|The Calidore & Emerson Quartets playing Mendelssohn's Octet|
What: Haydn, Beethoven, and Shostakovich
When: Saturday, April 28th, 8pm
Where: Market Square Church, downtown Harrisburg
Tickets: $35, $30 seniors (65+); $5 college students, free admission for K-12 age students with $10 ticket for one accompanying adult.
Though most recent in terms of chronology – written in 1964 – Shostakovich's 9th String Quartet ends the first half of the Calidore Quartet's program this Saturday at Market Square Church. And while you don't need to know all the background behind the music – I've saved the historical material for later, after the videos – there's more to it, here, than there would be with the Haydn or the Beethoven quartets on the program (you can read about these two works on the earlier post, here).
|Shostakovich in 1964 (credit:Leonid Lazarov)|
I've included three different videos for you to choose from (or compare): the first is with the Parker Quartet who've appeared with Market Square Concerts several times over the years (winners of the Cleveland Quartet Prize in 2009, btw). A live performance from the Library of Congress, the video lighting is a bit off, but this seems to be standard with other performances I've seen recorded there.
The second is from a live performance but audio only with the Emerson Quartet who have often played all fifteen of Shostakovich's quartets the way many quartets play a “Beethoven Cycle.” In addition to being one of the great quartets today, the Emerson has also mentored, among others, the Calidore Quartet.
The third is a recording with the Fitzwilliam Quartet, a highly regarded British ensemble who've recorded the complete Shostakovich quartets as well. But the main reason I've included it, here, is because the audio is posted with the score. I have reservations about their interpretation as being the “one I'd recommend” (I'll discuss this later), but it's a viable performance and, whether you read music or not, there's always something (many non-musicians tell me) about following along and seeing what the printed music looks like.
It was written in 1964 over a period of 26 days in May, though he had started – and scrapped – a new quartet, presumably complete, intended to be #9, a few years earlier, in 1961 which he admitted he burned in his stove. Next, he talked about a new quartet which he entitled “Toys and Excursions” which he also tossed in the wastebasket. Even though Shostakovich died in 1975, it wasn't until 2003 that an unfinished first movement of a string quartet was discovered among a pile of sketches. It could be this was yet another attempt at starting the 9th Quartet or it could be a surviving remnant from either the burned one or the chucked one. Regardless, it bears no resemblance to the quartet he composed in May of 1964. That alone should tell you something about what was going on “behind” the music: it also merely underscores the fact that “a work of art” requires “the work of art.” Sometimes it doesn't come easy.
It was dedicated to his wife, Irina, whom he had married in 1962. The fact their meeting and subsequent happy marriage coincided with the genesis of this quartet may also say something about the creative process.
The String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, published as Op. 117, is a five-movement piece – a standard “arch” form around the central “scherzo” similar to what Bartók used in his several of his quartets in the '20s and '30s – with all the different, contrasting sections “played without pause,” no movement breaks but that doesn't make it a “one-movement piece.” Even the final Allegro breaks down into a few contrasting segments. The nature of these contrasts may seem unexpected, even violent – especially given the opening's calmness – and it makes some of the quieter passages seem like “calm before storm” in any good psychological drama. By the time we reach the ending, we have experienced a wave of emotions, but whether they're the dramatic gestures of an interior monologue or a pivotal plot or merely the various possible ways one can handle notes in and around E-flat Major is not something the music will answer for you.
Not to push the point, but it opens with a kind of “once upon a time” gesture heard in the second violin, this meandering, almost constant ostinato like someone writing. If you were a Russian or familiar with Mussorgsky's historical opera Boris Godunov, you would immediately recognize this as “being very similar to” (“influenced by”) the scene where the monk Pimen is sitting in his cell, writing his chronical of the times (around 1600 in old Moscow) and as he writes, this meandering line accompanies Pimen's pen. Now, we don't need to know whether what Shostakovich is going to be writing about has anything to do with what Pimen was writing about – how the reigning tsar, Boris, became the heir by murdering the last son of Ivan the Terrible – either as fact or allegory. It is, in the sense of a pen moving across paper, in this case writing down music instead of words, the mere idea of being a scribe, of committing thoughts to paper. The music is understated, almost whispered: even the contrast may be one of reflection.
But that is one thing about the language of music: it may be universal but it also defies definitive translation.
