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String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat, Op. 133


Toward the end of his life, Shostakovich was beset by multiple health problems—loss of feeling and mobility in his limbs, a heart attack, a broken ankle—all of which brought his performing career to an end and curtailed many of his civic activities. With sadly more time on his hands, lengthy hospital stays, and deaths of people in his circle, he began thinking more about his own mortality. Many of his late works—the vocal cycles, Symphony No. 14, and the last four string quartets—reflect this preoccupation by plumbing new depths.

While living at the Composers’ Union retreat at Repino, Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman on March 9, 1968, that he constantly feared he would die and leave whatever piece he was working on incomplete. Just two days later he finished his String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat major and wrote to the first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, Dmitry Tsïganov, whose birthday was March 12, asking him to accept the dedication. Two years earlier he had dedicated his Eleventh Quartet to the memory of Vasily Shirinsky, second violinist of the Quartet until his death in 1965, and thus Shostakovich was continuing his plan of writing a quartet for each member of the group that had premiered most of his quartets.

Shostakovich was quite pleased with the work, reportedly answering Tsïganov’s question about whether it was “chamber” in its proportions by saying, “No, no—it’s a symphony, a symphony.” The Beethoven Quartet gave the private premiere on June 14, 1968, at the first creative convocation of the new secretariat of the Russian Composers’ Union. Shostakovich commented on the magnificence of the performance, and the favorable reaction of musicians in attendance made its way into the press in advance of the public premiere in Moscow on September 14.

The audience at both performances recognized a newness of form and language in the Twelfth Quartet, in particular its reliance on twelve-tone themes. Though Shostakovich was well-aware of the avant-garde tendencies of his younger colleagues and had occasionally incorporated twelve-tone rows himself, he was now using them in a new way to suit his own purposes. He described his approach to twelve-tone writing in a remarkable encapsulation of his ideals just before the private premiere:

As far as the use of strictly technical devices from such musical “systems” as dodecaphony or aleatory is concerned . . . everything in good measure. If, let’s say, a composer sets himself the obligatory task of writing dodecaphonic music, then he artificially limits his possibilities, his ideas. The use of elements from these complex systems is fully justified if it is dictated by the concept of the composition. . . . You know, to a certain extent I think the formula “the end justifies the means” is valid in music. All means? All of them, if they contribute to the end objective.

What makes Shostakovich’s use of twelve-tone material in the Twelfth Quartet so fascinating is the way in which he juxtaposes it with the work’s tonal anchor of D-flat major. One might expect the twelve-tone writing to sound antagonistic and be settled by the reassurance of tonality, but Shostakovich’s D-flat major passages seem instead to explore other realms that are at times anguished, brutal, or drained of enjoyment.

Laid out unconventionally in two movements with the second much longer than the first, the work opens with a wandering twelve-tone gesture in the cello, which is treated along with other dodecaphic fragments as a delineating device rather according to the “rules” of serial technique. The answering, low-register D-flat music with its oscillating rising patterns sounds sorrowfully contemplative and searching. Another twelve-tone utterance, now in the first violin, brings on a kind of waltz that is far-removed from a glittering social occasion, and yet another twelve-tone fragment introduces an idea characterized by staccato repeated notes. These ideas become joined or layered in myriad ingenious ways with the twelve-tone interjections serving as points of departure. The hushed, fragmented ending still seems in search of closure despite its D-flat fade-out.

The huge second movement takes on the symphonic proportions and sonorities Shostakovich suggested in his remarks to Tsïganov. He rolls several movement-like sections into one, beginning with an almost savage mixed-meter “scherzo” that is pierced by individual trills and a jabbing melodic idea begun by the cello. Eventually the tumult dies away with a somber cello recitative that initiates a “slow movement” (Adagio) comprised of funereal chanting juxtaposed with searing melodic lines of great pathos.

A striking, insistent pizzicato solo by the first violin based on first-movement figures launches a remarkable section that further develops materials from the entire work. Shostakovich combines motives and textures from the scherzo and the Adagio, and at a climactic point has the lower strings play dense pizzicato chords containing all twelve pitches. A brief revisiting of the Adagio’s sustained pathos brings a return to the first movement’s contemplative sorrow as if “ending with the beginning.” Shostakovich has more to say, however, and revs up the music of the “scherzo” to drive relentlessly to the conclusion.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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