When Shostakovich began work on his Fourth String Quartet in 1949 his life and career were at a low ebb.
After spending most of the late 1930’s in fear for his life, painfully aware that Stalin was watching his every move, Shostakovich had become somewhat used to a bit of creative freedom in the war years. The worldwide success of the 7th Symphony, which the Soviet government welcomed warmly as a pure propaganda coup in spite of its subversive content, had emboldened him to write the deeply tragic 8th and the bitterly satirical 9th symphonies.
However, after the war, things quickly turned to the worse for him. Stalin had taken the 9th, which was the antithesis of the epic glorification of the triumphant Soviet/Stalinist victory in the war, as a personal insult, and in 1948, Shostakovich was subjected to a second humiliating public denunciation by as part of the “Zhdanov Decree.”
He was forced to turn his hand to propagandistic hack work like the Song of the Forest, but, unknown even to his close friends, continued to compose a private series of remarkable masterpieces “for the drawer.” These were works that would have to wait until after the death of Stalin to be heard at all. Such a work was the 4th String Quartet, later orchestrated by Rudolf Barshai as the Chamber Symphony, opus 83a
Also in the years after the war, Shostakovich watched with deepening horror and revulsion as Russian society rapidly forgot or chose to ignore the horrors and lessons of the Holocaust, and as the cancer of anti-Semitism returned in it’s most vile and virulent and form. Shostakovich is quoted in Testimony, his memoirs “as dictated to Solomon Volkov,” speaking of his love of Jewish folk music and his horror at the return of anti-Semitism-
I think, if we speak of musical impressions, that Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it; it is multi-faceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It is almost always laughter through tears.
This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my idea of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair . They express their despair in dance music… Many of my works reflect my impressions of Jewish music.
This is not a purely musical issue, this is also a moral issue. I often test a person by his attitude towards Jews. In our day and age any person with pretensions to decency cannot be anti-Semitic. This seems so obvious it doesn’t need saying, but I’ve had to argue the point for at least 30 years….
Despite all the Jews who perished in the camps, all I heard people saying was “The kikes went to fight in Tashkent.” And if the saw a Jew with military decorations, they called after him “Kike, where did you buy your medals?” That’s when I wrote the Violin Concerto, the Jewish Cycle and the Fourth Quartet.
None of these works could be performed then. The were heard only after Stalin’s death.
Today, the Surrey Mozart Players and I are performing Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of the Fourth Quartet, which he called (with Shostakovich’s blessing) “Chamber Symphony op 83a.”
By the way, Barshai has been a vocal supporter of Shostakovich’s memoirs, saying of Testimony “I can hear the authentic voice of Shostakovich.”
Thanks to Maestro Barshai and his son Walter for taking the time to clarify some textual matters via email this week. It’s a stunning arrangement.