Shostakovich Quartet #8

Reprintable only with permission from the author.

Three days and four letters.

The three days part is easily explained and somewhat remarkable: Shostakovich went to Dresden, war-ravaged still in 1960, to work on a film score, and, over the course of three short days, avoided work on that project, instead composing the tightly coiled and darkly potent String Quartet No. 8. A fit of creativity, and a feat, a burrowing into the depths and recesses of an anguished soul. It was as if the work held him captive, a piece so urgently necessary it could not summon the patience to await a considered gestation. It burst onto the scene, Athena from the head of Zeus, clawing its way into existence, with feverish intensity.

The four letters part is stranger. There is a long and robust tradition in music of exploiting the correspondence between musical pitches and, through their letter names, words and initials. Bach famously “signs” his valedictory Art of Fugue with the notes that “spell” his name. Brahms, Berg and Britten embed initials of beloved and important people and characters in certain works, Schumann has the lettres dansantes in Carnaval. Groups of pitches can function as a cipher, almost as a protagonist in a dramatic landscape. Bach’s name spelled out in musical notes sounds in two pairs of neighboring pitches, an arrangement Beethoven took up in a craggy motif that suffuses the late quartets and piano sonatas as an obsession. This happens to be the case, as well, with the set of pitches that Dmitri Shostakovich uses to sign his own name, the departure point from which this piece unfurls and to which it returns, and which functions as a sort of DNA for the work as a whole. The four note pattern (the first four notes of the piece) emblazons itself on our consciousness as we listen, easily recognizable through its myriad reflections, layerings, distortions, repetitions, and transmogrifications. There can be little doubt that the piece also owes a debt to Beethoven, most particularly the Quartet in c-sharp minor, Op. 131, in its fugal musing on this four note unit, the deep seriousness of its philosophical import, and in its arching structure, whereby ideas visited in the first movement are turned away from and then revisited at the close of the work. For Beethoven, this is a chance to wrestle further with the implications of the difficulties revealed at the start and make an attempt to draw conclusions and wrest meaning from their reconsideration. With Shostakovich, it is an entirely different story, and one that speaks to a change of worldview brought by the developments of the intervening years.

The piece is, in a sense, overweighted with extramusical associations, as one might argue is Shostakovich’s oeuvre in general. In addition to being built on the composer’s name, in essence embedding and entangling the creator in the creation, self-referentially, there are quotations from several of Shostakovich’s other works, in addition to references to Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and a Russian folk song, “Tormented by grievous bondage.” The allusive quotations carry the totemic energy of objects brought into a dream. Often sardonic, Shostakovich wrote to a friend that “while I was composing it [this quartet] I shed the same amount of tears as I would have to pee after half-a-dozen beers.” But, in truth, when the Borodin Quartet went to play the work to him he was overcome, and left the room, unable to offer any comments. It’s hard not to recall that Beethoven claimed he could never think of the Cavatina, that most intimate and vulnerable movement from the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, without shedding a tear. Then there is the (in)famous public dedication of the piece, “in memory of the victims of fascism and war,” alongside his statement in the aforementioned letter that the dedication could be “to the composer of this quartet.” He had joined the Communist Party against his will just before the trip to Dresden, and there is even speculation around suicidal ideation.

But the music itself, in its abstractions, its fierce unity of conception, its inescapable trajectory, touches on archetypes that transcend the more specific associations suggested by quotation and reference. The opening, contrapuntal movement offers fugal writing not so much in the spirit of discussion and sharing as from a space of mutually experienced loneliness and alienation. The atmosphere is numinous, uncanny, divorced from the urgency of time and narrative. Little light penetrates the minor-key writing, yet when the music offers a vision in major there is both stasis and a Schubertian sense of keenly recognized and also unattainable beauty and peace, a descent into Hades with a glance toward the abandoned, or out-of-reach, empyrean. The distance between, the unbridgeable emptiness, wounds. As the movement pales and evaporates, the voices collapse into a single suspended pitch, etiolated, unable, or unwilling, to let go into the final, expected concluding note.

Then, a rupture. Hammer blows, a terrible desperation, Jacob wrestling with the angel. And the DSCH motif (Shostakovich’s initials, the four note pattern) becomes nearly ubiquitous, trapping the attention, appearing in three different speeds. Every turn away to escape it ends in futility. Amidst the fractal proliferations of this motif appears a wild-eyed klezmer danse macabre (Shostakovich believed that the Jewish people learned to dance in the face of despair), with an intensity that drives past the edge of the abyss, into a terrified and terrifying silence.

The silence, in turn, is broken by a defiant, solo proclamation of the four note initials, which is then further reconstituted, metamorphosed à la Ovid, into a spectral, haunted waltz, a dance of skeletons. The tune is ahamster on a wheel, ensnared in vapid repetition. The movement abounds in obfuscatory trills and held tones, eerie and unsettling, and in oscillations between waltzing and marching. When the cello sings a tune in a sort of falsetto register the violins are insects crawling under its skin, the cage of rats from room 101 in Orwell’s 1984. The temperature plummets. And again, as in the first movement, the music evaporates into a single, suspended pitch.

But this time that pitch stays, coldly affecting indifference and blindness to its surroundings, as the other instruments again take up the hammer blows of the second movement, now closer together and closer to us, a turning of the screws, the prison guard threatening while the prisoner inside cowers and does his best to hold his breath. When the cello sings an aria from one of the composer’s operas at the conclusion of the movement it seems in equal part enchanting and forlorn, singing because that is what the soul knows to do, even with no empathetic ear or heart to receive the song.

And the final movement comes home to the material of the first. T.S. Eliot says “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Here, with the return to the arid plain of the opening material, all the exploration seems for naught. There are small alterations, some edges softened in exhaustion, a gently undulating new figuration. But in the final moments all strength, all protest, all possibility of further understanding, has left. This short work has porous boundaries, dissolving into the eternal void. Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Only silence remains.

Note by Mark Steinberg