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About this Piece

All politics are local, we are told. Or, in the case of Shostakovich, all politics are personal. In 1960, when he composed his Seventh String Quartet, Shostakovich should have been enjoying the artistic fruits of the post-Stalin thaw. But his personal life was a shambles, and this Quartet marks an intensification in the composer's development of sardonic introversion as a sustaining force. His first wife, Nina Varzar, had died unexpectedly in December 1954, followed by his mother less than a year later. He married a Communist Youth League worker in 1956 and was divorced three years later. He proposed to his former pupil, composer Galina Ustvolskaya, twice and was rejected twice.

Shostakovich seemed to be working through much of this in his Quartet No. 7, dedicated to the memory of Nina. Not at length, however - its three short, tightly knit movements run barely 12 minutes. The first is a nervous Allegretto, a sort of musical state of denial, superficially casual but growing darker as it edges through metrical transformation toward the following Lento. That is eerie, lonely music - all four instruments hardly ever play at the same time. The viola's obsessively circling accompaniment figure becomes the subject of the feverish fugue that opens the final movement. Its contrapuntal energy gradually dissipates with recollections of previous motives, and the Quartet ends with an odd little waltz, like the ghost of Nina dancing in Shostakovich's memory.

- John Henken