly controversial because it showed Shostakovich not as the passive supporter of the Soviet regime, the role in which Western critics had placed him, but as a closet dissident. Protests followed the book's publication. It was first accused of being a forgery (which in parts it was), but it was also hailed as reflecting the spirit of Shostakovich's thoughts (which it is now generally believed to do).

Music critics also found much to ponder in the book because it included passages which upset their previously held consensus, like the one below concerning the Eighth Quartet.

When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of 'exposing fascism'. You have to be blind 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'.

Is the Eighth Quartet not about fascism? Is it in some way autobiographical as Shostakovich insisted? To answer these questions we will need to examine the quartet2.

The first movement begins with the cello. Then successively the viola, second and first violins enter to give a canonic treatment to a four note motif. Over the next few bars all twelve semitones of the octave are played creating tonal ambiguity and a corresponding feeling of uncertainty. Although C minor, the home key, is finally established, it is only after shifts to E major and minor have occurred. A quote is then heard from the opening of the First Symphony followed by tonal excursions from C minor into C major and fleetingly into A minor. Finally, before the movement ends, the development theme from the Fifth Symphony is quoted.

In contrast to the slow lament of the first the second movement, in the key of G sharp minor, erupts violently. Suddenly it quotes the Jewish music from the last movement of Shostakovich's Second Piano Trio, introduced by the four note motif. A sense of respite is reached in the G minor third movement which again uses the motif to introduce a new quote: a theme from Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. The cello is then used as a bridge to the next movement where the mutilated quotation becomes a source for its theme.

This, the fourth movement in C sharp minor, begins in perhaps the strangest way of any in the quartet. Its low drone and three rapid notes have already been mentioned. But this movement also includes a beautiful quotation from a revolutionary song 'Exhausted by the hardships of prison', which was a favourite of Lenin and had been sung by the Bolshoi chorus at his funeral, as well as a quotation introduced by the cello from Shostakovich's opera 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District'. Like the song, the extract from 'Lady Macbeth' is pregnant with the imagery of incarceration preceding death. Strangely, of all the quotations in the quartet, only that from 'Lady Macbeth' is not introduced by the four note motif.

The final, fifth movement contains no quotation other than the smallest hint of the First Symphony. A fugue is introduced emphasising something which is apparent throughout the whole work: the frictionless flow between the contrapuntal and harmonic sections. Noticeable here, as the work builds up to its final emotional climax, as it is throughout the whole work, is the ubiquitous motif composed of four notes, D, E-flat, C and B. These notes allow Shostakovich four different tonal systems, an ambiguity that is only enhanced when they are employed in counterpoint. Yet despite these potentially disruptive chromatics, the underlying tonality is never lost and the work terminates on a C minor chord.

Musical ambiguity and the self quotations appear to be the distinguishing features of this quartet. But even a cursory glimpse at the quartet raises doubts about its connection with the second world-war or fascism. The link between Shostakovich's First and Fifth Symphonies and fascism is tenuous. These symphonies were first performed in May 1926 and November 1937 respectively. The latter was two years before Stalin's pact with Hitler and four years before Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, whilst the First Symphony preceded Hitler's ascent to power by seven years.

Other references are equally not supportive of the 'fascist interpretation'. The second subject of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony is hinted at, as too is the 'Fate' leitmotif from Wagner's "Ring"; but both are of little relevance to the events in Dresden. (Shostakovich uses the 'Fate' motif ironically in the fourth movement of his last, the Fifteenth, Symphony contrasting the death of the Ring's hero, Siegfried, to that of his own approaching demise. Could this be a possible clue for its use in the Eighth Quartet?)

