String Quartet No. 8 (Shostakovich)
The piece was written shortly after two traumatic events in the life of the composer: the first presentation of debilitating muscular weakness that would eventually be diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and his reluctant joining of the Communist Party. According to the score, it is dedicated "to the victims of fascism and war"; his son, Maxim, interprets this as a reference to the victims of all totalitarianism, while his daughter Galina says that he dedicated it to himself, and that the published dedication was imposed by the Russian authorities. Shostakovich's friend, Lev Lebedinsky, said that Shostakovich thought of the work as his epitaph and that he planned to commit suicide around this time.
The work was written in Dresden, where Shostakovich was to write music for the film Five Days, Five Nights, a joint project by Soviet and East German film-makers about Bombing of Dresden in World War II.
The quartet, extremely compact and focused, is in five interconnected movements and lasts about twenty minutes:
The first movement opens with the DSCH motif which was Shostakovich's musical signature. This slow, extremely sad theme can also be heard in his Cello Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 10, Violin Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 15, and Piano Sonata No. 2. The motif is used in every movement of this quartet, and is the basis of the faster theme of the third movement.
The final statement of the DSCH motif at the end of the fifth movement
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The work is filled with quotations of other pieces by Shostakovich: the first movement quotes his Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 5; the second movement uses a Jewish theme first used by Shostakovich in his Piano Trio No. 2; the third movement quotes the Cello Concerto No. 1; and the fourth movement quotes the 19th century revolutionary song "Tormented by Grievous Bondage" and the aria Seryozha, my love from Shostakovich's opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The fifth contains a play upon a motive also from Lady Macbeth.
It has been transcribed by Rudolf Barshai for string orchestra, in which version it is known as Chamber Symphony in C minor (Op. 110a).
In the liner notes of the Borodin String Quartet's recording of the quartet in 1962, critic Erik Smith wrote: The Borodin Quartet played this work to the composer at his Moscow home, hoping for his criticisms. But Shostakovich, overwhelmed by this beautiful realisation of his most personal feelings, buried his head in his hands and wept. When they had finished playing, the four musicians quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room.
- Shostakovich, ed. Glikman; pp. 90-91.
- Ardov, Michael (2004); Memories of Shostakovich; Short Books. ISBN 1-904095-64-X
- Fay, Laurel (1999); Shostakovich: A Life; Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513438-9
- Shostakovich, Dmitry, ed. Glikman, Isaak (2001). Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman. Cornell Univ Press. ISBN 0-8014-3979-5.
- Yves Senden (2002); String Quartet No. 8 in c; Brilliant Classics 6898 [Rubio Quartet: "Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets"]