Monday, October 24, 2011

Shostakovich Quartets, Part 5

Shostakovich with the Borodin Quartet in the 1950s

The most well-known, by far, of the quartets is No. 8 which is likely performed more often than all the others put together. I heard a concert a couple of years ago in which No. 8 was sandwiched between excellent quartets by Haydn and Beethoven but won the most applause. Because it is the most popular and the others are far less known, I am going to skip over No. 8 for now and go to the Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, op. 117. Most available commentaries on this quartet, such as the notes to the Emerson Quartet's box from Deutsche Grammophon or the online commentary found here, are amazingly thin and uninformative. The latter site, that I began by recommending in my first post on these quartets, I am less and less happy with. The discussion seems to always get caught up in irrelevant biographical information and very peripheral thoughts about the significance of the key. But the most obvious facts about the music are overlooked. As for the notes to the Emerson recordings, the author tries to develop some weak theories about periods in Shostakovich's work, without much evidence, then hopes this gives us insight! On the one hand he says that the present quartet is "basically uncomplicated music" but just a couple of paragraphs later that it has a "complex system of thematic relationships". Oh, and by the way, I think that pretty much every one of Shostakovich's quartets has that! So, after having read a few commentaries, you come away knowing almost less than you did at first.

What is Shostakovich really up to here? What all composers of this sort of music are: he is trying to write very different, highly individuated pieces that are, well, I suppose the only word I can use is "beautiful" --that exemplify musical beauty. I think that is what is important to Shostakovich. More important than who the quartet was dedicated to, the choice of key, or the biographical context. What is important is the basic musical material, such as the three-note group that was a kind of generative cell in the Quartet No 7. I think that he chooses his basic material and then realizes how it can be worked out in different contexts. He might be thinking, "ah, this theme could be transformed into an eerie waltz" or "no, I can't see how the theme would work as a sardonic polka." I think that trying to figure out the music based on the superficial effect of it might be rather backwards. He isn't writing an eerie waltz because he and his second wife danced an eerie waltz on their honeymoon, he is writing an eerie waltz because that little melodic or rhythmic cell could be developed into something really interesting or beautiful using an eerie waltz. You see?

The building blocks of this quartet are so different from No 7. Here are a few of them:

Click to enlarge

In No 7 that three-note anapest cell was the basic germ. Here, everything is foursquare with two and four note groups. The first line above is a measured trill that sometimes goes up a tone and sometimes up a semitone. The melody in the second line is a kind of expansion, and the figure in the third line, a contraction which is used as the theme for the sardonic polka of the third movement. The first line is used as an accompaniment for the second line melody, a neat trick that Chopin was also fond of using. Instead of fluidity, these themes all have a march-like feel to them. As in the 7th Quartet, this material is developed in different ways in the first four movements and in the last and longest movement, all the different developments return and are synthesized. There is also a prominent quote that stands out, but I haven't run down where it is from. It sounds very much like a folk tune. There are five movements in the quartet:

  1. Moderato con moto -
  2. Adagio -
  3. Allegretto -
  4. Adagio -
  5. Allegro

 Here is the whole quartet, played by the St. Petersburg Quartet:

Amazing music, worth listening to several times.


Marc Puckett said...

Is the folk tune in each movement? The 'sardonic polka' I heard, hear. Will listen again during my evening walk.

Have just spent the better part of two hours-- recovering from the death of my mobile and it's replacement-- listening to Max Bruch, for orchestra, piano, violin and viola; stumbled on him by chance but there's some reason I know his name.

Bryan Townsend said...

As I recall, the folk-like tune is just in the last movement. It sounds a bit like a quote to me, but I'm not sure from where. I see that I need to replace my videos due to link rot!

Max Bruch I just don't know a lot about except I used to own something for violin and orchestra. I should probably check it out as a possible candidate for my concerto guide.