Brentano Quartet

The String Quartet no.12 in D flat, opus 133, was completed on 11 March 1968 at Repino and premièred in Moscow on the 14 June of that year at the USSR Composers’ Club in Moscow by the Beethoven Quartet (Dmitri Tsïganov, Nikolai Zabavnikov, Fyodor Druzhinin and Sergei Shirinsky). It is the second in a set of four quartets each dedicated to an individual member of the Beethoven String Quartet. His Second and Fourth Quartets had been dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet but as an ensemble. With the death of its second violinist, Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, Shostakovich had for the first time dedicated his Eleventh Quartet to an individual member. Displaying the courtesy for which he was renowned he dedicated the next three quartets to the other members of the original quartet starting with its first violinist Dmitri Mikhailovich Tsïganov.

There are only two movements in this quartet which lasts about 27 minutes. They are marked:

  1. Moderato,
  2. Allegretto – Adagio – Allegretto

The Twelfth Quartet had initially been a problematic work for musicologists. Unlike all its predecessors this is a work principally concerned with musical forms and constructions. Moreover this very tonal composer suddenly seemed to indulge in atonal, twelve-tone techniques. Inevitably, given the composer's delight in playing with numbers, he chose his Twelfth Quartet to delve into serialism. This apparent indulgence in the dodecaphonic raises immediately a question, how can atonal music be written in the key of D flat major? This question is so obvious that another, more subtle, question is forgotten. Is the tonality of D flat major significant for a string quartet? Before answering the first question let us deal briefly with the second.

The key of D flat major contains five flats, not any easy task for strings. Haydn avoided it, so did Mozart and Beethoven. Haydn and Beethoven restricted themselves to string quartets that never exceeded four flats or four sharps. Mozart was even more conservative, none of his quartets is written for more than 3 sharps or flats. Even Bartók did not go further than C sharp minor (4 sharps). Of course this tonality may be reached in modulation or in any subsequent movement but nonetheless Shostakovich's Twelfth Quartet breaks new ground. Its tonality as well as the twelve semitone row with which it starts are two outstanding features of this quartet .

Now the other question: how can dodecaphonic, atonal, music be written in the key of D flat major? This seems to be in contradiction with the musical theory that Arnold Schoenberg began advocating in 1923.

Schoenberg's aim was to free music from the restrictions of tonality, to make it atonal. This meant that there should be no note within a row of notes to which the others gravitated: there should be no tonic or keynote. This could be avoided by ensuring that the row of notes was composed of every one of the twelve semitones of the octave and that each occurred only once in the row. Only after all the notes had been played could a repetition on a note be allowed.

The composer was permitted to choose the order of these notes within the row. The notes could be played not only in the original form (the 'prime' form) of the row but they could be transposed by playing them sequentially (as in a melody) or simultaneously (to produce harmony and counterpoint) by inverting them or playing the row (or parts of it) backwards. The row could also be played with any rhythm. Important was that, whatever transposing was done whether to all or some of the row, all the semitones were to be played before any were repeated.

Armed with these rules Schoenberg and other members of the so-called 'Second Viennese School' 1 such as Alban Berg and Anton Webern started composing pieces. Although not always keeping to a single row of notes throughout, the concept of avoiding a tonal centre to a work was adhered to by all the composers of serial music.

Shostakovich's Twelfth Quartet starts with such an atonal row being played on the cello. In the first bar eleven different notes are played without any one being repeated. These are eleven of the twelve semitones.

The first two bars of twelfth quartet

The twelfth and final semitone of the atonal row is the first note in the second bar. But this final note, lasting four times longer than any of the previous ones in the row, is D flat. Furthermore the note that directly precedes it is A flat. The row thus ends with a perfect cadence from the dominant to the tonic. In the bars that follow the tonality of D flat is maintained. Twelve semitone rows will reappear at critical moments through out the quartet but just as with this first example, the note-row is not allowed to propagate: it is always quickly restrained within tonality.

When Shostakovich wrote the Twelfth Quartet he was approaching 62 and had acquired a status of a respected member of the musical establishment. He had long outlived being an 'enfant terrible' and could no longer even be regarded as being a pioneer. It was this conservative image that had initially caused musicologists to be surprised by the Twelfth Quartet. But twelve-ton rows in music written in the Soviet Republic and its satellites was not unknown at this time. Younger composers such as Alfred Schnittke (1934 - 98), Arvo Pärt (born 1935) and Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931) had taken advantage of the thaw under Khrushchev to experiment. Shostakovich might well have been inspired by such inventions and his adoption of them, however tentative, certainly acknowledged their significance. But his adoption of twelve tone rows was to generate motifs that could be developed according to the rules of tonality rather than serialism2. In the case of these first twelve notes it is the minor second and fourth intervals that would be gradually explored.

