First Light

A personal response to Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartets
Borodin Quartet Recordings Comparison

Shostakovich wrote fifteen string quartets. The last of these was the first music I properly listened to by the Russian maestro, a work of immense beauty and fragility written a year before his death. Although Shostakovich was to return to writing quartets throughout his life he actually didn’t start working with the form of music he described early on as “one of the most difficult musical genres” until he was thirty-two, long after he had written a large body of work for other instrumentation. As a youth he would listen at the walls of his home to quartets playing in the neighbours’ front room, later in life telling of how he would slip into an adjoining corridor to listen better, staying there for hours taking in the music. Perhaps then the significant role that quartet form played in his life from an early age makes it all the more interesting that he waited a relatively long time before confronting the genre himself. Certainly, string quartets were the format towards which Shostakovich repeatedly turned to produce much of his most intimate, personal music. Also then as I embark here on a chronological journey through DSCH’s quartets it is worth nothing that he didn’t really ever write any “early” quartets. His first explorations of the string quartet as a maturing composer were not at the same level as his much later works, and to a degree lack the sheer power of the emotional intimacy that pours from those latter pieces but the early quartets are also not the work of a novice beginner. There is a line that can be followed through the fifteen works, assorted musical quotations reappearing from one piece to another and even a tonal structure to the entire cycle that suggests Shostakovich put a lot of thought into his overall approach.

Shostakovich’s string quartets have a certain feel to them that is instantly recognisable. It is often remarked that they represent a clean break from the generally less than enthralling quartet writing of many of his Russian predecessors and yet they don’t look forward in the way Bartok’s more experimental work had challenged quartet writing just a few years earlier. If anything Shostakovich’s quartets echo the composition of the late Germanic romantics and they pick up where Beethoven left off with his late quartets. Never a bad place to start. There is a melodic, lyrical feel to Shostakovich’s quartets, but also a warmth, an intimacy and very often a deeply melancholic undercurrent that denies these pieces the opportunity of ever being just background music. They demand to be sat quietly and listened to, and, personally speaking, the impact of doing so is profound.

Shostakovich’s youthful clandestine listening through the walls to his neighbour’s house concerts in some ways reminds me of my own experiences in my early teens as I hid a tiny transistor radio under my pillow to listen to the obscurities played by John Peel on his late night radio show. Musical discoveries made alone,