Sunday, October 29, 2023

The Amernet Quartet: For Kristallnacht, the 85th Anniversary

Wednesday's program by the Amernet Quartet at Temple Ohev Sholom observes the 85th Anniversary of Kristallnacht. 

You don't have to be following the news today – the past few weeks with another horrific war in the Middle East; or the fact Friday, October 27th, was the 5th Anniversary of the murders at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue – to know why such an observation should not merely be a historical ritual trying to keep alive a memory fading from the world's consciousness.

Kristallnacht was an attack on Jews across Germany and Nazi-occupied Austria following the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a Polish-born Jew two days earlier.

Adolf Hitler was in Munich when the news arrived and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, after conferring with Hitler, “harangued a gathering of old storm troopers, urging violent reprisals staged to appear as 'spontaneous demonstrations'.” Orders were telephoned from Munich throughout the country to initiate a vast pogrom against Jews, Jewish-owned buildings and businesses, and synagogues by various Nazi paramilitary forces and the Hitler Youth with participation from private German civilians who joined in the attacks.

The Gestapo chief sent directives to all the police units in Germany that these operations were not to be interfered with, and that fire departments should stand by and let the synagogues burn, only stepping in to keep the fires spreading to “neighboring Aryan buildings.”

It was called Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night,” literally) because the shards of broken glass littering the streets glittered like shattered crystals. The standard English translation is the less poetic “Night of Broken Glass.” This went far beyond mere state-supported vandalism and looting: the government immediately put a halt to the publication of Jewish-run newspapers, suspended Jewish cultural events indefinitely, and barred Jewish children from attending state-run elementary schools. Over the next few nights, the Nazis began arresting 30,000 Jewish men, mostly wealthy or well-to-do citizens, leaders in the Jewish community, who were then deported to concentration camps like Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen where they were detained for several months (this was referred to in one source as “protective custody”). The Nazis began a systematic “parole” program, starting with those under 16 or over 50, “front fighters,” even teachers, so that by January 1st, only some 2,500 were still in the camps. Many were released who had already started making plans to leave the country; others, when they promised to make such plans. It's estimated around 500 of them died in the first two months.

The Times of London reported on November 11th, 1938, that "No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday."

And yet the world stood by and said nothing.

The composers on this program – as it was originally intended – are all “associated” with the Holocaust. And I use the word “associated” because, looking at various sites on-line, one fact about their lives is sometimes overlooked. If you glance down the program page, look at the (birth–death dates) on the right side:

Viktor Kohn (1901-1944)

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)

Pavel Haas (1899-1944)

Notice all four of them died around the same time, three in the same year. This is not a coincidence. While the place of their deaths may be mentioned three of them were interred at the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp but then died at Auschwitz, one of the most notorious locations in human history – but sometimes the manner of these deaths was overlooked and, quite often, the causes behind them ignored (perhaps because of space, perhaps because it's "complicated"). It is uncomfortable to talk about. But then, so much of history is.

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Viktor Kohn, born in Prague (most sources say Jan. 16th, 1901, but I found two sites including a Czech Holocaust database that includes images of “official documentation” saying he was born on June 6th, 1910), was primarily a violist who'd studied at the German Academy in Prague. Little can be found about his life beyond his having been a member of the Egon Ludeč String Quartet until November of 1941 when he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Theresienstadt (or, in Czech, Terezin) Concentration Camp along with his brother, Paul, a cellist, and Egon Ludeč (presumably along with the rest of their quartet).

A year later, Kohn wrote a brief Praeludium. It's listed on the manuscript as Praeludium (EDElstein) because, having dedicated it to Jakob Edelstein and Otto Zucker, the two Elders of the Jewish Community there, he used the musical notes E-D-E as a motive throughout the short piece. Chillingly, the final page includes the date and place of its completion: “4 XII 1942 Theresienstadt.”

