Dmitri Shostakovich and His Cycle of 15 String Quartets

December 8, 2014

Writing ABOUT music is a risky thing to do. The best idea is to listen to the music and let it speak for itself. That said, sometimes I find it helpful to know a little bit about the context of what I am hearing.

In the general field of chamber music, a recognizable form is the string quartet of two violins, viola, and cello. This group of players matured into a glorious, intimate expression of a composer’s craft when Joseph Haydn elevated it from background party music. His brilliant younger friend, W. A. Mozart, admired Haydn’s quartets and set out to master the form himself. Mozart found it challenging enough that it took several years before he was satisfied with his own writing for this ensemble. Once he was satisfied with his work, he dedicated his first six to his friend, Haydn.

Many composers have written fine string quartets since Haydn. But amongst that number in the C18th, C19th, and C20th, three composers stand out as writing string quartets that express their personal artistic and human expression showing their stages of development throughout their careers. The three standouts are Beethoven, Bartok, and most recently, Shostakovich.

Dmitri Shostakovich was an artist of the Soviet era in Russia. He survived the purges of Stalin, World War II, and the Cold War. But he was marked by those and many more events happening around him. While his large-scale public music was often grandiose, and yet guarded in expression so as to escape persecution, his quartets, by contrast, are an intimate portrait of his feelings, as well as his skill as a composer, at different times of his life. Like Beethoven, Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets. Many of them are tinged with irony, fury, wry humour, tragedy, even moments of despair. And yet this music, often hidden from Party censors at the time it was written to escape state persecution, is uplifting and always very much worth hearing. While his public face was often that of a Communist Party functionary (despite being ‘denounced’ twice), this remarkable, intimate music shows his connection with his friends and community, who included artists and dissenters, sometimes inspired by fragments of Jewish poetry and melodies for music written in a profoundly anti-Semitic climate within Soviet Russia.

Friends of Chamber Music have a history of presenting string quartets in Vancouver playing this music. The Fine Arts Quartet played Shostakovich’s first quartet during a Friends concert in Vancouver in 1960. The Borodin Quartet, with its first longstanding partnership of musicians, played Shostakovich’s eighth quartet here in 1964. Here is a video of their live performance of the eighth quartet recorded in 1962:

This group of musicians had been preparing all the Shostakovich quartets and had been coached by the composer during rehearsals in Russia. Following up on the power of their Vancouver performance, an idea for a special series of concerts was hatched.

In 1969, the Friends presented the Borodin Quartet in four concerts featuring the complete cycle of quartets by Shostakovich. The plan was to present the 11 quartets published at that time. But when the members of the quartet arrived in town, they asked if Friends would let them play Shostakovich’s 12th quartet, too. They had brought the 12th in unpublished manuscript form, and had been coached by the composer to be ready to play it. This quartet of concerts was the first complete cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets performed in North America. The cycle of concerts was an artistic, critical, and popular success.

Since then, the quartets of Shostakovich have become established as standard repertoire, played by many international groups. And while many musicians play this music brilliantly, over the decades the Borodin Quartet maintain a special connection with these works.

In January 2015, you can hear the Pacifica Quartet from the USA play the ninth quartet in concert. The Pacifica Quartet’s recordings of the Shostakovich works have been highly acclaimed. Here is a video of their NPR Tiny Desk concert in which they play selections from the Shostakovich cycle (numbers 7, 3, and 8):

In May 2015, the Friends again present the Borodin Quartet, several personnel changes on from 1969, to play a series of five concerts featuring the complete cycle of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets. Here is a video of the current Borodin Quartet playing part of Shostakovich’s 11th quartet:

(Photo: http://it.wikipedia.org/)

4 thoughts on “Dmitri Shostakovich and His Cycle of 15 String Quartets”

  1. Barry Auger

    I owe my acquaintanceship with the FCM to former chair Linda Lando who gave me a pair of tickets to the Takics at least fifteen years ago. Last night I was once again thrilled at their performance of Beethoven’s Op130 and Mozart’s K156. They are amazing.

    I’m reading about Shostakovitch: I love this sort of information. I’ve read his biography and I own the Borodin’s Chandos recording of all thirteen quartets all in all a remarkable story. I love classical music, I’m a wreck at the opera and lifted at the symphony but for me chamber music is the quintessential collaboration of artists in the presentation of music. And nobody exceeds Shostakovitch for expression, energy and emotion.

    A suggestion and only if it works for the group presenting: it is a treat to have the performers tell us something about their approach to the piece they are playing. FCM”s notes are exceptional and have contributed to my musical education. The performers comments are welcome gravy.

    1. Rina Post Author

      Thanks for your comments, Barry. I, too love it when performers address the audience. And I didn’t realize that fact until the recent Escher Quartet performance, when the violinist shared that they were playing their most favourite music. That made the performance seem much more special. I will let the board know, perhaps we can encourage some conversation of the non-musical kind.

  2. David Ryeburn

    Yes, “Like Beethoven, Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets.” And like Haydn. And like Mozart. They, as well as Beethoven, wrote 15 because they wrote more than 15.

    Comments about picky mathematicians will be ignored.

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