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Name of Work

Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975)
Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110

Allegro molto


Feb 25, 2007

Barbara Butler, Trumpet
Charles Geyer, Trumpet
Gail Williams, Horn
Michael Mulcahy, Trombone

Feb 26, 2007

Barbara Butler, Trumpet
Charles Geyer, Trumpet
Gail Williams, Horn
Michael Mulcahy, Trombone

SHOSTAKOVICH-Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110

Composed in 1960

Shostakovich – whose 100th birthday was celebrated in 2006 – is remembered especially for his symphonies and string quartets – 15 of each – the former representing essentially his public personality, the latter frequently expressing his inner emotions and conflicts. The Eighth String Quartet of 1960 is deliberately and consciously autobiographical in its use of quotations from several symphonies, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the First Cello Concerto, and the Piano Trio No. 2. The composer also uses a four-note motive based on letters from his name: D, E-flat, C, and B, which in the European system of notation are called D, S, C, and H, initials of Dmitri Shostakovich.

In 1960, Shostakovich officially joined the Communist Party, a decision that caused him a tremendous amount of private turmoil. In that same year, he visited the German city of Dresden as part of work on a film score. Destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, Dresden has now been restored, but its appearance 47 years ago was undoubtedly a stark reminder of the horrors of war. The bombed-out urban environment led him to dedicate the Eighth Quartet – the product of just a few days' work – "to the memory of the victims of fascism and war." One way the work remembers these victims is through the quote he chose from his Second Piano Trio, a theme echoing traditional Jewish music, which can be heard not only as a statement of grief for those who died in the Nazi Holocaust, but also as a protest against the oppression and destruction of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union.

Shostakovich was himself a victim of war and of oppression – the Soviet insistence on artistic conformity forced him to express his individuality in subtle, secret ways. His Eighth Quartet emerges as an intensely personal statement.

Shostakovich's biographers, and musicians who knew him, have indicated that the composer contemplated suicide in 1960, such was the anguish of his life at that time. As we know, he lived a further 15 years and continued to compose.

Of all his masterworks, however, it was the Eighth Quartet that was performed at his funeral in 1975.

Born in Lyons, Kansas, in 1926, Verne Reynolds studied in the U.S. and Britain and played horn in the Cincinnati Symphony, the American Woodwind Quintet and the Rochester Philharmonic. He was professor of horn for 36 years at Rochester's Eastman School of Music and was a founding member of the Eastman Brass Quintet. He has published dozens of original compositions and arrangements. He comments, "The string quartets of Shostakovich vary greatly in structure, content, form, and length. Like Beethoven, Shostakovich displays in his quartets all of his creative boldness, imagination, freedom of thought and invention, and in the Eighth Quartet, profound despair and anguish for those lives sacrificed to war and fascism. The work ends very quietly, allowing the listener ample opportunity for reflection upon the music just played, and upon the composer's expression of grief."

If the notes D-E-flat-C-B are played consecutively, one hears two half-steps – D up to E-flat, C down to B – separated by one minor third, E-flat down to C. In traditional harmonic theory, these intervals are considered imperfect and unstable. The presence of similar intervals lends a sense of menace to the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) motive from the era of Gregorian chant. D-E-flat-C-B represent letters of Shostakovich's name as they would be rendered in German nomenclature: D, S (E-flat), C, H (B natural). It is an autobiographical motive that he used in a number of compositions, though never more prominently than in the Eighth Quartet. The official key of the work is C minor; C could be considered the central note of the motive, but there are few passages, until the end, that could be heard in C minor as Beethoven conceived of that key. The dissonant harmonies obscure any real sense of a traditional tonal center.

The Eighth Quartet is one of several of Shostakovich’s works that depart from the norm in terms of the number of its movements – five, not four – and in terms of the expected contrasts of tempo among those movements. Instead of a fast-paced opening, the one here is slow; it is followed by two Scherzi and two additional slow movements. All are linked, without clearly-articulated pauses between them.

The first Largo opens with a statement of D-S-C-H, laid out by all four instruments in fugal fashion. The succeeding ideas include a descending chromatic scale and fragments that quote Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 – his first major success, written when he was a 19-year-old conservatory senior – and Symphony No. 5, one of his most well-received works, introduced ironically after the storm of Stalinist condemnation that greeted his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The movement's material is recapitulated in reverse order before the sudden, dramatic start of the Allegro Molto, the first of the work's two scherzos, neither of which has much emotional relationship to the original Italian meaning of that word, which is "joke." Throughout his instrumental work, Shostakovich imbued scherzos with elements of sarcasm and grotesquery that cast a dark shadow on any idea of light-hearted musical humor.

The Allegro Molto combines D-S-C-H, the Fifth Symphony motive heard earlier, and a theme derived from Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2, a melody derived in turn from Jewish folk music. It would seem that Shostakovich is speaking here very much from his heart: linking his own name with a memory of his triumphant symphony but also with his lifelong inspiration from Jewish music and poetry, and his outrage against both fascist and Soviet violence against Jews. The provocative combination of ideas is developed over a very brief time span in abbreviated sonata form. The second scherzo, Allegretto, combines two waltz melodies: first a high-register one based on D-S-C-H, haunting and foreboding, not the kind of cheerful lilt we expect from waltz rhythm. The second waltz is more openly expressive, a touch of passion before a sudden shift of mood and of meter: from triple to duple. The theme here is taken from Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. This same motive leads now into the fourth-movement Largo, where two succeeding themes are especially poignant and significant. One, for trumpet, quotes a Russian folksong whose title is variously translated as "Tormented by Grievous Bondage" and "Exhuasted by the Hardships of Prison." The other, presented in a lower register, is drawn from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In this movement we hear a knocking motive – 3 short bursts, once repeated – signifying the knocking on doors that produced terror in those inside.

Leading into the final Largo is yet another statement of D-S-C-H. This last movement is a fugue, linking it to the opening Largo, but, if possible, even more somber, its statements more intricately intertwined. A motive in opposition to the main theme, called a countersubject in fugal terminology, is cast in the major mode, but the work ends in the C minor of its official key. The work fades away into an anguished silence.

Program Notes by Andrea Lamoreaux

Performance date: February 25 & 26, 2007

CCM first performed this work at the October 1995 subscription concerts, and most recently at the April 9, 2006 Lake Forest Lyrica Series.

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