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The Soviet Experience Volume IV: String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and his Contemporaries
- CDR 90000 145
The longer Cedille Selects track excerpts are designed to provide a representative overview of the album
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This is the final installment in the Pacifica Quartet's highly anticipated, and already highly acclaimed four-volume CD survey of the complete Shostakovich string quartets: The Soviet Experience: String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and his Contemporaries.
The Soviet Experience Volume IV features Shostakovich's String Quartets Nos. 13–15 from the 1970s. The Thirteenth Quartet's one and only movement featuring extensive solo viola uses extended techniques uncommon for Russian composers at that time. The Fourteenth, composed in 1973 is a surprisingly upbeat work of 3 movements prominently featuring the cello. The Fifteenth is a meditation on mortality and one of Shostakovich's longest quartets. These three quartets are paired with Schnittke's allusive homage, String Quartet No. 3, written in 1983. It's a work full of quotation including a 12-tone row transposed from a theme by Shostakovich, whose influence was felt throughout Schnittke's career.
Robert Moon Audiophile Audition
This is the last installment of the Pacifica Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle named “The Soviet Experience” because it adds one quartet by other Russian composers (Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, and Schnittke) to each release. Although there are many performances of the complete Shostakovich quartets available, the Pacifica Quartet’s traversal of these masterpieces is one of the best. Their sheer brilliance of execution, the emotional depth of their interpretation and the stunning sound make this a most desirable set.
While Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies were his public statements restricted by Soviet political and musical demands, his 15 string quartets and their under-the-radar premieres by his close friends—Beethoven Quartet—gave him a chance to freely express his emotional and musical soul. Shostakovich lived a tortured life, escaping the horrors of World War II, barely surviving the creative restrictions and death threats of authoritarian Soviet regimes, only to live his last years—two heart attacks, a broken leg and lung cancer—in physical pain. His last three quartets speak eloquently about his journey from life to death. They are profound expressions of a great composer who bares his inner psyche at the highest level of musical excellence.
One is aware of the Angel of Death hovering over the Shostakovich’s 13th Quartet (1970), but the level of musical creativity and sheer instrumental ripeness balance the dark emotions with intellectual substance. Shostakovich dedicated it to the Beethoven Quartet’s retired violist, Vadim Borisovsky. Violist Masumi Per Rostad plays the opening of this one movement work in such a beautiful a manner that the desolation is even more heartrending. The searing upper violins portend horror in the first section, yet the middle section is jazzy and sarcastic rather than deathly, with the tapping of the wooden part of the bow on the belly of the instrument (col legno) an empty jab. A scary, ghoulish jig follows. The solo viola of the last section and the col legno wooden hits are heartbreaking punctuations to the hollow loneliness that ends with a fortemoan. When Benjamin Britten heard a private performance of this quartet in 1971, he was “moved and shaken, and kissed Shostakovich’s hand.”
A second heart attack in 1971 initiated a compositional dry spell that was broken in 1973 after Shostakovich heard a wonderful performance of his 15th Symphony by Yevgeny Mavrinsky. He was so happy to be composing again that he finished his 14th Quartet (1973) in a month. Despite his physical infirmities, it’s a relatively happy work. The dedicatee was cellist Sergei Shirinsky of the Beethoven Quartet, an old friend. The cello’s restive unease is the underlying mood of the first movement, but it begins with a lively conversation between the cello and violin. There is great beauty in the Adagio, but the happy mood is replaced by a hesitant melancholy, and abruptly Shostakovich inserts an “off center waltz” that briefly amuses after which the mood darkens, as if the composer is reminiscing about what cannot be re-lived. The final movement starts aggressively, but the cello returns us to a mournful and alluring meditation that leaves us moved and complete. Shirinsky, 70 at the time and also in bad health, commented upon hearing that Shostakovich dedicated the quartet to him, “Well, I can die now.”
