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by Eric Bromberger

String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major, Opus 133 (1968)

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

The official Soviet position on serial composition was completely negative: the Soviets believed that Schoenberg’s theory of composing with sequences of twelve tones was the worst sort of “formalism”–music separated from natural impulses and alien to the tastes of the public. But late in his career–at a time when his standing as a composer was secure–Shostakovich became intrigued by certain possibilities inherent in serial procedures, and twelve-note sequences appeared in several works, principally the String Quartet No. 12 and the Violin Sonata, both composed in 1968.

Questioned about this during his final visit to the United States in 1973, Shostakovich told an interviewer: “I did use some element of dodecaphony in these works. Of course, if you take a theory and use solely this theory, I have a very negative attitude toward this kind of approach. But if a composer feels that he needs this or that technique, he can take whatever is available and use it as he sees fit. It is his right to do so. But if you take only one technique, whether it is aleatory or dodecaphonic, and use nothing but that technique, then it is wrong.”

This comment is the best possible introduction to his String Quartet No. 12, for while twelve-tone rows appear in this quartet, the music’s harmonic language remains tonal–Shostakovich treats the twelve-note sequence not as a row but as a theme to be developed in traditional ways. The quartet is in a specific key–D-flat major–and however chromatic Shostakovich’s development may become, the music remains firmly anchored in that home key, as the triumphant conclusion demonstrates. Shostakovich’s encounter with twelve-tone music in this quartet is more a flirtation than an embrace–it is as if he raises the issue just to get beyond it.

The Twelfth Quartet has an unusual structure: a brief opening movement is followed by a long second movement that breaks down into smaller sections at different speeds and in contrasted moods. Some observers have been quick to relate these sections to the slow movement, scherzo, and so on of the traditional string quartet, but such a reading straitjackets Shostakovich’s quite original music into other molds. Far better to take this music on its own terms than to attempt to understand it in ways that may be alien to it.

Solo cello opens the Moderato with the twelve-note sequence that will recur throughout the quartet, but the first true theme–firmly tonal–follows immediately in the first violin. That same instrument has the lilting second idea at the Allegretto, another sequence of the twelve tones. Shostakovich’s treatment of these ideas can be full of chromatic tension, but the movement remains fundamentally harmonic, and it comes to a quiet close.

The long second movement opens with fierce trills in the upper instruments as the cello spits out the five-note rhythmic cell that will run through this movement. This opening section, which can be quite abrasive, gives way to a long Adagio, introduced by solo cello–its somber song is answered by a dark chant from the muted upper voices, harmonized triadically. Material from the first movement begins to reappear here, and the Moderato fuses some of these ideas as it builds to a huge climax punctuated by biting chords. Finally the dancing first violin draws us into the concluding Allegretto section, derived from the cello’s five-note cell at the opening of this movement. This section drives with great energy to its close, where the rhythm of that cell rockets home in triumphant D-flat major. In the Twelfth Quartet, Shostakovich may raise the issue of serial music, but only as a starting point–the form and treatment of these ideas is anything but serial, and at the end the quartet seems to thumb its nose defiantly at the whole issue of atonality.

Shostakovich completed the Twelfth Quartet on March 11, 1968, and the Beethoven String Quartet gave several private performances that June. Shostakovich, who knew that this music represented new directions for him, was quite pleased with these performances and with his new creation. He dedicated this music to the Beethoven Quartet’s first violinist, Dmitri Tsyganov, and that quartet gave the public première Moscow on September 14, 1968.

Sonata in D Minor for Cello and Piano, Opus 40 (1934)

Shostakovich began writing his Cello Sonata on August 15, 1934, and completed it on September 19, a week before his 28th birthday. This was an unusually calm interlude in the often-tormented life of this composer. Earlier that year he had scored a triumph with the première of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which was now headed for production in Buenos Aires, New York, Stockholm, Zurich, and other cities. The infamous Pravda attack on the opera–an assault that nearly destroyed Shostakovich’s career–would not occur for another sixteen months. Audiences normally think of Shostakovich’s music from this early period as brilliant, witty, and nose-thumbing, but already another of Shostakovich’s many styles had begun to appear: the neo-classical. In 1933 he had written Twenty-Four Preludes for piano (with the model of Bach’s sets of twenty-four preludes clearly in mind), and the Cello Sonata–with its romantic melodies, conservative harmonic language, and fairly strict classical forms–is very much in the manner of the cello sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms.

