Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No.8


Out of all fourteen string quartets that Dmitri Shostakovich composed, the eighth is the only to be composed outside of his homeland of Russia. Composed in 1960 whilst Shostakovich was visiting the former Communist State of East Germany, the eighth string quartet has also remained the most frequently performed of all fourteen quartets. Astonishingly, this quartet only took Shostakovich three days to compose, between the 12th and 14th of July.

There has been much speculation from musicologists, listeners and critics as to what gives the eighth quartet such a sombre atmosphere throughout. One theory is that, prior to the composer’s trip to Germany, the British and Americans had bombed much of Dresden and surrounding cities and villages. Shostakovich himself dedicated this quartet “In remembrance of the victims of fascism and war.” Another theory was that the composer had received bad news of his health, and this quartet was a burst of creativity for Shostakovich to escape reality for some time. 

The quartet was premiered by the Beethoven Quartet in 1960. Shostakovich had a close affiliation with this work, and when the Borodin Quartet performed this work for the composer in his home in 1962, with the hope that he would criticise and direct them, Shostakovich instead buried his head in his hands and wept at the music. The musicians then quietly packed up and left his residence. 


The Music

The quartet has five linked movements:


  1. Largo
  2. Allegro
  3. Allegretto
  4. Largo
  5. Largo


All five movements are in a minor key, with the first and last both being chiefly in the “tragic key” of C minor. The quartet’s duration is around 20 minutes, which makes each theme compact and very focused, which creates an air of intensity throughout. 


I. Largo


The first movement begins with Shostakovich’s famous DSCH motif (D/Eb/C/B). This solemn opening begins quietly with the cello, then the viola, and then the violins. This creates a canonic opening on the composer’s theme that represents himself. Interestingly, every single movement in this quartet uses this personal theme. 

Tonal ambiguity is soon highlighted through the use of semitones, octaves and dissonances between the parts. There is an underlying feeling of uncertainty in this movement, and although technically in C minor, the tonality moves around between many different keys, again adding to the uncertainty of the movement. 

Shostakovich’s use of stasis part-way through this movement is striking. The drone on the cello underneath, with the woody timbre of the viola playing out eerie variations of the theme is one of the most effective uses of the instrument in this quartet. The violin joins to create unsteady polyphony between the parts. Just before the movement comes to a close, the development theme from the composer’s Fifth Symphony is quoted.


II. Allegro

In contrast to the slow lament of the first movement, the aggressive burst into the second movement is sets the very fast pace for the movement. The compactness and aggressiveness of the motifs in this movement are what make it the most thrilling. The perpetuum mobile feel to the overriding semiquaver movement in the violins offer a frantic interpretation to the score. 

The DSCH theme can clearly be heard by the middle section of the movement. The dichotomy between the pizzicato accompaniment and the frantic upper melodies gives a rustic timbre which adds to the haphazard atmosphere created. The movement suddenly comes to a halt, and the solo violin begins the Allegretto.


III. Allegretto

The solo violin plays a variation of the DSCH theme. This cadenza-like section swiftly sinks into a waltz. The cello and viola offer a steady accompaniment, whilst the two violins pay through the melodies of the movement. 

Although not as frantic as the previous movement, the intensity is still high between the instruments. A lot of call and response is used in this movement, with the quartet being split in half between high and low to create some sort of musical argument. There is a sense of respite in this section, and the music quotes from Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. The cello is then used to segue seamlessly into the fourth movement. 


IV. Largo

Now in the uneasy key of C# minor, the opening of three rapid notes become a central theme of the movement. Between these aggressive bursts, the low drone of the cello lays the foundation for the bold and beautiful tutti sections. Together, all of the instruments move as one unit, which is very powerful at this point, when they have been in polyphony for most of the quartet thus far.


V. Largo

The final movement of this dramatic quartet highlights the ubiquitous DSCH motif, leaving a big question mark over the dramatic over-usage of self-quotations throughout. Starting quietly and softly building, a fugue is created. This highlights the apparent changes between the contrapuntal and block harmony sections. 

The use of the DSCH motif gives Shostakovich four potential tonal systems, which can only be properly utilised when the parts are employed into counterpoint. This technique creates the frustratingly beautiful musical ambiguity throughout. Although twaught with chromatic dissonances, the underlying tonality of this movement stays true to C minor. After the final climax, the work ends on a C minor chord that slowly dies away. 


Final Thoughts

To suggest that the Eighth Quartet is autobiographical in some way is fair. The consistent repetition of the DSCH motif creates a highly personal quartet for Shostakovich as he and his emotions and state of mind are woven into the fabric of this highly-strung work. Perhaps the senseless destruction the composer saw whilst in Dresden spurred him to compose this work. Perhaps his suicidal state of mind at the time of his trip added to the franticness and solemn atmospheres created so boldly in this quartet. 

This music has been composed with a sense of tragic human agony, and the torment that made Shostakovich compose this work could have come from many different aspects of his life. This is perhaps why the Eighth String Quartet is – and still is – a twentieth century masterpiece.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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