The first performance of the Thirteenth Quartet was given by the Beethoven String Quartet on 11 December 1970 at the USSR Composers’ Club in Moscow. Although falling into three broad sections, the work is composed in one movement—the only single-movement quartet in Shostakovich’s output.
The composer’s technical discoveries of the Twelfth Quartet are pursued further in the Thirteenth: the first is the twelve-note opening theme (here on viola), and the second is the structural functions of texture—which had (like the first) been part of Shostakovich’s compositional make-up from his earliest days, but which had assumed greater importance in the music’s foreground in recent years.
There is a third element: the virtually constant underlying pulse, which makes this a genuine one-movement symphonic work. This is not to say that the pulse remains entirely the same throughout; as the work moves to its astonishing coda, the emotional tenor of the music demands, if not forces, the pulse to slacken slightly, yet throughout the main body of the quartet the music always moves to a regular beat.
The Thirteenth Quartet opens with the unaccompanied viola twelve-note row, which possesses greater melodic and rhythmic emphases than that which began No 12. The inherent chromaticism is soon encapsulated into melodic minor seconds—expanded to harmonic minor ninths—when, after the first violin, unaccompanied, varies the row, the second violin presents the tonal ‘second subject’ in D flat (beginning with figurative repeated notes).
There is an imperceptible change of tempo (doppio movimento) and key (open fifths E–B on E minor, the opposite of B flat minor), and the remarkable central developmental section of the work begins. Here the straining minor ninths, against repeated notes and scraps of themes, become more prominent after a third twelve-note row is heard unaccompanied on the second violin. The texture becomes astonishingly varied and more fantastical as all four instruments—barely discoursing together but acting more as individuals arguing amongst themselves—share an extended passage before the cello rebuilds the tonality and customary quartet texture. Strange pianissimo trills (minor seconds this time) then underpin further repeated notes, pizzicato, on the first violin. The ninths burst out again, and it is the solo viola which begins the argument once more. It feels like a recapitulation of the opening material, but a solo cello ‘cadenza’ (reminiscent of the earlier quartets) and yet another strict twelve-note row from the first violin anchors the music to E major.
The begetter of the quartet, the unaccompanied viola, leads proceedings as the final part of the third section of the work gets under way. The ‘second subject’, on both violins, is recapitulated in B flat minor before the meandering viola ends the quartet in more than thirty bars of solo writing (‘accompanied’ by virtually inaudible ‘belly-taps’ on the second violin—the viola had earlier instigated this tone-colour in the central section). The viola moves ever upwards to the highest possible B flat, where it is joined by the violins in a sudden dramatic crescendo to sffff—and the music is gone.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2002