"Death by X-Ray" - The Shostakovich Seventh Quartet

I wrote these program notes for a concert given in Providence in 2012 by the Jerusalem Quartet. This is an intense, short, and very weird string quartet, but worth the effort it takes to get to know it.

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975). String Quartet No. 7 in f#, Op 108 (March 1960)

  1. Allegretto
  2. Lento
  3. Allegro

Written in the same year that Shostakovich was forced to join the Communist Party, this quartet is spared the tragic dimensions the composer put into his Eighth Quartet, a virtual suicide note in music. Although it cannot be separated from the times and circumstances in which it was composed, this is an intensely personal work, an elegy for the composer’s first wife Nina, who died in 1954.
The work was premiered May 15, 1960 by the Beethoven Quartet in St. Petersburg (then still Leningrad), and had its Moscow premiere at the Moscow Conservatory on September 17 of the same year.
It is the shortest of all of Shostakovich’s quartets, and there is the risk of writing notes that take longer to read than the quartet takes to listen to! But as is often the case with great music, composers can compress much into a small interval of time.
The composer had a life-plan for composing string quartets, intending to compose one in each major and minor key, doing for the quartet literature what Bach did for the keyboard in his Well-Tempered Clavier. That said, the Seventh Quartet should have been in Eb Major, following the scheme the composer was using. Instead, the quartet is set in the moody and passionate key of F# Minor, which puts it in company of Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony and Mahler’s withering Tenth Symphony.
Shostakovich often includes coded content in his work, and when you hear the first theme in the opening Allegretto, a kind of sardonic, skipping melody, you will immediately hear three repeated eighth notes, followed by a rest, quite literally a “knock at the door.” In German folklore, Death knocks three times at the door or window of a dying person, to the horror of family members watching at the bedside. Considering how many nights during the Stalin years, the composer expected a different kind of “knock at the door” that would take him to the Gulag, this gesture is richly suggestive. We are meant to recall terrible times. (In the Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich alternated the door-knock with the notes D-Eb-C-B, which are D-Es-C-H in German notation for the composer’s initials, meaning, “Knock-knock-knock! Shostakovich!”) So no matter how engaging the violin’s utterances might be, the knock at the door is embedded in the theme.
There is a break into hurried sixteenth notes, and a key change to Eb (the “home” key Shostakovich planned to use originally!) with the cello carrying the line, some very chromatic passages passing it back to the violin, and then a bridge passage played in block chords.
This bridge brings us back to F# Minor, with the main theme played pizzicato. This adds further to the grotesque atmosphere. It has the air of a hushed conversation, and the pizzicato requires leaving out the grace notes, so that the effect is a coded conversation, out of earshot of Those Who Watch and Listen. The movement ends with extensions of the “knock at the door” motif.
The Lento is an eerie, almost minimalist movement, with no key signature, played with the strings muted (con sordino). The second violin plays an unsettling succession of arpeggios, which look like a wave depicted on an oscilloscope. Viola and cello play glissansdi at one point, adding to the weirdness of the atmosphere. What is going on here? The clue, I think comes from the biography of Nina Shostakovich. She was an experimental physicist who spent months each year on Mt. Alagez in Armenia, engaged in cosmic ray research. Like many Soviet researchers, she was exposed to massive doses of radiation from radioactive materials, and from poorly shielded X-ray equipment. She died from a radiation-induced cancer. This music sounds to me almost like a science-fiction sound track depicting radiation. I would venture to give this Lento movement the nick-name “Death by X-Ray.”
The final Allegro has, for most of its length, no key indication. It is highly atonal, and since it is riddled with intermingled sharps and flats, it must be a daunting task to play. Even though the musical materials are spun out from motifs in the first movement, it would seem to be a Dance of Death, with the skeletons from the X-Ray now hammering away at a fiendish dance. The theme is passed among the viola and the two violins as a canon, the strictest type of fugue imitation (a melody played against itself, not against a second theme). Even though what we hear would give Bach convulsions, it is a Baroque concoction as conceived by a wrong-note revolutionary. This is angry music depicting a universe that kills capriciously. Then, abruptly, the “home key” of F# Minor asserts itself, with muted strings. As the quartet slows down and softens to its conclusion, there is no fist-shaking against Death (what is the use?), just a quiet slipping away, life sitting at life’s deathbed, and a hint of the ominous three-note “knock at the door.”


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