Terezin Still Life, Bedřich Fritta, 1943

More information about Kohn can be found in entries about the better known Ludeč who had been a concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic under conductor Karl Ancerl. But because he was Jewish, after the Nazi invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia, he lost his position and was moved to the back of the 1st Violin section. Once at Theresienstadt, he formed a “new Ludeč Quartet,” with the two Kohn brothers and an amateur violinist who was later replaced by a violinist from the famous Rosé Quartet from Vienna. Letters mention their playing Haydn, Beethoven and Dvořák; later, he also played Beethoven sonatas with newly-arrived pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer (she was able to survive the camps and died at the age of 110 in 2014!). Mostly, however, he played popular songs and ballads in the prison courtyards with an accordionist in order to help keep up his fellow inmates' spirits.

At this point, a propaganda film was produced to represent Theresienstadt as a place with “supposedly happy and healthy Jews, ...part of a larger Nazi program to use Theresienstadt as a tool to discredit reports of the genocide of Jews reaching the Western Allies and neutral countries.” Unofficially known as “The Führer Gives the Jews a City” (the original film has been lost but fragments were found in various archives to reconstruct about 20 minutes of it), it showed scenes involving a sham coffee house and sporting events, being enjoyed as if Theresienstadt were a holiday resort. It also showcased performances by a jazz band called “The Ghetto Swingers,” and a full symphony orchestra conducted by Karl Ančerl, with Egon Ludeč as concertmaster (one would assume the Kohn brothers were also members), playing works by other prisoners like Viktor Ullman and Pavel Haas. It opened with a children's chorus singing from Mendelssohn's Elijah (a Jewish composer writing an oratorio about a Jewish prophet) and ended with a performance of Hans Krása's children's fairy-tale opera, Brundibár.

On October 16th, 1944, shortly after the film's production was completed, Ludeč, Ančerl, Ullmann, Krása, and Viktor Kohn were among the 16,000 prisoners (including hundreds of those in the children's choir) transferred to Auschwitz where most of them were immediately sent to the gas chambers.

Jakob Edelstein, one of the dedicatees of Viktor Kohn's Praeludium, was transported to Auschwitz on December 15th, 1943, barely a year after Kohn's piece was composed. He was kept largely in isolation until his wife, son, and mother-in-law arrived the following June. Then he was forced to watch as the Nazis murdered first his mother-in-law, then his wife, then his 12-year-old son before they shot him in the head in the crematorium of the gas chamber.

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Not all of these pieces were composed in the camps. Both Erwin Schulhoff's 1st String Quartet, a short work that lasts about 15 minutes, and Pavel Haas' 2nd String Quartet were composed in the mid-1920s and so mirror more the time they were coming of age: Schulhoff was 31; Haas, 26. A lot had already happened in their lives and both seemed destined to become significant voices for their generation.

As a child taking music lessons at the Prague Conservatory, Schulhoff, a native of Prague, earned encouragement from Antonín Dvořák. He would later study piano briefly with Claude Debussy (I'd be curious to find out more details about that!), continuing his studies in Vienna and in Germany before joining the Austro-Hungarian army (Prague was the capital of the Austrian province of Bohemia), then fighting on the Russian Front. By the end of the war, he'd been wounded and (somehow) ended up in an Italian POW-camp, after which he settled in Germany, eventually returning to Prague in 1923.

In 1919, having become “radicalized” following the Russian Revolution, Schulhoff wrote:

“Absolute art is revolution, it requires additional facets for development, leads to overthrow (coups) in order to open new paths...and is the most powerful in music.... The idea of revolution in art has evolved for decades, under whatever sun the creators live, in that for them art is the commonality of man. This is particularly true in music, because this art form is the liveliest, and as a result reflects the revolution most strongly and deeply–the complete escape from imperialistic tonality and rhythm, the climb to an ecstatic change for the better.”