Next is an almost hymn-like Adagio followed by a Scherzo marked Allegretto (not too lively) though it can be described as a “mad polka,” one of Shostakovich's trademark wild dances (is that rhythmic motive familiar?).
While Shostakovich is fond of quoting his own music – the 8th Quartet is practically a “name-that-tune” anthology of some of the key works of his output, especially his signature DSCH Motive (his initials turned into a four-note musical motive) – he has used this rhythmic motive in other works, usually to evoke the world of the “toy shop” (often slightly unhinged, sometimes with a sense of innocence and nostalgia). The merest hint of this “diddy bum, diddy bum, diddy bum dum dum” motive is enough to bring Rossini's William Tell to mind – the cavalry-comes-to-the-rescue at the end of the Overture or, since it's almost unavoidable, “The Lone Ranger” theme. And remember, one of the earlier, discarded sketches for what became the 9th Quartet was called “Toys and Excursions.” (It would also figure prominently in the 15th Symphony of 1974, an enigmatic and often unsettling work.)
|Shostakovich working on score for Hamlet, February 1964|
The finale, Allegro, is the longest, most substantial and most intense of the five movements with its own subsections bringing back the “scribe” motive, the pizzicato lines, and of course, the rocking “William Tell Galop” but within an increasingly violent context till it ends, grinding away over repeated chords and bass-line figures, in chords that are both E-flat major and minor.
– Shostakovich 9th Quartet in E-flat, Op.117 w/the Parker Quartet:
– a live recording w/the Emerson Quartet:
I'm no great fan of the Fitzwilliam Quartet's interpretations of most of Shostakovich's quartets but I include their performance here because it's the one that comes with the score:
Compare, for instance, the Fitzwilliam's concluding minutes, beginning at 24:38 with either the Emerson's at 22:07 or the Parker's at 22:20 to hear the difference a choice of tempo can make. It's not just how fast it goes but it's how the music breathes and moves forward!
Now, the opening of the last movement is marked Allegro with the metronome marking for the dotted half-note = 116 but already the Fitzwilliam Quartet is slower than the marked tempo. When it changes to 4/4 (at 24:00 in the video with the score), they're even slower, and it completely changes the whole impact of the music. It's not just one of those “I like it faster” kind of reactions because, you know, anything faster and louder is more exciting. It's a matter of sounding, with the Fitzwilliam, “determined,” and with the other two, “hair-raising.”
|Shostakovich & the Borodin Quartet, 1962|
But certainly it changes the “mood” of the ending. In the first two performances, there's a manic urgency, perhaps even maniacal, to the final bar. At the slower tempo, while it sounds “measured” and still dramatic, it's a different kind of drama, lacking that visceral edge the faster, printed tempo gives it.
What does it do to your reaction to the performances?
And do you realize that these two very different approaches come from the same printed notes on the page? It's not the music you're reacting to, but their interpretation of the music. Very different!
A DIFFERENT KIND OF CRISIS
While the political problems of Shostakovich's career are well known in the West (I'll write about them in the final segment of this post), when you look into what was going on his life at the time he wrote his 9th Quartet, you realize that it's not the politics that was casting its shadow over his artistic world as he approached his 60th birthday: it was his health.
Shostakovich had been ill frequently in his youth – a bout with tuberculosis was one thing, but he nearly missed his final piano exam at the conservatory in June 1923 due to throat surgery, playing Beethoven's “Waldstein” Sonata along with works by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt, his throat heavily bandaged. In January 1927, the year after his 1st Symphony was premiered, Shostakovich was competing in Warsaw's Chopin Competition in Warsaw when during the first night's opening ceremony, he suffered an attack of appendicitis! Amazingly, he would still make it to the finals where he played Chopin's E Minor Concerto but did not place among the winners.
After this, Shostakovich decide to focus on composition and rarely played the piano in public except in his own works – his Piano Quintet, for one, which he joked he'd initially composed as an excuse to be able to travel on tour.
Then, when he went on a concert tour and played both his piano concertos in France in 1958 – recording them in Paris – he started having trouble with his right hand. It would become weak, full of that pins-and-needles pain but when he went to the doctors, they were unable to find out what was causing it. His hand got tired from writing and it was a challenge to brush his teeth or hang up his coat, he said, but he could grip a suitcase. He could only play the piano “slowly and pianissimo.” A month in the hospital yielded no help.