By late 1973 Shostakovich’s health had deteriorated further, and it is amazing that he could even write the 15th Quartet (1974) with his hands. It consists of six slow movements—Elegy—Serenade—Intermezzo—Nocturne—Funeral March—Epilogue. The sections vacillate between resistance and acceptance of death. Is the Elegy to himself? If so, it’s tender, resigned, and sad—for the loss of life rather than his own.Serenade asks why to death and answers in slashing shards of crescendos—angry opposition. Nocturne is peaceful acceptance—an ethereal and almost unearthly dirge.Funeral March is a procession of instrumental solos—searing memories of the past. TheEpilogue is series of trills interspersed with meditative strains and single pizzicatos—eerie and upsetting. Although it speaks of death, there is much beauty in this quartet that makes it bittersweet and moving. Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was one of the next generation of composers (Denisov, Gubaidulina, Part, Silvestrov were some of the others) that followed Shostakovich. After spending two years in Vienna absorbing past masters, Schnittke returned to Moscow and developed polystylism, juxtaposing the music of past and present. “The goal of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so,” he once said. He was hounded and isolated by the same Soviet totalitarianism that debilitated Shostakovich, but wrote 70 film scores in 30 years, music that was connected to the sociological, cultural and psychological life of his time. After several serious strokes, his music became more serious and bleak, yet he courageously persisted in writing it.
Listening to Schnittke’s Third String Quartet (1983) is like traveling along a road that turns into several alternate routes where the anxiety of becoming lost is ameliorated by familiar road signs that continually reappear. The road signs are broken phrases from Orlando de Lassus’s Stabat Mater, Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue for String Quartet, Op. 133 and a motif that was Shostakovich’s musical signature, the notes D-E flat-C-B (an abbreviation of “Dmitri Shostakovich”) that the composer used in many of his late works. While the work is organized classically (ABA), the road signs are the expressive opposite—dissonantly contorted, stretched, inventively connected into a work that is fascinating, beautiful and infinitely creative.
The Pacifica Quartet plays the works on these CDs with passion and impeccable balance, plumbing the depths of the Russian soul. This is a fitting conclusion to a great set of Shostakovich Quartets and their Russian companions that reveal the essence of Soviet music in the mid and late 20th-century.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
The final installment of the Pacifica Quartet's Shostakovich string quartet cycle, containing his last three works in that form, is as much an artistic and technical triumph as the three previous releases in the series. Alfred Schnittke's bleak Third Quartet (1983), aswirl with allusions to Shostakovich and Mahler, adds to the attractions of Cedille's double-disc set.
Peter J. Rabinowitz, Fanfare Magazine
Here, at last, is the final volume of the Pacifica Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle, and, in a word, the performances are superlative. Of course, that’s hardly unexpected. The first three volumes, after all, were excellent—see the enthusiastic responses from Jerry Dubins (Fanfare35:3, 35:6, 36:6), Raymond Tuttle (36:6), and me (34:5, 35: 6); so it’s no surprise that the same technical and interpretive virtues show up here as well.
Certainly, in terms of fine timbral control, precision of gesture (for instance, the glissandos in the first movement of the 14th), dynamic shaping (on both the local and long-term levels), ensemble, and vertical balance (try the haunting presence of the cello pedal in the beginning of the third movement of the 15th), these new performances meet the high standards of their predecessors.Likewise, we hear the same sympathy for Shostakovich’s paradoxical voice—in the players’ knowing response to his mood swings, both the whiplash shifts and the more gradual transformations of emotional terrain; in their communication of the pain behind the moments of nobility; and in their ability to hint at the uneasiness that prowls behind even the most superficially upbeat moments (listen, as but one example, to the unsettling jollity that flashes through the first movement of the 14th). Still, even in the context of this consistent excellence, there’s something special about this release, for beyond their grasp of Shostakovich’s idiom in general, these four players have a special, if hard to define, virtue that makes them especially adept in the often spare and enigmatic last quartets.
