Quartet No. 13, (Emerson String Quartet)

Bad health was now a constant companion to Shostakovich; age and illness made him reflective both in his music and his remarks. In a letter to Issak Glikman from the 24th September 1968 he commented:1

Tomorrow I will be 62. People at that age love to act coquettish in response to the question: 'if you had it to do all over again would you live your 62 years as you have?'' 'Yes, certainly there were failures, there were hardships but, on the whole, I would live these 62 years just the same.' But if that question were to be put to me, I would respond: 'No, a thousand times no!' 2

In January and February of 1969 he was again in hospital. The next year in April and May he was hospitalised in the Kurgan orthopaedic clinic, east of the Urals, only to return there again at the end of August and remain until October. Between these two stays, on the 10th August 1970, he completed a work that he had first conceived a year earlier: his String Quartet no.13 in B flat minor, opus 138. This dark, death-ridden work is about 21 minutes in duration and, unique amongst all his quartets, consists of just one movement:

  1. Adagio – Doppio movimento – Tempo primo

The quartet is dedicated to Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky (1901 - 1972), the viola player who had just retired from the Beethoven String Quartet. It is one of the most prominent viola parts in the quartet literature, testing the ability of the performer throughout the whole piece.

Between the Twelfth and Thirteen Quartets Shostakovich had written a Sonata for Violin and Piano, his Fourteenth Symphony and the music to Kozintsev's film King Lear. All these pieces are relevant to the Thirteenth Quartet. The employment of twelve semitone rows so apparent in the Twelfth Quartet was continued through the Violin Sonata and the Fourteenth Symphony into the Thirteenth Quartet where, like the Twelfth Quartet, they are again constrained within Shostakovich chosen tonal system. This quartet is often regarded as the companion to the Fourteenth Symphony because it shares many of its musical ideas3. Given these connections it can be supposed that the Thirteenth Quartet might well express the same sentiments as the Symphony, so a short description of the latter is helpful.

The Fourteenth Symphony but for its lack of a choir would be better described as an oratorio. It is a collection of eleven poems sung by a soprano and bass. All the poems concern death and the work appears to be an angry protest against the brevity of life. Talking about the symphony, which incidentally Shostakovich regarded as one of his greatest achievements, he said4:

...... various kinds of religious teaching have suggested that as bad as life might be, when you die everything will be fine; what awaits you there is perfect peace ...... I am following in the footsteps of the great Russian composer Musorgsky. His cycle Songs and Dances of Death - maybe not all of it, but at least "The Field Marshal" - is a great protest against death ...... (Death) awaits all of us. I do not see anything good about such an end to our lives and this is what I am trying to convey in this work.

Nevertheless Elisabeth Wilson adds a refinement. She writes 5,

However, through careful ordering of the texts, the composer conveys a specific message of protest at the arbitrary power exercised by dictators in sending the innocent to their deaths. This idea was little commented on during his lifetime, since Shostakovich himself helped perpetuate the concept of a work primarily concerned with man's personal fears of death.

The poems do indeed support Wilson's hypothesis but the texts embrace the wider issues of personal guilt, suicide and the moral responsibilities of an artist. These suggest that Shostakovich was also considering his own life under a dictatorship in which he had not only suffered the lost of several close friends but also a loss of self-esteem. It can be assumed that these more intimate themes are reflected in the Thirteenth String Quartet.

Shostakovich wrote the Thirteenth Quartet not in the classical sonata form but as an ABCBA plus coda structure. This gives a feeling of an arch and of returning to the initial place of departure. Such mirror structures were often used by Bartók and, by dividing the quartet into three sections marked Adagio - double time - Adagio, his work recalls Bartók's third string quartet.

Shostakovich also recalls his own Twelfth Quartet by beginning with a twelve semitone row played this time not by the cello but by the viola.

The first eight bars of the thirteenth quartet

The row sounds less discordant than that of the previous quartet but, with its starting triad and and its finishing note, it clearly defines the B flat minor tonality of the work. This key with its five flats is not so easy to play on strings; many of the brighter sounds are not available so the colour is darker, more subdued. This feeling Shostakovich reinforces by immediately using material he had written for the film King Lear. Between bars 9 to 37, all four instruments play a series of tied notes to produce a ghostly, step-like lament.

