Thursday, February 23, 2017

Shostakovich and a Quartet In Spite of War-Time

The Dover Quartet in concert at Rice University
Who: The Dover Quartet
What: Caroline Shaw's "Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks)", Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor ("From My Life"), and Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 2 in A Major
When: Sunday afternoon, February 26th, at 3:00, with a pre-concert talk by Dr. Truman Bullard at 2:15
Where: Temple Ohev Sholom, on N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg between Seneca & Emerald Streets.
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This weekend, the Dover Quartet, latest winner of the Chamber Music Society's Cleveland Quartet Award, finds time in its busy schedule to pass through Harrisburg and bring with them three works: the most recent was premiered only a little over a year ago by Caroline Shaw. The closest thing to a war-horse on the program is the Smetana. The program concludes with a rarely-heard work by Dmitri Shostakovich whose string quartets in general do not figure as frequently at American concerts as they should.

And this one, incidentally, he composed while living in a reconverted hen house!

While you can read about Ms. Shaw's new work in this earlier post, here, and about the autobiographical quartet Smetana called “From My Life” here, this post is about Dmitri Shostakovich, his 2nd Quartet (complete with two different performances you can listen to), and the context in which it was composed – or perhaps I should say “contexts,” since there's the events going on around the time he composed it in 1944 and then, to conclude, how it fits into the context of the other works he had written up to that time.
It has been said that to totalitarians, all music is "program music." That is, it tells a story whether the composer intended it or not, and this story needs to support those in political power if it is to be found acceptable. This struggle between art and reality is at the heart of much of Shostakovich's career.

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Dmitri Shostakovich
The String Quartet No. 2 in A Major by Dmitri Shostakovich was composed in 1944 in just 19 days during a summer stay at Ivanovo, something of a “writer's colony” for composers (see below). It's in four movements: the first, called an “Overture” is really a traditional sonata-form, however driven (and almost constantly marked forte, loud); the second, much longer movement, is a series of “recitatives” (from an operatic convention distinguishing between near-spoken presentation and the lyrical essence of the aria) within a slow movement's “romance” (in Russian, the term “romance” also means “song,” like lied in German or chanson in French); the third is a waltz but far removed from a Viennese waltz, a darker, hushed, more mysterious soulful wisp of a dance in the not always soothing night; the finale is a set of Theme and Variations (after an introduction) but in the key of A Minor (not the happy ending the party would have preferred in a good proletarian work) on a theme that sounds vaguely like something out of folk song or, at least, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

The slow movement of the 2nd Quartet is nearly as long as the first three movements of the 1st Quartet combined. In fact, the entire quartet remained his longest quartet until he wrote the last one in 1974, a year before his death.

Here are two recordings of the complete 2nd Quartet. The one with the score is interesting for those who read music and wish to follow along. But I don't care for the interpretation. The first one is by the Borodin Quartet who not only performed the work for Shostakovich, the violist in this ensemble is the son of the friend Shostakovich dedicated the quartet to!

The Complete “String Quartet No. 2” by Dmitri Shostakovich, with the Borodin Quartet:

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and with the Fitzwilliam Quartet (with score):

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Perhaps, to avoid alerting the authorities to his Western heresy, he marked the 1st movement “overture” rather than “sonata” (I mean, why point that out?).

Do the long recitatives in the slow movement (solo passages of considerable rhythmic flexibility, mostly for the violin over sustained chords) represent some kind of inner drama? While everyone waits for the lovely arias in an opera, the real “action” of the drama takes place in the speech-like patterns of the recitatives, easier to understand and not beholden to conventions of repetition and the focus on beautiful melody – certainly the “romance” that follows lets the melody unfold in long lyrical lines. Could it be a kind of farewell to the operatic stage since Shostakovich, after the denunciations of 1936 never returned to the operatic stage except to write light-hearted works that are more akin to what we'd call “musical comedies” (like Moscow, Cheryomushsky, a satirical operetta about the housing shortage, in 1958).