Erwin Schulhoff in 1924
His 1924 “Five Pieces for String Quartet” had been reviewed by the famous critic Olin Downes, reporting from Salzburg: “The idiom has enough modern pepper in it to constantly stimulate the ear; but the music is not forced, any more than it is portentous. A young composer of talent disported himself in these pieces, and his audience was duly grateful. Not all composers, old or young, have the good sense not to take themselves, now and again, too seriously.” Afterwards, he reported, Schulhoff played American ragtime at the piano of a nearby inn “until the walls tottered.”

His String Quartet No. 1, completed on September 10th, 1924, but published in 1925, is a work in four short movements, and may seem a more serious work, divided into the standard four-movement structure with an opening Presto con fuoco (extremely fast and fiery), an Allegretto marked “with grotesque melancholy;” then a Slovak-inspired scherzo and, rather unexpectedly, ending with the slow movement, Andante molto sostenuto

(The woodcut of Erwin Schulhoff (see above) was made by Conrad Felixmüller in 1924.)

Here is the Amernet Quartet performing the 1st and 3rd movements for a radio broadcast in 2018:

Here's the complete quartet (with score) performed by the Kocian Quartet:

It must be difficult listening to Schulhoff's music here, knowing – as who would, at the time – where his life would take him.

Between his musical aesthetics and his increasingly more committed political leanings – he even set the Communist Manifesto to music in 1932! – he got into increasingly hotter water where his jazz-influenced style had already earned him a place on the Nazi's list of Degenerate Artists. Once the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Schulhoff realized, as a Jew and a Communist, he needed to get out of Prague. Between trying to find passage to America for his now ex-wife and their children, he himself applied to the Soviet Union for citizenship which was finally approved in 1941. Unfortunately, he was arrested by the Nazis in June, 1941, before he could get on the train and leave for Moscow and freedom.

He was transported to the Würtzburg Prison in Bavaria where, on August 18th, 1942, he died of tuberculosis.

Recalling how “the walls tottered” after the premiere of his 1924 quartet pieces, you might be curious to hear his 1926 “5 Etudes de Jazz” complete with a toccata-finale inspired by “Kitten on the Keys.” The second etude is dedicated to Paul Whiteman who, two years earlier, had organized a cross-over concert of “classical jazz” which has coerced George Gershwin into writing a little something called “Rhapsody in Blue.”

His last major completed work is his 6th Symphony, completed in 1941 and clearly designed to appeal to war-time Soviet officials, a considerable style-shift from the jazz-inspired pieces of the 1920s! Written in the midst of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia when he was hiding under an assumed name and desperately trying to make arrangements to escape, he subtitled it “Liberty.” He would be arrested within a short time of its completion, leaving a 7th Symphony, subtitled “Eroica,” incomplete in piano sketches.

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Ullman's 1939 passport photo

Viktor Ullmann was born in what was then Austrian Silesia, once part of Prussia but now part of Poland but just across the river from Bohemia or the modern-day Czech Republic. His parents had “assimilated” before he was born – that is, converting to Catholicism which then enabled his father to become a colonel in the Austrian army and to later be ennobled, neither of which would've been possible for Jews. Young Ullmann went to Vienna to study music in 1910 around the time Schoenberg was composing his first atonal works like the Five Orchestral Pieces and Pierrot Lunaire and became acquainted with his circle of students. Though he studied with Schoenberg only from 1918, after having been deployed to the Italian Front during World War I, to 1919 (during a slow period when he was developing a new, more neoclassically-lined style that eventually came to be called “serialism”), he remained closer stylistically to Alban Berg who would complete his ground-breaking opera Wozzeck in 1924.

Ullmann abruptly ended his studies in Vienna to pursue a career in Prague, working with Schoenberg's friend and mentor, Alexander Zemlinsky (btw, born into a staunchly Catholic family, they eventually converted to Judaism, the faith of Alexander's maternal grandfather) who'd become the director of the German Theater there (it is now the Prague State Opera). In the late-'20s, he became the music director of a small German opera company where his choice of repertoire proved a little too daring for local tastes and he was soon let go. In the 1930s, he worked with Alois Haba who was experimenting with a system of quarter-tone tunings – in 1936, Ullman even composed a sonata for a quarter-tone clarinet and a quarter-tone piano which was premiered in Prague but the music has not survived. Two years later, he completed an opera begun 11 years earlier based on Ibsen's Peer Gynt, as well as a number of songs, choral works (including an Easter Cantata), three piano sonatas and two string quartets by the time the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, occupying Bohemia and Moravia even before the start of World War II (so much for “Peace in Our Time”).

