Shostakovich 6. Deeper Themes


Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

– Victor Hugo



This chapter, we’re going to dig a little deeper into two of the ideas we have found in this quartet: the DSCH motif and what I will call the Jewish theme.



The Jewish Theme

This theme comes forms the most distinctive part of the movement:

Shostakovich Quartet, 55′ in  


It’s an important theme, and you can tell that by the fact that we hear it twice. Firstly here, in the middle of the piece, and a second time at the end of the movement:

Shostakovich Quartet, 2’20 in  


This music reminds us of Gypsy or Jewish music, a style we often term Klezma.



Klezma Harmonics

Shostakovich Quartet, 55′ in  

Klezmer music, like The Blues, depends on unfamiliar notes in a particular key. A gypsy or Klezma scale – just like a blues scale – will contained sharpened or flattened notes that make it sound different to a normal major scale.


Let’s find these notes by following the melody more closely, as it plays in the violins. We can do this by breaking the melody into three parts.

The first part of the phrase, which is repeated, is made up of the notes F# – G – C – C – C:

That first F# is a gypsy note (F# is unfamiliar to the key of C minor)


The second part has the notes C-G-A-G-G-F#-A repeated 9 times:

Jewish musicians, Ukraine 20's.

Ukrainian Jews, 1920’s.

Notice how from the sixth repeat onwards, the phrase is shortened again. It shortening hurries the phrase forward.

Here both the A and the F# represent klezma harmonics. In C minor, we would usually play an A flat (Ab). So that A note lends a distinctive major sonority to the overall minor key. And those repetitions also remind us of a gypsy fiddler, bowing away furiously.


The third section is the short finish, with the quick notes Db-Eb-Db-Eb-C:

Again, the note of D flat (Db) is alien to the key of C minor; again it reminds is of a more Eastern European or even Middle-Eastern tone.



 A Jewish Theme

This theme had in fact been used many years before by Shostakovich, in his 1944 trio:

Shostakovich 2nd Trio 3rd Movement, excerpt  

Shostakovich composed this piece in 1944, when Nazism was finally on the backfoot, and Hitler’s army had began its long retreat back to Germany.

As the Russian armies began their ‘liberation’ of Eastern Europe, terrible stories began to filter back home. Stories of Nazi death camps, where Jews had been systematically collected and murdered.


Shostakovich was horrified. He had always felt a close affiliation to Jewish culture, and had a number of close Jewish friends. As he later told an interviewer:

It seems I comprehend the Jewish melodies. A cheerful melody is built here on sad foundations…why does someone sing a cheerful song? Because he is sad at heart.”


Shostakovich 2nd Trio 3rd Movement, excerpt  

Shostakovich 1942

Shostakovich 1942

One view of this Jewish theme is it represents a dance of death. Reports sent back by Russian journalists had mentioned Jews forced to dance in front the graves they had just dug for themselves, before being shot by Nazi paramilitary troops (the shooting of a million Jews in Eastern Europe from 1939-42 was the preliminary stage of the Holocaust).

Other commentators contend the melody is a celebration of Ivan Sollertinksy, a close Jewish friend of the composer (probably his closest friend) who died in the same year, and to whom Shostakovich had dedicated this trio.


Whatever the truth, Shostakovich had always felt a close affiliation to Jewish culture, a bond evident in his music, most especially in the songs he wrote directly inspired by Jewish folk tunes and verse. It was a connection probably went beyond sympathy to something deeper: he empathized with their persecution.

But these were not feelings Shostakovich would reveal in the public form of a symphony, or opera (after Lady Macbeth, he never wrote another opera).

From the time of his denounciation on, Shostakovich was careful not to express such feelings in too public a form, as in opera or the symphony. They would be couched in the privacy of chamber music, like the song, the trio, and of course the string quartet.



Art is Free

Shostakovich Quartet, 2nd movement   

This all points to a rich heritage. Think how Gershwin speaks to us through a musical language that is born from black slavery. Gershwin is an American, with Russian Jewish parents, fusing the classical traditions of Europe with the music of black slavery.

When we turn to the ‘Jewish’ theme, we find Shostakovich is composing from the traditions of Gershwin’s Jewish forefathers in Russia.

So, Gershwin the Jewish American, sings through the lament of exiled African slaves. Meanwhile, Shostakovich, composes in the traditions of Gershwin’s own Russian Jewish parents.



It’s a great reminder that with culture, traffic is free, and music can cross any borders in all directions. Erecting fences around music, trying to act as gate-keepers to what is accepted and what isn’t, is pointless. Music is free and universal: that’s why it has always been such a powerful force in the experience of our species.

The heritage of Shostakovich’s music, or that of Bach, or Gershwin or indeed all the music on this course, reminds us of a simple truth. Ultimately, we are all a single people or species.

And music is our most international language.



DSCH revisited

Let’s now turn to our 4-note DSCH motif. We’ve already established how the DSCH motif appears in other movements of the quartet ( Shostakovich 3.

Here it is, right at the start of the first movement:

Shostakovich Quartet no 8, 1st movement opening


In fact you will find this motif in every single movement of this quartet.

Here it is, in a different key, from the middle of the fourth movement:


And here it is, at the start of the third movement, but in a different guise:

This time the motif begins with the first note played twice. As the movement continues, you can hear how this motif becomes the main theme…


The quartet is studded with references. In fact this isn’t the only piece you will find this DSCH motif. What is generally agreed to be the first appearance comes in the third movement of his 10th symphony, premiered in 1953.

You can hear the phrase, played slower, up high in the woodwind:

Shostakovich Symphony 10, 3rd movement excerpt


There are numerous instances of this motif that permeate Shostakovich’s work, a motif that appears in so many forms that it’s not always easy to know exactly when it is being used.

Which leads to a question of why Shostakovich felt the need to encode his name so many times into his own music?



Red Shostakovich

It’s important to remember Shostakovich was working within the awful strictures of Stalin’s Soviet Union. The rather cryptic imprint of his signature makes more sense when we appreciate he was working inside a system that that regarded individual expression as “bourgeois” or “decadent”, and gave constant lip-service to the ideal of the “collective”.

From an artist’s point of view, this was a regime that increasingly stifled individual expression. That threatened it with torture, and death.


Let’s put this into a musical context by thinking about of Shostakovich’s harmonic palette.

Shostakovich actually had to be careful not to write music that sounded too atonal. The Serialism of Schonberg and Webern was seen by the communist authorities as decadent, Western, and highly suspect. Modernist artists were among the first to disappear in Stalin’s purges.

Even so, Shostakovich never seemed sympathetic to the tenets of Serialism and Atonalism. I wonder if it felt like another form of control.


And so these four notes – this repeated DSCH motif – may be a coded message of individuality, a cry for artistic independence from deep within a totalitarian system.

Well, okay. But why is it expressed like this? In so many ways, the effect becomes jarring and neurotic.

Is shostakovich really describing the communist system? Or commenting on Jewish suffering?

Or is he actually articulating something about himself?

That’s a question well answer in our final Shostakovich chapter.





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