String Quartet No. 11
Shostakovich had an unusually close association with the Beethoven Quartet, which premiered all of his quartets from Nos. 2 through 14. He dedicated the Quartet No. 11 to the memory of Vasili Shirinsky, second violinist of the ensemble, who had died in 1965. He wrote the quartet in early 1966, and it was at its Leningrad premiere on May 28 - part of a program of his recent work - that Shostakovich made his last public appearance as a pianist. He collapsed afterward and suffered a heart attack, one of a series of strains on his health that marred his final decade.
Most immediately striking is its formal arrangement as a suite of seven interlocking movements to form a compact whole. The first five seem like miniatures, strung together in a montage (indeed Shostakovich learned much from the pioneers of Soviet cinema and composed often for the medium). Yet at the same time these movements belie their short span - they feel longer in performance, as if an unusual amount of information is being packed into a confined space. The solo violin opening is somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of the Tenth Quartet in its tentativeness. We again encounter an insistently anapestic rhythm as the other instruments join in - the gesture here seems like one of soothing.
The rhythm morphs before our ears into the restless pattern of the compact Scherzo, in which whooping glissandos add an air of giddiness. A counteracting menace of a sort appears with the jagged outbursts of the Recitative, followed by another mood swing in the swirling violin and cello figurations of the Etude. Here perhaps one begins to realize that the Eleventh Quartet is on one level a tribute to the pure musicianship of its dedicatee, as well as a portrait of sorts. Against these virtuoso proceedings sounds the anapestic rhythm, which also dominates in the Humoresque. The second violin's mechanical motif of an insistently repeating G and E presents a more obvious example of the kind of musical irony that is so distinctly woven into the fabric of the symphonies.
With the Elegy, the quartet acquires a sudden sense of gravity. Many listeners have noted the kinship of the opening dotted rhythm with the Funeral March from Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony. Shostakovich makes especially moving use of the contrast between weighty solemnity and solo attempts to break free and soar into private expressions of grief. The Finale appears to return to earthy simplicity but soon grows to embrace all that has passed before. As in the finale of the previous quartet, the thematic material encountered in earlier movements is summoned again. The violin carries the opening theme ever higher until it comes to a stop on a long-held, fading, stratospheric C.
- Thomas May is a senior editor at Amazon.com. His book Decoding Wagner has just been published by Amadeus Press.