Tchaikovsky & Shostakovich /
David Oistrakh String Quartet


The two principal works in this programme have more in common than just their geographical origin. Although Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, born three generations apart, lived in diametrically opposite societies, they were both subject to social tensions, which fortunately contributed to the creation of their musical masterpieces.

Despite being universally acclaimed, Tchaikovsky’s three quartets are still not part of the standard chamber ensemble repertory. Yet, no other work by the composer had a smoother, more confident start to life than the String Quartet No. 2 in F major, which was composed at the beginning of 1874. This ambitious piece was dedicated to the eminent man of letters, Grand Duke Konstantin, whose had been guided in his musical education by the music critic Herman Laroche, and whose passion for the cello had been inspired by the virtuoso cellist Jan Seifert. Often criticized for its lack of stylistic coherence, the work is strung between the desire to explore new ground – spurred by Tchaikovsky’s association with and admiration for the group of composers known as The Five – and the young composer’s desire for respectability and recognition in high places. The challenge was to master the perfect abstraction of the musical elite’s favourite genre, the string quartet. This was no mean feat even for a composer who, at the age of 34, was in his prime.

However, it is precisely this tension that gives the String Quartet No. 2 its distinctive charm. The powerfully chromatic introductory (Adagio) is followed by a first movement that is steeped in folk music, yet executed with impressive skill and a keen sense of harmonic ‘coup de theatre’, the luminous key of F major only being deployed at the end. The lively rhythm of the Scherzo in D-flat major (with its Trio descending another third, in A major) is answered by the waltz in the Trio. The highly complex and breathtaking Andante of the 3rd movement includes a section with variations. Written in the home key of F minor, this movement at times anticipates the composer’s Symphony No. 6; in contemporary chamber music, its pathos – in the noblest sense of the word – is perhaps matched only by Franck’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor. The vast Finale, combining rondo and sonata form, is a powerful display of sophisticated writing and expressive virtuosity, which recall the exuberance of his Symphony No. 4 in F minor (written in 1877). A double-headed eagle: a fitting image for Tchaikovsky at the cusp of his best-known masterpieces.

Since the end of the 20th century, Shostakovich’s complete works for string quartet have come to be regarded as a reference in the genre. Long eclipsed in the West by some of his symphonies, they provide the finest intimate portrait of the composer as a man of his time. Rooted in Haydn and Beethoven, Shostakovich’s quartets were increasingly to become a psychological mirror, although they were never explicitly described as such. String Quartet No. 8, at the heart of the series of fifteen, is the one that has captured the imagination of the critics and inspired more discussion than any other. In a letter, Shostakovich enigmatically wrote that the piece should be “dedicated to the author of the quartet”. Closely linked to the 7th, which was written shortly before, Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet is today the most famous in the cycle. Composed over the course of three days in 1960, when the composer was visiting the devastated city of Dresden, it was officially dedicated “To the victims of fascism and war”, which soon led to a slew of official Soviet interpretations. At that time, Shostakovich was in the process of joining the Communist Party, a repeated source of friction in the composer’s intellectual and social life. The work quotes half a dozen of his earlier pieces, as if in a kind of advance epitaph to himself (“If I die one day, it is unlikely that anybody will compose a work in my memory. I have therefore done it myself”, he wrote to a friend). It insistently repeats the four-note motif D, E-flat, C, B (in German notation these notes are written as D, S, C, and H, the same letters that occur in the German spelling of Shostakovich’s name, Dmitri Schostakowitsch), a musical signature which traces the initials of his name, like an obsessive reverse BACH, adding, with obvious irony, the second “D” of Dimitri Dimitrievich, the compulsory patronymic under Bolshevik protocol, which in some respects was more formal than that of the Romanovs.

In short, the 8th Quartet evokes the sorrows of a life which was scarcely in better shape than the ruined Saxon capital: Shostakovich was a widower, his second marriage had turned out to be a failure, his few friendships were eroded by the official position he felt obliged to accept in Soviet musical life. The five interlinking movements of this remarkably powerful piece, which is remarkable for the direct power of confession and the indirect power of its enigmatic writing, therefore constitutes an encoded autobiography with few parallels in the history of music. It is up to each listener to judge whether this or that stylised explosionof strings is the sinister echo of a fascist bombing, or the memory of a door being violently slammed shut by some official of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Joseph Stalin’s NKVD.

It was not until 1983 that Elegy and Polka were published under the title Two Pieces for string quartet, although they were composed in 1931, before Shostakovich began work on his series of quartets. Both works are transcriptions of earlier pieces with which the young composer was particularly satisfied. The Elegy takes up an aria from the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, composed between 1930 and 1932 and staged in 1934, which was to be a landmark in the young composer’s career, while the Polka is taken from the ballet The Golden Age (1928), where it was scored for the xylophone.

Michel Stockhem
Translation: Jacqueline Minett