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About this Piece

As we near the centenary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich (in September), there is still much controversy in musicological circles regarding the artistic legacy of this individual artist who found himself suspended in the politics of Soviet "socialist realism." On the one hand is the Stalinist position, equating the private citizen Shostakovich with his political rhetorical pronouncements, both official and unofficial (i.e., as a happy Soviet citizen), and on the other hand, the position of many of the composer's former colleagues whose accounts imply that Shostakovich viewed the ruling bureaucracy with a mixture of fear, hatred, and contempt.

Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that Shostakovich suffered great humiliation and fear for his own and his family's welfare from two official censures of his works. The first attack came following a January 1936 performance of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk during which Stalin, who had been in attendance, walked out before the conclusion. Two days after this performance the work was dismissed by Pravda as "Muddle instead of music"; Shostakovich soon publicly apologized. The second attack occurred in 1948 when Shostakovich and his fellow composers Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and Miaskovsky were labeled "formalists" by the regime's cultural henchman, Andrei Zhdanov. As a result of this condemnation, Shostakovich was stripped of his position of authority in the Composers' Union; he also was dismissed from his professorships at the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories. As a further consequence of his sin of having written music in a formalist language incomprehensible to the masses, he gave another public apology: "I will try again and again to create symphonic works that are comprehensible and accessible to the people, from the standpoint of their ideological content, musical language and form. I will work ever more diligently on the musical embodiment of images for the heroic Russian people." Add to this the horror of his having survived the executions of family members and close artist friends resulting from various political purges, and it appears miraculous that Shostakovich survived the Stalin reign without himself perishing. Politically and psychologically, however, he was a shattered and demoralized man.

These events alone would seem to give credence to the notion that Shostakovich both loathed and feared Soviet officialdom and was anti-Stalinist. For all intents and purposes, this is probably true. This does not mean, however, that he was anti-socialist or that he completely lost faith in the hopes and promises of artistic freedom and political equality held out by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Shostakovich was to struggle both personally and artistically with this very real dichotomy of anti-Stalinist vs. pro Bolshevik-socialist for the rest of his life. From these two poles, Shostakovich created music of great power and meaning that transcends the transparency of ideology.

The years following the death of Stalin in 1953 saw the rehabilitation of Shostakovich to the position of an exemplary Soviet citizen, the state bestowing on him award upon award. By 1973, the year he composed his String Quartet No. 14, Shostakovich was the most celebrated composer if not artist in the Soviet Union.

The String Quartet No.14 was composed as the last of a set of four quartets (Nos. 11-14) each of which was dedicated to a founding member of the Beethoven String Quartet, an ensemble with which Shostakovich had for decades been associated. Shostakovich dedicated this Quartet to the cellist, Sergey Shirinsky. In keeping with the dedication, the dominant instrument throughout is of course the cello.

The first movement opens with a repeated F-sharp in the viola, after which the cello states a brief melodic fragment three times in descending sequence. The rhythmic profile and melodic shape of this opening melody permeates the entire movement. There are two cadenzas for cello and one for the viola; each one demarcates larger sections within the movement.

The second movement consists largely of an impassioned duo between first violin and cello; the second violin and the viola are relegated to accompaniment. The long opening melody presented by the first violin contains all the material that will be reshaped throughout the movement. The center of gravity is an extended passage of parallel sixths sounded by the first violin and cello. The second movement is linked without interruption to the third by way of a repeated C-sharp (from the opening of the first movement) in the first violin. The third movement contains the most contrasting materials displaying a wealth of emotions and moods. The melodic passage of parallel sixths between violin one and cello from the second movement returns at the end.

- Steve Lacoste is the Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.