What is it? At first, it might seem like concentration—and, in a sense it is. But the word “concentration” covers a lot of ground. Certainly, Mravinsky’s Shostakovich had plenty of concentration—but even allowing for the difference in medium, his perspective, so well suited to the early and middle symphonies, would not give much insight into the late quartets, which are marked by an increasing reticence of expression. What’s special about the Pacifica Quartet’s concentration is the way it’s combined, where necessary, with reflectiveness, producing an intensity without hyperbole, a focus without pressure, an impetus without aggression. I don’t mean to suggest that the music is underplayed: As is obvious from the third movement of the 14th, this group can “slit [your] soul up like a razor,” to borrow a phrase from Shostakovich’s beloved Dostoevsky. But in these late works, there’s plenty of music that seems to border on the impassive, even the eventless—and this group, as well as any, keeps us fully engaged without digging us in the ribs. The forlorn dignity of the opening of the 15th, the painful poignance of the long duet between the first violin and the cello in the second movement of the 14th—these are accomplishments of the highest caliber.
As on the earlier installments, the Pacifica has chosen to fill out the set with another Soviet-era Quartet—in this case, Schnittke’s wild and often violent Third. Whatever Schnittke’s relationship to Shostakovich (and some specific formal connections are pointed out in Gerard McBurney’s excellent notes), this allusive (but rarely elusive) music illuminates the quality of the three Shostakovich quartets less by its acts of homage than by its radical difference in aesthetic practice. And the Pacifica Quartet is just as adept in Schnittke’s most extreme rough-housing as they are in Shostakovich’s most distilled moments of apprehension. The sound throughout, as usual from Çedille, is exceptional.
Do the four volumes of this series give us the best recording of Shostakovich’s quartets currently available? Given this music’s surge in popularity (this quartet cycle has arguably surpassed Bartók’s as the last century’s most prestigious), it’s up against some substantial competition, and I certainly won’t be tossing out the Emerson recording or the more rough-hewn versions by the Borodin Quartet (the first lacking the last two quartets, which hadn’t yet been written), or even the less renowned but vital set by the Shostakovich Quartet. Still, forced to choose one, I’d go for the Pacifica. If you’re just beginning to explore this repertoire, this is the place to start—and if you’ve already got this music in your collection, this is an ideal way to expand your vision.
The New York Times (www.nytimes.com)
This is the final volume of the Pacifica Quartet’s outstanding survey of Shostakovich’s complete string quartets. It contains the bitterly melancholic quartets Nos. 13, 14 and 15, juxtaposed with Schnittke’s haunting Quartet No. 3. There is a wintry beauty in the Pacifica’s rendition of these tormented quartets and even where the mood is bleak, the sound radiates warmth and reconciliation. The players pay reverential attention to Shostakovich’s lifting, plunging, doubt-riddled melodies and create a ghostly hazy sound in Schnittke’s dense harmonies.
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Shostakovich Quartets 13, 14 & 15
Schnittke Quartet 3
Notes by Gerard McBurney
The idea of Late Style has been much pondered. In his celebrated essay, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, literary theorist Edward Said, then approaching his own end, observed:
The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality....But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction? What if age and ill health don't produce serenity at all?
Such thoughts come into sharp focus when we turn our ears to Shostakovich's last three quartets. Although the composer was not especially old when he wrote this music — only in his 60s — he was assailed with health problems. These forced a daily awareness that his remaining time was short, and made even the physical act of writing music on paper painful and awkward.
Amazingly, these difficulties appear to have stimulated him creatively as much as they held him back. Unable to hold a pen for more than limited amounts of time, he seems (to judge by the music itself) to have set about internalizing the mystical action of composing with ever greater intensity. The imaginative result was a language that, if not completely distinct from that of his earlier music, unquestionably stands at an awkward and sometimes startling angle to it — a language indeed often filled with "intransigence, difficulty and contradiction."
As we listen to these quartets, we might well be reminded of German musicologist Theodor W. Adorno's famous description of the main characteristics of late Beethoven (as quoted by Said):
...[a] subjectivity that forcibly brings the extremes together in the moment, fills the dense polyphony with its tensions, breaks it apart with the unisono, and disengages itself, leaving... naked tone behind; that sets the mere phrase as a monument to what has been, marking a subjectivity turned to stone...
Caesuras... sudden discontinuities... moments of breaking away... [when] the work is silent at the instant when it is left behind, and turns its emptiness outward...