In 1960 while in Dresden (which had been nearly destroyed by the Allied bombs at the end of World War II) to work on a film score, he wrote the 8th String Quartet which is officially "dedicated to the victims of Fascism" though in a letter in July, he joked it could be "dedicated to the author of this quartet." After playing it through at the piano for his friend, the musicologist Lev Lebedinsky, Shostakovich told it, with tears in his eyes, it would be his last work. He had been "coerced into joining the Party" – it is amazing that he had not had to join it before 1960! – and he associated this with a moral as well as physical death. He admitted he had purchased a large amount of sleeping pills and hinted at committing suicide. Lebedinsky was able to slip the pills out of his pocket and give them to the composer's son Maxim, warning him not to let his father out of his sight. Lebedinsky then spent as much of the next few days as possible with the composer until he felt the danger of suicide had passed.
Also in 1960, at his son's wedding, Shostakovich lost his balance when his left leg went out from under him and he fell, fracturing it badly. More hospital stays again were unhelpful. Wondering when an attack of weakness might get in the way of his performing again, he gave his last public performance in February of 1964 (he composed the 9th Quartet in May, 1964, remember). But he agreed to accompany two of his favorite singers on a program of his newest music in 1966, but the strain on his nerves was so bad he suffered a heart attack the following night and spent another month in the hospital.
|Shostakovich & his wife Irina in 1972|
At the time he was composing his 9th Quartet, he was dealing with the initial symptoms and finding it difficult to write because of the problems with his right hand. (Again, pure speculation, but could this physical concern be the reason behind the music motive inspired by Pimen's "scribe" motive at the beginning of the Quartet?) He soon concocted a kind of cradle to support his hand while he composed but it was still painful and he could only work for short periods of time.
What all this could mean to his future – he was, after all, only57 when he wrote this quartet – was scary enough: imagine trying to create something that would not be affected by all this?
While the doctors advised him to give up vodka and cigarettes – he did not – he also could not give up composing, something else he was eventually advised to do less of. Even when he was in the hospital, he found ways to continue writing new pieces even up to the end. He completed the Viola Sonata a month before he died, and he was still working on sketches for a new opera, inspired by Dostoievsky, called The Black Monk.
UNDERSTANDING THE POLITICAL BAGGAGE BEHIND THE MUSIC...
|Shostakovich, w/Nina (his first wife) & friends, 1930s|
And given the political fear at the time, particularly regarding Party Loyalty and maintaining the political ideology of the Soviet government, the purges that Stalin initiated where political foes as well as artists who did not live up to Party expectations, soon found themselves arrested in the middle of the night and summarily “disappeared” into the prison infrastructure that had been the standard government recourse to dealing with the opposition since the early days of Russian history, going back centuries (which is not necessarily a specifically Russian custom).
Shostakovich was able to work his way back into “official favor” by composing his 5th Symphony – which, by any standards, would be considered one of his masterpieces and one of the great works of the orchestral repertoire. After its wildly successful premiere in November, 1937, an article in the press written under the composer's by-line described it as “a Soviet Artist's reply to just criticism” though since Shostakovich wrote few of his own speeches and articles during his career, the phrase probably originated either with some departmental official who wrote it for him to sign his name to, or perhaps inserted on the advice of friends with more political savvy than he. Anyway, former friends and colleagues like Dmitri Kabalevsky who had distanced themselves following Stalin's attack, congratulated him on giving up his “former erroneous ways.”
Having survived the 2nd World War – the Soviets called it “The Great Patriotic War” – Shostakovich then had to deal with another government condemnation in 1948 when Stalin's Minister of Culture, Zhdanov, accused not just Shostakovich but also other prominent Soviet composers like Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, including writers and theatrical figures like the director Yuri Lyubimov who, being told his arrest was imminent, spent the night on the landing by his building's elevator “so at least his family would not be disturbed.”
This time, Shostakovich lost his teaching position at the Conservatory and he lost income because no one would commission new works and royalties that paid the bills dried up because no one would perform the old ones. He was able to make enough by writing film scores and “official party hack-works” like “The Song of the Forest,” praising Stalin's environmental policies. Any “serious works,” he wrote “for the desk drawer,” putting them away unpublished and unperformed, until a safer time. His true rehabilitation came in the spring of 1953 only when Stalin died and he composed his eventually triumphant 10th Symphony which ends with a victory lap on the musical motive representing his name, DSCH – as if to say, “I survived!”
