Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, op. 122

Shostakovich (second from left) with members of the Beethoven Quartet

The Beethoven Quartet premiered every one of Shostakovich's quartets except for the first and the last. Two of the pieces are dedicated to the quartet as a whole and four quartets, nos. 11 to 14, are dedicated to individual members of the group. The Quartet No. 11 was finished in January 1966 and is dedicated to the memory of Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, the second violinist in the ensemble who had passed away the previous summer, aged 65.

There are two, one might say, arenas of understanding concerning works of music. Most discussion takes place in the more public one. Here is a good example of this kind of discussion of the Quartet No. 11. Lots of good useful information there. But I would like to take us into the composer's studio itself and look at the work as it might have come together in the composer's mind. I'm not going to engage in speculation, just look at the piece from a different perspective. In the Wikipedia article there is this sentence: "In this quartet, Shostakovich portrays his fears with dark and grim moods." That is exactly the kind of thing that I am going to avoid!

In my discussion of the Quartet No. 10, I made this comment:
There are always two contradictory urges present when composing: one is the urge for variety and contrast and the other is the urge for consistency and unity. The contradiction becomes particularly interesting when you are composing a multi-movement piece. Each one of Shostakovich's quartets is unique, but he developed a formula for making them unique!
For a composer like Shostakovich, as soon as he senses that he might be falling into a particular formula, he will try and break away from that. And so we see in the 11th Quartet. Instead of the typical four movements (one moderate, one slow, two fast) that he has often used, instead this quartet has seven movements, all played without a break and many of them quite short. Three movements are about a minute long, two are between two and three minutes and two are around four minutes long. Just to show how he tried to explore different possibilities in each quartet, note that the very next one, No. 12, is much longer and in only two movements and No. 13 is in one movement!

Perhaps Shostakovich felt that he had achieved too much predictable unity in the Quartets Nos 9 and 10 so in this one he strove for much more contrast. The seven movements are the following:
  1. Introduction – Andantino, attacca
  2. Scherzo – Allegretto, attacca
  3. Recitative – Adagio, attacca
  4. √Čtude – Allegro, attacca
  5. Humoresque – Allegro, attacca
  6. Elegy – Adagio, attacca
  7. Finale – Moderato
Let's have a look at the beginning. It opens with a long phrase in the first violin:

Shostakovich has a number of ways of handling traditional forms to make them his own. One is to stay away from the standard four and eight measure phrase lengths. This phrase is nine measures long. Another is to use tonality in his own distinctive way. For example, we begin, as we have seen before, with the tonic note, but the next harmony is the supertonic. Then back to the tonic, then to the lowered seventh, E flat. This creates a symmetry: up a second, down a second. If you recall he was doing something similar in the 10th Quartet, but with the diminished fourth/major third. Back to this example, he then gives us a longer tonic chord, this time with the minor third, but follows with a couple of major seventh chords on the supertonic and tonic. The last two measures of the phrase are tonic, supertonic and tonic again. Even though he is using familiar harmonies, he is putting them together in a way that no classical (or romantic for that matter) composer would recognize.

Before we listen to the first movement, I want to cite one more example. The first thing we hear in the cello is this theme, that will act as a link for the whole quartet:
And there is that anapest again, that we saw as a linking element in the 10th Quartet! Incidentally, this seems to me to be a bit akin to the way the rhythm of a fugue subject works in Bach. As soon as we hear the characteristic rhythm, it brings back the subject in our mind. Similarly, these anapests and dactyls in Shostakovich act as linking tissue in his quartets. The whole first movement is a kind of free fantasy on that opening violin theme, with the accompaniment largely in those anapests. Now, let's listen to that first movement:

The next movement, a brief scherzo, merely takes that cello theme and runs with it. Added elements are a glissando from a stopped note to a harmonic and a choppy theme loosely related to the violin theme from the first movement. What is interesting in this movement is how it ends. Instead of the typical building to a climax, this movement seems to evaporate, with more and more being eliminated until all that is left is a low C note in the viola. Here is that second movement:

The third movement is cryptic indeed, from the listener's point of view. Compositionally, it is quite logical, though. Called a "recitative" it consists very simply of a crunchy chromatic scale on three instruments ending up on a tone cluster with a major and minor seventh. If you will recall, major seventh chords were a part of the first theme? This is answered by dyads with a major 6th, adding a major ninth or later, a minor third and a minor ninth. The only departure from this is a brief section that is an augmented, slow-motion, version of the cello theme from the first movement.

UPDATE: Sorry, I had the 3rd movement of another quartet up! This is the correct movement.

The fourth movement, titled "Etude" is indeed technically challenging, first for the first violin and then for the cello. The material, quick sixteenth notes, is vaguely related to both the themes from the first movement, but not directly, but rather via the kinds of things we heard in the second movement. The other instruments play slower versions of the cello theme from the first movement--vague echoes of it, at least!

The fifth movement, entitled "Humoresque", is a bit of a joke on the second violin. You may recall Dvorak's Humoresque as being a jaunty, tuneful, whimsical piece. Shostakovich here indulges his somewhat acerbic sense of humor. There is a piece, I believe it is by Haydn, written for a not-very-accomplished nobleman, where the part consists of the same note throughout! Shostakovich does something similar. Recall that this quartet is dedicated to the second violinist who passed away. But the premiere will be given by the quartet with the new second violinist. So as a kind of joke on him, the new and less-experienced member, Shostakovich gives him just two notes to play all the way through. G and E. Over and over and over again... The other instruments play an assortment of different things: the anapest rhythm again, major seventh dyads and variations on the cello theme.

The sixth movement, Elegy, is the longest and most developed movement. It takes us the furthest from the themes of the first movement. Here is where our use of the terms from prosody breaks down. In prosody, there are only two elements: long vs short syllables or stressed vs unstressed. In music, we have far more rhythmic possibilities. Instead of two short notes and a long, for example, we can have a dotted note figure and a long, which is what Shostakovich does here. A dotted-note rhythm, very frequently used in certain kinds of music--Baroque overtures or funeral marches, for example--lends a certain kind of tension, even in a slow movement as here. But it is most certainly related to the anapest. Shostakovich, instead of using two short notes of equal value, followed by a long note, as in the first movement, here has two short notes, but the first one is longer and the second one shorter, followed by a long note. This rhythmic figure we hear in the viola and cello at the beginning and throughout. Over top of this is a kind of free fantasy on the first theme from the first movement, but highly varied.

The last movement begins with yet another version of that cello theme from the first movement, this time all in eighth notes with a simple arpeggio accompaniment. Then Shostakovich starts tossing in other elements: the cello has a solo based on the first violin theme, then we hear the chopped off theme from the scherzo and a bit of the glissando idea. Then the cello has another solo varying the first violin theme (from the first movement). Then the first violin has a whole new variation on the cello theme from the first movement. And so it goes. The movement ends as did the scherzo, by seeming to evaporate into nothingness. The violin holds a very high C while the other instruments give fragmentary versions of the cello theme.

What is extraordinary about this quartet is how it seems to be seven free fantasies, but each one is closely based on the material we hear at the very beginning: two themes, one that wanders whimsically and the other with repeated notes in an anapest rhythm. Pretty much everything we hear from then on is based closely or loosely on those two elements.

So there's a look at Shostakovich's 11th Quartet, from the inside! Nothing about dark moods, or bitterness or anything political or from his biography.


Anonymous said...

I'm about to hear the Brentano Quartet play this piece and I've been playing recordings to familiarize myself with it. I like very much that your commentary is structural and NOT about emotional content. I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks!

Bryan Townsend said...

You're welcome and thanks for the compliment!