Then everything changed.

Schoenberg, aware of the Nazis increasingly dangerous anti-Semitism, had already left Berlin in 1933 (where he'd been teaching since 1926) for Paris where he reclaimed his Jewish faith as an act of defiance (born a Jew, hoping to avoid an increase in anti-Semitism during the 1890s, he'd converted to Lutheranism mostly out of self-defense in 1898).

Ullmann's newly developed “mature style,” partly inspired by Schoenberg and his circle, included “dissonant harmonies, highly charged musical expression, and masterly control of formal structures,” none of which gained him any favor with the aesthetics of the German occupation. He had completed a piano concerto nine months before the Nazis marched into Prague and suddenly Ullmann found himself scrambling to ensure the safety of the music he had self-published during the past decade: many of these works disappeared except those he was able to entrust to a friend for safe-keeping.

Still, he wasn't arrested until 1942, deported in early-September for Theresienstadt, a prison located in northern Czechoslovakia. He became part of an inner artistic circle, serving as a piano accompanist, an organizer of concerts and lectures about New Music (there's an irony, here), wrote reviews of camp performances and above all composed – in fact, he composed some 20 works in Theresienstadt, including his 3rd String Quartet (apparently completed “not later than January 23rd, 1943”), two piano sonatas, a number of songs and choral music, some incidental music for plays, all of which were performed by and for his fellow prisoners.

It's ironic that Ullmann, raised by “assimilated Jews” in a secular household, never thought of himself as Jewish. But the state-supported anti-Semitism fell upon not only Jews but also “those of Jewish descent.” And Ullmann fell firmly in that category. It wasn't until after he arrived at the camp in Terezin (known in German as Theresienstadt) that he began to identify as “Jewish.” His art music aside, he also realized prisoners, less sophisticated than his usual “New Music” audience, needed consolation and cultural affirmation. Even though he spoke no Hebrew or Yiddish – in fact, he knew nothing of Jewish culture – he composed a series of songs and choruses the prisoners (and especially the children) could perform for themselves.

In his prison-published essay “Goethe & Ghetto,” Ullmann wrote, "I have written a fair amount of new music in Theresienstadt…. All that I would stress is that Theresienstadt has helped, not hindered, me in my musical work, that we certainly did not sit down by the waters of Babylon and weep, and that our desire for culture was matched by our desire for life."

To go further into the importance of this impact on his creativity: “Thus, Goethe’s maxim: 'Live within the moment, live in eternity' has always revealed to me the enigmatic meaning of Art… Theresienstadt was and is for me the school of Form. Earlier, when one did not feel the impact and burden of material life, because they were erased by comfort, this magic accomplishment of civilization, it was easy to create beautiful forms. Here, where even in daily life one must overcome matter by the power of the form, where anything connected with the Muses is in utter contrast to the surroundings, here is the true school for masters, if one, following Schiller, perceives the secret of every work of art in the endeavor to annihilate matter by the means of form.”

Randall Coleman, who quoted this passage in his 2022 post on Medium, added, “For me, this passage highlights the centrality of form in a work of art. Anyone who has written a haiku or a sonnet has had to wrestle with the words to make them conform to the literary structure. Paradoxically, the limitations imposed by the form propel the artist to discover depths of meaning that had been hidden from view.”

The Dover Quartet performs Ullmann's 3rd String Quartet at the Rockport Music Festival in 2018: For me, it was impossible to listen to this music without noticing the emotional disconnect between the setting in which it was composed and first heard with the idyllic view behind the performers... What would the impact be of listening to it in the setting of Temple Ohev Sholom on the 85th Anniversary of Kristallnacht?

