Shostakovich 2. RHYTHM

In the long run, any words about music are less important than the music.

– Dimitri Shostakovich


CHAPTER AIM: Exploring 20th Century Rhythm



Jarring Beats 

Take a look right from the start of this piece:

Shostakovich Quartet, Opening  

The first violin buzzes away like a wasp, whilst behind the other strings make separate stabs, that sound rhythmic.

How rhythmic are these stabs?


Play the clip again, and try clapping exactly with each of them. Try to hit exactly the same beats as the other three strings:

Shostakovich Quartet, Opening  

The beat of the piece is fast, but stable. And those stabs are straightforward single rhythmic jabs. And yet the result isn’t anything like as straightforward – rhythmically – as it sounds.


Here is that same beginning with claps added with those stabs:

Shostakovich Quartet, Opening (with claps)   

It was difficult for me recording those claps!

Looks easy on the page...

Looks easy on the page…


The rhythmic patterns Shostakovich uses during these first 16 seconds are straightforward enough on the written page; sometimes a stress on the first beat of the bar, sometimes on the third.

And yet the musical effect of these stabs are utterly unlike anything Bach or Mozart could ever have created. Harsh, violent, terrifying…


Welcome to the sound of the twentieth century.



Rhythm: an extremely concise history

Western Music, over the course of the last 500 years, has traveled all kinds of journeys down all sorts of paths. During that time, most of the instruments of the symphony orchestra have been invented, or at least transformed into the instruments we recognise today.

The Missionary position

The Missionary position


During this period, composition has turned from a craft into an art-form. And the concept of Melody had been stretched into themes, arias, motifs, and subjected to all nature of transformation, variation, or repetition.

All the while, an immense system of Harmony – a rational tuning of nature – had been constructed. It was already being pushed to its limits at the end of the 19th century.

And yet, strangely, Rhythm had been pretty much left alone.


It was almost as if Classical Music was embarrassed by the concept of rhythm. That aspect of music that moves things in the lower regions of the body…


Picture your average 19th century African missionary. If he compared the melodic music of his beloved Strauss to the native beat of drums, he would have been convinced of Strauss’ musical superiority without hesitation or doubt.

Of course he would have had no conception of how rhythmically complex the drum-beats of those apparent savages were. His own culture hadn’t supplied him with a rhythmic pallette that was sensitive enough to tell.



Rite of Spring

By the twentieth century, everything changed. And it was a single piece that announced this change: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913). 

Rite of Spring, excerpt 1  

The music was written for dance, a ballet. So it moves with constant rhythmic activity.

And yet that rhythm is raw, asymmetric, multi-layered. That’s why it sounds so disturbing, so modern.


Like our Shostakovich earlier, the clip uses large stabs of rhythm to sound out rhythmic accents at unexpected moments. That cuts us adrift from rhythmic stability.

Try clapping where those big stabs come in. Like the Shostakovich, it isn’t as easy or straightforward as it seems:

Rite of Spring, excerpt 1  

Again, the actual rhythmic translation to the music is small and subtle. The moving of a beat back or forward is actually very simple.

And yet the effect is unnerving and violent. It cuts against our sense of rhythmic stability, our instinct. It feels like an assault or an attack.


Stravinsky’s music produced a near-riot at its 1913 premier, with angry members of the audience hurling abuse and seat cushions at one another. Little could anyone have known how prescient the ballet about blood sacrifice – and the audiences violent reactions – would turn out. Hardly a year later, and Europe stumbled into the horrors of the First World War.


Rite of Spring, excerpt 2  

It is the music of Russian composers like Stravinsky and Shostakovich that more than any others now provide the soundtrack to the devastation of the first half of the twentieth century.

What to those original 1913 audience members must have sounded like an incoherent cacophany was in fact a highly structured and original – to classical music at least – use of polyrhythm: the layering of different rhythms on top of one another at the same time.


Listen to that section again:

Rite of Spring, excerpt 2  

Here, two conflicting rhythms – at least – play against each other. The effect is brittle and disturbing. African and middle-Eastern drummers may have been using polyrhythms for thousands of years.

But this was new to classical music.




3.57- 5.59   Piano Introduction  

Rhythm really was the driving innovation in 20th century music. So while rhythmic innovation was driving the work of Russian composers, rhythmic drive was also affecting the music of the other great 20th century superpower.


Rhythm is fundamental to American music, whether that be the blues, jazz, rock ‘n roll, or any of the many many generic variations.

Ask any martian what connects Rock and Roll with Hip-Hop or Rap or Heavy Metal, and he’ll tell you it’s that beat.

And it’s not just popular music. Listen to American classical (or at least what is termed ‘Minimalist’ music) and you again find that preoccupation with rhythm.

Desert Sonata (Extract)  

sanThis clip is from Steve Reich’s Desert Sonata, composed in 1983. The essence of the music is poly-rhythmic, that is the layering of different strands of rhythm. That cross-layering of rhythm is what gives the music its phasing quality.


Rhythm is the great driver in the music of the twentieth century, and also still of our own. That’s because the last century has been a place of extreme speed, movement and change. In America, that energy is expressed through pulsing rhythms that express a confidence and drive.

In Russia, those rhythms were much more fractured and disturbing.




Shostakovich Quartet  

Shostakovich, like Russian composers in general, proved himself wonderfully adept in his use of rhythm. And that doesn’t just mean using irregular or complex layered rhythmic substructures to create an effect.

Going the opposite way can have an even greater rhythmic effect. Listen to this section that comes a minute into the piece:

After bombing

Leningrad, 1942




But Shostakovich pushes it further, by just repeating and repeating the rhythm, until its insistence becomes unnerving.

Now the rhythm throbs with a hypnotic intensity in complete contrast to the rest of the movement. Rather than making us feel tranquil, as do the rhythms of Bach or Mozart, the sound distresses in a different way, with a kind of frenzied grief.


Welcome, to a Russian Twentieth Century.