Shostakovich dedicated each of his 11th through 14th quartets to the individual members of the Beethoven Quartet, with whom he had worked closely for decades. The 13th was his gift for the Beethovens' violist, Vadim Borisovsky. Like its predecessors, it includes tributes to both the instrument and the artistry of the dedicatee — in particular, beginning and ending with long solos written with Borisovsky's personal style of playing in mind. The first of these solos roots the subsequent sound of the whole quartet in the rich, somber world of the viola's lower strings. The second, as though under the impact of the musical and psychological traverse of the whole composition, ends by climbing towards the highest and most fragile sounds of which this most paradoxical of instruments is capable.
From earliest youth, Shostakovich had shown a fascination with the compositional possibilities of music referring to other music, whether by quoting from his own or other composers' pieces, or by parodying different styles and ideas, sometimes angrily, sometimes comically or even affectionately. In the rarified world of his later music, however, this old creative habit undergoes a subtle change. Intertextual references, while still ubiquitous and recognizable, now become ethereal, elliptical, etiolated, and allusive. We hear this in the opening of the 13th Quartet, where three ideas are presented, one after another, each fraught with shadowy suggestions of other worlds and each with its own distinctive character.
First comes that dedicatory viola solo, a lamentation formed from a 12-note row, although most listeners will hear it rather as a series of interlocked descending chromatic scales, like sobs fading into the distance. Shostakovich toyed with 12-note rows often in his later works, but he never treated them as true rows in the manner of Schoenberg and his pupils. He instead preferred to use them, as he does here, as quarries for shorter motifs with which to unify long paragraphs of music, and also as a way of opening up the remotest tonal spaces to be explored in the music to come.
To this opening lament the whole quartet responds, almost in the manner of a church chorus answering the incantation of a precentor or priest. Harmony, spacing, and melody all suggest religious music. It is a curious aspect of Shostakovich's late style that, while he showed little interest in religion in his daily life, the sound of religious music gained increasing importance in his compositions.
After another brief solo, from the first violin but echoing the viola's opening, the second violin introduces a third idea, also evocative of Russian Orthodox chanting but, more importantly and strikingly, alluding to one of Shostakovich's favorite works of Russian music: Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov. The reference is to Boris's famous death-scene, and the haunting moment when the heart-broken Tsar tells his young son how to govern Russia wisely once Boris has died.
Overall, the 13th Quartet takes the form of a single movement in the shape of an arch: a slow introduction leading to a quicker central section, like a scherzo or dance of death, and then a return to the opening slow music. The central section — prancing, mocking, and marked doppio movimento — is initiated by a little rhythmic motif in the first violin. In the composer's 14th Symphony, completed a year earlier, this motif was used to set words by Guillaume Apollinaire conveying a woman's bitter reaction to the slaughter of the First World War:
I laugh... laugh... at the beautiful loves cut down by death
The restless texture of this central section of the quartet is also richly polyphonic. Shostakovich was one of the contrapuntal masters of the 20th century and here he finds a whole variety of spidery and delicate ways to combine wraiths and echoes of his opening three ideas. He also introduces new imagery, including the hollow sound of the stick of the bow tapped against the rounded underside of the body of the instrument, like someone tapping gently on the lid of a coffin (a rare instance of Shostakovich employing an "extended technique").
The same ghostly tapping continues into the slow final section of the quartet, when the three themes of the opening reappear but none quite as we heard them at the beginning. Each has been transfigured by the experience of the intervening dance of death.
Shostakovich's 14th Quartet completes his cycle of four hommages to the Beethoven Quartet with a large-scale three-movement work dedicated to the Quartet's cellist, Sergei Shirinsky. From its first notes this piece establishes a quite different tone from that of its predecessor. While the 13th Quartet (1970) prompts comparisons to the 14th Symphony of 1969, the 14th Quartet (1973) presents parallels with the 15th Symphony (1971). In particular, the quartet's first movement continues and explores further the childlike, playful quality of the opening movement of the 15th Symphony, which the composer likened to a "toyshop."
Also as with the 15th Symphony, the 14th Quartet contains many echoes of the music of Shostakovich's own youth, some delightful, some painful. These revolve especially around pieces that held special autobiographical significance for him, such as his First Symphony (1925) and the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1932).