But the biggest clue lies in the four note motif : D, E-flat, C and B. In German musical notation these notes are written as D, S, C, and H. These are the same letters that occur in the German spelling of Shostakovich's name, Dmitri Schostakowitsch. He used this motif in other works notably in the Tenth Symphony, in the Scherzo of the Fifteenth Symphony, in the First Cello Concerto and, albeit transposed, in the first movement of the Second Violin Concerto. So with its repeated recalling of his initials and its reference to other works of his, it would seem that Shostakovich's claim that the eighth quartet is autobiographical, is correct. From the very first bar, Shostakovich was composing not a quartet for departed third parties, but a highly personal quartet in which he, his person, his circumstances and his emotions are the protagonists. (But what do the references to Tchaikovsky and Wagner signify?).

If these autobiographical references were lost in the Cold War rhetoric of the West they did not go unnoticed in the East. In Russia the numerous self quotations and the pervasive use of his initials were seen as evidence of Shostakovich's lifelong 'struggle against the dark forces of reaction'3. For Western critics, however, a major reassessment of Shostakovich was required to accommodate the revelations described in 'Testimony'. The pendulum swung to the other extreme: a 'new' Shostakovich was born. In the last two decades of the twentieth century he was no longer seen as a communist lackey, but rather as a closet dissident. The Eighth Quartet became the bitter but covert statement of a shackled Soviet artist imprisoned within Socialist Realism. The department for 'exposing fascism' was now reinvented as the department for 'exposing Soviet communism'; the Eighth Quartet became an dissident's autobiography.

But can this 'dissident' interpretation withstand analysis? Shostakovich's First and Fifth Symphonies had not been suppressed; they had been resounding successes. So too had been his opera 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District'. It ran successful for two years in Russia and was performed in other opera houses throughout the world. It was only after Stalin had seen the work and the article 'Muddle instead of Music' had appeared in Pravda that things had gone seriously wrong. But he had survived and almost a quarter of a century had now passed. Even the quote from 'Lady Macbeth' is ambiguous. It comes from Act IV, the Siberian prison, but the cello is singing the beautiful love song 'Seryozha, my darling' and singing it, moreover, in the 'bright' key of F sharp major. And those quotes from Wagner and Tchaikovsky are no better assigned to the department of 'exposing Soviet communism' than they were to the department of 'exposing fascism'.

Tchaikovsky provides the clue, like his Sixth Symphony, the 'Pathetique', Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet is also a suicide note. Both works were composed by composers suffering suicidal depression. The only difference is that Tchaikovsky killed himself after finishing his work whilst Shostakovich refrained.

I reflected that if I die someday then it's hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: 'Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet'.

So Shostakovich wrote on the 19th July 1960 to his friend Isaak Davidovich Glikman, the theatre historian and receiver of over three hundred letters from the composer which were published in 1993. The irony of Shostakovich's words clearly reveals his awareness that any overt self-dedication would be absurd.

There are many possible reasons for his depression when composing this quartet. He had never recovered from the loss of his first wife Nina Vasilievna Shostakovich née Varzar who had died in November 1954. (The love lament quoted from Lady Macbeth is even more poignant because it is to Nina that this opera was dedicated). He had married quickly afterwards but this second partnership proved unsuccessful and terminated in divorce in the summer of 1959. Now alone and still grieving for his former marriage Shostakovich wrote his Seventh Quartet, dedicating it to Nina.

He also felt that he had betrayed his principles. Under pressure from Khrushchev's officials he had recently applied to join the communist party, which he had previously sworn never to do, and for months he underwent bouts of self-loathing for his perceived cowardice and chronic sense of fear.

Finally he was beginning to have problems moving his right hand: a nightmare for any pianist. This disability would spread in the coming years causing him mobility problems in all his limbs. After years of uncertainty it was finally diagnosed in 1969 as a rare form of poliomyelitis.

The musicologist and friend of Shostakovich since the early fifties, Lev Nikolyevich Lebedinsky, believes that Shostakovich intended to commit suicide by taking sleeping tablets on his return from Dresden. The plan failed only because he, Lebedinsky, was able to steal the pills and give them to Shostakovich's son, Maxim, for safe-keeping. However, as with so much in Shostakovich's life, this is far from certain because Maxim totally rejects Lebedinsky's assertions4.

