Movement 1: Moderato
Movement 2: Moderato
Movement 3: Allegro molto
Movement 4: Allegro
When one considers the lyrical and vernal Quartet No 1, a work so clear in utterance as to conceal the great artistry that informs its composition, and the emotionally resigned, anguished and deathly Quartet No 15, one can scarcely believe they are by the same composer. But, as with Beethoven, so vast and complete was Shostakovich’s range as an artist that he was able to express the full gamut of human emotion, and do so with that rare artistic gift – the detached yet sympathetic observation of the artist, not his personal participation in the event. However different these two quartets appear, they share one characteristic which marks them out as being, again in Beethovenian fashion, typical of the composer: their directness of utterance.
As with the music of all truly great composers, the more one discovers the more there is to discover, and even in such an overtly simple piece as Shostakovich’s Quartet No 1, Op 49, the artistry behind it is worthy of comment. The composer said that ‘in composing my First Quartet I visualized childhood scenes, somewhat naive and bright moods associated with spring’. The impetus for this is not hard to find: on 10 May 1938 his son Maxim had been born, and the Quartet was begun on 30 May; apart from the composer’s natural personal joy in fatherhood, his Symphony No 5 had received its triumphantly successful first performance the previous November, and with that event his rehabilitation within Soviet music – after the enormous pressure following the condemnation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936 – seemed assured. For once, this most sensitive artist appears to have been at ease with the world.
The String Quartet No 1 in C major is in four movements and begins at once with a mellifluous theme on the cello, under a counter-theme on the first violin, the other instruments providing simple C major harmony. If we think that this may be the beginning of a neoclassical movement, the composer has several surprises for us. The first is that this exposition presents subject and counter-subject at the same time; the second is that the second subject proper, given to the first violin after a long-held note, is in the key of B flat, all the more unexpected for being heralded by a repeated G on the viola (classically, one would expect the second subject to be in G); and the third is that the recapitulation adds a beat to the bar length, making the time-signature 4/4. Nor is the recapitulation at all regular; here it is more a question of feel, mood, or suggestion, rather than any literal restatement. A gentle return to 3/4 for the magical coda, in which the thematic material wafts away as soft underfeathers on a gentle breeze, ends the movement.
The second movement, Moderato, is not so much a theme with variations as a series of different settings of the same theme, which is clearly folk-based and – in great contrast to the fuller texture of much of the first movement – given at first to unaccompanied viola. There is one way in which both first and second movements are related, and that is in pulse: both are marked Moderato, crotchet = 80. Shostakovich avoids a feeling of sameness about these movements by making the first in 3/4 and the second in 4/4, as well as contrasting them in texture and key-relationships – particularly a heart-stopping modulation to E major. The varied settings of the theme in some ways, therefore, presage the great passacaglias in later works – the first time the theme appears it is ten bars in length, as in many of Shostakovich’s succeeding passacaglias – but its length is maintained in proportion to the first movement, and, like the first, its ending, a gentle pizzicato resonating chord of A minor, is equally magical.
A tone colour missing from the second movement is that of muted strings, but this is reserved for the following scherzo, Allegro molto, which is muted throughout, a characteristic this movement shares with the scherzos in some of Shostakovich’s later quartets. Here, the tonality is C sharp minor, and the music echoes the gossamer character of the first movement’s coda in its fleet and almost understated manner, and the solo viola texture of the second subject recalls the second movement’s exposition. In addition, this scherzo is in 3/4 and takes the thirds of the first movement coda a stage further, as well as alluding to the thematic material of the opening movement. Almost by stealth, therefore, Shostakovich is demonstrating a further organic unity in the work; even the gently rocking central section, in F sharp minor, derives from the cello’s accompanimental figure for the first movement’s second subject. The recapitulation of the scherzo shows the material in yet another light, as does the vanishing coda.
The nature of the finale is particularly interesting. The original manuscript of the Quartet is lost, but a piano score survives which originally places this movement first, and the first movement last. It is easy to see why Shostakovich reversed the order: the first movement ends quietly, which emotionally – not to say politically – would have ended this positive work on a less convincing note. The original first movement ends as if it were a finale, and as much of the material of the three movements so far discussed is so clearly related, the decision did not require much thought. The implications for this change of order, however, are that unity of material is to be further found in the finale, and that this finale carries, relatively, the most weight in the work. In the light of Shostakovich’s later string quartet development, this decision was particularly significant – and doubtless, in part, instinctive.
The finale, therefore, is a sonata-style structure, akin to the sonatina form perfected by Tchaikovsky, but as with many of Shostakovich’s sonata movements, his deployment of tonality is both unusual and logical. Thus, the tonal regions through which this movement moves are related to the tonic C, with E flat and C sharp minor exerting strong passing influences, while the light, main theme is firmly based on C. As the work moves to its close the music reasserts C in a sturdy passage that would not have been out of place in a late eighteenth-century score, but which is nonetheless pure Shostakovich – even in what might at first appear to be the simplest of his compositions one can discern a creative genius at work.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2004