The waltz has been described as “mechanical” and “menacing,” certainly a far cry from what the word “waltz” brings to mind (even a Russian raised on Tchaikovsky and Glinka). How one interprets this may vary with the phrasing, the dynamics, but certainly it's in a dark key – E-flat Minor (6 flats) – which happens to be a tritone away from the registered tonality of the quartet: the tritone is the interval of an augmented fourth (or diminished fifth) that the Medieval age used to call “the devil in music,” an interval that was generally “banned” in good music and which, to the 19th Century romantics, had a whiff of brimstone about it. Certainly, the Borodin Quartet's reading of it is much “spookier” (indeed hair-raising in the middle) than the Fitzwilliam's more controlled approach: beginning at 22:00, though “edgy” and “spiky,” the English quartet lacks a certain fear and drive one hears in the Russians' performance (beginning at 21:30). Same notes, same dynamics – but it becomes an almost entirely different piece! Hmmm...

The finale's variations, once it moves from its E-flat Minor introduction to the accepted center of A – well, A minor but the most proletarian of listeners would expect it to finally resolve to A Major by the end, right? – is based on a folksy theme that Shostakovich introduced in the Piano Trio No. 2's first movement, but seemed to discard. Perhaps he realized it had more potential and he decided not to “throw it away” entirely. Certainly, the flavor of folk-music would curry favor with those who expected something of Socialist Realism in their art? He had completed the Piano Trio in mid-August and immediately began work on the 2nd Quartet which he finished the following month, so this tune was still on his mind.

While most musicians writing about the 2nd Quartet describe it as “far removed” from the War going on around him, perhaps they're not listening to performances like the Borodin Quartet's? When I hear the middle section of that waltz and dramatic moments of the variations (from around 30:00 to 32:30 in the Borodin's recording), I wonder if the anxiety of the war hadn't reached him after all?

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It is impossible for us, living in the United States or any country of Western Europe in the 21st Century, to appreciate the social and political environment that grew out of an event that happened 100 years ago and became known as the Bolshevik Revolution, political turmoil that had long been brewing in Russia, and finally erupted in November of 1917 to overthrow the old aristocratic Imperial society and replace it with the Soviet Union and its Communist ideology. The impact of that context on the arts is one thing to read about, but another thing to have lived and created in. I'm not saying that it would have been better for Shostakovich (or any of the others) to have lived in the West or if Russia's revolution had replaced an autocratic tsar with a benign Western democracy, once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 history seems to have proven that one autocrat has merely replaced another.

Without getting into the impact Stalin and his regime had on Shostakovich's career and creative mindset, much less his life, let's just focus on the historical implications leading up to the summer of 1944 when he composed his 2nd String Quartet with a few statistics to place it into some perspective.

Stalin, 1943
Since Joseph Stalin came to power in 1922 as General Secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee, he consolidated his power following the death of Lenin in 1924 and ruled as the nation's dictator until his death in March of 1953. Through his “cult of personality” and controlling the people through political repression and the use of the secret police, purging the party of any opposition to achieve his goals, millions of people died.

Shostakovich was himself a victim of Stalin's displeasure and feared for his life as several friends and colleagues were “disappearing” during the Purges – known as “The Great Terror” – between 1936 and 1938. Anyone not familiar with the story behind his Symphony No. 5, “A Soviet Artist's Practical Response to Just Criticism” as someone dubbed it, and how it placed him once again in the Party's favor can read more about it in my blog-post, “Music & Politics: Shostakovich's 5th & 10th Symphonies,” here

Firmly rehabilitated, Shostakovich composed, among other works, his famous Piano Quintet in 1940. It was originally intended to be a string quartet but he felt he needed to add a piano, joking with friends that, as string quartets would tour and want the composer to play the piano part, he would finally get a chance to do some traveling.

Unfortunately, events would intervene.

