Movement 1: Introduction: Andantino
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegretto
Movement 3: Recitative: Adagio
Movement 4: Etude: Allegro
Movement 5: Humoresque: Adagio
Movement 6: Elegy: Adagio
Movement 7: Finale: Moderato
From earliest times to the present day the string quartet has lent itself readily to the composition of a work in more than four movements to a degree which only exceptionally rarely applies to symphonic composition; structurally it has more in common with the partita or divertimento. The violin, the instrument of the group dance, the village dance, the formal social event of the ethnic ‘folk’, was also the instrument of the dancing-masters and has always been a melodic instrument. The instrument’s sustaining power means that both very fast and very slow music are ideally suited to it and the other strings; the wide emotional range lends it naturally to multi-movement composition, either as a multi-movement work, or as parts of a one-movement work.
In the Eleventh Quartet Shostakovich links seven separate short movements in a structural homage to the genre’s roots. The link is the emotional plan. In some respects the Eleventh revisits the Tenth: the first violin opens the work with a series of melodically joined rising and falling (yet modally indeterminate) fifths, which finally settle in F minor. This has been described as a ‘motto’ theme, but it is more a sequence of phrases from which the composer takes that which he needs for the following movements. Thus the movements are separate in character but thematically unified. The Scherzo is conjoined, and the first violin opens again, unaccompanied, with another simple dance-like idea, which falls melodically in thirds, punctuated by intermittent rising glissandos (which texturally anticipate parts of the last four quartets).
An ominous low C on the viola leads to the short yet strongly dramatic Recitative, almost as if it were the musical personification of three heart seizures. In the Etude, the first violin and then the cello envelope the movement, against a simple repeated chorale-like figure, a device which is turned on its head in the Humoresque, wherein the second violin repeats just two notes throughout, G and E, regardless of what else is going on. As this peters out, an interval between them, F sharp, becomes—as F sharp minor—the tonal region of the Elegy, the emotional heart of the work. Perhaps significantly, it is the unaccompanied second violin that leads to the finale, outwardly a very simple piece, initially in F minor/major, but focusing as it progresses on the minor mode as the organic material of the work passes by in affectionate reminiscence until the first violin holds the highest possible C, seemingly forever.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2002