Castlemaine Chamber Players –
Alexandra Bronstein, Heather Cummins violins
Frances Gall viola, Elisabeth Anderson cello
Heaven & Earth
String Quartet No.8, 1960
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet Op.59 No.1, 1806
Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando (Lively and always playful)
Adagio molto e mesto (Very slow and sad)
String Quartet No.8, 1960
Dimitri Shostakovich (26 September 1906, St Petersburg – 9th August 1975, Moscow) a highly talented pianist and composer, was born into a family milieu of activist thinkers, writers, artists and musicians. As a teenager, following the sudden loss of his father, he was thrown into the role of supporting his family by taking on a job as piano player accompanying the juddery silent movies in the cinemas on Nevsky Prospect. His compositional and improvisational skills were given free rein to flourish and, at the age of twenty, he received international recognition and acclaim for his First Symphony.
Shostakovich’s complex relationship with the Soviet Government is well documented. In 1936, Stalin unexpectedly attended a performance of Shostakovich’s acclaimed opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and walked out during the performance. The following day, an anonymous letter was published in the Pravda, condemning the opera for its bourgeois formalism and vulgar naturalism stating that it represented a dangerous move away from the stated aims of Socialist Realist art. The Zdahnov decree of 1946, outlined Soviet cultural policy – artists, writers and the intelligentsia must conform to the party line or risk persecution.
Over his lifetime Shostakovich composed 15 String Quartets. They have been described as “among the most compelling and emotionally powerful monuments of the past century’s music” (Music for Silenced Voices, Wendy Lesser). Perhaps more attention has been given to Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.8, than any of his other quartets combined. Written in July 1960, shortly after Shostakovich had been pressured to join the Communist Party, Shostakovich had gone for a trip to Dresden in order to compose a film score for his friend’s movie Five Days, Five Nights, but came back with his String Quartet No.8 which he composed “in a flurry over three days”.
The quartet opens and closes with the theme of four notes – D natural, E flat (Es in German), C natural and B natural (H in German) which represent Shostakovich’s initials, D.SCH and provides a unifying emotional thread. He uses many themes from his past compositions throughout the quartet, including from his 1st and 8th Symphonies, 2nd Piano Concerto, 1st Cello Concerto and the infamous opera, Lady Macbeth. The Quartet comprises five movements which run one into the other. After the solemn and simple opening movement, we are thrown into and carried frantically along by the second, with dynamics and pitch rising until we reach the third, a waltz. In the powerful fourth movement three elements are woven together, a slow folk tune, “Tormented by Grievous Bondage”, a dolce melody in the cello and a series of three “emphatic knocks”. These repeated eighth notes followed by a rest, have variously been referred to as representative of the KGB knocking on the door, gunfire, or falling bombs. Whatever the intended meaning behind them is, there is no doubt that their insistence and repetition disturb any inner quietude we may have had. The fifth and final movement brings us back to the opening theme with its four signature notes.
After composing the quartet, Shostakovich writes:
“ When I got home I tried a couple of times to play it through, but always ended up in tears. This was of course a response not so much to the pseudo-tragedy as to my own wonder at its superlative unity of form. But here you may detect a touch of self -glorification which no doubt will soon pass and leave in its place the usual self-critical hangover.”
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet Opus 59 No.1, 1805-06
This quartet is the first in a series of three dedicated to Count Rasumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna. Beethoven wrote his first string quartets (Opus 18) in 1798-1800. The Rasumovsky quartets are a huge step forward in scope and demands on the players.
Quote from Grove’s Encyclopedia of Music: “Yet even when dealing with instruments that were not in a state of radical development (as the fortepiano was at this time), Beethoven acted as if they were. The string quartets of Op.59, No.1 so strained the medium, as it was understood in 1806, that they met with resistance from players and audiences alike.”
Beethoven wrote this quartet at around the same time he wrote his 3rd symphony, the Eroica, and there are similarities in the grandeur of the scale and how he develops his themes to become highly developed structures. He is famous for developing great music from small motifs. The opening motif of the 5th symphony is the most famous example ‘da-da-da-dum’. In this quartet the 2nd movement starts with a simple rhythmic motif on one note ‘da-da-dum-dum’.
Sudden contrasts and abrupt changes of mood are a feature in Beethoven’s compositions from this time, like the two piano sonatas Waldstein 1803-4 and Appassionata 1804-5. Extremes of tempo, dynamics, texture all increase the emotional intensity.
Beethoven is full of invention. He takes a theme for a walk, then a run, then turns a corner and discovers something new. There are fugues in both the first and second movements, where one instrument starts alone, then the other players come in one by one with the same theme, which now has to harmonize with the end of the first player’s tune.