The movement continues with the first violin and then the viola joining the cello and playing together as a trio. The motif that follows the first note of the second bar shown above is expanded by all three instruments. This motif is a musical reference to the start of the development section in the first movement of Beethoven's 'Rasumovsky' Quartet opus 59 no. 1. Andrei Kirillovich Razumovsky was a Russian diplomat in Vienna who had commissioned Beethoven in 1808 to write three string quartets each containing a Russian theme. More references to these these three 'Russian' string quartets of Beethoven appear later in the Twelfth Quartet and with them an indirect reference to the four Russian musicians of the 'Beethoven String Quartet'.

Then there is a change to triple time and the second subject of the first movement commences. Again a row of twelve different semitones is played but this time on the first violin and extending over four bars. Finally, and only in the 34th bar when the first violin has finished playing its row of twelve tones, the second violin joins the others. Why does Shostakovich keep the second violin silence so long? There is indeed no musical reason for its long pause. The explanation is that it is another example of Shostakovich's light-hearted numerology. The Beethoven Quartet's second violinist, Nikolai Zabavnikov was a new member of the ensemble. He had joined because the previous second violinist, the conductor and composer Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, had died in the summer of 1965. The Beethoven Quartet was originally called the 'Moscow Conservatory Quartet' but they had changed their name in 19313. So when Nikolai Zabavnikov joined the Beethoven Quartet as their second violinist in 1965, they had been playing together 34 years. Shostakovich was mirroring this time-span by making the second violin wait until the 34th bar before it could join the others 4.

As the movement progresses there is a shift to, then back from, major to minor and this is reflected in an ambiguity of the final bars. The cello which began the movement is heard again at the end over the sustained notes of the other three instruments. Its oscillations between D flat and G flat foreseeing the tonal shift from the first movement's D flat to the second movement's tonality of F sharp (G flat).

It is in the longer, second movement that a symphonic working of the initial twelve tone sequence occurs. This movement has the reputation of being fiendishly difficult to perform. It is a frantic episode of many interacting twelve-tone sequences, some melodic, others freakish, interrupted by a melody both haunting yet uncertain. The movement finally terminates full of unusually optimistic colour in an unambiguous D flat major ending.

As already mentioned the Twelfth Quartet shows Shostakovich using twelve-tone techniques to generate motifs but avoiding serialism. His musical philosophy had been succinctly stated in an interview that he gave shortly before the first public performance of the quartet. When asked about the use of such techniques by the younger generation of composers, he said5,

....everything in good measure. If, let's say, a composer sets himself the obligatory task of writing dodecaphonic music, then he artificially limits his possibilities , his ideas. The use of elements from these complex systems is fully justified if it is dictated by the concept of the composition...

In other words whilst its elements could be used as a tool, note-row was to be embedded in tonality.

With the conclusion of the Twelfth Quartet Shostakovich's interest in twelve-tone techniques was not exhausted. He was to include such rows in the Thirteenth Quartet as well as in his next two compositions: the Sonata for Violin and Piano, opus 134 and the Fourteenth Symphony, opus 135.

The autographed score was presented to Dmitri Tsïganov at the official Moscow première. Tsïganov wrote a transcription of the quartet for two pianos. Another reduction exists written by Anatoli Dmitriev, for piano four hands.


  1. [1]. 'The First Viennese School' being Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; composers of the late 18th century. back

  2. The word 'serialism' needs qualifying. It is frequently used, as it is here, to denote the twelve-note technique advocated by Arnold Schoenberg in his theory of 1921. But in 1952 Boulez criticised Schoenberg's ideas for applying only to melody and harmony. Composers like Boulez, Berio and Nono extended the concept of ordered rows to time relations, dynamics and volume in their works. This post-war, avant-garde movement, which also embraced electronic music, was supported by the influential periodical 'die Reihe' (The Row) of which Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the editors. To distinguish it from the earlier serialism of the Second Viennese School this latter movement is often referred to as multi- or total- serialism. back

  3. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.27. back

  4. After having worked so closely with Vasli Shirinsky for many decades there would have been many other musical devices Shostakovich could have employed to remember the late violinist in this quartet. But the number thirty-four had a special significance for Shostakovich. It was the number with which he identified himself. Perhaps it is for this reason that Shostakovich chose the 34th bar as the way to recall his late colleague. It allowed him not only to register a historical fact, that they had worked together for thirty-four years, but also his personal bond.

    The number thirty-four is an example of Gematria, a tradition that predates the Christian era. In Gematria a number is assigned to a letter. This number could be its position in an alphabet. For a word or a letter sequence like B, A, C, H, the numbers are added to give (in this example) fourteen. For the sequence D, S, C, H, the sequence gives thirty-four. (The official German alphabet has the same 26 characters as the English alphabet. The additional three vowels with umlauts: ä, ö and ü, as well as the beta figure "ß" representing the so-called sharp S, are regarded as auxiliary characters and are not counted in the alphabet. So "S" remains the nineteenth character.)

    The article "The tonal structure - an unscientific postscript" (to be published in August 2020 on this website) discusses further occurrences of the number thirty-four in Shostakovich's string quartets. back

  5. D.D. Shostakovich, 'Priglasheniye k molodoy muzïke', Yunost', 5 (1968) 83-87; quoted in Fay, Shostakovich, p.258 fn.63. back