Edgar M. Bronfman String Quartet program notes

Tuesday, August 10, 2021 , 6:30 PM

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110

Mozart : String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1976)

String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110

Composed: 1960
Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, and cello

In June 1960, P.N. Pospelov was sent to recruit Shostakovich to join the Communist Party on Khrushchev’s orders. The esteemed 53-year-old Shostakovich had experienced the extreme hardships of living as an artist under Soviet regime and, in particular, the daily terrors associated with being in and out of favor with the increasingly irrational Stalin of the 1940s and early 1950s. Trying to distance itself from Stalin’s murderous administration, the government put increasing pressure on Shostakovich to join the Party in the years leading up to Pospelov’s visit. We will never know precisely why Shostakovich gave in to Pospelov and Khrushchev after resisting for so long—it is a subject that he seldom discussed, even with his wife. The documentation that we do have is his music, and while any subtext that we attempt to impose on his work is open to argument, even those most resistant to reading dissident messages in Shostakovich’s music acknowledge that String Quartet No. 8 (written just weeks after Pospelov’s visit) is a deeply personal work, a poignant autobiographical sketch that also serves as an apology for his weakness to resist.

Although the quartet was written during a visit to war-ravaged Dresden, and despite its Party-pleasing dedication “To the memory of the victims of fascism,” Shostakovich wrote of its true motivation to his friend Isaak Glikman on July 19, 1960: “When I die, it’s hardly likely that someone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself. One could write on the cover: ‘Dedicated to the composer of this quartet.’”

Indeed, Shostakovich’s presence is felt in every movement of the quartet through the recurring motive D-Eb-C-B, which using German lettering represents “DSCH,” a kind of musical signature. Another friend, Lev Lebedinsky, explained that Shostakovich “associated joining the Party with a moral as well as physical death,” and told of how the composer intended to complete the quartet as a final apology before committing suicide. Whether he seriously considered ending his life is unclear, but as Richard Taruskin notes, the quartet does “show that the need to communicate urgently and with specificity in an atmosphere of threat did at times shrink Shostakovich’s creative options…. He was clearly identifying himself as a victim.”

The opening Largo begins with a slow, intense presentation of the DSCH motive in fugue form followed by a heart-rending lament in the first violin over open fifths in the lower strings. The movement also contains the first of many self-quotations in the quartet, here from the composer’s Symphony No. 1 that first launched his international reputation. The understated intensity is supplanted by a fiercely violent violin theme in the second movement punctuated by sforzando chords (with strong emphasis at the beginning of each chord) in the lower strings. Eventually the DSCH motive appears, but it is completely overwhelmed by the furious theme. The movement also borrows a Jewish motive, characterized by driving rhythms, insistent repetition, and augmented melodic intervals, that Shostakovich originally used in his Piano Trio No. 2. The second presentation of this theme is abruptly cut off, ending the movement.

The Allegretto is a joyless, off-balance waltz whose main theme is again based on fragmented repetitions of the DSCH motto. A new section in 4/4 utilizes material from the Cello Concerto No. 1 and leads to an extended lament in the upper register of the cello accompanied by chromatic scales in the violins. The start of the fourth section is heralded by a series of brutal, percussive triplets suggesting Shostakovich’s dreaded “pounding on the door in the middle of the night.” Amid the episodes of this repeated figure, Shostakovich created an arrangement of the Russian revolutionary song “Tortured by Grievous Lack of Freedom” (appearing with the DSCH motto), as well as the poignant farewell aria from his Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk, the work that precipitated his official condemnation in 1936. The final Largo presents the DSCH fugue of the opening but now with a different countersubject derived from music from final scene of Lady Macbeth, which sees prisoners being led into Siberian exile. The piece ends with the first violin voice, seemingly alone, uttering repeated dissonances until, ultimately, falling to a final sustained fifth.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”

