1. DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet No. 3, Op. 73 -- First Movement

A detailed analysis of Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3, Op. 73 -- First Movement, including notated musical examples.

So, I guess I'll blog...

What's interesting to me?

Well, there's the wife and three daughters:

  1. The oldest is 22 and is about to graduate from the Univ. of Arizona
  2. The middle one, 19, is a violin performance major at Northwestern; and
  3. The baby is 15, in high school, singing and playing a mean viola!
[2013 update]:
  1. The oldest is 27 and works in public relations in San Francisco.
  2. The middle one, 24, is on the cusp of a professional career as a violinist in Hawaii; and
  3. The "baby" is 20, living in Germany on an exchange program, studying viola, soon to return to the Univ. of Illinois.
For the time being, I'm not going to blog about them. Besides, they probably all have their own pages out there somewhere about their lives.

I'm going to be completely weird and blog about what I love the most. Music and film.

Today will be (quite randomly) the first movement of Shostakovich's Third String Quartet and the wonderfulness thereof, along with some comments about three of my favorite recordings of this great quartet.

Incidentally, the above All Music Guide link (in addition to incorrectly stating the key of the second movement -- It is E minor, not F minor!), provides a juicy tidbit purportedly from the Borodin Quartet. Apparently, either Shostakovich provided or approved subtitles for each of the five movements.

This first movement: "Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm".

Shostakovich wrote this five-movement masterpiece in 1946. It was premiered by the Beethoven String Quartet (as were most of the quartets) on December 16, 1946, although, like many other works from this period (the Violin Concerto, From Jewish Poetry, and others), it was withdrawn from public performance after its premiere. This was the second of Shosty's difficulties with Stalin (the first was a decade plus earlier, at the time of the composition of the Fourth Symphony)...

According to Elizabeth Wilson, however, many works from this period were "widely heard in musical circles in private performances" (p. 235).

Wilson's book, by the way, is a fantastic read and a magnificent source, although it lacks the complete list of works by opus number, which is thankfully included in Laurel Fay's: Shostakovich: A Life.

The three interpretations:

1. The Éder Quartet
2. The Emerson Quartet
3. The Beethoven Quartet

Okay, so the Éder Quartet recorded this in a Budapest church in March of 1995.

It has a spacious kind of sound you would expect from a recording in such a venue, but the intimate moments still shine -- although one might wish that the sound was just a tad drier...

As you can see from the above, this music starts off so absolutely simply and charming.

A very plain F major vamp is set up by the three lower strings and the first violin enters with a jaunty, typical-Shosty, da-da-duh, da-da-duh type motive.

Wilson quotes Valentin Berlinsky, the cellist of the Borodin Quartet, recalling an amusing incident regarding the above opening of this quartet ...

" ... Shostakovich hardly ever changed anything in his works. He was very meticulous in his fair copy. Once we prepared the Third Quartet to play for him. The first movement opens with the cello playing a bottom F, written arco. For some reason we decided that it sounded better played pizzicato, while the second violin and viola continue to play arco. In our youthful folly, we decided to play it like that for Dmitri Dmitriyevich without any prior warning. This again took place at his home. No sooner had we started, when he stopped us and said, 'Excuse me, but you are meant to play arco there.'"

"I said, 'Dmitri Dmitriyevich, you see, we've given it some thought, and maybe you would like to reconsider. It seems to us that pizzicato sounds better here.'"

"'Yes, yes,' he hastily interrupted, 'pizzicato is much better, but please play arco all the same'" (p. 245).

Another anecdote quoted in Wilson, from the cellist of the Beethoven, Sergei Shirinsky, gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like to hear this music for the first time:

"Only once did we see Shostakovich visibly moved by his own music. We were rehearsing his Third Quartet. He'd promised to stop us when he had any remarks to make. Dmitri Dmitriyevich sat in an armchair with the score opened out. But after each movement ended he just waved us on, saying, 'Keep playing!' So we performed the whole Quartet. When we finished playing he sat quite still in silence like a wounded bird, tears streaming down his face. This was the only time that I saw Shostakovich so open and defenceless" (p. 442).

Back to the music. Note that by Bar 5, the introduction of four new accidentals creates that wonderful tension-slide away from the pure F major intro to a more slippery chromatic movement!

The Hungarians play this music with perfect grace.

Now, we turn to the Emerson dudes on DGG. These recordings are from the Aspen festival a decade or so ago -- and man, do these guys rock their Shosty! [Not a surprise: DGG's recording engineers capture the music with the same clarity as if it were a studio recording!]

There is a little more attention to detail than the Éder in this movement.

As far the as the Beethoven Quartet recording is concerned, it's important to note that this probably dates from around 1956 (the only information on recording dates is the notation: "Recorded 1956-1974"). There is an annoying muddy quality, especially in the lower strings. Of course, the historical importance of these recordings (they recorded all fifteen) far outweighs any considerations of high fidelity.

They take it at a fairly easy tempo, but pay close attention to all the ritards. There is something magical in hearing these original interpreters!

The rolling section of the second theme (slippery eighth notes) is played with a delicacy that the Éder doesn't quite get...

After the repeat of the exposition, the development section is a real spooky affair.

Again the theme comes back more or less the same as the beginning, but quickly veers off into:
  1. A duet between the second violin and cello where the subject and countersubject are tossed around;
  2. A trio, as the viola joins in. Although not a strict fugue, this is fantastic canonic writing.
  3. Eventually, the viola drops out for a few bars, but it quickly becomes a quartet again, and then
  4. The viola drops out again, leaving the two violins on a flight of fancy in the extreme high register!

Fantastic stuff! Notice how all the elements of the original theme are still here -- the staccato 16th-note runs, the 16th-note triplet motif...

Oh yeah, and the Poco piu mosso

is really KICKIN' with the Emersons. The Beethoven don't accelerate the tempo quite as much...

The last three bars

are PERFECT in all three versions!

Want to buy the score for this piece?
Click here.

Want to see an unnamed quartet from Croatia perform this piece?

Want to see the Shostakovich Quartet perform this piece?



Anonymous said…
Also worth checking the UK Sorrel Quartet www.sorrelquartet.com


Chandos: 6 CDs

Lewis Saul said…
Thanks, Adrian.

I intend to get these, as well as the Fitzwilliams and Beethoven Quartets as soon as possible.