Hitler engulfed Europe in war beginning in 1939 with his invasion of Poland, but then the Nazis invaded their former ally the Soviet Union in June of 1941. Three months later, the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) began and would last for 872 days until January of 1944. Over a million Red Army soldiers died or were declared missing, another almost 2.5 million were wounded or sickened. During the siege, 642,000 civilians died, mostly due to starvation and disease, with another 400,000 of the nearly 2 million people who'd been evacuated.

Shostakovich, composing the "Leningrad" Symphony during the siege
On August 9th, 1942, Shostakovich's 7th Symphony, known as “the Leningrad Symphony,” was performed by the surviving members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra. Most of the musicians were starving (several collapsed and three died during rehearsals). Though the composer had been trapped in the city during the course of the siege when he composed the piece, he managed to be evacuated before its performance.

Meanwhile, from August of 1942 to February of 1943, the Nazis also laid siege to Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in Southern Russia. The Axis forces suffered 850,000 casualties (killed, wounded and captured) but the Soviets, ultimately “decisively” victorious, suffered over 1,000,000.

During World War II – known as the “Great Patriotic War” in Russia – there were about 10,600,000 casualties in the Soviet armies plus another 10,000,000 civilian deaths due to military activity and “crimes against humanity” (this would include Soviet victims of the Holocaust) and yet another 6,000,000 due to war-related famine and disease, a total of 26 million people or a little less than 14% of the country's total population.

Shostakovich writing at Ivanovo, 1943
In the summers of 1943 and 1944, Dmitri Shostakovich was allowed to go to a former country estate northeast of Moscow in the town of Ivanovo (pronounced i-VAN-uh-vuh) where the Composers' Union had just established something of a government-supported artist's colony – if one thinks of such things comparable to the MacDowell Colony or Yaddo in the United States. Opened only the year before, this “House of Creativity and Rest for Composers” (it is sometimes described as a “rest home for musicians,” but not in the modern American sense!), it was being renovated from a country estate once owned by a relative of Nadezhda von Meck, the famous patron of Tchaikovsky in the 1870s and '80s. The house survived the collapse of the Soviet Union: the present-day Union of Composers and its Music Foundation still, apparently, have maintained it since 1991.

Shostakovich and a number of other composers lived, worked and played in relative isolation from the reality of the war while staying at Ivanovo, able to create without distraction. Here, Shostakovich composed his 8th Symphony in 1943, two chamber works during August and September of 1944, his Piano Trio No. 2 and his Second String Quartet. Most of what became his 9th Symphony was written there in 1945. He would return the following year with his children, Galina and Maxim.

A more recent cabin at Ivanovo (1997)
As Aram Khachaturian later recalled, “the musicians lived there [at Ivanovo] enjoying great freedom, without any limitations as to how long they stayed, coming and going as they pleased. Huts were rented and barns repaired for us to work in. I worked in a little log cabin, and Shostakovich in a poultry barn. And how we worked! ...As we worked, we played our music for each other, sought advice and exchanged opinions... Were we influenced by nature and our surroundings? Or was it the feeling of victory around the corner? [The first news of Nazi defeats were only just arriving.] Or simply that we were getting properly fed?”

In Moscow, not long after the premiere of his war-ravaged 8th Symphony in November, 1943 (it had been composed mostly at Ivanovo earlier that summer) and after learning of the sudden death of his close friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich had begun writing his 2nd Piano Trio – the famous one: hardly anyone knows the first one – but completed the last three movements at Ivanovo on August 13th, 1944. He had already read news about the uncovering of the concentration camps at Treblinka in the wake of the Nazi retreats, how Jewish victims “were being forced to dance on the graves they had just dug.” The opening of the 4th Movement takes on a whole different meaning when viewed in this light, with its use of Jewish folksongs. (Listen to a riveting performance by Sviatoslav Richter, Oleg Kagan and Natalia Gutman, here.)

Shortly after that, he began work on his next piece, a string quartet.