Take the jaunty opening tune for the cello (the dedicatee's instrument). This is strikingly similar in style to some of the more mocking passages from Lady Macbeth and other theatre scores from the 1930s. How Shostakovich treats the tune in this quartet, however, is far different from what he would have tried 40 years earlier. Out of what seems a deliberately unpromising and trivial phrase, he builds not satire but one of the most delicate, unpredictably whimsical and subtle musical structures of his final years. Filled with Adorno's "sudden discontinuities" and "moments of breaking away," it traces a labyrinthine harmonic journey from the opening key of F-sharp major (one of the trickiest for Western stringed instruments) through a whole series of unexpected secondary keys (which he makes feel even more remote than they really are) back to F-sharp major at the end.
The central slow movement, by contrast, offers one of Shostakovich's starkest visions: a contorted solo line for the unaccompanied first violin, more like the painful recollection of half-forgotten scraps of melody than anything we would normally call a tune. A while later, the cello takes up the same solo line, and the first violin gives the impression of improvising counterpoint above it. This again sounds more like an aggressive attack on the original concept than anything resembling normal polyphony; one might describe it as anti-counterpoint.
The central section of this movement reinvents itself as a ghostly serenade, beginning with a leering cello melody supported by a plucking, guitar-like accompaniment from the other three instruments. The melody unexpectedly transforms itself into a swaying, off-center waltz in a distorted 19th century style. Here the first violin joins the soaring, swooning cello tune at the interval of a sixth below to create a syrupy texture and deeply poignant harmonic color.
This memorable moment feels strikingly like a quotation of a scrap of olden music, even though there never was an olden music quite like this. Violist Fyodor Druzhinin, who joined the Beethoven Quartet in 1964 and played the first performance of the 14th, recalled a moment in rehearsal when the composer, referencing this episode, asked the musicians, "How did you like my Italian bit?"
Druzhinin assumed the composer was making an association between this moment and a once-famous piece of cheap and popular Italian music from the 19th century, Gaetano Braga's Angel's Serenade. Druzhinin knew (it was an open secret in Moscow) that Shostakovich, at this late period of his life, was dreaming of writing an opera on Anton Chekhov's short story, The Black Monk. In that haunting tale, Braga's melody is heard several times by the protagonist who, in his suffering and despair, comes to view it, in all its treacliness, as a memento mori (a reminder of the inevitability of death), both sweet and terrifying.
The final movement begins with more plucking: a numbed pizzicato tapping of what seem at first to be random notes, once again hardly a melody at all. This time, however, there's a clue: the names of the notes spell the letters:
... a familiar form of Sergei, the first name of the dedicatee.
The music that follows starts out as an urgent scherzo-finale, perhaps another dance of death as in the 13th Quartet. But, as so often with Shostakovich, the composer surprisingly, the music's energy ebbs away and we hear the cello, on its lowest string, make a second reference to the same first name, using one of the most famous and poignant phrases from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It is the moment when, on their journey to punishment in Siberia, the stricken heroine, Katerina makes a final, desperate attempt to win back the affections of her feckless lover:
Serezha! O milyi moi!
Sergei! Oh, my dear one!
This heartfelt appeal marks a crisis in the quartet's structure. Where we might have expected the fast music to continue, we are instead dragged back into the painful bleakness of the slow movement (including a return of the "Italian bit" toward the end). The result is to give this second half of the 14th the illusion of an arch-shape reminiscent of the overall form of the 13th. But again we are deceived. At almost the very end, as with the conclusion of the 15th Symphony, the music changes yet again, this time plunging us into an entirely unexpected world of luminous harmonic simplicity — a different kind of music that sounds as though it could have been written a hundred years earlier.
