Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.
An Urgent Visit
Shostakovich Quartet no 8, 2nd movement
On the 29th June 1960, a couple of weeks before the 54 year old Shostakovich composed this quartet, he telephoned Isaak Glikman, a musician and close personal friend. He was distraught, and begged Glikman to visit him immediately.
In answer to my questioning, he managed through tears to jerk out indistinctly: ‘They’ve been pursuing me for years, hunting me down…’ Never before had I seen Shostakovich in such a state of hysterical collapse. I gave him a glass of cold water; he drank it down, his teeth chattering, then gradually clamed himself. However, it took about an hour for him to recover enough composure to tell me what had recently been happening in Moscow.
What had been happening in Moscow was Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s attempt to consolidate his regime. He wanted to heat up the post-Stalin thaw by getting more celebrated liberals to join the Communist Party. Considerable pressure was turned on Shostakovich
Shostakovich was invited to become Chairman of the Composer’s Union. It was a position of high influence. But the post came with a rope-sized string attached: he had to join the Communist Party.
Shostakovich wrestled with this poisoned chalice. It was – in a new form – yet another struggle with the Communist authorities, battles that had continually sapped his energy throughout his working life.
Old, ill, and depressed, the composer had finally acquiesced, some few days before Glikman’s visit.
Shostakovich’s allies were horrified. The thought of such an act of submission to the Communist authorities, after years of struggle, was a terrible blow to his close artistic comrades. Some of them reminded the composer of his vow never to join a Party that condoned violence.
A few of his closer friends (like Glikman) tried to keep Shostakovich physically away from Moscow, to avoid the incipient threat. The ploy worked: Shostakovich missed his requested appointment with the Communist authorities, and a few days later he flew to Dresden to commence work on the score for the film being shot to commemorate the bombing of the city.
This quartet may have been composed in a flood of memories of the war brought back by the filming, but Shostakovich was also confronting fiercer inner demons summoned by the question of whether or not to fulfill his promise to join the Communist Party.
By the time he had finished composing it, he had probably made up his mind what he was going to do.
The quartet itself bears a single dedication, written by Shostakovich:
“To the memory of the victims of fascism and war.”
At one level the quartet (and in particular this movement) is clearly about just that. The aural texture of the movement, with its dizzying spin of its melodic line and frenzied attack of bow on string. Plus of course that new and furious version of the Jewish theme, composed back in 1944.
It is the sound of aggression, attack, and violent death.
Shostakovich’s dedication to the “victims of fascism and the victims of war” extends its reach wide and deep. Millions of Jews died in the Second World War. As did many millions of Russians, and millions of Germans. Think of those victims of Dresden, who suffered firstly under the Nazis, and then from Allied retaliation. They also were victims.
And what about the victims of Communism? Fascism may have looked to the world like the opposite ideologies to Communism, but were they as different as they seemed?
Both claimed to be totally modern creations, gifts from the future. Both provided a Utopian panacea for the world’s problems sanctified, according to both sets of acolytes, by the inevitability of scientific truth.
The reality was the opposite. Both turned out to be age-old tyrannies, appealing to the basest of human instincts. And both were barbaric in action, committing between them savagery that would result in the deaths of millions.
Communism & Fascism were never versions of a Modern Age, but reactions against it. And they both hated Modernism.
Those close to Shostakovich knew he abhorred Communism, and viewed it as another form of fascism inflicted on his own people. The composer understood this from his own life under Stalinism, even if that experience had taught him to express himself in layered and elusive terms.
So there were many victims of fascism and war, Jews, Germans, as well as Russians. And one of them was of course Shostakovich himself.
Shostakovich Quartet no 8, 2nd movement
Shortly after returning from Dresden, on 19th July 1960, he wrote to Glikman about his new quartet:
…I wrote this ideologically depraved quartet which is of no use to anybody. I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory, so I had better write one myself. The title page could carry the dedication: ‘To the memory of the composer of this quartet.’
The piece is indeed ideologically depraved. The whole quartet is studded with various references to his other works, like the Jewish theme discussed previously. In many ways, the quartet is a form of autobiography, a memoriam to his own life. Shostakovich said as much to Glikman.
Now the DSCH motif shifts more clearly into focus. In fact it is used more vigorously in this quartet (and indeed this movement) than in any other of Shostakovich’s works. The four-note phrase is used through the movement, flung around with abandon, without control, amongst the torrential fury of strings.
