About this Piece
Shostakovich dedicated each of his late quartets to an individual member of the acclaimed Beethoven Quartet; thus, each has a personal quality that not only reflects its creator's state of mind but also the idiosyncrasies of its dedicatee: in this case, the ensemble's leader, violinist Dmitri Tsyganov. Like many of Shostakovich's late quartets, this 1968 work eschews the conventional four-movement structure in favor of a short first movement and a long second. What looks unbalanced on paper, however, has an underlying aesthetic coherence that is gradually revealed to the ear.
The Quartet opens with a 12-tone row played once by the cello before immediately yielding to a tonal theme. It is tempting to hear this opening in psychological terms (an artistic identity refusing to be confined to any ideology or system). But it also serves as a reminder that the controversy surrounding Schoenberg's dodecaphonic system has often obscured the liberating effect it has had on composers of all persuasions, especially in their understanding of music's vertical (harmonic) and horizontal (melodic) relationships. As Shostakovich, who used the technique sporadically in his late works, explained: "Everything is good in moderation… the use of elements from these complex systems is entirely justified if it is dictated by the idea of the composition." If we cannot say for certain what the idea was in this case, we can certainly describe its musical effect: opening an infinite yet undefinable tonal space, after which the clear tonality of the melody seems found rather than constructed and the rest of the movement never loses the feeling of a search for closure. Shostakovich exploits this feeling, as the legato melody becomes more fragmented and asymmetrical and the row intrudes at significant moments. The melody extends the search into the high register before fading out, still unsettled.
The second movement opens in stark contrast, as a trill gives way to an insistent melodic idea that begins with repeated notes and is molded into a variety of melodic ideas whose odd shapes and abruptly shifting textures lend a grotesque quality (and echo Tsyganov's legendarily vigorous style of playing). Then a long passage for solo cello leads into a dark introspective section. Because of the way Shostakovich sustains the tension through numerous fragmentary bits, the movement has a kind of epic quality. Later in the movement, we hear material from the opening subtly re-inserted, thus re-balancing the architecture of the work even while reinforcing its epic nature. The ending achieves ultimate balance by contrast, with a surprising - and in this context breathtaking - major chord that we suddenly understand to be the closure we have been expecting since the opening 12-tone row.
- Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.