So the heart-felt anguish of the Eighth Quartet may show Shostakovich's awareness that the memories of early triumphs (the First and Fifth Symphonies) failed to compensate for the loneliness and the malaise of age. Or perhaps the work is haunted by the memory of his first marriage; or perhaps by the loss of self-esteem. Or maybe it resulted from contemplating the senseless destruction of Dresden so reminiscent of that which he had experienced in his now distant, beloved Russia. The musical ambiguity inherent in the quartet just reflects the uncertainty of its conception.

Although Shostakovich maintained that he could never hear the Eighth Quartet without breaking into tears, the work is not self-pitying. Rather its genius is that it transcends individual pain to address all human despair. It is this which explains its profundity. The torment that it voices is the tragic, human agony of all those who have experienced grievous loss whether it be due to fascism, war, or personal bereavement. Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet resonates with this bitter universal experience; it is truly 'music written with the heart's blood'; that is why it is a masterpiece of the twentieth century5.

The quartet had its première on the 2nd October 1960 at the Leningrad Glinka Concert Hall. It was performed by the Beethoven Quartet (Dmitri Tsyganov, Vasili Shirinsky, Vadim Borisovsky and Sergei Shirinsky). The autographed score is preserved at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI) in Moscow.

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 taken in 1942 is in the public domain:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dmitri1.jpg)


[1]. The city of Dresden is now twinned with Coventry in England. Coventry's medieval centre had been totally destroyed in a similar outrage by Hitler's Luftwaffe on 14 November 1940.

"I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return."
    W.H. Auden, September 1, 1939

Coventry is also twinned with Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in Russia and with Lidice in the Czech Republic, a small town that was completely destroyed on 10 June 1942 on the orders of Hitler for its role in the dispatching of Reinhard Heydrich.

[2]. For a thorough analysis into all aspects of the Eighth Quartet by a prominent musicologist, see David Fanning, Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004).

[3]. Yury Keldysyh, 'An Autobiographical Quartet', The Musical Times, 102 (1961) 226-228. Yury Keldysyh was the editor of the Soviet journal 'Sovyetskaya Muzyka' where the article first appeared.

[4]. David Fanning, Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), p.18.

[5]. This might explain why it is a masterpiece of the twentieth century but it does not explain its positive reception in the Soviet Union. Such a tragic work was not compatible with the doctrines of Socialist Realism: it was neither heroic nor uplifting. In 1959, a year before the Quartet's composition, Khrushchev had issued dire warnings to artists who ignored the policy of Socialist Realism. So why was Shostakovich's quartet acceptable? Again an answer lies in international politics.

By 1958 it became clear to the Politburo that America, wishing to withdraw her troops from Europe, was considering putting nuclear weapons - now deemed irreplaceable for the defence of western Europe - under joint European control. Since 1955 West Germany was a member of NATO, so America's plans would mean that the Soviet's old enemy, whose unprovoked attack seventeen years before had lead to the death of at least 25 million Russians, would get access to a nuclear arsenal: a prospect which filled the Soviets (and incidentally also the French) with horror. Their fears were aggravated by speeches by the then German Minister of Defence, Franz-Josef Strauss. Strauss' political stronghold was Bavaria which had been the homeland of Hitler's movement. The Soviets countered by demanding that the western Allies leave their zones in Berlin. It was the beginning of 'The Berlin Crisis': a crisis during which, for a time, American and Soviet tanks confronted each other on the Friedrichstrasse in the very centre of Berlin.

After months of intense negotiations between the former Allies the crisis ended in the summer of 1961. It was agreed that Berlin should be formally divided (a division which the Soviets cemented with a wall); that nuclear weaponry would stay under national control; that American troops would remain in Europe and that there would be no German access to nuclear weapons. In this hazardous period Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet with its dedication 'In Remembrance of the Victims of Fascism and War' served the Soviets well in reminding the world of the destruction that a previous militarised Germany had caused.