A contemporary wrote of the DSCH theme in Shostakovich’s tenth symphony with words that could equally apply to this movement:
The motive sounds strange and mechanical, lifeless but persistent, just as if the composer had seen himself as a puppet, a ‘doll on a string’, which is being arbitrarily manipulated in the merciless hands of the puppeteer…
And we also have our faster modern version of the Jewish theme from 1944. Could this be an aesthetic reaction to the film about Dresden’s bombing that he was supposed to be working on? Does it express some kind of loss of control?
Which leads us to ask some deeper questions: is this quartet primarily descriptive of Shostakovich himself? Is it perhaps even more than biography, as some have claimed:- is it in fact a valediction to the world?
Could it be an actual suicide note??
A friend, Leb Ledinsky, claimed later to have foiled a suicide attempt at exactly this time:
The composer dedicated his quartet to the victims of fascism to disguise his intentions…it was his farewell to life. He associated joining the Party with a moral, as well as a physical death. On the day of his return trip from Dresden, where he had completed his quartet and bought a large number of sleeping pills, he played the quartet to me on the piano and told me with tears in his ears it was his last work. He hinted at his intention to commit suicide. Perhaps subconsciously he hoped I would save him. I managed to remove the pills from his jacket pocket and give them to his son, Maxim…
Shostakovich’s son Maxim, it should be pointed out, didn’t recall this incident. But whatever the truth of the suicide claim, the eighth quartet was clearly written under the most harrowing of circumstances, some of those beyond his problems with the authorities.
The recent death of his first wife, and the onset of severe illness had sent the composer into a deep depression. The result of the recent Dresden visit and all the pressure to join or not to join the Communist party probably tipped the composer into a nervous breakdown.
Shostakovich had never been a physically brave man, and the strain of living and working daily under Stalinist terror had wrecked havoc with his already sensitive nerves.
But he was also a deeply willed man, filled with quiet but tenacious determination. Contradictions abounded in his personality: the intellectual who enjoyed football and poker, the man of personal principal who monotonously intoned whatever words the Party wrote for him to say.
In the 1940s, one writer had voiced an astute appraisal of the composer’s personality to another researching a book on the composer:
You say he is ‘frail, fragile, withdrawn, yet infinitely direct, pure as a child’…he is exactly as you say, plus something else – he is tough, acerbic, extremely intelligent, strong, and not altogether good-natured…Great contradictions are at play within him. One quality obliterates another. It is a conflict of the highest degree…almost to the point of catastrophe.
Nearly two decades later, the point of catastrophe had arrived.
On 14th September 1960, Shostakovich muttered the necessary formalities, and officially joined the Communist Party. He sank into the deepest depression, probably a full mental breakdown. He had undoubtedly hit some kind of bottom. The often camouflaged struggle against Communism, which meant for this artist the fight for the very assertion of his personality and feeling, had come to end.
And the end was a kind of a defeat.
So, into this work, Shostakovich seems to pour all the scorn, fear, and torment that had encapsulated his life. In doing so, he had ultimately fallen back on the only subject that had ever truly sustained his creative output: himself.
The quartet, and this movement, can indeed be appreciated as a distraught commemoration of his life. In finally joining the Communist Party, you could say, something in Shostakovich had died.
Inevitable, after his actual death in 1975, the quartet was played at his funeral.
After his death, his fellow composer Khachaturian recalled:
Shostakovich hated being asked questions about his music, and whether this or that theme represented something or had a particular meaning, When asked ‘What did you want to say in this work?’ he would answer ‘I’ve said what I’ve said.’ Either you had it in you to understand, or, if not, then it would be fruitless to try and explain anyway.
Shostakovich Quartet no 8, 2nd movement
And there are many questions we can ask about this quartet, even about this short 2 1/2 minute movement,
Is this a memoriam for the Jewish deaths of the holocaust? Or for the German victims of the Dresden bombing? For all victims of the war? In fact for all victims of Stalinist repression? Or is this indeed a personal lament by Shostakovich? Is it autobiography? Memoriam? Or is it a musical suicide note?
Or is it just a piece of music, a stunning piece of music, that works without attachment to any themes of historical or biographical significance?
Of course, the answer isn’t just any one of these things. It can be all of them, and all of them at the same time. Such is the beauty, not just of Shostakovich, but of Classical Music itself.
- Here is that act finale to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
- Here is that climax to the seventh symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.