As the composition of his quartets unfolded over nearly 40 years, starting with the First in C major of 1938, each addition to the cycle appeared in a different key. Shostakovich's contemporaries report that he began to dream of a complete set of 24 quartets in all the different keys. He did not live long enough to achieve such a result, of course, but one effect of his dream is that nearly all of his late quartets are in "remote" tonalities. Remote in that they are on the far end of the circle of fifths from the cycle's opening C major; and also remote because these are keys that offer fascinating problems of pitch and intonation to string players. Violins, violas, and cellos are traditionally constructed to resonate to, and therefore be kept in tune with, the so-called "simpler" keys — F, C, D, G and the like. When a composer uses keys that force the players to spend time with their fingers on the "black" keys (in piano parlance), he can exploit this to give the music an aura of greater fragility and vulnerability (Shostakovich's musical idol, Gustav Mahler, was fond of this effect).
Shostakovich's final quartet, the 15th of 1974, is a potent and deliberate example of this. Not only is it in six continuous movements, but every movement is in the same extremely difficult key of E-flat minor and every movement is slow. So those beautiful moments of fragility and vulnerability are inevitably highly audible; they're never covered up by fast playing or a shift into an easier key.
There's another fascinating aspect of the 15th too, found in the way it draws together the 13th Quartet's religious and liturgical elements with the quotations and self-references of the 14th, and then adds an additional element: a sense of near-amorous proximity to a range of familiar masterpieces by composers of the past. The great ones of the baroque and classical period hover over this composition in a more striking way than almost anywhere else in Shostakovich's output (his final work, the Viola Sonata, Op. 147, with its quotations of the "Moonlight Sonata" being the other obvious example), almost as though he were saying farewell to the music of the past he loved so much.
The unusual form itself seems to point to some pretty remarkable models. The idea of six slow movements in succession suggests the famous seven successive slow movements of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross; and something akin to the dramatic structure of the Haydn is also proposed by the (completely non-religious) titles Shostakovich gives his movements: Elegy—Serenade —Intermezzo—Nocturne—Funeral March—Epilogue. Clearly, we are being asked to imagine a mysterious hidden ceremony or story, haunted with elements of love and death.
The idea of a series of seamlessly linked movements, and the spareness of the slow opening fugato, together with the remoteness of the key, also brings to mind one of the greatest masterpieces of the entire string quartet repertory: Beethoven's Op. 131 in C-sharp minor. And the theme of the fugato, despite its liturgical character, seems distinctly reminiscent of Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet.
Liturgical echoes continue in the Elegy with two more chantlike themes. The first is close to the traditional Russian Orthodox Alleluia that greets the Easter Resurrection. The second — played in pianissimo two-octave unison by the second violin and cello — recalls the famous Vechnaya pamyat' (Eternal Memory), the ancient funeral chant from the same tradition.
The ascetic second movement, Serenade, begins with another of Shostakovich's 12-note rows, passed like a series of shrieks from one instrument to another, and answered by hollow strumming, like that of an out-of-tune guitar. Evidently, this serenader — an even more sinister example of the serenader from the second movement of the 14th Quartet — has a more than passing connection to that old leering woodcut figure of a skeleton with an instrument in his hands, singing beneath the window of a doomed maiden, not only as described by Schubert (as we have just been reminded) but also in one of Shostakovich's best-loved Russian works, Musorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death.
Halfway through the third movement, Intermezzo, after a whirlwind cadenza, the first violin launches without warning into a mysterious high melody. Its first three notes—a distinctive trope characteristic of certain 19th century Romantic composers—is reminiscent of the opening of the slow movement of the 14th Quartet, and of Shostakovich's use of the same musical image in the finale of his 15th Symphony. There, he uses it to create an eerie, even creepy musical pun between the opening of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and the melody from Glinka's song setting of the poem, "Dissuasion," by the Russian Romantic poet Yevgeny Baratynsky:
Do not tempt me needlessly with the return of tenderness...
There are many such half-references and allusions in this great final quartet of Shostakovich; the music is astonishingly rich with them. But perhaps the most important and most moving comes in the very closing bars. This dying away of music we recognize from the Quartet's Funeral March fifth movement, is a transcription of the final bars of another Shostakovich masterpiece written 35 years earlier and one of the greatest achievements of his youth: the first movement of his 6th Symphony.