There are the traditional four movements, played without pause: an opening Allegro moderato, a scherzo (Presto) and slow movement (Largo), before ending with a lively and rhythmic finale.

The quartet was one of the first works he'd composed in Theresienstadt. But during the summer of 1944, he and a fellow prisoner created the opera, The Emperor of Atlantis which, judging it by the title, might seem to be some mythological tale. In reality, it was a fairly thinly veiled allegory “about the Nazi's disregard for human life,” with Hitler as the Emperor. According to program notes for a recent Los Angeles Philharmonic performance:

 “Death and Harlequin (who represents life) both no longer fulfill any function in the Empire of Atlantis, where Emperor Overall (an allegory for Hitler) values neither. As a result, the living have ceased to live and the dying have ceased to die. The Emperor tries to put a positive spin on things, declaring that his soldiers are now invincible, but in reality his armies lie wounded and bleeding, in an agony that Death cannot end. Death offers the Emperor a bargain: He will resume his work if the Emperor will be his first victim. The Emperor agrees, and the work ends with a reminder: “Thou shalt not take Death’s great name in vain.”

(This excerpt is from the opera's conclusion.)

“The SS banned the performance when they attended the dress rehearsal [in October] and realized that the Emperor, who is defeated by Death, represented Hitler. It is probably no coincidence that Ullmann, also a member of the cast for the propaganda film recently completed, found himself on a train to Auschwitz on October 16th. They arrived the next day.

Joža Karas, in his book Music in Terezin, 1941-1945, described their arrival:

“On October 17 the train came to a stop at its destination, Auschwitz. The much-feared Dr. Josef Mengele personally supervised the selection on the platform. Alas, damned were all those who happened to wear glasses or who had red hair! In danger also were men past forty years of age. [Ullmann was forty-six.] Upon seeing them, Mengele pointed his ominous finger to the right, from where there was no return. The majority of the newly arrived went from the station platform directly into the gas chambers stark naked, after all their belongings had been confiscated.”

According to official documents, Viktor Ullman was murdered in the gas chambers the following day.

Bedřich Fritta, "A Transport Leaves the Ghetto" (Terezin, 1942/43)

Pavel Haas was born in 1899 in Brno, then the capital of Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. His father, a shoemaker, was a Moravian Jew; his mother, a Jew from the Ukrainian port of Odessa. Growing up in the city that was home to Leos Janáček, now internationally recognized as one of the most acclaimed Czech composers since the days of Dvořák and Smetana, though at the time, he had still to write the pieces that would finally bring him world-wide recognition in his 70s (like the famous Sinfonietta); so, it was inevitable a musically precocious child would attend the Brno Conservatory and end up in Janáček's master classes in 1921. Janáček officially retired from the school's directorship in 1920 but continued teaching till 1925, when he'd turned 71. His two quartets were both written around this time: the first, Intimate Pages, in 1921, and the second, The Kreutzer Sonata (after Tolstoy's short-story), in 1928.

Haas did not write a great deal – which may not be entirely accurate because it would seem likely, as a fairly self-critical artist, he probably destroyed more works than he published (one could say the same of Brahms). And it's not giving anything away to say Haas did not have a long life in which his style (and confidence) could mature: he died, after all, at the age of 45 in his third year at Theresienstadt. He was, largely, an “amateur” composer: his day job for most of this period of his life was working in his father's shop.

Two of his earliest published works are string quartets: No. 1 from 1920 as Op.3; and No. 2, his Op. 7, the one represented on the Amernet Quartet's program for Market Square Concerts. This second quartet was composed in 1925 two years after Haas had finished studying with Janáček. For listeners familiar with Janáček's works, you'll easily recognize many of his stylistic fingerprints, not so much that Haas was imitating his teacher but rather that he was inspired by the same things that inspired his teacher, particularly the ostinato patterns and “modular” thematic ideas typical of Moravian and Slovakian folk music.

