Shostakovich Chamber Symphony op 73a- our challenge

I’m just flipping through scores before my SMP dress rehearsal this afternoon and realizing what an incredible challenge we have ahead of us tonight.

Shostakovich’s Third Quartet is in five movements, and five movement works almost always are built on some concept of formal symmetry. Usually, they describe some kind of an arch. 

In this case, the third movement is the center of dramatic action in the work. Shostakovich in his own descriptive notes called it “Forces of war unleashed,” and Dubinsky called it “the wild triumph of evil.” It’s a movement that is wild, violent, grotesque and unremitting. 

It is followed by one of Shostakovich’s saddest movements (think about that!), a short, intense requiem built on a solemn march theme, which is itself a reworking of the theme of the slow movement of the 8th Symphony. Shostakovich called this movement “In memory of the dead.” The second movement shows signs of the violence of the third, alongside moments of almost naïve simplicity. Shostakovich called it “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation.” 

The outer pillars of the arch pose the biggest problems for the performers. The first movement hardly sounds like 20th Century music at all, and is in a perfect, Haydn-esque sonata form, complete with an old-fashioned exposition repeat. At first glace, it doesn’t sound like music that belongs in a Shostakovich quartet, least of all one from the war years. Shostakovich’s title also helps clarify the mood of this movement- “Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm.” Where as often in Shostakovich, this kind of simple music is played for bitter laughs, here it is to be played straight and totally sincerely. In this movement, ignorance truly is bliss. This is music of and for a man and a people who know too little. 

The finale, on the other hand, is music of and for a man and a people who know far, far too much. Dubinsky describes this movement as “a sorrowful and moving story about Shostakovich himself and his pain and anxiety about the future of humanity.” Shostakovich described the music in even starker and simpler terms, “The eternal question: Why? And for what?” 

Where the peak of the arch is all action and drama, the end of the quartet is pure contemplation- a ten minute meditation on a question. It’s a meandering, simple and sad movement that often seems to wander, lost in thought. It’s based on a long melody whose only memorable quality is that it contains a very clear quotation from Tristan und Isolde. Only gradually does the cumulative power of the movement begin to register, and the ending sounds as if the whole world has dissolved into individual atoms. The question is left deeply considered, but unanswered. 

I think it’s incredibly hard to pull off- we aren’t used to contemplation in music any more, and we ask music to give us answers, not questions. We like our music and our entertainment to be constantly stimulating. In fact, although I think the last movement is the greatest music in the quartet, it doesn’t work on its own. It needs what comes before it. Hopefully tonight, we can keep that arch whole, so that the wounds of the third and fourth movements are still unhealed when we reach the finale. Will the public get it? Will they appreciate it? Will we be drowned out by coughing? I’ll let you know. 

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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