The next generation of Soviet composers after Shostakovich — a fascinating group including Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Pärt, and Valentin Silvestrov—are remarkable for the way they set about defining their own voices. They came to maturity almost immediately by establishing themselves in sharp stylistic opposition to Shostakovich. This was only natural. Coming to independence in the late 1950s —the period of relative cultural freedom known as the Khrushchev Thaw — these young men and women urgently needed to free themselves from the artistic authority of their elders. Their instinct was to do that by looking outside the constricted world of Soviet music for models and inspiration. They were especially excited by composers whose music was still forbidden in the USSR at that time, including Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and post-war European and American avantgardists such as Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti, and Cage.
With time, however, many of these younger composers ended up returning to Shostakovich in later years, sometimes even re-examining his style and ideas through the prism of their own compositional approaches. This was particularly true of Alfred Schnittke (1934–1998).
Listening to Schnittke's ground-breaking music from 1960s, one would be hard put to identify any Shostakovich influence, except perhaps for a certain kind of tragic rhetoric that was very much part of all serious Soviet culture of that period. While Schnittke's 1st Quartet of 1966 does use 12-note rows, in parallel with Shostakovich's concurrent fascination with this musical idea, the younger man employs his rows in a manner more like the 12-note music of Schoenberg or Berg than that of Shostakovich.
A first overt musical acknowledgement of Shostakovich came when Schnittke marked the death of the older composer in 1975 with the touching Prelude in memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich for 2 violins. From that moment on, echoes of Shostakovich begin to creep more frequently into Schnittke's music. Despite this, there is little that sounds like Shostakovich in Schnittke's 2nd Quartet of 1981. The piece is filled with religious imagery derived from early Russian church music, but the effect is far from the chants found in Shostakovich's late quartets.
When Schnittke composed his 3rd Quartet two years later, however, matters had clearly changed. This imposing work in three movements, slow-fast-slow, immediately suggests a Shostakovichian arch-structure (shades of the 13th and 14th quartets). It begins with three quasi-quotations, an almost precise parallel with the three stylistic references at the beginning of Shostakovich's 13th and 15th quartets: first, a descending pair of 16th century-style cadences the composer marks "Orlando di Lasso — Stabat Mater," although Schnittke extracts an essence from Lassus's great work rather than quoting the original exactly. Next, the angular, chromatic main theme of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, but again not exactly as we hear it in Beethoven. Finally, growing directly out of the Beethoven quotation, the famous DSCH signature motif of Shostakovich (D–E-flat–C–B natural), but recast as a kind of scream (with the notes always rising), very unlike the many occurrences of this 4-note image in Shostakovich's music.
Shostakovich is thus (albeit in a twisted and distorted form) placed right at the heart of Schnittke's 3rd Quartet, alongside Beethoven and Lassus (a master of the European Renaissance). Clearly, some sort of statement is being made.
Out of these three scraps of material, Schnittke fashions in his first movement a densely woven sound fabric combining and recombining the three ideas so that they transform and begin to suggest a profusion of new ideas.
Schnittke seizes upon one of these new ideas to establish the main theme of the Agitato central movement. It is a curious and (typically for Schnittke) paradoxical musical image that begins surprisingly like a minor key rondo theme from Mozart, early Beethoven, or Schubert. It feels like we are leaping into yet another period of the past. But instead of developing this idea or transforming it, Schnittke simply repeats it over and over, while aggressively interrupting it with harsh, expressionist shrieks and cries. Throughout this uproar, Schnittke keeps driving the music back toward the original Lassus, Beethoven, and Shostakovich.
Schnittke's third and final movement also contains parallels with Shostakovich. It begins as a funeral march, with the same four-square dotted rhythm Shostakovich uses for the 15th Quartet's march. But Schnittke changes the sense of this association by smearing the harmonies so that his march recalls not the nobility of Shostakovich's piece, but rather the heavy vulgarity of the official Soviet funeral march (employed at the innumerable rituals of mourning and state funerals that made up so much of the liturgy of Soviet public life).
Out of this darkness and bitterness, the original three ideas from the beginning—Lassus, Beethoven, and DSCH—begin to reappear, but now fragile and fading back into the distance.
Noted scholar of Russian and Soviet music, Gerard McBurney is Artistic Programming Advisor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Creative Director of its acclaimed Beyond the Score Series.