Wednesday, May 13, 2009

S.Q. Daily #3: Shostakovich No. 7

S.Q. Daily: A Composer's Listening Journal

Day #3: Dmitry Shostakovich
String Quartet No. 7, Op. 108

Coming in at a concise thirteen minutes, today's selection is the shortest of Shostakovich's fifteen (yes, fifteen!) quartets. It was written in 1960. Comments are below.

Give it a listen on Youtube:
Part I (Mvts. I & II)
Part II (Mvt. III)

While you're at it, why not check out all fifteen Shostakovich Quartets by the Fitzwilliam Quartet on CD (used, $12!!) - I think I just might.

The full score is at sheetmusicplus ($12)

And now, S.Q. Daily...

While featuring less extended techniques and textural intricacy than yesterday's Bartók No. 4, the Shostakovich 7th's real appeal is in the immediacy of its melodic and rhythmic themes and its tight construction.

Say the words "string quartet." Now say them again, but separate each syllable with an short, even articulation. "String - quart - tet."

That's the central rhythmic motive of Shostakovich's 7th.

In front of that, add one tiny repeated melodic cell ("&-a-1, &-a-2, &-a-3..."), and you've covered a large portion of the composition's material.

This is not to demean the work's seriousness; quite the contrary! It's a testament to his skill that Shostakovich wrung so much drama and a good bit of musical mileage out of such small building blocks.

Despite its exotic, nearly-octatonic flavor, this opening melodic line is immediately perceptible at each of its many returns. The second theme, less structural to the work, also creates distinction with its steadily churning sixteenth note accompaniment.

The second movement is a great demonstration of how a single member of the quartet can maintain a rich background (or "sonic floor") in the texture. The second violin's haunting sixteenth note ostinato, picked up near the end of the movement by the viola, is a perfect accompaniment to the violin I and cello melodies. This movement also features an interesting timbral effect: a single line in octaves between the cello and viola; hopefully I'll rememer that one.

Like the Bartók, Movement III also features sudden breaks of texture, though they are less frequent and prominent in this case. If Beethoven's late quartets aren't proof enough, this final five minutes makes a bold claim for the power of the fugue beyond the Baroque era. Furious flying fugal figures (hee-hee), staggered theme entrances, stretto, and a return of the first movement's themes culminate not in the wild ending they predict, but in a peculiar sort of medium-tempo waltz.

Check out John Noell Moore's description of the work, for the Chamber Music Society of Williamsburg, for a 2004 performance by the Alexander String Quartet.

In this one case at least, Shostakovich's rhythmic drive holds less propulsive inevitability than that of Bartók. I'm not sure if that reveals a narrowing in his closing ideas or a maturity in his emotional restraint. (Shostakovich was certainly well-aquainted with restraint.)

Whatever the reason for its succinctness, this little quartet packs the punch of some works twice its size, and I highly recommend it.

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Parting note: Future posts will likely (hopefully (necessarily)) be much shorter, as I'd like to keep the listening and posting experience down to 45-60 minutes.

Hopefuly that will produce more entertaining reading for you as well, perhaps limited to three points of interest for each entry.

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