Journal of Shostakovich 8th string quartet analyses
First movement starts off with 4 notes, which are then repeated but in different octaves. The sound is grim, and not very happy. Chromatic scale in violins sounds creepy and eerie. Again back to the 4 original notes. The melody line keeps repeating; first it sounds romantic but reverts back to general mood of first movement. Back to the original 4 notes, and to same way that the first movement starts. No break between the first and second movement. The second movement is at a much faster pace (Allegro molto). Sounds like mayhem, especially due to the pace, and very violent sound of notes. Also sounds like someone is pleading for something to stop at times. Repetition of melody line over and over again. The second movement does not end conclusively, and continues right to the 3rd movement. The 3rd movement is waltz-like since it has a distinct 3 beats per measure. The very high notes in the violins are followed by low notes from cello. Then the cello carries the main melody line. Chromatic high notes that are ascending then immediately descending in the violins. Goes back to waltz-like part. Cello leads again, and finishes this movement with slow moving notes. Now in 4th movement, 3 loud notes are repeated intermittently, while the same note is held in background. All 4 instruments play together now, with cello deviating occasionally. Again goes to exactly how 4th movement started. 3 loud notes heard again. More romantic melody line heard now; sounds almost melancholy, and fearful. It seems like the softer sounds are winning over the larger ones. But now it’s back to the 3 loud notes from the start of the 4th movement. Again there is no break from 4th to 5th movement. Melody heard previously reappears, and builds in a crescendo with all instruments playing. Then solo, and repeat of 1st movement. Sounds organ-like, as in a funeral. Lastly there is a decrescendo until the end.
In the first movement, the vibrato in cello creates a sense of fear and uncertainty. Interestingly, the chromatic scales in solo viola are mostly descending. So much of the first movement already presents repetition: variations on the same central theme. Chromatic scales are mostly descending in cello now, but it is not a solo, and almost secondary. The ending of the first movement is a decrescendo followed by a very rapid crescendo that leads right into the second movement. From the beginning of the second movement, one violin seems to have the main part in this new fast paced music. Then the second joins in amplifying the first violin. It seems as if the violins are attacking their instruments. It sounds like a literal and physical attack (mental and physical). Some of the notes are discordant. Sounds like an argument between many different sides, and very unclear who is “saying” what. Repetition is key here in the second movement as well. The main part moves from violins to cello to the viola. Sudden drop in volume, followed by a crescendo. The 3rd movement again sounds like a waltz, but it has a nightmarish quality to it. Pizzicato for string instruments is the plucking of the bow, but why does Shostakovich include it? Chromatic scales with very high notes in violins are played very quietly as opposed to the first movement. The ending of the 3rd movement is calm and relatively peaceful. But it is disturbed by 3 loud noises in the 4th movement; maybe knocks on the door. If so, the music between these reoccurring knocks sounds like the person inside is hesitant to open the door and is purposefully stalling. The knocks however persist. The romantic melody line is soft, but is it convincing? No, because the “knocking” continues. The 4 notes from the first movement come back again, and continue through the 5th movement. Here the same 5 notes are repeated over and over again, with piano fingering: 43231. The ending seems slower than the rest of the string quartet, but what does it mean?
I read some history on Shostakovich in order to better understand the 8th string quartet and the context in general. Shostakovich was consistently at odds with the Soviet government. Perhaps the sad and disconcerting sound is purposeful in an attempt to “show” how life is under the Soviet government. Why the repetition and patterns in the first movement, what does it mean? Maybe Shostakovich is trying to show the dreariness and pattern like quality of communist life. The sudden crescendo into the second movement is alarming and almost unexpected. Moreover the violins create very violent sounds, almost like a massacre. Stalin killed millions upon millions of people to quell his opposition. The music then progresses to a devilish sound, like something straight out of Hell. The cello picks up the violent melody where the violins left off, why? The third movement is definitely waltz-like, but waltzes are supposed to be happy joyous, yet this sounds very lugubrious. In the 4th movement, the mood seems very tense and hesitant at the same time. I am unsure whether those reoccurring 3 sounds are someone knocking on the door, or guns representing more death by a firing squad? If so, then the somewhat romantic melody in between is somewhat like Chopin’s funeral march. The 5th movement is still ambiguous, and I’m not sure what it means.