In the earlier post for this concert, I had written about how composers work when faced with realities that often seem to belittle anything an artist could possibly create: how does one "make" art with all of this weighing down on you? As Alex Ross points out in his New Yorker article, “Making Art in a Time of Rage,” an artist can either engage – as Shostakovich did with his 7th and 8th Symphonies and the 2nd Piano Trio – or disengage. This is apparently what he chose to do with the Quartet No. 2 in A Major. It has no program, no title, no indication of the world that existed outside his former poultry barn in a little town on the edge of a birch forest, miles from Moscow.

Mikhail Meyerovich, a composer no one in the West would likely recognize, had recently graduated from the Moscow Conservatory where Shostakovich had been the chairman of his examination committee. As a result of the good review he got from this committee, Meyerovich was allowed to attend Ivanovo and spent a month there at the end of summer, 1944. He recalls:

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When I arrived I saw Shostakovich, who was still a comparatively young man [he would've been 38 years old]. Shostakovich was not too fond of the other composers of his own age and he spent most of his time with me and my friend, his former pupil Yuri Levitin; we were the youngest composers there. He used to search us out and suggest we play some four-hand piano music. We took walks together. ...I discovered him to be a very lively man who was always in motion and could not spend a minute without some occupation. Now he played billiards, now he played football [that is, soccer]. He insisted we join him in a game of football; he played with passion, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the game. Once I inadvertently knocked his glasses off his nose. I was embarrassed, but he said, 'That's all right. That's what the game is about.'

Composer, Daughter & Friends, 1946
It was a mystery to me how he managed to compose so much music at the same time. He had just finished his famous Piano Trio and was working on his Second String Quartet. I wondered when he did the actual composing. The Trio took him a month. The quartet was written in under four weeks [most sources say 19 days] before my very eyes. But nobody saw him at a desk or at the piano. I was intrigued and began to observe him closely. He would play football and fool around with his friends; then he would suddenly disappear. After forty minutes or so, he would turn up again. 'How are you doing? Let me kick the ball.' Then we would have dinner and drink some wine and take a walk, and he would be the life and soul of the party. Every now and then, he would disappear for a while and then join us again. Towards the end of my stay, he disappeared altogether. We didn't see him for a week. Then he turned up, unshaven and looking exhausted. He said to me and Levitin, 'Let's go to an empty cottage with a piano in it.'

He played us the Second Quartet. He had only just completed it, as the score had that very day's date on it. He played it somewhat haltingly, as if sight-reading.”

[an interview quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered.]
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Shostakovich completed the quartet on September 20th and dedicated it to his friend, the composer Vissarion Shebalin (best known for writing string quartets) “in honor of the twenty years of their friendship.” Earlier that month, he had written to Shebalin,

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“I worry about the lightening speed with which I compose. Undoubtedly this is bad. One shouldn't compose as quickly as I do. Composition is a serious process, and in the words of a ballerina-friend of mine, 'You can't keep going at a gallop!' I compose with diabolical speed and can't stop myself. ...It is exhausting, rather unpleasant, and at the end of the day you lack any confidence in the result. But I can't rid myself of this bad habit.”
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Both Quartet and Trio were premiered on the same concert on November 14th, 1944 in Leningrad. The Trio had an instant success and would go on to become one of his most performed works, winning a “Stalin Prize” (the Soviet equivalent of a Pulitzer) which amounted to 100,000 rubles in 1946. The 2nd Quartet was well-enough received but has always been overshadowed by the Trio.

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Dmitri Shostakovich is best known for his symphonies – he wrote fifteen of them – particularly (in this country) his 1st (written when he was still a teen-ager), his 5th (viewed as a kind of “Fate” Symphony though at the time referred to as “a Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism”), sometimes the 9th (a light-hearted disappointment to his critics who were expecting, at the end of World War II, a vast triumphant paean to Stalin) and then after that probably the 10th (which appeared after Stalin's death) and maybe the 7th (written during the Siege of Leningrad) and the 8th (another tragic war symphony, it was composed in the summer of 1943).

