Shostakovich String Quartet No. 9

This summer we’ll be performing Shostakovich’s String Quartet in Eb Major, No. 9. Following are my notes from the program.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)

Composers from Beethoven to Berg used the string quartet to record their most personal utterances. Shostakovich took this to an extreme using the fifteen quartets he wrote over the course of his life as, in the words of musicologist Kai Christensen, “a personal diary of poignant reactions, reflections and dark visions.”

After the sudden death of his wife, physicist Nina Varzar, Shostakovich shocked his friends by impulsively marrying Margarita Kainova, a communist party activist seventeen years his junior. He wrote the 6th String Quartet, an uncharacteristically light-hearted work, in two months while on his honeymoon. (The marriage lasted less than the time he took to write the piece.) He then wrote the 7th Quartet, dedicating it to his deceased first wife. (If it hadn’t been clear that he wasn’t over her, it turns out the 6th quartet had hidden musical references to Nina - ouch.)  The 8th Quartet, widely regarded as his masterpiece, while “dedicated to victims or war and fascism” was, in fact, a thinly-veiled autobiographical reflection on his persecution under the Soviet regime. So where to go with the 9th quartet?

Irina Antonovna & Dmitri Shostakovich

He initially chose to base his new piece on themes from childhood, writing and completing the work in the fall of 1961. Then, “in an attack of healthy self-criticism, I burnt it in the stove.” No trace of the earlier effort exists. He was to wait three years before picking up his pen again to compose what we now know as the 9th quartet. By this time he was remarried and the quartet bears a dedication to his third (and last) wife, music editor Irina Antonovna.

Then something unusual happened. For 150 years Haydn’s quartets had stood as both the epitome and model for composers with their focus on four voices speaking robustly in discussion or debate. Shostakovich’s 9th diverges from this paradigm, the piece inhabited by solo cadenzas and earsplitting silences, as if the musicians at points become scattered and lost, paths diverging as they struggle on alone, even as they remain cast in the same epic story. There is also an aqueous aspect to this quartet, not least of all because the movements flow one into another without pause.

“A rising river…always suggests something of the ominous; many of the little islands I saw before me would probably have been swept away by the morning; this resistless, thundering flood of water touched the sense of awe. Yet I was aware that my uneasiness lay deeper far than the emotions of awe and wonder….Indeed, so vague was the sense of distress I experienced, that it was impossible to trace it to its source and deal with it accordingly, though I was aware somehow that it had to do with my realization of our utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements about me. The huge-grown river had something to do with it…a vague, unpleasant idea that we had somehow trifled with these great elemental forces in whose power we lay helpless every hour of the day and night.”              

From “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907)

The first movement bubbles away swiftly but with a sense of disquietude. The second feels caught in the slow eddy of an anguished hymn. The third, cut loose, is a thumping gallop over rapids employing the composer’s signature “William Tell” rhythm (say “badaDUM, badaDUM, badaDUM, badaDUM” quickly and you’ll understand). The somber and dismal fourth is like helplessly watching as the survivor of a catastrophic flood rides the roof of his house downriver, the forlorn flow punctuated by explosive pizzicato chords like a glacier calving. This leads directly into an exhilarating torrent of sound, a danse macabre of a finale.

David Yang, Artistic Director

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