Movement 1: Allegretto
Movement 2: Moderato con moto
Movement 3: Lento
Movement 4: Lento – Allegretto
1956 was the year of Shostakovich’s fiftieth birthday, and the Sixth Quartet was written for a commemorative concert by the Beethoven Quartet. The event was, naturally, to be a pleasant one, and the music reflects, at least on the surface, the happiness as may be felt on such an occasion. Beneath the surface, however, we discern one of this composer’s greatest and most original masterpieces.
At heart, the music is concerned with relationships between the home key, G major, and those adjacent to it in pitch: A flat and G flat, their modes and relative minors, to which the first subject—entering at once in a sunny G major—gently alludes. The second subject in D is also simply presented, with an iambic cadence, occasionally lengthened, but already Shostakovich has given subtle glimpses of adjacent moods, in a brief cello phrase, underlying the side-steps, and an anagram of DSCH in the genial first subject—not unlike that which began the Fourth Quartet.
This material is treated urbanely, discursively, but, in exploring aspects of it, the music moves easily through those adjacent keys, giving the movement an extraordinarily fluid feeling, exceptional in Shostakovich’s music. At the end, it is the brief cello phrase that, slightly extended, brings the movement to its tonal home.
The second movement, ‘Moderato con moto’ in E flat and 3/4, opens with a sturdy theme on first violin, largely in crotchets, which initially behaves as though it is a passacaglia in the treble, but even as this is implied the accompanying viola and cello line, in octaves, subtly changes the harmonic emphasis. Viola and cello have a flowing secondary theme, also in octaves, before the first theme returns, harmonised on violins and viola, leading to a high F sharp (G flat). This ushers in a central section in B minor, dominated by a chromatic first violin theme, initially contrasted with earlier material but not unrelated to it. A recapitulation has the violin’s first theme on cello, pizzicato, gradually combined with the chromatic theme. The result dissipates the movement’s energy until vague remembrances are heard under the highest B flat on first violin. The movement ends with the cello’s phrase, now but an outline, reminiscenza, in a rather uncertain E flat.
The uncertainty is that the cello phrase implied the minor mode, and the third movement brings the passacaglia itself—hinted at the opening of the second movement—in B flat minor. The cello has a solemn ten-bar theme; as the other instruments enter, the music maintains the contemplative mood, emotionally stable and barely rising above pianissimo. The closing bars bring the cello phrase again, rather foreign in this context, but opening a curtain, as it were, on the finale and revealing the warmth of G major—as if it had been there all along, hidden from our perception.
First violin, unaccompanied, surveys the scene and, with an anagram of the Quartet’s opening theme, begins a sonata rondo with viola and cello. The second subject—paralleling the first movement tonalities—is in F sharp minor on all four instruments. Reminiscences—not quotations—of the first movement pass by as rondo episodes until the music, all passion spent, and embracing adjacent tonalities as neighbours rather than enemies, quietly ends with a final reprise of the cello cadence in a simple G major.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2000