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Chamber Symphony, Op 110a

composer
1960; based on the String Quartet No 8 in C minor, Op 110
arranger
1974

 
In September 1960, the 54-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich sprang one of the biggest surprises of his career: he applied to join the Communist Party. The decision shocked and mystified many of his colleagues. Why, after holding out for so long, should he suddenly throw in the towel now? Through all the terrible years of the Stalin dictatorship he had held onto the last shred of independence. But in 1960 Stalin was long dead: his ‘mistakes’ were—up to a point—openly discussed. The regime of the new Chairman, Nikita Khrushchev, was less oppressive. A strange time to cave in.

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) 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.

from notes by Stephen Johnson © 2015

La transcription pour orchestre à cordes du Huitième Quatuor de Chostakovitch fut réalisée avec l’approbation de l’auteur par l’altiste et compositeur Roudolf Barchaï, fondateur de l’Orchestre de chambre de Moscou. Le Huitième Quatuor fut écrit en trois jours, en 1960, lors d’une visite à Dresde—la ville portait encore les stigmates des bombardements aériens de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Sur le moment, Chostakovitch décida que ce serait sa dernière œuvre: profondément dépressif, il rentra chez lui avec une provision de somnifères, dans l’intention semble-t-il de se suicider. Il confia à un ami qu’il l’avait composé le visage baigné de larmes, ajoutant: «Lorsque je mourrai, il est peu probable que quiconque écrive un quatuor à ma mémoire. J’ai donc décidé de l’écrire moi-même.»

La partition regorge de citations au fort contenu personnel; elle inclut un motif de la Symphonie «pathétique» de Tchaïkovski et de nombreuses références aux propres œuvres de Chostakovitch. Le fait le plus saillant est que le compositeur intègre tout au long de la pièce sa propre signature musicale, qui représente (selon la notation musicale allemande) ses initiales DSCH. Dans le premier mouvement, ce motif sous-tend une élégie funèbre dans le style fugué. Le deuxième mouvement est une éruption furieuse d’énergie et de violence. Le troisième mouvement, une valse obsessionnelle et ironique, est suivi par deux mouvements lents. Le premier est dominé par des rythmes répétitifs et martelés qui rappellent délibérément la «Marche funèbre de Siegfried», dans Le Crépuscule des dieux de Wagner; Chostakovitch y cite également un obsédant chant de prisonniers russe, tout en faisant allusion à une mélodie issue de l’acte III de son opéra Lady Macbeth du district de Mtsensk, condamné en 1936 par Staline avec, pour le compositeur, des conséquences désastreuses. Le dernier mouvement baigne dans une angoisse sans borne, hanté lui aussi par les éloquentes cartes de visite de Chostakovitch. À la fin, comme dans la Symphonie «pathétique» de Tchaïkovski, la musique s’évanouit dans le ilence.

extrait des notes rédigées par Wendy Thompson © 2015
Français: Claire Delamarche

Diese Transkription von Schostakowitschs achtem Streichquartett wurde mit Billigung des Komponisten von dem Violaspieler und Dirigenten Rudolf Barschai vorgenommen, der auch das Moskauer Kammerorchester gründete.

Das Streichquartett Nr. 8 war 1960 innerhalb von drei Tagen in dem noch von den Bombenangriffen des Zweiten Weltkriegs zerstörten Dresden entstanden. Zu der Zeit kam Schostakowitsch zu dem Entschluss, dass dieses Quartett sein letztes Werk darstellen solle. Er war zutiefst bedrückt und kehrte mit einem Vorrat an Schlaftabletten zurück, offenbar mit der Absicht, Selbstmord zu begehen. Er berichtete einem Freund, er habe das Quartett mit Tränen überströmten Wangen geschrieben, zudem: „Wenn ich sterbe, wird kaum jemand ein Quartett zu meinem Andenken schreiben. Deshalb habe ich beschlossen, es selbst zu schreiben.“

Das Werk ist durchsetzt von Zitaten sehr persönlicher Natur, etwa ein Motiv aus Tschaikowskis Sinfonie „Pathétique“, dazu Verweise auf mehrere eigene Kompositionen. Am nachdrücklichsten zieht sich aber seine eigene musikalische Signatur (in deutscher Schreibweise) durch die Musik, seine Initiale D—S—C—H. Im ersten Satz bildet dieses Motiv das Fundament einer Elegie im Fugenstil, der zweite Satz stellt sich als ungezügelter Ausbruch gewaltiger Energie dar. Auf den dritten Satz, einen besessenen, ironischen Walzer, folgen zwei langsame Sätze. Der Erste, in dem ein repetitiv hämmernder, sehr bewusst Siegfrieds Trauermarsch aus Wagners Götterdämmerung aufgreifender Rhythmus bestimmend ist, zitiert ein eindringliches Lied russischer Gefangener sowie einen Verweis auf eine Melodie aus dem dritten Akt seiner Lady Macbeth von Mzensk, eben der Oper, die Stalin 1936 mit verheerenden Folgen für den Komponisten verteilt hatte. Der letzte Satz bringt reinste Qual zum Ausdruck, und auch er ist von Schostakowitschs Signatur durchdrungen, bis er schließlich, wie Tschaikowskis Sechste Sinfonie, in Stille verebbt.

aus dem Begleittext von Wendy Thompson © 2015
Deutsch: Ursula Wulfekamp

Recordings

Schubert: Death and the Maiden; Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony
Studio Master: LSO0786Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: Largo
Movement 2: Allegro molto
Movement 3: Allegretto
Movement 4: Largo
Movement 5: Largo

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