Frequently performed and recorded, the Cello Sonata remains one of Shostakovich’s most approachable works, particularly for its broad lyricism and generally untroubled spirit. Viktor Lubatsky was cellist and Shostakovich the pianist at the première, which took place on Christmas Day 1934. Shostakovich was a virtuoso pianist, and it is not surprising that the piano is given so prominent a role in this sonata: it introduces several themes, dominates textures, and is an extremely active participant.

The cello, however, has the lovely opening melody of the Allegro non troppo. The piano introduces the quiet second theme, and both are treated fully before the quiet close of this sonata-form movement. Brisk cello arpeggios open the energetic Scherzo, with the piano singing the main idea high above; the piano also has the second subject over eerie, swooping swirls from the cello. The Largo begins with a recitative-like passage from the cello in its deepest register; soon the piano enters, and the movement’s central theme is heard: a lyric, flowing passage for cello over steady piano accompaniment. Dark and expressive, this Largo stands apart in its intensity from the other three movements of the sonata.

The concluding Allegro comes closest to the sardonic manner of Shostakovich’s early music. The piano has the abrupt main idea, and the cello’s restatement already brings a saucy variation. The theme goes through several episodes, some of them humorous. At times the humor is almost too broad: one of the instruments will have the theme, played fairly straight, while in the background the other is going crazy with the most athletic accompaniment imaginable. For all its humor, however, the music never turns to slapstick, and the final episode–for piano over pizzicato accompaniment–is lovely.

Those interested in this sonata should know that while it has had many fine recordings, the most interesting remains one made long ago (in monophonic sound), featuring the composer at the piano and a very young Mstislav Rostropovich as cellist. This performance has now reappeared on compact disc and is well worth knowing, despite its inevitable limitations of sound.

Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Opus 67 (1944)

The Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941 was the greatest catastrophe ever to befall any nation. In four years, twenty million Russians died, and the country sustained damage and suffering that no amount of time could fully repair. Shostakovich, then in his late thirties, reacted to the war with two quite different kinds of music. There was the public Shostakovich, who wrote the “Leningrad” Symphony and marches and songs. Patriotic and optimistic, these made the right noises for the time–and for the Soviet government. But the private Shostakovich recorded his reactions to these years in other music. The Eighth Symphony of 1943 and the Piano Trio in E Minor of 1944 reveal a much less optimistic Shostakovich, one anguished by the war. This was not the kind of music a Soviet government committed to the artistic doctrine of Socialist Realism wanted to hear, and it is no surprise that performances of the Trio were banned for a time or that the Eighth Symphony was singled out for particular censure at the infamous meeting of the Union of Soviet Composers in 1948.

Two particular events in the winter of 1944 appear to have inspired this trio. The first came in February, when Shostakovich’s closest friend, the scholar and critic Ivan Sollertinsky, died (the Trio is dedicated to his memory). The second was the discovery–as the Nazi armies retreated–of atrocities committed against Russian Jews. Shostakovich completed the Trio in the spring and played the piano at its first performance in Leningrad on November 14, 1944.

The very beginning of the Andante–an eerie melody for muted cello, played entirely in harmonics–sets the spare and somber mood of this music. The other voices enter in canon, with the main theme of this sonata-form movement a variation of the opening cello melody. The Allegro non troppo opens with fanfare-like figures for the strings. This is one of those hard-driving, almost mechanistic Shostakovich scherzos, and its dancing middle section in G major brings scant relief.

The stunning Largo is a passacaglia. The piano announces eight solemn chords that form the bass-line of the passacaglia, and there follow five repetitions as the strings sing poised, grieving lines above the piano chords. The concluding Allegretto follows without pause. This movement is said to have been inspired by accounts that the Nazis had forced Jews to dance on their graves before execution. Shostakovich does not try to depict this in his music, but the sinister, grotesque dance for pizzicato violin that opens this movements suggests a vision of horror all its own. Shostakovich makes the connection clear with the second theme, of unmistakably Jewish origin, for piano above pizzicato chords. The close brings back themes from earlier movements–the cello melody from the very beginning and the entire passacaglia theme–and finally the little dance tune breaks down and the music vanishes on quiet pizzicato strokes.

No wonder the Soviet government banned performances of this music! The Trio in E Minor is unsettling music, more apt to leave audiences stunned than cheering, and it is a measure of Shostakovich the artist that he could transform his own anguish into music of such power and beauty.