After getting a better understanding of the context surrounding this piece, the first movement really seems to be personal: how Shostakovich life’s was influenced by the totalitarian regime. This piece, String Quartet No. 8, is in C Minor, which is an important distinction from a major key, which would sound happier than a minor key. The first movement is very dissimilar to the second movement, which has a ferocity and tenseness that is impossible to ignore. The vibrato certainly adds to this effect. The communist (though really totalitarian beginning with Stalin) government in Russia thrived from instilling fear in its citizens. When the cello carries the main theme, it seems less tense, yet the violins come back shortly with an even more fearful variation on the main theme of this movement. Again I’m unsure what purpose the waltz-like nature of the 3rd movement serves. The 3 loud bursts definitely sound like someone knocking on the door. It is less likely that a firing squad is shooting 3 shots. It is much more likely that Shostakovich purposefully included this to show the fear and apprehensiveness of KGB agents showing up unannounced at odd hours of the night. The music in between the knocks shows the “victim’s” hesitation in opening the door, but since the knocks continue, there is little choice. The 5th movement seems almost a continuation of the 1st movement, especially since the tempo of both is Largo.
After today’s discussion, I learned that the 4 note motif that is repeated at the very start is d, e flat, c, b, which when translated to German music notation yields D, Es, C, H, Dmitri Shostakovich’s initials: D. Sch. The knowledge of this DSCH motif changes my perception greatly, because it makes this particular string quartet very personal to Shostakovich, and very autobiographical. Now the fear inherent in this piece may be the fear Shostakovich has to live with daily in the wake of an oppressive Soviet government. In the first movement, there are places where the melody becomes “romantic-like”, where the fear subsides, but it does not last long, and the sad and melancholy melody returns to haunt Shostakovich. The 2nd movement does not contain the DSCH motif, so most likely Shostakovich does not intend for this movement to be personal, but instead intends to show the confusion and horror inflicted upon the Russian people by the government. The knocking then, in the 4th movement cannot be applied to the general Russian populace, but to Shostakovich in particular since he had adverse relations with the Soviet government. The happy melody line that builds up gives the impression that either the KGB agents have left him alone, or they have come to some sort of an agreement. The knocking breaks up the happy melody however, and despondency reigns again. I am still not sure what the reoccurrence of the DSCH theme in the final movement means exactly.
By repeating the same 4 note theme (DSCH) is employing counterpoint, a technique common in the compositions of Bach. Also interesting is that Bach used a similar BACH motif in many of his pieces. Like I wrote in a previous entry, this motif makes the piece personal, but some parts of the string quartet do not seem to be pertain to Dmitri Shostakovich alone. In the second movement for example, the melody sounds distinctly Jewish. Shostakovich may be addressing either the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jewry or the horrible fate of Jews during the holocaust. In either event, it was no secret that Shostakovich, unlike the Soviet government, was very friendly to Jewish people (openly had Jewish friends), and had no antisemitic inclinations. If the 8th string quartet is to be viewed as an autobiographical work, Shostakovich must include these Jewish melodies show the extent to which Shostakovich identifies with not only Jewish people, but the plight of an oppressed people. In the context of politics, some parts of the 3rd movement’s waltz sounds almost like a firing squad. The cello sounds like someone is wailing, but the violins keep pounding the same note, which closely resembles the sound of bullets flying. It is especially interesting that this movement is quieter than the previous movement, which might show the level of secrecy and anonymity upheld during executions in Russia.