The title of Haas' quartet might give someone from outside Central Europe a false mental-image. “From the Monkey Mountains” has nothing to do with jungles and chattering monkeys but refers to an area of Central Moravia once popular as a tourist destination. In fact, the movements' individual subtitles might imply a medley of musical vacation snapshots: the second movement, “Coach, Coachman and Horse,” is built on these modular “cells” that build by repetition and block movement rather than unfolding as we'd expect a traditional 19th Century melody to evolve. Does it evoke a galloping horse or the movement of a coach on a country road? Or were the elements of the music inspired by these experiences? (Remember, the last movement of Beethoven's “Tempest” Sonata was initially inspired by the composer watching a man on a horse ride past him, but not so literally it's called the “Rider” Sonata instead!)

Pavel Haas' 2nd String Quartet is performed here by the ensemble taking its name from the composer, the Pavel Haas Quartet:

(clip is cued to begin with the 2nd Movement which is less than 5 minutes long, but you can listen to the whole quartet, complete with the score.)

As sometimes happens, reality intervenes and, given the world health situation, various viruses and periods of recuperation made it difficult for the Amernet Quartet to prepare the whole work, something new to their repertoire. As it's a very challenging work, they felt, with the lost rehearsal time, they would replace the work with Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet (see below) but agreed to perform the second movement, the one subtitled “Coach, Coachman, and Horse.”

Pavel Haas' career had begun taking off with the premiere of his 1938 opera, The Charlatan which won an important prize – one, by the way, he shared with another composer, Vítězslava Kaprálová who'd conducted her Military Symphony in Prague (and later with the BBC Philharmonic) before she died in 1940 at the age of 25 of typhoid fever. But with the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia by the Nazis in 1939, Haas found himself trapped, having been writing to some of his wife's relatives who lived in New Jersey and to a former fellow-student of Janáček's in New York City. Any help coming his way came too late.

He was arrested in 1941 and deported to Theresienstadt where he became so depressed, he, unlike Ullmann, was unable to compose. Another composer there was Gideon Klein (he'd received a piano scholarship to study in London in 1940, but the German's anti-Jewish laws prohibited his leaving the country) who managed to coax Haas into composing again. While Ullman wrote some 20 pieces at Theresienstadt, only three of the eight Haas composed were completed or survived. One of them was the “Study for Strings” which the orchestra, under Karl Ančerl, performed for the Theresienstadt propaganda film.

Pavel Haas (left, in the light suit) taking a bow after the performance of his "Study for Strings" in the 1944 propaganda film, “The Führer Gives the Jews a City”

Haas and Klein were among those transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz on October 16th, 1944, following the completion of the film project. Klein survived long enough to be removed to a satellite camp, a coal mine 19 miles away, where he was “murdered under unclear circumstances” in January, 1945, at the age of 25. As Haas stood in line upon the train's arrival at Auschwitz, he was immediately sent to the gas chamber. He was 45.

The Wikipedia entry on Pavel Haas quotes a Czech writer's account. It was customary for the prisoners to stand two-by-two and Mengele would point one of them to the right (to the gas chambers) and the other, to the left, could survive.

“According to the testimony of [conductor] Karel Ančerl, Haas stood next to him after their arrival at Auschwitz. Dr. Mengele was about to send Ančerl to the gas chamber first, but the weakened Haas began to cough, so the death sentence was chosen for him instead. After the war Ančerl met with Haas's brother Hugo and told him the story.”

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It is harrowing to read these stories, whatever the music brings to our minds as we hear it. The two quartets by Schulhoff and Haas have nothing, technically, to do with their prison experiences, though it's impossible to ignore their ultimate destinies. But to listen to Kohn's brief and emotional Praeludium and Ullmann's 3rd Quartet which sounds so life-affirming in its defiance of his reality, you can't ignore what would come shortly after these notes were written down.

How does one explain this, what happened to these composers among the millions of others whose stories have no one to tell them, or even to remember them? How does one explain this kind of evil, how one human could do this to another human being?

