String Quartet No. 15
In most minds, the name Shostakovich is ever associated with his struggles with repressive, artistically uncomprehending Soviet officialdom, which is not off the mark. The composer is pictured in the older (usually simplistic) biographies as emerging bloodied but still feisty, productive, braced for the next battle. As were his antagonists. That he was often the victor is indicated by the fact that he was never for long in the official doghouse (or worse) or even stripped of his membership in the Communist Party.
To be sure, the cultural commissars denounced a composer who would not toe the official line, who refused more often than not to write easily digestible and/or propagandistic music. But when denounced Shostakovich would lie low for a while, write a brief patriotic march, or a more sizable cantata – while privately creating scores that would reach only the few (i.e., chamber music), in which he was free to be his downbeat self.
The story often untold is that amid this uneasy relationship between artist and state – even after the death of Stalin in 1953 – there always dwelled an exceedingly complex, conflicted being, artistically and politically: in poor health from childhood, subject to fits of extreme depression, with a weak heart, various neurological disorders; later, compromised (from smoking) lungs, ad inf.
Which brings us perhaps in too short a space to 1970, during the first half of which he was hospitalized for treatment of his recurring heart condition and a rare form of polio he had recently contracted. It is difficult to believe that he would last out the year, let alone live for another five years – and remain productive until near the end.
During that same year, influenced by an ever-growing realization of his mortality, Shostakovich would begin the creation of his final three, death-obsessed string quartets: the Russian’s shattering cognate to Beethoven’s last quartets. The first of the three, No. 13, Op. 138, was completed in the fall and introduced to a select circle of cognoscenti by the composer’s chosen interpreters, the appropriately named Beethoven Quartet, on December 13 in Leningrad. Its successor, in F-sharp minor, Op. 142, came in 1973. And the very last, in E-flat minor, was in large part completed in the fall of 1974 – less than a year before the composer’s death.
The last quartet was to have been premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, the composer’s designated interpreters for most of his chamber music, but the death of its cellist, Sergei Shirinsky, forced the work to be turned over to the Taneyev Quartet, another frequent Shostakovich collaborator, who introduced it to the world on November 17, 1974 in Leningrad.
All of the quartet’s six movement, taking up some 35 minutes playing time, played without pause, are marked adagio – a chain of laments, so to speak. The one link in a “contrasting” tempo, the fifth, designated Funeral March, is to be played even more slowly. Nor are there, throughout the course of the work, more than minimal departures from the tonic key, E-flat minor. None of which is to say that the work lacks either contrast or drama as an entity, provided initially by richly varied dynamics, with billowing crescendos and crushing climaxes. Nor is there a shortage of “events”: the suggestion of Russian Orthodox chant in the opening Elegy; the first of several fragmentary waltzes and a brief violin cadenza in movement two, Serenade; even a gorgeous, if brief, lyrical strain (a folksong quotation?) for muted viola, in the haunted Nocturne. The repeated chords in the Funeral March are like ensemble shotgun blasts, alternating with fierce statements from the four individual instruments in which the notion of “ensemble” (consciously abjured in the two preceding string quartets) gives way to individual anger. The Epilogue recalls motives – not excluding the liveliest ones – from each of the preceding movements. But Shostakovich’s last quartet, after some ominous buzzing and trilling, a vagrant pizzicato, and a cello lament, ultimately, simply comes to a halt rather than fading away.
With the Fifteenth Quartet Shostakovich wrote music that banishes all hope, all earthly joy. That the end suggests a certain tranquility, of battles ended, conflicts resolved, is not an option offered by the composer.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.