5th Movement

Following his hospitalisation in a neurological unit in January 1965 and his convalescence in the summer, Shostakovich started to write the String Quartet no.11 in F minor, opus 122, completing it on 30th January 1966 in Moscow. The string quartets 11 to 14 form a subset "The Quartet of Quartets": all are dedicated to members of the Beethoven String Quartet. This quartet is dedicated to the memory of Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, a close friend of Shostakovich and co-founder of the Quartet who had died at the age of 65 in Mamontovka, near Moscow, on 16 August 1965. The death was a severe shock to the Beethoven String Quartet who contemplated disbanding. According to Elizabeth Wilson1 Shostakovich argued strongly that they should continue because they had 'acquired the status of a national institution'.

The key of the quartet, F minor, was used by baroque musicians for death and to express great sorrow. Vasili Shirinsky had played the second violin in the ensemble and was succeeded by Nikolai Zabavnikov.

The quartet, whose autographed score is preserved in the Shostakovich family archive, lasts about 17 minutes and consists of seven linked movements:

  1. Introduction – Andantino, attacca
  2. Scherzo – Allegretto, attacca
  3. Recitative – Adagio, attacca
  4. Étude – Allegro, attacca
  5. Humoresque – Allegro, attacca
  6. Elegy – Adagio, attacca
  7. Finale – Moderato

The Eleventh Quartet is a strange, cryptic but closely knit suite of seven connected miniatures. Although it shares the melancholic, bitter and dissonant tones characteristic of the later quartets it stands apart from them and the previous quartets by initially giving a feeling of fragmentation. In the Eleventh Quartet organic flow seems at first to be missing as if emphasising the disruption that Shirinsky's death had caused his colleagues. Harmonics are incomplete, fugues are blocked, and 'wrong' notes are played2. What binds the movements of the quartet together is a motif, played by the cello in the introduction, which is developed in each of the following movements.

In the short first movement it is only the first violin that seems active whilst the other instruments follow in unison the solemn theme introduced by the cello. When the beautiful initial theme of the first violin returns it is in D flat, the submediant, not in F minor.

The second movement, the Scherzo, begins with the first violin repeating a series of notes in F just as the first movement had ended. The simple motif drives the Scherzo onwards. With the other instruments providing accompaniment the motif is played initially by the first violin, then by the viola, then by the cello and finally by second violin. Only towards the end does the Scherzo, which fails to achieve its aspiration of becoming a fugue, finally run out of steam and terminates with the viola playing a drawn-out C. The Recitative begins forcefully with the first violin playing harshly a theme suggested by the viola at the end of the previous movement. There is an echo of the cello theme of the first movement before the harshness returns. The mercurial whirlwind of the Étude is heard solely on the first violin and later on the cello the other instruments contributing only a series of sustained notes. In the Humoresque the second violin maintains throughout an ostinato as an accompaniment to the further development of the first movement's theme which is being played on the other instruments.

With the sixth movement, the Elegy, grief breaks through the bitterness and dissonance of the previous movements. Here is the emotional heart of the quartet, its dark, melancholic funeral march appropriately recalling the loss of his friend. The unaccompanied second violin leads into the finale which affectionately recalls the various themes of the previous movement. The fragmentation apparent in the earlier movements is no longer there: everything is organic. The movement ends with the first violin holding a high C for almost 30 seconds: a quiet but sustained inner scream of anguish which dissolves morendo into pitiless space. But the bitterness and disruptions of the first five movements have been resolved. There is a sense that Shirinsky's death has been accepted.

The Eleventh Quartet received its première on 25 March 1966 at the USSR Composers’ Club in Moscow, but it was the Leningrad première three days later that was to prove more fateful. Along with the Eleventh Quartet other works of his were performed that evening with Shostakovich himself playing the piano accompaniment to the song cycles. Although extremely nervous because he had not performed in public for over two years and despite the poliomyelitis that impeded his right hand the concert went well with the Eleventh Quartet being encored. Surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers Shostakovich was accompanied back to his hotel. There, whether due to the tension of the previous days or the unseasonal inclemency of the weather, Shostakovich suffered a heart attack3.

He was hospitalised in Leningrad and needed three months to fully recover. In retrospect the Eleventh Quartet marks Shostakovich's slow descent to death. And whether realising his encroaching mortality or being boosted by his growing international and national status Shostakovich increasingly freed himself from political restraint. His Thirteenth Symphony may have been banned in the USSR but the dramas of 1936 and 1948 had not been repeated. His Fourteenth Symphony, completed three years later, shows Shostakovich ignoring the restrictions of Socialist Realism.

His civic duties, however, he continued to take seriously and in June 1966 he was re-elected as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the city of Gorky. In this role he attended their second meeting in Moscow on the 15 December 1966, along with the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin who on the 12 April 1961 had become the first man into space. Scenes from the 108 minute flight in the Vostok 1 spacecraft had been shown on the Soviet media to the accompaniment of Shostakovich's song "The Homeland Hears"4 from the " Four Songs", opus 86.

On September 25th (his 60th birthday) he was awarded the Order of Lenin and made a 'Hero of Socialist Labour'.

Opening Image:

Unfortunately there is no further information supplied on the YouTube site about the performers or performance of this extract from the Eleventh Quartet


  1. Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 389. back

  2. For further elaboration see 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. 59. back

  3. See Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.249. back

  4. It remains unclear to me whether Gagarin actually sang the song in space or whether it was dubbed onto the film track of his flight to enhance its propaganda value. However, the song beautifully sung by a soprano, may be heard at the beginning - following a short extract from the fifteenth quartet - of a film on Shostakovich entitled 'Альтовая соната' (Sonata for Viola). Made at the Leningrad Studios in 1981 by the director Alexander Nikolajewitsch Sokurow (whose film 'Faust' won in 2011 the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival) this 75 minute documentary in Russian contains interesting footage and musical excerpts. Originally banned in the Soviet Union it can be found by the persistent on the internet. back