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PROGRAM NOTES: Shostakovich I

by Eric Bromberger

Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11 (1931)

Born September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg
Died August 9, 1975, Moscow

When Shostakovich died in 1975, he was remembered primarily as a symphonist, but the last several decades have seen new interest in his chamber music, particularly the impressive cycle of fifteen string quartets. Shostakovich came to the string quartet relatively late in life, but as a very young man he had experimented with chamber music, composing a piano trio at 17 and the Two Pieces for String Octet at 18, while he was still a conservatory student.

From this same period came Shostakovich’s dazzling First Symphony, Opus 10, and in fact he worked on the symphony and the Two Pieces simultaneously. The Two Pieces are in the same neo-classical manner as the symphony. Shostakovich scored this music for string octet, specifically the same double string quartet that another teenaged composer, Felix Mendelssohn, had used in his Octet. The form can seem strange: this brilliant, bittersweet music consists of two contrasting and unrelated movements, both characterized by high energy levels.

Composed in December 1924, the Prelude is dominated by the powerful sequence of ominous chords heard at the very beginning. This movement is episodic, with sharply contrasting passages for muted triplets, pizzicato chords, and a virtuoso part for the first violin before closing on a quiet unison D. The Scherzo, written in July 1925, is much more acerbic. It too is episodic, though here the thematic material tends to be short and angular. The fiery main idea, announced by the first violin, rushes this movement to its sudden, powerful close.

The Two Pieces for String Octet were first performed in Moscow on January 9, 1927, by the combined Glière and Stradivarius Quartets.

Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 147 (1975)

The Viola Sonata, composed in the summer of 1975, was Shostakovich’s last work. After years of debilitating illness, the composer knew the end was near, and this music was written in that knowledge. Yet the Viola Sonata neither rages nor shakes its fist at death. Rather, it is somber and subdued, and while the music may be dark and sad, the end finds Shostakovich accepting fate rather than railing against it. All three movements end with the marking morendo, which means “dying.” In music, such a marking is usually taken to mean “dying away,” though here Shostakovich may have invoked the literal meaning as well.

Shostakovich preserves the expected three-movement structure of the instrumental sonata, but that may be the only traditional thing about this music, which is original in both form and expression. Shostakovich was never comfortable with fast opening movements, and the marking for the first movement here, Moderato, is entirely characteristic. Yet this is not a sonata-form movement; instead, it is episodic and restless. The very beginning is striking. All alone, the viola plays a gently rocking figure, entirely pizzicato and played only on the open strings–the effect is spare and haunting, and soon the piano takes up this same figure. The center of the movement is more animated, with the viola surging on triplet rhythms. Shostakovich makes an effective transition away from this furious energy as the viola’s high tremolo (played entirely ponticello: right on the bridge) accompanies the piano’s reprise of the rocking figure. A subdued viola cadenza (there are a number of passages for solo viola in this sonata) leads to the close, where the movement vanishes on fragments of earlier themes.

Allegretto was a favorite Shostakovich marking for movements, and this one is based on the viola’s dancing, sardonic main idea. This is quirky music, full of unexpected turns and stops, and finally it dies away on the piano’s ghostly tapping of the central rhythm. The last movement may be the most original of all, for the sonata ends not with the expected fast movement but with an Adagio that is by far the longest movement. Solo viola has the introduction, marked espressivo, and the entrance of the piano brings a further surprise: together, the instruments make fleeting but unmistakable references to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, which continue throughout. Shostakovich’s evocation of this material is painful and beautiful, but its relevance is not clear–perhaps it is his last gesture toward the great composer of the classical tradition which Shostakovich himself had taken up. There are several outbursts along the way, but the movement remains subdued, and at the end the last music Shostakovich ever wrote fades into silence on a quiet C-major chord.

The Viola Sonata was composed in June and July of 1975. Shostakovich entered the hospital at the end of the latter month, and it was there–in a hospital bed–that he corrected the proofs of this music on August 5. Three days later, Shostakovich–a passionate soccer fan–asked to be wakened in time to watch a televised match. He fell asleep–and never woke.

The Viola Sonata is dedicated to Fyodor Druzhinin, violist of the Beethoven Quartet and a longtime friend and colleague of the composer. Druzhinin gave the première performance in Moscow on October 1, 1975.

