Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

The String Quartet in Time of War: Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 8 (1960)

Shostakovich in 1960

Shostakovich: the SOVIET Composer

Art, politics, and current events make problematic bedfellows, but they are a Ménage à trois that cannot be avoided when talking about Dmitri Shostakovich and his music.

Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906 in St. Petersburg, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975, a few weeks shy of his 69th birthday.

Shostakovich’s compositional career corresponded exactly with the history of the Soviet Union from 1917-1975. He began attending the St. Petersburg (Petrograd) Conservatory at the very end of the Tsarist era; he graduated and began his career during Lenin’s rule (the early 1920’s); he knew Stalin and was nearly purged twice, in 1936 and 1948; he survived the siege of Leningrad, kowtowed to Khrushchev, and died while Brezhnev was in power.

Among the reasons Shostakovich managed to survive was that he was considered by the powers that were to be a yurodivy, a village idiot, a holy fool who protests in the name of humanity and not in the name of political change. In truth, he was a coward and a hero and everything in between. He saw his friends purged and killed; he was eyewitness to Stalin’s horrific “five year plans” as well as the Nazi destruction of much of his country; to post-war reconstruction; to the arms race; really, the entire Soviet nine yards. Most of all, he was a great composer. And all of his terror and courage, his experience and his MORBID IRONY found their way into his music. He wrote music that pleased the state and music that infuriated the state. He wrote a symphony (No. 13, called “Babi Yar”) that acknowledged the Holocaust at a time when official Russia did not. He wrote an opera – Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District – that almost got him killed, while at other times he kissed the wide and hairy buttocks of the Politburo whenever necessary, toed the party line, and publicly said precisely what he was told to say. And yet Shostakovich’s mind remained his own, and his conscience – riddled with guilt and self-loathing – was the secret inspiration behind much of his music.

Shostakovich is not just the most important composer of string quartets and symphonies from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, he was also a witness to the rise and failure of Soviet Communism, a defining event of the 20th century.

The Party Animal

Dmitri Shostakovich had a major, Communist Party-inspired crisis just about every twelve years. In 1936 it was his near-purge over the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; in 1948 it was his censure and subsequent blacklisting for composing music deemed to be too “modern” and “self-expressive”. 1960 saw another such crisis, although this one was precipitated by Shostakovich himself.

During the late 1950’s, Shostakovich was increasingly used by the Soviet authorities as an artistic figure-head meant to represent the presumably “free” Soviet intelligentsia. In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev decided to make Shostakovich the head of the newly founded RSFSR, The Russian Union of Composers. It was a major honor, one that Shostakovich believed would make him untouchable and would, at the same time, guarantee the safety and success of his children, Galina (24 who was years old) and Maxim (22 years old). There was, as there always is, a catch: in order to take the position, Shostakovich was required to join the Communist Party, something he had long before sworn he would never, ever, under-no-circumstances-ever do.

Well join he did, telling his friends that he signed the necessary papers while under the influence of alcohol, SUI, “signing under the influence.” For months afterwards, Shostakovich was hysterical with self-loathing for having joined. Shostakovich’s friend Lev Lebedinsky recalled:

“I will never forget some of the things he said that night [before his induction into the Party], sobbing hysterically: ‘I’m scared to death of them’; ‘You don’t know the whole truth’; ‘From childhood I’ve always had to do things I didn’t want to do’; ‘I’ve been a whore, I am and always will be a whore.’

He often lashed at himself in strong words.”

Likewise Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman remembered:

“Early on the morning [of June 29, 1960], Dmitri Dmitriyevich rang and asked me to come and see him immediately.

When I glanced at him, I was struck by his suffering, his confused expression. He hurriedly led into the bedroom and limply sank onto the bed and started crying, weeping out loud. In horror, I wondered if something had happened to a member of his family. In response to my questions, he mumbled through his tears: ‘They have been hounding me, they have been pursuing me.’

I had never seen Dmitri Dmitriyevich in such a state. He was quite hysterical. I gave him a glass of water, which he drank with his teeth chattering, and he gradually calmed down. About an hour later, he took hold of himself sufficiently to tell me that [he had been forced by Pospelov and Khrushchev to join the Party.]”

String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110 (1960)

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 was completed on July 14, 1960 during the midst of his crisis over joining the Communist party. Five days after he finished it, Shostakovich wrote Isaac Glikman:

“I’ve [just finished] an ideologically deficient quartet that nobody needs. I reflected that when I die it’s not likely anyone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself. You could even write on the cover [of this string quartet]: ‘Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet.’”

There’s more than just black humor in this statement; according to the just-quoted Lev Lebedinsky, Shostakovich intended to commit suicide after completing his Eighth Quartet. Lebedinsky wrote:

“Shostakovich purchased a large number of sleeping pills. He played the quartet to me on the piano and told me with tears in his eyes that it was his last work. I managed to remove the pills from his jacket pocket and gave them to his son Maxim. I pleaded with him not to let his father out of his sight. During the next few days I spent as much time as possible with Shostakovich until I felt the danger of suicide had passed.”

The quartet was composed while Shostakovich was in Dresden, and thus the “official story” behind the quartet claims that it was “inspired” by the destruction of the city by the Brits and Americans in February of 1945.  That, as my dear departed paternal grandfather Sidney was wont to say, is a pile of hooey. Dedicated “To the Memory of the Victims of Fascism and War”, Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet is in reality dedicated to a particular victim of war namely, Dmitri Shostakovich, and the war over his own soul. The Eighth Quartet is an entirely autobiographical work, written – start to finish – in an astonishing three days. In the same letter to Isaac Glikman quoted above, Shostakovich wrote:

“The main theme [of the quartet] is my monogram, D, S, C, H [D Eb C B], that is, my initials [in German notation, Eb = “S”, H = B natural].

Shostakovich’s letter to Isaac Glikman continues:

“The quartet makes use of themes from my works and the revolutionary song: Tormented by Grievous Bondage. My own themes are the following: from the First Symphony, the Eighth Symphony, the Piano Trio No.  2, the first Cello Concerto, and Lady Macbeth. Wagner’s Funeral March from Gotterdammerung and the second theme from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony are also hinted at. And I forgot – there’s also a theme from my Tenth Symphony. Quite something – this little miscellany!

The pseudo-tragedy of the quartet is so great that, while composing it, my tears flowed as abundantly as urine after downing half-a-dozen beers. On arrival home, I have tried playing it twice, and have shed tears again.”

These various themes are brilliantly incorporated within the fabric of the quartet, the whole infinitely greater than the sum of its parts parts. The important point is that Shostakovich intended his String Quartet No. 8 to be a virtual retrospective of his musical life, knitted together with the first-person pronoun that is his musical signature D-S-C-H (D-Eb-C-B), and composed at a time of suicidal despair. It is one of Shostakovich’s greatest masterworks.

The quartet received its premiere on October 9, 1960. The composer Heirich Neuhaus attended the premiere and later wrote:

“It’s music of absolute genius! I was shaken and cried.”

Explore more from this work in Lecture 7 of Great Masters: Shostakovich—His Life and Music

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