Composed: 1785
Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, and cello

Between 1782 and 1785, Mozart wrote six string quartets. The inspiration for these came from a meeting with Haydn—already a master of the genre—in 1781. Mozart heard the elder composer’s Op. 33 quartets at this time, which seemed to open his ears to the possibilities of the ensemble. After completing K. 465, the last of the group, Mozart sent off copies of the scores to Haydn, dedicating them to him. His charming letter that accompanied the scores included the following text:

I send my six sons to you, most celebrated and very dear friend. They are, indeed, the fruit of a long and arduous labor…. [I] offer them to you and hope that you will not consider them wholly unworthy of your favor. Please receive them kindly and be to them a father, guide, and friend!

These six “Haydn quartets” have wonderful energy, intricate counterpoint, and creative use of thematic development, and have remained popular since they were “released into this great world,” as Mozart wrote elsewhere in his letter.

The “Dissonance” quartet is named for the shocking opening gambit Mozart uses in the piece. Music lovers, performers, and scholars were flummoxed at the time. Some figured there were errors in the published score. One count angrily accused the performers of incompetence before seeing the score, which he promptly tore to shreds in a rage. Others attempted to correct Mozart’s “mistakes” in their own versions of the opening. Even today, the opening startles listeners, though the quartet as a whole is among Mozart’s sunniest offerings.

When a piece is nicknamed “Dissonance” and the program note writer is a music theorist, audiences should immediately raise their guard. I will exercise great self-restraint. The moniker references the 22-measure introduction to the first movement, in particular the initial sonority. The strings enter one by one, low to high. The first three notes actually form a consonant A-flat major chord, but then the first violin plays a disruptive (and to my ear, creepy) A-natural. Although the viola at that point moves off its A-flat, down to a G, the implied A-flat/A-natural friction (called a cross-relation) feels more like Schoenberg than Mozart. Other similar cross-relations follow as well as a surprisingly disorienting series of parallel minor thirds in the cello and first violin. The introduction soon settles in to more standard—though no less creepy—chromaticism, setting up the contrastingly cheery Allegro that follows. The bright and clear-eyed exposition offers no hint at what came before, though the harmonically adventurous development section seems aligned in character with the introduction without the flagrant jarring clashes.

What might have been missed in the excitement of the harmonic dissonances of the opening was that the individual melodic lines that created those crunchy moments were all encirclement figures: if the central note is X, the consistent melodic pattern was upper neighbor-X-lower neighbor-X. In the second movement, the most prominent motive, coming in the second theme, is very similar (though no longer dissonant): X-lower-upper-X, a so-called double neighbor pattern. Though genial, there is something about the insistence of this motive and its derivatives that lends this movement a cumulative intensity, not unlike some of the later chamber music of Schubert.

The third movement minuet is clever, humorous, and focused. Minuets are always in 3/4 time, with measures paired in order to project the proper six-beat feel of the Baroque dance. Mozart toys with this expected pairing relentlessly here, forcing the listener to question the metric expectation without ever breaking the rule. A good example of this comes during the four-measure cadential tag at the end of the first section of the minuet proper: the 12 beats (traditionally presented as 6+6) are divided into an unexpected 5+5+2 pattern. The dancers might get lost in the middle of the phrase, but they will end up in the right place. The contrasting C minor trio lends the movement its emotional core.

Mozart packs a lot into his finale, a nimble sonata form that features virtuosic passages, especially for the first violin. The first and second themes are built on similar rhythmic figures with leaping fourths and fifths, which gives the overall movement a sense of extreme motivic cohesion (perhaps as a nod to Haydn, who was known for this). Rapid-fire gestural exchanges between the players and sudden stops add Haydn-esque humor to the proceedings. Mozart seems to revel in the fun he is having in the development section, where the first theme keeps returning in varying keys, fooling the audience into thinking the recapitulation has arrived. The merriment culminates in a coda that seems to dash out the door.

Program Notes by Jon Kochavi