Movement 1: Largo
Movement 2: Allegro molto
Movement 3: Allegretto
Movement 4: Largo
Movement 5: Largo
The emotion is almost too direct. We know that in his dedication of the score to the ‘memory of the victims of fascism and war’, Shostakovich included himself as a victim, and that, regarding this as his last work, he planned to commit suicide after being forced to join the Communist Party. The extensive self-quotation in the Eighth Quartet is thereby explained, as is the directness of the emotional content, but such was the composer’s inherent creative genius that all of these myriad elements are combined with extraordinary thematic integration and cohesion.
This unity is derived from the opening four-note cell, DSCH (the composer’s own thematic monogram in German—D, E flat, C, B) occasionally encountered in his post-war music, but never more so than here. The quartet also quotes from his First, Fourth, Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies, the Piano Trio No 2, the First Cello Concerto, the banned opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and a song well-known in Russia, Exhausted by the hardships of prison. After the quartet was composed, and after overcoming his suicidal mood, Shostakovich began revising the opera as Katerina Ismailova, Op 114. The quartet’s underlying tonal scheme, as so often with this composer, echoes the work’s emotionally direct thematicism; in terms of broad outlines, the first movement is in C minor, the second—diametrically opposed—is in G sharp minor; the tonality falls semitonally to G minor for the third movement, and the fourth is likewise diametrically opposed, in C sharp minor. This falls, semitonally, to the C minor of the opening tonality to conclude the work.
The first movement begins with the DSCH motif, in the cello. The quartet is, clearly, to be a personal statement by the composer. The motif unfolds as a slow canonic exposition before three further ideas follow: the (very slow) quotation of the opening of the First Symphony, a descending chromatic scale over a long-held pedal bare fifth, and a theme akin to the second subject of the Fifth Symphony’s first movement. This material is counter-stated, but in reverse order, before—attacca—the fierce second movement, ‘Allegro molto’, shatters the fabric of the music.
This dramatic movement is propelled by a driving, impatient rhythm taken from the ‘Fifth Symphony’ theme and combined with DSCH in octave canon. The drive and impetus of the music is incessant, increasing in intensity until a great climax brings the wry ‘Piano Trio’ theme, now fff, and the material is recapitulated, the registers altered, and building to a considerable climax. This is suddenly severed and succeeded by a sardonic waltz structure, introduced by DSCH high on the first violin.
This waltz has an obsessed, hauntingly troubled nature, stemming from DSCH and the descending chromatic scale; the movement’s second main theme is passionate and vibrant, and, suddenly, the pulse becomes 2/2 with the appearance of the opening theme of the First Cello Concerto—but not on the cello. Almost at once this is gone, and the cello itself now has a high lyrical theme leading to a counterstatement of the material—the cello’s theme replaced by an extended unaccompanied violin line whose drone-like A sharp is sustained against clustered ‘gunfire’ from the lower strings. This is in fact the ‘Cello Concerto’ theme in massive augmentation, which leads to a deeply moving stream of music created from fragments of (among others) the Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies, DSCH, the revolutionary song and Lady Macbeth. The first violin, which began the movement, closes it with a new statement of the ever-present, all-observing, DSCH motif, expanding in slow fugal texture more fully worked than in the first movement, principally owing to a berceuse-like countersubject in the major, and which, as it progresses, slowly winds the music down to the C minor of DSCH, and thus finally lays this deeply disturbing score to rest.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2000