Today in discussion I learned that Shostakovich has a dedication on the sheet music which reads “In Memory of the Victims of Fascism and War”. I will now listen to the piece and see how my perception changes in knowledge of this fact. It still seems autobiographical because of the DSCH motif in the first movement. It is likely though, that Shostakovich believed that the Soviet system of government was tantamount to fascism, if not worse. Thus it would make perfect sense that Dmitri Shostakovich considers himself a victim of fascism. His dedication is first dedicated to the victims of fascism, and then to the victims of war. This is well reflected in the second movement, which certainly sounds like a violent war erupting. Interestingly the Jewish melody comes into the middle of the 2nd movement. Certainly Jews were targets of Nazi fascism. Also I noticed that the Jewish melody line is almost exactly the same as that of Shostakovich’s own Piano trio Op.67 (4th movement). The 3rd movement sounds like a waltz of death by a firing squad. It doesn’t seem to be a reference to the German concentration camps, but instead a reference to the Soviet executions of political dissidents which numbered more than 3 million under Stalin alone. The 4th movement can either refer to a firing squad again, but most likely to the KGB knocking on Shostakovich’s door. Interestingly, the parts that seem to pertain to Shostakovich autobiographically (1st, 4th, and 5th movement) are all Largo.
Shostakovich was planning this quartet as his final work when he wrote to his Jewish friend Isaak Glikman: “I reflected that if I die some day then it’s hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: “Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet”. Shostakovich intended to commit suicide after writing this quartet, but luckily the sleeping pills were confiscated. Shostakovich’s the final wording of the dedication was changed to “In Memory of the Victims of Fascism and War”. Thus there is little doubt remaining that Shostakovich considers himself a victim of fascism. This also verifies my interpretation of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movements, which are clearly dedicated to victims of fascism and war, whether they be casualties of World War II, or casualties of Nazi or Soviet systematic execution – Jews and the Russian people. In light of this, when I listen to the first and the 5th movements again, it’s obvious that they are closely intertwined and related. Both have a fugal nature, yet I am not entirely sure yet WHY this is so.
Some more context surrounding the composition of the 8th string quartet: Shostakovich composed it not long after joining the communist party. This was a big step, both politically and personally. Shostakovich was never a fan of the government that constantly instilled fear not only in himself, but also in the entire Russian population. This sheds light on the 4th movements, in which the KGB knocks on Shostakovich’s door. To continue with what I ended with in the 8th entry, the 1st and 5th movements are very purposely linked. I decided to listen to each back to back, and skip the middle 3 movements. The difference between the 1st and 5th is that the latter employs the 4-3-2-3-1 pattern. After this pattern finishes in the 5th movement, the notes are heard directly from the first movement, BUT, they are at a much slower pace. Each contains a plethora of counterpoint and sound very similar to Bach’s type of fugue. Bach mainly composed Church music, so the impression is that the setting is now a Church. However, this is no regular church service, it sounds more like a funeral procession for Dmitri Shostakovich.
For the final entry, I decided to listen to a different interpretation of the quartet. Previously I was listening to the Borodin String Quartet, but now I am watching a performance on youtube of the Victoria Conservatory of Music Summer String Academy chamber music competition. It is vastly different to watch a performance instead of just listening to it. In the first movement the tempo is slower than in the Borodin String Quartet. The vibrato seems artificial, and not in the right style that Shostakovich would have wanted. Also I get the general impression that the performers are less “professional” than the members in the Borodin String Quartet. It is very interesting to see the transition into the second movement. Suddenly the performers become vivacious, but it seems like the tempos between the quartet members are out of sync at the start of the 2nd movement. In the Borodin recording it was easy to hear individual notes, but in this youtube video all the notes seem “slushed” together. The pace of the waltz in the 3rd movement is too rushed. In the Borodin recording it has a sardonic flavor, but in this video the ironic tone is indiscernible and lost. Some of the notes in the cello and violins are starting to sound out of tune. The 6 note rapid succession which should sound like a firing squad is barely audible in the Victoria Conservatory recording. In the 4th movement, an interesting visual effect occurs when it appears as if the performers are knocking on their instruments! Quite a few notes in the 5th movement sound either incorrect or out of tune. One thing I especially liked in the Borodin recording was the morendo occurring at the end of the 5th movement. The Victoria Conservatory recording does not have this dying effect, which may be indicative of their interpretation. Ultimately, I liked the recording of the Borodin String Quartet, because I think the piece was played in exactly the manner that Shostakovich intended it to be played.