A Quartet for the Nuclear Age

One of our current projects is Shostakovich’s eighth quartet. Few members of the entire quartet repertoire have provoked such debate as this work of astonishing power blended with occasional moments of heart-breaking pathos. Written during the composer’s visit to Dresden after World War II, it comprises five contiguous movements which together evoke both the pitiful destruction of that conflict and the composer’s own thoughts of suicide at the time of writing in 1960. The quartet’s centrepiece is its second movement, a flurry of almost divine brutality which arguably stands as a kind of Holst’s Mars, the God of War for the nuclear age: inhuman, unrelenting, and total in its devastating force. The third and fourth movements can be seen as both fighting to escape the shadow of the second and zooming in from its panoramic horror to reveal its effects at closer proximity. The tragically distorted folk setting of the third speaks of cultures destroyed by what the composer himself described as “fascism and war”, while the fourth – which, with macabre irony, is both the most poignantly sad movement and the only one which spends any substantial time in a major key – consists of individual voices muted by war but made beautifully audible through music in a new, but comprehensible, heavenly language. These then give way to the final movement, a reprise of the bleak melancholy of the first corrupted by dissonant counterpoint and ending with a hopeless vision of death as the end of everything, the hints at salvation expressed in the previous movement now a distant memory.

Shostakovich’s eighth quartet should be viewed in the context of the composer’s turbulent relationship with the Soviet Union, justifiably one of the iconic stories of musical history. Shostakovich of course frequently fell victim to the Soviet regime’s quest for complete cultural control. However in the closing moments of this quartet we surely see an atheism of which the Communist hierarchy would have approved; there is certainly no suggestion of redemption or resolution in those mournful C minor chords. Interestingly in the first two movements we see the beginnings of a mass, with the serene Requiem of the first followed by the explosive Dies Irae of the second. In this sense the work resembles Britten’s War Requiem, composed at around the same time and informed by similar cultural influences. Tellingly though there is no equivalent in the Russian’s work to the Englishman’s Paradisum at the end of his; in Shostakovich’s world there is no delivery from evil or prospect of eternal life, something which can unsettle Western listeners so used to hearing stories of adversity overcome, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Nonetheless for all its profanity Shostakovich’s eighth quartet is a profoundly moral work, and it is this which supplies it with so much of its impact. However a good story to tell is one thing; the ability to tell it is quite another, and we should be thankful that the eighth quartet is not only emotionally moving but also musically inspiring.