The Kennedy Center

Quartet No. 10 in A-flat major, Op. 118

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Richard E. Rodda

In 1948, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and many other important Soviet composers were condemned for threatening the stability of the nation with their "formalistic" music. Through Andrei Zhdanov, head of the Soviet Composers' Union and the official mouthpiece for the government, it was made known that any experimental or modern or abstract or difficult music was no longer acceptable for consumption by the country's masses. Only simplistic music glorifying the state, the land and the people would be performed: symphonies, operas, chamber music – any forms involving too much mental stimulation – were out; movie music, folk song settings and patriotic cantatas were in.

Shostakovich saw the iron figure of Joseph Stalin behind the purge of 1948, as he was convinced it had been for an earlier one in 1936. After the 1936 debacle, Shostakovich responded with the Fifth Symphony, and kept composing through the war years, even becoming a world figure representing the courage of the Soviet people with the lightning success of his Seventh Symphony ("Leningrad") in 1941. The 1948 censure was, however, almost more than Shostakovich could bear. He determined that he would go along with the Party prerogative for pap, and would withhold all of his substantial works until the time when they would be given a fair hearing – when Stalin was dead. About the only music that Shostakovich made public between 1948 and 1953 was that for films, most of which dealt with episodes in Soviet history ( The Fall of Berlin , The Memorable Year 1919 ), and some patriotic vocal works ( The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland and Song of the Forests , which won the 1949 Stalin Prize). The only significant works he released during that half-decade were the 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano. The other compositions of the time – the First Violin Concerto, the Songs on Jewish Folk Poetry , the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets – were all withheld until later years.

With the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953 (ironically, Prokofiev died on the same day), Shostakovich and all of the Soviet Union felt an oppressive burden lift. The thaw came gradually, but there did return to the country's artistic life a more amenable attitude toward art, one that allowed significant works to again be produced and performed. Shostakovich, whose genius had been shackled by Stalin's repressive artistic policies, set to work on the great Tenth Symphony, and composed steadily thereafter until his death two decades later. The creations of his later years are sharply divided into two seemingly antithetical streams, though each reveals a fundamental aspect of Shostakovich as man and artist. One series of works, including the Symphonies No. 11 ("The Year 1905," extolling Lenin) and No. 12 ("1917"), cantatas, film music, patriotic marches and choruses, and instrumental scores in a popular vein (the Piano Concerto No. 2, for example), is for public consumption and the fulfillment of his duties as "People's Artist of the U.S.S.R.," a title conferred upon him in 1954. Paralleling these noisy, jingoistic entries is a large repertory of pieces that are both profound and personal: the magnificent and disturbing last symphonies (No. 13, "Babi Yar," based on Yevtushenko's searing poem about the German army's massacre of 70,000 Jews near Kiev in September 1941; No. 14, settings of eleven texts dealing with death; and No. 15, one of the most stark and moving orchestral documents of the modern age), the First Violin Concerto, the songs on verses of Alexander Blok and Michelangelo Buonarroti, and, perhaps most significant of all, the last ten of his fifteen string quartets. As had Beethoven, Shostakovich used the medium of the string quartet as the bearer of his most intimate and deep-seated feelings, a virtual window into his soul. The wealth of thought and the clarity of expression in these quartets is nothing short of staggering, and as an oeuvre they are matched in the 20th century only by those of Béla Bartók.

The Tenth Quartet was composed quickly during the early summer of 1964. Vassily Shirinsky, first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, wrote that the Quartet "is one of Shostakovich's most joyous and optimistic works. Neither the tempestuous second movement and the sorrowfully brooding third, nor the dramatic collisions in the development section of the finale can affect the generally bright and jubilant mood of this Quartet." The opening movement, quiet throughout, is modeled on the old sonatina form, or sonata-allegro without development section. The principal theme, a melody composed largely of quirky descending arpeggios, is presented by the first violin alone. The lugubrious subsidiary subject is first heard in the low register of the cello while the viola supplies an insistent, repeated-note commentary. The following rondo-form Allegretto , with its furious emotions, aggressive dynamics and hammering harmonies, stands in bold contrast to the preceding music. The Adagio is occupied by a passacaglia – eight variations and a coda on a repeated theme – based on the broad theme initiated by the cello in the first measures. (Shostakovich used the same formal technique, derived from 17th-century Baroque practice, in his superb Violin Concerto No. 1 of 1948.) The finale, which follows without pause, is a large-scale sonata form built from three themes: a march-like ditty presented by the viola; a flowing, step-wise motive, also entrusted to the viola, sounded above the barren, open-interval drone of the other instruments; and an expressive melody given in unison by the three lower instruments to the pizzicato accompaniment of the first violin. These three elements are skillfully woven together in the development, and are joined in the recapitulation by reminiscences of the passacaglia theme from the Adagio and the principal subject of the opening movement to round out this masterful creation of Shostakovich's maturity.