Shostakovich, Quartet No. 2, and the Shadow of Stalin

“Even if they cut off both my hands and I have to hold
my pen in my teeth I shall go on writing music.”
Shostakovich to Isaac Glickman

Dr. Richard E. Rodda generously has allowed me to use his excellent and unsurpassable notes on Shostakovich’s early masterpiece, his second string quartet, for the program book in 2022

David Yang, Artistic Director

Vissarion Shebalin was a steadfast friend to Dmitri Shostakovich when he had precious few. “He was an extremely fine person,” Shostakovich said after Shebalin’s death in Moscow in 1963. “I always admired his goodness, honesty and exceptional adherence to principle. How pleasant it was to share one’s joys and sorrows with him. In his company, joy became greater and grief less.”

Photo link to Shostokovich String Quartet No. 2 on Youtube
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 -1975): String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Opus 68

Shebalin, four years Shostakovich’s senior, was born in Omsk in 1902, and studied under the Russian symphonist Miaskovsky at the Moscow Conservatory. He was appointed to the Conservatory’s faculty upon his graduation in 1928, and occupied increasingly important positions there during the next decade; he became the school’s director in 1942. Despite his heavy teaching and administrative duties during those years, he composed steadily, trying to forge a style that would satisfy the Communist Party’s demands for music that promoted its social and political agendas without sacrificing completely his own creative identity; his work was recognized with such official honors as two Stalin Prizes and the title of People’s Artist. None of this service to Soviet music, however, allowed Shebalin to escape censure in 1936 and 1948, along with Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Miaskovsky and other leading musicians, for creating works of “decadent formalism.” In 1936, he was suspended from the Conservatory faculty for a time; in 1948, he was stripped of his director’s position and assigned to teach beginning theory at a bandmaster’s school; performances of his music were all but banned. “He suffered deeply and painfully under this highly unjustified dismissal,” Shostakovich recalled. By the time that Shebalin was reinstated at the Conservatory in 1951, his health had deteriorated badly, and he suffered a stroke two years later that left him paralyzed on his right side. He taught himself to write with his left hand, and continued to teach and compose, winning one of his greatest successes in 1957 with an opera based on The Taming of the Shrew. His rehabilitated position in the nation’s musical life was confirmed the following year through an official proclamation “restoring the dignity and integrity of Soviet composers.” During his six remaining years, Shebalin composed a ballet, his Eighth and Ninth String Quartets, his Symphony No. 5 and several vocal and instrumental works.

Vissarion Shebalin

Shebalin and Shostakovich first met in 1923, when both were students — Shebalin in Moscow, Shostakovich in Leningrad — and aspiring composers. Friendship and mutual professional regard blossomed promptly and firmly. They corresponded regularly, followed each other’s work closely, and stayed at each other’s flats when visiting Moscow and Leningrad. Shebalin tried to get Shostakovich to move to Moscow for years, but he was not successful until 1943, when he gave his friend refuge from the German siege of Leningrad by making a place for him on the Moscow Conservatory faculty. In 1936, when Shostakovich was publicly denounced for writing “Muddle Instead of Music” (the title of the article in Pravda) in his lurid opera Lady Macbeth of the Mzensk District and other modernistic pieces, Shebalin spoke in his defense. Shebalin’s wife, Alisa, recounted the chilling scene: “Shostakovich was criticized, purged, disciplined and scolded by one and all on every count. Only Shebalin maintained silence throughout the meeting. But then he too was asked to speak; it was hardly a request but a demand; he refused all the same. A short while elapsed and again it was ‘suggested’ that he should take the stand. Vissarion then stood up, but, remaining where he was without going to the podium, announced in a loud and clear voice for all to hear: ‘I consider that Shostakovich is the greatest genius amongst composers of this epoch.’ And with that statement he sat down.” Shebalin was censured for this audacity with suspension from his Conservatory post and prohibition of performances and publication of his music, edicts that were not lifted until the start of World War II. Though he began tailoring his own compositions more closely to the realities of musical life in Stalinist Russia through their subject matter and by using folk melodies as thematic material, Shebalin’s devotion to Shostakovich continued undiminished, and he again stood by his colleague in 1948 with results that devastated his health and his career. Shebalin and Shostakovich remained close. In 1953, Dmitri, Shebalin’s son, became violist with the Borodin Quartet, which had championed Shostakovich’s music since its founding in 1946. A decade later, when Shebalin’s health was declining rapidly, Shostakovich paid tribute to him in A Career, the finale of his Symphony No. 13 (“Baba Yar”), whose text, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, praises those who courageously follow their visions and set an example for people of smaller faith. It was to Vissarion Shebalin that Shostakovich dedicated his String Quartet No. 2, composed in September 1944, a year after the war had thrown the two old friends together at the Moscow Conservatory.

