The final string quartet to be composed by Dmitry Shostakovich dates from 1974. He had begun to write in this form as a personal, private exercise back in the late 1930s, when his earliest essays in the genre were as much an expression of his true personality as his massive, public declarations (such as the Fifth Symphony) represented aspects of his creativity that were not always truly representative of the man behind the notes. But in the 15 string quartets, it is the true Shostakovich whom we encounter; a man as shocked and revolted by the atrocities of war as he was also incensed by the madness of official proclamation and the political machinations that inevitably followed them. Such feelings of outrage found their most eloquent expression in the Eighth Quartet, which Shostakovich dedicated "To the Victims of War and Fascism."
The String Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor, Op. 144, is also one of the composer's bleakest and most profoundly introspective creations. Indeed, never before or since has there been a quartet made up of just slow movements, six in total, and all of them Adagios. There can be no question that the extreme political pressure and repressive artistic censorship to which Shostakovich, and his music, was subjected damaged his already fragile health seriously during the final decade or so of his life. Indeed, many of his late works, written in the period between 1966 and 1975, were set down in various hospitals and sanatoria, though whether he was placed in them as patient or prisoner is sometimes debatable. The String Quartet No. 15 was written in the course of a two-week stay in a Moscow convalescent institution. It is recorded that he received visits there from his old friend Isaak Glikman, to whom he confided: "I've completed a new quartet. It is my fifteenth. I do not know if it's any good, though I have experienced a certain pleasure in writing it."
The quartet, as has been mentioned already, consists of only slow movements, each of which carries a title ("Elegy," "Serenade," "Intermezzo," "Nocturne," "Funeral March," "Epilogue"), but their solemn character rarely suggests that their composition can have been a source of genuine pleasure. The first movement evolves from just one single note, as though only partially perceived through part-closed eyes. It leads to scenes of terrifying nihilism and utter devastation, for which the only logical solution (but never full escape) must be to link a series of hopeless threnodies. Throughout the rest of the work, these sorrowful images of long-gone happiness form an enigmatic collage until the quartet finally dissolves into silence.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor, Op. 144, 1974
For many, the fifteen string quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich represent a cycle of artistic devotion and intense, intimate expression second only to the sixteen quartets by Beethoven. For Shostakovich, the quartets provided a refuge from the more public and highly scrutinized genres of opera, symphony, ballet or film score where a negative judgment by totalitarian authorities threatened real and serious danger. The wordless “absolute” musical meaning of instrumental chamber music provided a safe haven even when such “domestic” music of friends was performed in public. Here, he could express himself more naturally and honestly and as with late Beethoven, the music is often deeply personal, introspective, and vividly autobiographical. Shostakovich was also a great classicist, drawn to the preludes and fugues of Bach and the transcendent quartets of Beethoven and he strove to make his contribution in these august musical traditions. He planned to compose a set of twenty-four string quartets, one in each major and minor key, but he ran out of time. Dying of an aggressive cancer, and frequently hospitalized, Shostakovich completed his 15th and last string quartet at the age of 68 in 1974, less than a year before he died.
The 15th String Quartet is one of the most intense quartets in the history of the genre, unique in its construction and dramatic affect. While it shares many qualities with other Shostakovich quartets and does not represent any necessarily radical departure, it is nonetheless singular for its unrelenting darkness. The quartet comprises six adagios all in the key of e-flat minor, played without pause in a seamless continuum of profound gloom. With such movement titles as Elegy and Funeral March, it is bleakly clear what Shostakovich seeks to express.
The first movement Elegy is more that twice as long as any of the remaining five movements. It features a dirge or chant-like melody of stark simplicity intoned by each player in a staggered, fugal entrance that Shostakovich labels “solo” as if to emphasize a condition of lonely isolation. A second theme based on a simple arpeggiated chord in C major brings a more hopeful lightness, but it is subsumed by the prevailing dark and slow processional whispered in single and double pianissimos. The sorrow is broken suddenly by shrieks (or zaps) from a disturbing sonic effect where single notes swiftly grow from ppp to sffff in a harsh rasp, each beginning where the other left off and thereby launching the second movement Serenade. Pizzicato, dissonant chords, sparse textures and haunted solos eventually limp into a ghostly waltz, disembodied, eerie and supremely unsettling. The final notes of a cello solo create a deep, sustained pedal point as the 1st violin suddenly explodes in a violent, soaring recitative and a brief, wild 3rd movement Intermezzo ensues.
While the titles “Serenade” and “Intermezzo” seem ironic at best, the 4th movement Nocturne is true to its title, languorous, beautiful, seductive in a way that a rare, fragrant night blooming flower might be, lurid and deadly at its core. Spacious arpeggios, mutes, exotic harmonies and an almost sickly sweet melody enthralls until the sharp, plucked rhythm of the imminent funeral march intrudes leading seamlessly again into the next tableaux. While the quartet unites for a few intermittent chords of unmistakable effect, the death march is, like so much of the entire quartet, a series of solos as a spare melody somewhat like the barren “Taps” in a minor key passes from viola to violin to cello, from the sinewy bow to the dry bones of pizzicato, ending again in lonely isolation with the reedy viola.
What comes after death? For Shostakovich, the finale is an Epilogue of indescribable affect. The retrospective is dominated by icy trills, dissonant pizzicato and spectral visitations of the previous movements, particularly the Elegy and the Funeral march. The chilling trills fluttering above the morbid cello has suggested to some the sounds of wind whistling through a graveyard, an uncanny conclusion to what must be considered one of the most musically profound evocations of death in a uniquely vivid 20th century vocabulary.
© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.