Concertino for Two Pianos in A Minor, Opus 94 (1954)

Shostakovich had two children: a daughter Galina in 1936 and a son Maxim two years later. Perhaps inevitably, both children studied the piano, and as they progressed their father wrote music for them to play. For Galina, her father wrote a series of short pieces that he collected as his Children’s Notebook, Opus 69. Galina eventually lost interest in the piano, but Maxim turned out to be a very good pianist indeed and studied at both the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories (and later went on to make a career as a conductor). In 1953, when Maxim was 15, Shostakovich composed the Concertino for Two Pianos for his son. Doubtless father and son tried the score out at home, but the official première was given by Maxim and one of his fellow piano-students, Alla Maloletkova, in Moscow on November 8, 1954. Shostakovich dedicated the score to his son.

Though written with young people in mind, the Concertino was clearly intended for very capable performers. About ten minutes long, it alternates slow and fast sections that develop material introduced at the very beginning. At that beginning, marked Adagio, the two pianists function as quite different characters. The second piano forges a portentous introduction, full of tremolos and dotted octave writing, while the first piano offers wistful, almost chaste responses. The music leaps ahead at the jaunty Allegretto with one of those playful and high-spirited movements so typical of Shostakovich in a lighter vein. This develops for some time before the music slows and recalls its very beginning: the first piano projects a glistening melodic line high above the second’s low tremolos. This is shouldered aside by a brilliant Allegro section enlivened by sweeping glissandos in the first piano. At the very end, Shostakovich once again brings back his fundamental slow-fast sequence. The music subsides for a quiet recall of its opening themes before the sizzling rush to the close.

Is the Concertino “great music”? No–and it never set out to be. Instead, it is very enjoyable music: enjoyable for an audience to hear and enjoyable for two pianists–of no matter what age–to play.

String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Opus 73 (1946)

The Third String Quartet was Shostakovich’s only composition during the year 1946. He dedicated it to the members of the Beethoven Quartet, who gave the first performance in Moscow on their namesake’s 176th birthday, December 16, 1946. The mention of Beethoven is apt, for many observers have felt that this quartet, particularly in its heartfelt fourth movement, consciously evokes the spirit of the older master. Yet the Third String Quartet is no imitation.

There is evidence that this quartet may have had a program related to the just-concluded war. Shostakovich’s original titles for the five movements of this quartet were Calm Awareness of the Future Cataclysm, Rumblings of Unrest and Anticipation, The Forces of War Unleashed, Homage to the Dead, and The Eternal Question–Why? And for What? Those titles suggest a program for this quartet very similar to the “Leningrad” Symphony of 1941 and a five-movement structure similar to the Eighth Symphony of 1943, which–like this quartet–included a “battle” movement, a passacaglia-like movement, and a quiet ending. Yet Shostakovich suppressed those titles and any hint of a program about the war, choosing instead to publish the quartet with only tempo markings for the movements.

The writing in this quartet is often quite demanding for the players. Much of it is set in the instruments’ higher registers, and there are moments of soloistic brilliance that seem at odds with the ensemble-playing expected in quartets. In addition, the harmonic language can be gritty–each movement has a key signature and a home key, but a clear sense of tonality is obscured by the continuously chromatic writing.

All this makes the Third Quartet sound forbidding, which it is not. But this is quite varied music, and listeners should come to it ready for the broad range of expression that marks Shostakovich’s best music. The very beginning of the opening Allegretto is frankly playful. The first violin’s skittering main idea dances gracefully, but Shostakovich stresses to all four players that he wants this beginning dolce. By contrast, the second subject is somber, moving darkly on its two-note cadence, and from the collision of these two ideas Shostakovich builds this sonata-form movement.

A pounding 3/4 pulse continues virtually throughout the Moderato con moto. There are moments when this 3/4 meter verges on a ghostly, frozen waltz, only to be straitjacketed back into rigidity; the movement fades into silence with all the instruments muted. By contrast, the Allegro non troppo explodes to life with what sound like gunshots. Built on alternating measures of 2/3 and 3/4, this scherzo–a first cousin of the “battle” movement of the Eighth Symphony, which had been inspired by newsreels of tank battles–rushes to a sudden close.

The expressive Adagio has reminded many of Beethoven’s late quartets. It opens with a powerful five-measure phrase that will function (somewhat) like the ground bass of a passacaglia, providing the foundation over which Shostakovich will spin out long spans of intense and moving melody. This proceeds without pause into the finale, which might have been a lighthearted conclusion, were the main idea not so spooky: the cello’s dark, sinuous main theme is accompanied by the viola’s pizzicato harmonics. As this movement dances along, Shostakovich gradually brings back themes from the earlier movements, and the quartet fades enigmatically into silence on a final chord marked morendo.