Sunday, October 17, 2010

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8

There are a number of composers who have fundamentally changed the way I see (or at least hear) this world. Dmitri Shostakovich is one of them.

I still vividly remember the Sunday afternoon when I first heard, from the second violin section of the Houston Youth Symphony, the simultaneously haunting and breathlessly passionate melodies of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. It was also my first encounter with the composer's ingenious DSCH motif (which he uses to represent the letters of his name in many of his works). Without a doubt, accompanying the guest soloist, whose name I've long since forgotten, was a formative experience in my musical education.

The life of this 20th-century Soviet Russian, artistic brilliance aside, is fascinating from a purely historical viewpoint. His music was officially denounced, twice, and periodically banned by the Stalinist bureaucracy. At the same time, Shostakovich received numerous state accolades and even served in the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR.

String Quartet No. 8 is a work I have come to admire relatively recently.

The official dedication "to the victims of fascism and war" is believed to have been a declaration imposed by government authorities; the composer thought of the work as a personal epitaph in anticipation of his planned suicide. In a private letter to a friend, Shostakovich described the string quartet as his own memorial, "an ideologically deficient quartet nobody needs."

I assure you that my liking for this powerfully bleak piece has nothing to do with any similarities between Shostakovich's mental health and my own.

Below are all five movements, performed by the Emerson String Quartet. (If you're only going to listen to one, consider the second—Soviet headbanging music.)

I. Largo

II. Allegro molto

III. Allegretto

IV. Largo

V. Largo

"Music is a means capable of expressing dark dramatism and pure rapture, suffering and ecstasy, fiery and cold fury, melancholy and wild merriment—and the subtlest nuances and interplay of these feelings which words are powerless to express and which are unattainable in painting and sculpture."
- Dmitri Shostakovich