Friday, February 29, 2008


Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 8 In C Minor.

Over three days in July 1960, in a house in Dresden, in what was once known as East Germany, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his eighth string quartet.

The quartet, debuted later that year, was officially dedicated to "the memory of the victims of fascism and war"; Soviet and American critics of the period praised the piece for its atonement, alleging that portions of it, like the three-note thudding in the penultimate movement, were meant to suggest bombs and gunfire. Shostakovich's visit to Dresden, a city nearly pulverized in 1945 by Allied bombs, was said to have triggered a deep emotional response, one which led Shostakovich to a fevered 72-hour period of composition, waking up to find a masterpiece on his desk.

As the years went on, as the USSR went out of business and the truth began to appear, in crumbs and glimmers, the more it seemed that the Eighth Quartet was, rather than some grand universal response to fascism, Shostakovich simply mourning for himself, for his blighted prospects, for the grim compromises he had made and the humiliations he had undergone to keep as a working composer under Stalin, when so many of his friends and colleagues had been sent to the gulag.

"The title page could carry the dedication: 'To the memory of the composer of this quartet," Shostakovich wrote to a friend. He was scathing about its importance: "It is a pseudo-tragic quartet, so much so that while I was composing it I shed the same amount of tears as I would have to pee after half-a-dozen beers." But then he wrote: "When I got home, I tried a couple of times to play it through, but always ended up in tears."

As the late Ian Macdonald noted, Shostakovich had already been to Dresden, in 1950, when the place was still in shambles, so it seems odd that a visit to a much rehabilitated, muted East German city a decade later would have triggered such a visceral response. But "what may actually have happened is that Dresden in 1960 reminded Shostakovich of Dresden in 1950 - and hence of himself in 1950, arguably the loneliest, most politically repressed period in his life."

So the Eighth Quartet was half-autobiography, half-suicide note, in which Shostakovitch churned up bits of old compositions--his opera Katerina Ismailova, his cello concerto, his Tenth Symphony--to be used as compost, while using as a main theme a regular Shostakovich in-joke: four notes, D, E flat, C and B, which, when translated into German, becomes D-S-C-H, or Dmitri Schostakovich.

The quartet consists of five movements, played without interruption. First comes a largo, with the "DSCH" theme prominent, then allegro molto--violent, whirling, torrential. A waltz, then two more largos. Alex Ross: "The Eighth trails off into a black, static chorale of lamentation...It is the ultimate moment of self-alienation."

Recorded in Moscow in 1966 by the Borodin Quartet: a performance no longer available on CD.

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