Shostakovich's String Quartet No 8
I wrote these notes in 2005 for a performance by the Chiarra Quartet in Providence, RI. At this time, there were still people claiming that Shostakovich was a "good Communist" and a loyal supporter of the Soviet Union. At the time I left Providence in 2015, I was still getting in arguments with musicians and academics about this. Hard to believe, but political fantasies die hard, and the facts be damned. Here are the notes, and I shall link to a YouTube video of the quartet as well.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) String Quartet No. 8 in c minor, Op 110
No work in the string quartet literature is more intense or more emotionally devastating than Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. It was long assumed that this quartet was about “The Victims of Fascism and War.” So says the epigraph in the published score. So said all the program notes, and some of them still say so. There is no denying the tragic sweep of this work that seems to cry out like a dirge for millions of souls extinguished.
But since the publication of Shostakovich’s memoir, Testimony, in 1979, and more so the publication of the 1998 volume Shostakovich Reconsidered, we now know that the Eighth Quartet — however nobly it has served as a tombstone of the Holocaust and World War II — was composed as a purely personal self-epitaph, a suicide note in music.
The quartet’s obsessive use of the four-note “DSCH” motto which spells out Shostakovich’s name (Es is Eb and H is the note B in German notation); and its extensive quiltwork of quotes from other Shostakovich music have always seemed odd in a work that supposedly had a “public” purpose. At the very least, the work has always been understood to contain “I suffered too” as a sub-theme, including as it does quotes from works that were banned for public performance through the Stalin years. What was the Soviet Union’s “most loyal son” of composers doing and saying?
It may come as a surprise to many that Shostakovich did not become a member of the Communist Party until 1960, his 54th year. According to his wife Irina, he was finally blackmailed into joining. In Testimony, Shostakovich says, “When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of ‘exposing fascism,’ You have to be blind and deaf to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet; it quotes a song known to all Russians: ‘Exhausted by the hardships of prison.’”
It was not until 1990 that Shostakovich’s colleague Lev Lebedinsky further confirmed the Eighth Quartet’s link to this low point in the composer’s life: “It was his farewell to life. He associated joining the Party with a moral, as well as a physical death… [H]e had completed the quartet and purchased a large number of sleeping pills, he played the Quartet to me on the piano and told me with tears in his eyes that it was his last work. He hinted at his intention to commit suicide. Perhaps subconsciously he hoped that I would save him. I managed to remove the pills from his jacket pocket and gave them to his son Maxim, explaining to him the true meaning of the Quartet.”
The composer’s son, Maxim, at a conference in 1992, added, “My father cried twice in his life: when his mother died and when he came to say they’ve made him join the Party. […T]his was sobbing, not just tears, but sobbing.” Lebedinsky also reveals that “a much-trumpeted Party plenum” was called to present Shostakovich for one and all to see as a born-again Communist, and the event “deteriorated into a farce due to … the unexpected absence of the composer!” Abject apologies were made, and Shostakovich was dutifully enrolled as a Party member, but clearly one to be watched.
In the limited space we have to describe tonight’s work, it has seemed more compelling to tell the truth about this staggering composition than to engage in musical analysis. Moreover, those who know Shostakovich’s music in depth are “insiders” to this music, which resonates with themes from four of his symphonies, several other chamber works, and the opera Stalin hated, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Better perhaps, to let the DSCH motto take over and view the work as a phantasmagoria of musical threads, woven with passion and musical genius. Since Shostakovich is one of the truly great quartet composers, this work deserves to be examined as pure music — but not now, and perhaps not for a long time to come. Accept this quartet as a message in a bottle, a cry of despair, a warning that collaboration with evil destroys the soul.