Moscow Conservatory, 1940

In addition to being masterful revitalizations of hallowed Classical genres and forms, many of Shostakovich’s important compositions are richly layered with meaning and reference. The String Quartet No. 2 is no exception. The score’s dedication not only recognized the stalwart friendship of Vissarion Shebalin, but also acknowledged his place as one of the leading Soviet composers of string quartets. Though another name is not explicitly associated with the Second Quartet, that of Shostakovich’s friend the critic and musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, he is also evoked by its music. Sollertinsky died unexpectedly on February 11, 1944 (just five days after giving an introductory speech for a performance of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony in Novosibirsk), and the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor poured out of Shostakovich as a memorial tribute to him. The composer continued to vent his grief and loss in this Quartet, composed immediately after the Trio, most notably in the keening Recitative and in the melancholy descent from A major to A minor for the finale.


Any significant work written in the Soviet Union in 1944 could not be restricted to purely personal expression, however, but also had to address the broader issues of the war and the country’s place in the international community. By September 1944, Allied victory was becoming increasingly assured, and Shostakovich mirrored the country’s optimism and national spirit in the buoyant, folkish theme that opens the Quartet. Lurking behind this public confidence, however, Shostakovich saw the menacing figure of Stalin, who was even then positioning himself to reassert his stifling power over the country when the war was over, and he may have intended that the movement’s second theme — with its snapping dotted rhythms, hammered accents and strange, squeezed crescendos on single notes (which Ian MacDonald, in his study of The New Shostakovich, suggested may represent “some mannerism of Stalin’s personality or style of speech”) — portray the barbarous dictator. That such a range of references could be molded into a finely balanced and logically developed Classical first-movement sonata form mark Shostakovich as not only one of the most proficient, but also one of the most subtle of modern artists.

Destroyed Russian KV-2 tank in WWII

MacDonald finds yet further associations in the second movement, a melancholy Romance framed at beginning and end by long violin recitatives: “Here, Shostakovich universalizes the predicament of persecuted Jewry [with whom he developed a deep sympathy during and after the war], mingling the voice of the cantor with that of the Bachian evangelist.” The third movement is a spectral Valse, grown in its formal type from those of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, but in its expressive character from the tragedy and pathos of the early war years. The finale begins with a solemn unison phrase that serves as an introduction to the set of variations on a somber, folk-like theme (borrowed from the Piano Trio No. 2) that comprises the main body of the movement. The variations grow increasingly more agitated until a kind of numbed calm is restored by the recall of the solemn introduction theme in long notes by the viola and cello. Both themes coexist for the remainder of the movement: perhaps indicating the sense of loss after five years of war; perhaps apprehensive at the fate of Russia when Stalin reclaims his full authority; perhaps, according to MacDonald, prophesying that “the People will overcome, will be avenged”; or — perhaps — just as the atmospheric close to a carefully crafted work of pure, abstract, “meaningless” music. Each listener must assess the delicate expressive balance that Shostakovich achieved here. Only great masterworks can be so personal, so universal and so profoundly ambiguous.

©2022 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

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