Program Notes


I. Allegro non troppo
II. Andante – Andantino – Andante – Andantino – Andante
III. Moderato – Allegretto – Andante

Dmitri Shostakovich was born in 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia. His grandfather was a Polish revolutionary who had been exiled to Siberia, and both his parents were born there. He entered the Petrograd Conservatory at 13 and wrote his First Symphony at 19. Shostakovich’s relationship with the Soviet state bureaucracy — and Joseph Stalin personally — was complicated. He was awarded the Stalin Prize five times, the Order of Lenin three times, and numerous other state-sponsored prizes, yet twice fell badly into disfavor and had his music banned. During the Great Terror of the 1930s he lived in such fear that the NKVD (Soviet secret police) would arrest him in the middle of the night, he kept a small suitcase with essentials for prison packed by the door. By the 1950s his stature had recovered to such a degree that he was instrumental in obtaining the early release of Sergei Prokofiev’s first wife from a 20-year sentence to the gulag.

Like Schnittke, Shostakovich was a polystylist, drawing upon the music and styles of other composers as well as his own work. Introduced to Jewish themes by his friend Mieczysław Weinberg, he also possessed a strong sense of humor, saying “I want to fight for the legitimate right of laughter in serious music.” Sometimes that’s the most powerful (or only) weapon an artist possesses. He told a friend in 1970 that without Party guidance, “I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm, I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage.”

His fifth string quartet is typically sharp and incisive. Written in 1952, it was among several post-war works Shostakovich held back from performance until after Stalin’s death because of his fears of public denunciation as a “formalist.” This quartet has been called “one of the toughest and most uncompromising of all his quartets” and “a living monument of this time.”

Program notes by Gage Cogswell