The 2nd and 3rd are usually dismissed as propaganda pieces, written to celebrate the recent revolution. The 2nd, premiered in 1927, is called “To October!” with “Proletarians of the World, Unite!” inscribed over the score's first page. The 3rd, written in 1930, celebrates “May Day,” a brief one-movement work ending with a chorus celebrating the Revolution and urging workers of other countries to join in.

The 4th was... well, given the hot water Shostakovich found himself in in 1936 following Stalin's condemnation of his already popular opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (“Muddle Instead of Music”), the 4th, a giant leap forward in what a symphony could be in a modern post-revolutionary country, presumably scared the composer into withdrawing it from rehearsal and not presenting it until 1961, seven years after Stalin's death (for a hair-raising bit, check out this brief excerpt, here). It takes nearly an hour to perform and calls for a huge orchestra, is a purely abstract work, unlike more “proletarian” symphonies being premiered in the '30s by Nikolai Myaskovsky (#16, “The Aviators”) and Vissarion Shebalin (a song-symphony called “The Heroes of Perekop”), and lacks any redemptive apotheosis in the view of party politics. His earlier two symphonies were now being disavowed because their propaganda value was negated by a musical style too far advanced for the proletariat.

Whether the 4th was withdrawn because of the composer's fears over official criticism or whether it was canceled by disapproving party officials, a more palatable and certainly more conventional symphony appeared in 1937, his 5th, which not only “rehabilitated” the young composer in the government's eyes, but made him famous world-wide.

Gone, now, was the enfant terrible of the post-Revolution's avant-garde with his spiky dissonances and the idea of pushing the instruments (and the listener) past their limitations. Gone were the stories – like his operas, Lady Macbeth and The Nose – meant to shock.

Six months later, Shostakovich began a kind of exercise in “quartet writing,” wanting to see what he might do with a medium that, until then, had usually been dismissed in Russia as an outlet for dilettantes (too Western an art-form, it was frowned upon by Nationalists like the “Russian 5” as well as the Communist party operatives looking to inspire the people). This C Major Quartet became a short, traditional, certainly “classical” work in four brief movements and when he finished it in mid-July, he wrote, concerned people would compare it to his recent symphony and find it lacking: “Don't expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical. I would call it 'spring-like'.”

It also lacks any kind of propaganda value, no proletarian inspiration behind its mood or “story” (the “what's it about?” syndrome so many listeners have). It's purely an abstract work in the tradition of great composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. And yet it's odd for a composer accused of “Western formalism” to write something so typically Western and form-based! But there was the difference between the public world of the symphony with its need for popular approval and the more private world afforded by chamber music with its smaller, more elite and intellectual audience.

Plans for a second quartet began to take shape not long afterwards, but he decided it should become a piano quintet instead, perhaps his best known chamber-work, which he premiered in 1940. An actual second quartet didn't appear until that summer of 1944, a year after he'd completed the vast and tragic 8th Symphony.

In all, Shostakovich would write 15 string quartets as well as 15 symphonies, though the quartets don't follow the same career-long span his symphonies do: one could argue that, having written the 2nd when he was 38 after writing eight symphonies, and in his remaining 30 years he composed seven more symphonies but thirteen more quartets, there are really no “early” quartets as we think of a composer learning his craft and finding his stylistic way.

After the 2nd Quartet, there followed a period of a couple years of relative peace and a chance for Shostakovich to enjoy his fame. Then in 1947 came “The Zhdanov Affair” in which a cultural minister, perhaps at Stalin's orders, condemned several of the leading Soviet composers of the obscure charge of “formalism” – too much of an interest in Western European forms that went against the grain of what was considered good “socialist realism,” art that spoke to the people.

This time, rather than write “an artist's reply to just criticism,” he simply stopped publishing his music. It was difficult to make a living – shunned by his colleagues, unable to teach as he would like, and lacking any income from commissions for new works or royalties from performances of most of his old ones. It wasn't until things began to thaw following Stalin's death in 1953, but that is another story.

Dick Strawser

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