Movement 1: Allegretto
Movement 2: Moderato con moto
Movement 3: Allegro non troppo
Movement 4: Adagio
Movement 5: Moderato
The work is ostensibly in five movements and begins, somewhat light-heartedly, in a clear F major, Allegretto, with an innocent-sounding theme. The second subject, in C, is rhythmically first cousin to that in the Ninth Symphony, and with the double bar and repeat (as in the Second Quartet and Ninth Symphony) the listener may be forgiven for imagining that Shostakovich has here embarked upon another friendly neo-classical piece. If he has, he does not continue it, at least in terms of sonata structure, for the development is nothing less than a double fugue and the recapitulation strains to keep on track the second subject hinting at B minor (!) and the coda finally getting us back on track with a pizzicato perfect cadence. The second movement, Moderato con moto, is like a slower, troubled reminiscence of the Scherzo in the Eighth Symphony at first, the viola ostinato heralding bitter music strongly dissonant, the freely contrapuntal nature producing a deep unease almost throughout the movement not always violent, but full of foreboding. The tonality is E minor so near and yet so far from the clear F major which began the work.
Aggression is the emotion of the gripping third movement, a mixture of Scherzo and March, 3/4 and 2/4 alternating almost at every bar in a bitter G sharp minor, looking forward, surely, to the eruptive second movement in the Tenth Symphony. The tonality switches to a kind of E flat major for what must pass as the Trio section, dominated first by the viola, before the opening bursts through the fabric to end the movement with a fierce challenge.
The fourth movement, an extended Passacaglia a form in which Shostakovich had already proved himself an expert anticipates a movement in another masterpiece, the Violin Concerto No 1 of 1947/8, but here it is rather freer, and therefore more personal and expressive. Beginning fortissimo, it tends to fall in dynamic, and in tonality, becoming almost bereft of energy until the finale enters, faster of course but very quietly and simply, a little uncertain at first, but growing in confidence until the music sings more lyrically, with F major more or less firmly established.
But it is not so easily achieved. As a climax builds, the theme from the Passacaglia strides across the texture, and then fades over a single repeated E from the cello. Was it all, tonally, in vain? No, for Shostakovich reaches his goal by making E the dominant of A minor, in turn the mediant of F major. By this un-classical, yet infinitely logical and moving progression, Shostakovich has revealed a profound musical truth; the pizzicatos which ended the first movement now bringing a deep pacification to the music which had earlier so troubled us.
It is sometimes claimed, not always convincingly, that there is often a hidden meaning in Shostakovich's work. Whilst the character of his instrumental art frequently exhibits great drama, his mastery of composition is such that his music has, in the last analysis, to stand or fall solely as music, and not through the imposition of some extra-musical programme. With regard to his Third String Quartet, however, the Borodin Quartet, one of the leading Soviet ensembles of their day, established in 1946, insisted upon the following subtitles being appended to the movements in every programme whenever they performed this work. Whilst they have never been published in any edition of the music, the Borodin Quartet clearly felt they had the composer's approval, and the subtitles fit the nature of the music:
I: 'Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm'
II: 'Rumblings of unrest and anticipation'
III: 'The forces of war unleashed'
IV: 'Homage to the dead'
V: 'The eternal question: Why? And for what?'
If indeed these are Shostakovich's original thoughts, then they assist in understanding the character of the work more, but what cannot be denied is that, in his Second and Third String Quartets, Dmitri Shostakovich declared himself to be one of the greatest quartet writers of the century, and continued as such in his successive masterpieces in the genre.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1999