All of that is merely prologue to understanding Shostakovich's string quartets. He wrote 15 of them – he also wrote 15 symphonies, but that's pure coincidence. However, he didn't seriously begin these quartets until his symphonies fell afoul of government politics. The first one was written in the summer following the premiere of the 5th Symphony, and the 3rd in 1946 after the denunciation of his “disappointing” 9th Symphony (at the end of World War II, everyone expected a paean to Stalin following a Soviet victory over the Nazis).
But following the Zhdanov Decree of 1948, Shostakovich composed five quartets by 1960. The 9th and 10th then followed in 1964, and the remaining five between 1966 and 1974, a year before his death.
(At one point, when a member of the Beethoven Quartet mentioned interest in recording his “last quartet,” the 7th, Shostakovich said “when I have written all my quartets, we'll talk about my 'last' quartet!” He said his plan, since to date he had not yet duplicated a tonality in the set, was to write 24 quartets in all, one for each key.)
To Shostakovich, the symphony – with all its historical context, Western or otherwise – was essentially “public music” written for large concert halls to be heard by a large audience and reliant more on popular response if not direct popular appeal. Chamber music, on the other hand, he regarded as “private music,” written for smaller halls or rooms, intended for a small audience. Whether the whole concept of “hidden meanings” in the symphonies, especially the 5th, is true or not – Semyon Volkov's Testimony is still controversial and now many of his assertions, founded or not, have entered the Shostakovich mythology for better or worse – the string quartets, certainly, are devoid of the “populist” element but it is probably truer to imagine that, the string quartet as a medium was of less value aesthetically to the “Revolutionary” the young composer had been before Stalin's attack. If the symphony is a Western form – and “formalism” was an accusation labeled against any Soviet composer straying from Stalin's ideals of “Socialist Realism,” whatever that meant – isn't it unusual that after his denunciations he began writing string quartets, an even more Western form? One of the first things he composed following the Zhdanov Decree about formalism was a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano inspired by Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier – and you can't get more Western or more “formalist” than writing something as rule-bound as a fugue!
Earlier, I'd mentioned how Baroque composers like Vivaldi published works in sets of 12, Haydn and Mozart in the Classical era often in sets of 6 – whether they sat down and wrote all 6 or 12 from start to finish before moving on to other projects. Beethoven, we know from his sketch books, conceived of his symphonies in pairs – given the frequent attitude the Odd-numbered Symphonies are Great and the Even-numbered Symphonies are Not-So-Great – and it's tantalizing to imagine how the 10th Symphony he was sketching at the same time he was working on the Choral Symphony might have turned out.
So here is Shostakovich, composing his 9th quartet (his Op. 117) in May of 1964 and then beginning his 10th quartet (Op. 118) about six weeks later, in July 1964. Both were premiered on November 20th that autumn. While Elizabeth Wilson, in her Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, refers to them tantalizingly in passing as “partners,” there seems to be no indication the plan was to write two contrasting quartets, much as Beethoven might have conceived many of his works. It's quite possible, having completed the 9th with that brutal ending, he needed a contrast simply for his own emotional, if not psychological, release.
Assuming you've listened to the video of the 9th Quartet already, I mention Alan George's liner notes for the Fitzwilliam Quartet's recordings of the complete set describe the 10th as “one of Shostakovich's most serene and untroubled compositions and even if the sustained violence of the second movement [scherzo] creates a momentarily disturbing effect, the composer's state of mind would seem to indicate [again, this is an author's conjecture] that evil, although it cannot be ignored, is no match for deeper human emotions.”
|Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Benjamin Britten, Shostakovich (Moscow 1963)|
But by the 1960s, life in the Soviet Union was different than it had been under Stalin. Often called the “Krushchev Thaw,” Shostakovich found himself able to explore elements of “modern music” – especially music associated with Western aesthetics – that would have brought swift condemnation under Stalin. This is Shostakovich, now in his late-50s, beginning to explore new sounds.
This future also, unfortunately, would not turn out to be quite what he had hoped. But then, that's usually how it goes...