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But the pressures on Shostakovich were immense. Khrushchev was anxious to gain support from leading members of the Soviet intelligentsia. It would have been a major coup for him to persuade an artist of the stature of Shostakovich to join the Party—a public endorsement of his policies and achievements that would impress the world. One can imagine how hard the screw must have been turned. Eventually Shostakovich consented, but privately the decision cost him dearly. And it may well be that the Eighth Quartet (the ‘original’ of the Chamber Symphony recorded here) contains a musical testimony to his inner struggles at that time.
Shostakovich wrote the Eighth Quartet during a visit to East Germany in July 1960. When it first appeared there was talk of a programme: the Quartet had been inspired by the composer’s feelings of horror at the scale of the wartime destruction in Dresden. It was (we were told), dedicated to the victims of war and fascism—hence the quotation of the ‘Jewish’ theme from Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio in the Quartet’s turbulent second movement. The eerie long-held pianissimo violin note at the beginning of the fourth movement was compared to the distant drone of a bomber aircraft. Certainly there was no mistaking the tone of personal grief in the final ‘Largo’. A few questions remained: for example, why were there so many quotations from Shostakovich’s own works? And what was the significance of the four-note motif, D, E flat, C, B (in German notation D, Ess, C, H—ie Shostakovich’s own initials) which haunted all five movements? Still, for a while, the ‘war and fascism’ programme stuck.
Then in 1979, four years after the composer’s death, came another shock—the publication, in the West, of what purported to be Shostakovich’s memoirs, Testimony (as dedicated to and edited by his friend Solomon Volkov). Tone and content were revelatory: bitter and tormented, this Shostakovich was at pains to distance his major works from the official, Soviet interpretations that had clung to them, in some cases for decades. The remarks on the Eighth Quartet, though brief, were telling. ‘When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of “exposing fascism”. You have to be blind to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote (the opera) Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: “Exhausted by the hardships of prison”.’
Eventually confirmation came from other sources. In a letter to his friend Isaak Glickman, Shostakovich wrote that, ‘When I die, it’s hardly likely that someone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself’. One could almost write on the frontispiece, “Dedicated to the author of this quartet”.’ Another friend, Lev Lebedinsky, remembered what Shostakovich told him when the composer played him the Eighth Quartet just after his return from Dresden. The dedication to the victims of fascism was, said Lebedinsky, a ‘disguise…although, as he considered himself the victim of a fascist regime, the dedication was apt. In fact…it was his farewell to life. He associated joining the Party with a moral, as well as a physical death.’ As soon as he returned from Dresden, Lebedinsky tells us, Shostakovich bought a large number of sleeping pills. ‘He played the Eighth Quartet to me on the piano and told me with tears in his eyes that it was his last work.’ Lebedinsky managed to steal the pills and alerted the composer’s son. Maxim. ‘During the next few days I spent as much time as possible with Shostakovich until I felt the danger of suicide had passed.’
It all rings horribly true. There is nothing like the thought of imminent death to make a man look back over his life’s achievements—like Bruckner in the ‘Farewell to Life’ slow movement of his Ninth Symphony or W.B. Yeats in his death-obsessed poem The Man and the Echo. Nor can there be any mistaking the tone of private grief that saturates the Eighth Quartet, or the aching nostalgia when the fourth movement quotes the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (high cello). The D.S.C.H. motif is at last left to brood alone.
The contrast between the Eighth Quartet and the Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings (also known as ‘Piano Concerto No 1’) could hardly be more extreme. Glickman remembered the premiere, in 1933, as a ‘joyful occasion’—at which the composer himself, at the piano, played ‘exquisitely’. The Concerto is one of the most exuberant examples of Shostakovich’s wonderfully subversive sense of humour—an ability to, as nit were, pull the rug out from under the listener’s feet which, amazingly, never quite left him. It still sparkles amid prevailing darkness in his last symphony, No 15 (1971), and there is even a ghostly flicker in the elegiac closing pages of his final work, the Viola Sonata (1975).
There is no mistaking the insolent, nose-thumbing tone of the Concerto’s opening gesture (piano and trumpet), and the seemingly solemn tone of the piano’s first theme is far from convincing. By the time the trumpet enters again, all pretence of earnestness has been thrown out of the window. The following ‘Lento’ affects a wistful tone at first (strings), but this too is gently deflated by the piano. After a short ‘Moderato’ introduction (semi-serious again), havoc breaks loose in the finale—virtuoso grotesque humour abounds, right through to the trumpet’s brainless fanfares at the end. The unrelieved tragedy of the Eighth Quartet seems impossibly remote—though some listeners may detect a nervousness behind the finale’s manic capering. Just how ‘joyous’ is this music?
The Two Pieces for string octet (1924-5), subtitled ‘Prelude’ and ‘Scherzo’, were written while Shostakovich was still a student at the Leningrad Conservatory—at about the same time as the composer was working on his astonishingly precocious First Symphony. At the time, Shostakovich told a friend that the Two Pieces, and particularly the ‘Scherzo’, were a sign that he was ‘becoming more of a modernist’—a remark which may have been intended to be taken with a grain or two of salt. They certainly show that he was becoming much more confident, and in the feverishly brilliant ‘Scherzo’ one may hear the pre-echoes of greater things to come—including, the ‘Allegro molto’ second movement of the Eighth Quartet.
Stephen Johnson © 2015