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In the summer of 1960 Shostakovich's work on the score of a Soviet-East German film took him to Dresden, the German city that had been destroyed in 1945 by an Allied firebombing which killed more people than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. There, in a span of three days, Shostakovich composed a quartet inscribed “In memory of victims of fascism and war.” That much is beyond question. Everything else about this quartet, its genesis, and its meaning, has been much debated.

The Eighth Quartet quotes liberally from Shostakovich’s own music and uses his personal motto theme, suggesting that it is about Shostakovich himself. Shostakovich was quoted in Testimony, a book purporting to be his recollections told to the Russian journalist Solomon Volkov (and published in America after Shostakovich's death), as contradicting his inscription, saying that the quartet is clearly pure autobiography and “you have to be blind and deaf” to think it about fascism; the implication being that it was really about the composer's own struggles against Stalinist totalitarianism, disguised to avoid official retribution. 

But there are reasons to doubt this description as well. If the disguise were so transparent as to fool only the blind and deaf, it would scarcely have served its purpose. Testimony has been derided for being more Volkov's version of what he thought Westerners wanted to read than Shostakovich's own words, and demonstrated to be at least partially fraudulent. Moreover, some of the quartet has no apparent autobiographical connection (for example, the dramatic appearance of a “Jewish” theme in the middle movement seems a reference to the Holocaust). The situation is complicated by timing: in 1960 Shostakovich became a Communist Party member and First Secretary of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic Composers Union.

Thus while the Eighth Quartet is clearly full of extramusical significance, exactly what it signifies is unclear. It could be an orthodox Soviet artist's personal revulsion against the fruits of fascism; or a disguised dissident protest against the Soviet state, or an outcry against totalitarianism of any kind. All these viewpoints, and a few others, have been advanced by persons of intelligence and good will, and we are unlikely ever to know with any certainty what Shostakovich's real message was, or whether there was a specific message, as opposed to a series of emotional impressions and reactions, at all.

The quartet is in five movements played without pause. Its most important landmark, and primary building block, is a four-note theme built on an abbreviation of the composer's name, DSCH, which becomes D-E-flat-C-B in German nomenclature. Shostakovich had used it as a theme previously, notably in his Tenth Symphony. The quartet begins by introducing this four-note motif fugally. It is followed by a theme (in the first violin and viola) from the introduction of his First Symphony, the work that first brought him to national prominence. The two themes are part of a loose rondo-like structure that also includes a descending theme in the first violin that refers to his Fifth Symphony, the work that restored him to favor in 1937 after official attacks had endangered his career, if not his life.

The elegiac mood of the first movement is shattered by the following Allegro molto, a Blitzkrieg out of which several versions of the DSCH theme, in varying note lengths, emerge. At a climactic moment in mid-movement, the violins wail out a theme from Shostakovich's Second Piano Trio, which was written in 1944. In a less controversial portion of Testimony that may express much of his artistic creed, Shostakovich called this a “Jewish” theme, saying: “Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me… it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It's almost always laughter through tears. This quality… is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music.”

The third movement is a spooky little waltz-rondo in G minor or major — the violin's melody (the DSCH motif) continually sounds a B-natural (the distinguishing note in a G-major scale) against the B-flat (which distinguishes the G-minor scale) in the viola's accompaniment. This feeling of knowing that there is a key but not knowing what it is, far more unsettling than being in no key at all, is a hallmark of Shostakovich's style. The third section of the rondo goes into duple time and introduces the march-like principal theme of the First Cello Concerto, composed the previous year.

The movement dies away in a recapitulation of its themes, with the cello concerto's five-note motif and three-note martial accompaniment heard last. The first violin, left alone for a few bars, elongates it, at which point the other instruments begin the fourth movement by transforming the three-note accompaniment into an ominous banging that interrupts equally ominous soundings of a new theme. It has been suggested that the banging represents gunfire, and the pianissimo droning of the first violin represents distant aircraft. That droning becomes the first four notes of the Dies irae from the Catholic requiem mass (not coincidentally, these are the DSCH notes in a different order), followed immediately by the lower three instruments sounding a Russian funeral anthem (“Tormented by the weight of bondage, you glorify death with honor”). The banging transformation of the cello concerto theme comes again; then the violins, over droning low Cs in the cello and viola, play a Russian revolutionary song (“Languishing in prison”). This is followed by a melody, in the cello's upper range, of an aria in Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (this work was the immediate trigger for the first official criticism of Shostakovich, which turned out to be the first of many state crackdowns on artists). After a last fateful banging of the cello concerto themes, the first violin sounds the Dies irae beginning again, turns it into the DSCH theme, out of which is built the fugal elegy that is the fifth movement.  — Howard Posner