The middle section, Doppio movimento, is a languid dance of death punctuated by sinister plucking of strings and bone-like cracks as the bows of the second violin, the viola and the cello strike against the bellies of their instruments. (And those wishing to find evidence of Shostakovich's numerical humour will notice that in this, the thirteenth quartet, the viola is struck with the bow 13 times, first eleven times and then twice again in the thirty-ninth (3 x 13) bar after the initial strike.) Periodically these instruments also indulge in Bartókian drones.

The final section returns to the themes of the opening thus completing the arch. Finally the quartet finishes with a coda played by the viola. For over thirty bars it plays a sad lament. Near the beginning a last twelve note row can be heard but then the viola slowly climbs into ranges seldom used by composers. When it reaches its high final note, a B flat in the third octave, the second and then the first violin join in a snowballing crescendo from pp to sffff, bringing the quartet to a startling and frightening finish. This terrifying conclusion has been compared by Judith Kuhn to "the similar crescendo to nothingness that follows Wozzeck's murder of Marie, in Act3, Scene2 of Alban Berg's opera"6. Senseless death in a brutalizing and repressive system7.

This quartet so full of force and concentration had its première on the 11th December 1970 at the USSR Composers’ Club in Moscow being performed by the Beethoven Quartet (Dmitri Tsyganov, Nikolai Zabavnikov, Fyodor Druzhinin and Sergei Shirinsky). The autographed score is preserved by the Borisovsky family. A transcription of the quartet for piano four hands exists having been written by Anatoli Dmitriev.

After the Thirteen Quartet, Shostakovich's health continued to rapidly deteriorated. In September 1971 he suffered a second heart attack, and that winter was again hospitalised. In the autumn of 1972 and throughout the winter he remained in hospital undergoing radiation therapy against renal colic and lung cancer. Further radiation treatment was to follow in March 1972.

Opening Image:

The only information given in YouTube for this recording is that it is played by the Emerson String Quartet. Their official website is http://www.emersonquartet.com/.


  1. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.259. back

  2. The question 'Would you do it all the same again?' is a manifestation of Nietzsche's myth of 'Eternal Recurrence' (Die ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichens). Understood not literally as a cosmological truth but as a moral imperative, Nietzsche's myth becomes a practical doctrine. It demands that our choice of actions in our lives should be such that we would willingly have them repeated exactly in an un-ending series of future lifetimes.

    Nietzsche considered the idea of Eternal Recurrence central to his philosophy: for him it was of the 'greatest weight'. Just as the philosophy of Schopenhauer was adopted by 19th-century musicians so was Nietzsche influential on 20th-century writers. For example this sentiment of moral weight is echoed in 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. There, in the first pages, Milan Kundera considers whether neglecting Nietzsche's imperative leads to a perversity: our increasing tolerance of crimes with the passage of time. His suggestion is that the strength of our moral indignation towards despots, for example Stalin, would not decrease with time if we contemplated an endless recurrence of their lives. back

  3. For a discussion of Shostakovich's use of twelve semitone rows in both the Thirteenth Quartet and the Fouteenth Symphony see Jacques Wildberger, 'Ausdruck lähmender Angst: über die Bedeutung von Zwölftonreihen in Spätwerken von Schostakowitsch.' Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 151 (1990) 4-11 back

  4. From Shostakovich's spoken introduction to a recording (Melodiya 33M 40-41707) of his Fourteenth Symphony on 21 June 1969. Quoted in Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 261 back

  5. Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (London: Faber and Faber, 1994) p. 411 back

  6. 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. 64 back

  7. Alban Berg's atonal opera 'Wozzeck', a work that influenced Shostakovich's early musical development, was based on a play by Georg Büchner (1813 - 37) entitled 'Woyzeck'. It tells the true story of a murder that took place in 1821 in Leipzig where an oppressed Johann Christian Woyzeck murdered his ex-mistress by stabbing her seven times. Büchner's play, written at the age of twenty-two, is regarded as being the first tragic play with a working-class protagonist. Previously at twenty-one Büchner had written 'Danton’s Death' a play that has a claim to be the greatest political tragedy ever written. Sadly for the German theatre Büchner died of typhus at twenty-three; but his critical attitude towards the establishment influenced works by Brecht. back