Movement 1: Allegretto
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Allegretto
The work is in three movements, the second and third of which run consecutively. While it is possible to see the cello as the main protagonist of the quartet, as the music progresses the texture becomes fully integrated, and there are important solo passages for the first violin and the viola. It was preceded by Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, which saw a return to more classical structural precepts – although the composer’s gift for creating large-scale works from the merest of thematic germs is there shown at its most complete. The symphony, however, has another layer of interest, for Shostakovich admitted that it had an underlying ‘programme’: the story of a man’s life. In effect, it was his own life, but the aspect of reminiscence – which assumed greater importance in his few remaining works and which impinged upon his thinking at that time – can also be found in the Fourteenth Quartet.
This is not to say that this feature, exemplified in self-quotation, is as pervasive as it was in the Eighth Quartet, but it is there to some degree. It would equally be wrong to infer that No 14 is easier to grasp than its immediate predecessors, despite the relative outward simplicity of structure and melodic appeal which it undoubtedly possesses, for beneath the surface – especially in the finale – there are, as we might expect with this composer, more subtle processes at work.
The entire material for the Fourteenth is derived from the first six bars: a repeated F sharp on the viola, above a quirky, almost childish, theme on the cello. The working of these ideas is not difficult to follow, although we may at first miss the implications of the rather odd preparation for the second group of themes – first, again on the cello, and secondly, a continuation on the first violin (as a third idea). What might pass for the development is concerned with four ‘workings’ of this material – as duos, trios and textural ‘spatial’ effects, ending on a high C sharp before a viola recitative heralds a truncated recapitulation, almost in the ‘wrong’ key. The cello then has a longer recitative, joined by the viola and second violin in continuing the reminiscence of the first idea; the movement peters out in F sharp.
The second movement, Adagio, begins as if it were to be a slow study on an eleven-bar theme in D minor on solo first violin, which contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. A few bars of full texture leads to another unaccompanied first violin idea, now joined by the cello, who takes up the initial theme. In one of Shostakovich’s most remarkable stretches of quartet-writing, a long duo between violin and cello ensues, until both violins, with the viola pizzicato between them, decorate the texture above a long cello line, arco, of great expressiveness. The pizzicato is gradually discarded, and the passage dies away with repeated As on second violin, leading to the final section of the movement, which slowly oscillates between G minor and its leading tonality, F sharp. First violin revives the pizzicato, repeating C sharp (the dominant of the home key), and then the finale is upon us – with a theme taken directly from Shostakovich’s opera Katerina Ismailova, the second version of the opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk (then still banned in Russia).
The text is ‘Serezha, my dear! my dear!’, no doubt a reference to the cellist; the finale is in two main halves, both devoted to full (yet very different) development of this material, with earlier themes from the quartet (and elsewhere) moulded into a fast and almost explosively powerful outpouring, followed by a gradual lightening of texture and slowing of tempo: a far more lyrical treatment of the ideas, with the cello fascinatingly scored so as to be heard above the other instruments, quietly brings the Quartet to a close in F sharp major.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 2003