Shostakovich String Quartet No. 13

(This summer we’ll be playing Shostakovich String Quartet No. 13 in B-Flat Minor, Opus 138. This note is used with the generous permission of Dr. Richard. E. Rodda.)

Though Shostakovich suffered a chronic loss of health following his first heart attack, in May 1966, he remained determined and productive for the remaining nine years of his life, composing the Fourteenth and Fifteen Symphonies, the Second Violin Concerto, vocal settings of texts by Michelangelo and Alexander Blok, a sizeable number of smaller pieces, and, most significantly, the last four of his fifteen string quartets. Shostakovich’s late quartets, which rank with Bartók’s six examples of the form as the most significant contributions to the genre in the 20th century, provide one of the most intimate confessionals of personal feelings ever vouchsafed by a composer in his music.


In Testimony, his purported memoirs, Shostakovich offered these words about the principal subject of the music of his last years: “Fear of death may be the most intense emotion of all. I sometimes think that there is no deeper feeling. The irony lies in the fact that under the influence of that fear, people create poetry, prose and music; that is, they try to strengthen their ties with the living and increase their influence upon them.... I wrote a number of works reflecting my understanding of the question, and as it seems to me, they’re not particularly optimistic compositions…. I think that working on these compositions had a positive effect, and I fear death less now; or rather, I’m used to the idea of an inevitable end and treat it as such. After all, it’s a law of nature and no one has ever eluded it…. [The critics] wanted [my music] to be comforting, to say that death is only the beginning. But it’s not a beginning, it’s the real end, there will be nothing afterward, nothing. I feel that you must look truth right in the eyes.”

Komarovo, Shostakovich’s summer dacha
north of St. Petersburg

Hard, blunt, pessimistic words, these, which found their strongest expression in the searing Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, Shostakovich’s orchestral song cycle of eleven poems by four authors dealing with death, and the wrenching Thirteenth Quartet, composed the following year (much of which he spent in a hospital in Kurgan). “The Thirteenth Quartet is indeed a harrowing experience for all involved,” wrote Alan George, violist of the Fitzwilliam Quartet, which gave the work’s British premiere in 1975 under Shostakovich’s personal guidance. “Many listeners have been truly frightened by it, and even the most resilient temperament could hardly fail to be at least uncomfortably disturbed by it.”

Shostakovich’s grave at Novodevichy Cemetery

The Quartet No. 13 is arranged as a single, continuous, symmetrical span of music (A–B–C–B–A) that reaches its peak of intensity at the center. The outer sections are made from lamenting soliloquies (twelve-tone melodies, actually) set against icy ensemble harmonies and some terse counterpoint. The second section begins as the first violin offers a new motive, staccato repeated notes in quicker tempo (doppio [doubled] movimento), which is soft and quizzical at first but soon brutalized by the viola. The apprehensive quiet that follows is quickly fractured when the entire ensemble hammers out the repeated-note motive. The motive is then reduced to a single sound, a tap with the wood of the bow on the body of the instrument — a knock on the door? a wayward heartbeat? a clock ticking out the remaining minutes of a mortally ill composer’s life? — that punctuates the sardonic scherzo which occupies the Quartet’s central section. The remainder of the Quartet reverses the earlier music, recalling first the repeated-note motive and then (in the original slow tempo) the icy strains of the opening, here further unsettled by six more hollow taps and a final painful cry in the ensemble’s highest register.

Dr. Richard E. Rodda



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