As we listen to this music, as we remember the night of November 9th, 1938, and the events that followed and perhaps find out more about them, it is good to recall the words of a Survivor whom I'd mentioned earlier in the story, Alice Herz-Sommer, the pianist who, in addition to her own work as a performing musician at Theresienstadt, accompanied Egon Ludeč in Beethoven Violin Sonatas for their fellow prisoners. She survived the camps and died at the age of 110, and said this to Ed Vulliamy who interviewed her for The Guardian not long before her death:

"We who survived the ghetto have our suffering, and the music that lifted us out of suffering, and that makes us richer than any wealthy man."

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Due to those pesky “circumstances beyond our control,” the Amernet Quartet, as I explained above, decided to substitute a standard work in their repertoire to replace Pavel Haas' 2nd Quartet. While it breaks with the overall theme of the initial program – music by composers who died in the concentration camps of World War II following the events of Kristallnacht which took place 85 years ago this month – it is still a work with some deeper connections to the outcome of the war and to another period of persecution, in this case Stalin's Communists and a Soviet Artist named Dmitri Shostakovich.

The story behind his 5th Symphony is well-enough known – I've written about it here for a 2015 Harrisburg Symphony performance – and I copy most of this information from a previous MSC post about Shostakovich's String Quartet No.8.

In 1960, when Dmitri Shostakovich was in Dresden, Germany, working on a film score for a Soviet documentary, he wrote this intense quartet in just 3 days. The film was about the Allied bombing of Dresden where it was estimated 25,000 German citizens died (other sources suggest higher numbers), an attack which eventually brought down the Nazi Government and ended the war. 

Dresden after the Allied Bombing in February, 1945

 The reconstruction of the city would not have been any where near completion when Shostakovich visited in 1960. In fact, the famous Frauenkirche was not officially reconsecrated until 2005. According to the Wikipedia entry , “The reconstruction of the surrounding Neumarkt buildings continues to this day,” citing sources published in 2020.

The bombing of a city of such cultural significance as Dresden certainly remains controversial today. But how much of that – and its historical context – is part of Shostakovich's music? Or to be more precise, given the composer's often vague or contradictory statements about his music, part of his conception of the piece? Certainly, the incessant use of his personal DSCH motive – the pitch-names translated into German: D, S=E-flat, C, H=B-natural (in German, his initials Д Ш would be spelled out D Sch) – makes it sound like a first-person narrative. Or is it, in another sense, truly a work about himself? Did he see in the impact of man's inhumanity, here, a reflection of his own, more personal experience with the Communist regime? Like most art, what the artist intended is not always obvious; what the audience imagines is not always accurate.

Here is a live performance by the Emerson Quartet, recorded in 2018:

This is a harrowing work, even by Shostakovich's usually intense standards, from the opening four-note motive which is the composer's musical signature to the evocations of Jewish folk-songs quoted from his equally harrowing 2nd Piano Trio, not to mention its range of emotions from violent climaxes to the icy resignation at the end. 

DSCH in 1961
Keep in mind, it was dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war.” His son Maxim has said it would have read “totalitarianism” and that the composer considered himself such a victim, giving the DSCH motive even deeper emotions. His daughter Galina has said he had dedicated the work to himself but the printed dedication was “imposed by Soviet authorities.”

A friend of Shostakovich's said the composer considered this his musical epitaph (in fact, the DSCH motive appears on his tombstone) and that Shostakovich had told him he'd considered committing suicide around the time: not only had he finally (reluctantly) joined the Communist Party, he had just started experiencing symptoms of an extreme “muscular weakness” which would eventually be diagnosed as “Lou Gehrig's Disease” which would kill him in 1975.

In the liner notes for the Borodin Quartet's 1962 recording of the piece, music critic Erik Smith wrote, "The Borodin Quartet played this work to the composer at his Moscow home, hoping for his criticisms. But Shostakovich, overwhelmed by this beautiful realisation of his most personal feelings, buried his head in his hands and wept. When they had finished playing, the four musicians quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room."

– Dick Strawser