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String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108

January 4, 2015 – Emerson String Quartet

When Shostakovich announced the completion of his First Cello Concerto in the summer of 1959, he also mentioned that he had composed one and a half movements of a new quartet. He completed this—his Seventh—in March 1960, possibly having also worked on it the previous month while hospitalized for one of many treatments of his weakened right hand. (Only later was his condition diagnosed as a rare form of poliomyelitis.) The Beethoven Quartet (Dmitri Tsïganov, Vasili Shirinsky, Vadim Borisovsky, and Sergei Shirinsky) premiered the work on May 15 at Leningrad’s Glinka Concert Hall. From the time of Shostakovich’s Second Quartet they had become his friends and collaborators, premiering all his remaining quartets until the death of the cellist prevented them from their premiering his last, the Fifteenth. The composer was the first to credit the influence of their performing style on his music.

Shostakovich had set up a tonal structure for his cycle of quartets, intending to write one in each of the twenty-four keys. He placed each quartet a third below the previous, beginning with C major (C–A–F–D–B-flat–G), but he broke his scheme by choosing F-sharp minor for his Seventh. (He would resume with Nos. 8 and 9, but in reverse, C minor and E-flat, then continue without break through No. 15.) Commentators speculate that he associated F-sharp minor with the Quartet’s dedicatee, Nina, his first wife and mother of his two children; she had died six years previously from undetected colon cancer. He had recently extricated himself from his unfortunate second marriage of four years, and had perhaps grown nostalgic about his first wife. Nevertheless, their twenty-two year marriage had been anything but smooth, perhaps reflected in the work’s conflicting moods—impish, agitated, haunted, belligerent, and introspective.

Shortest of his fifteen quartets, the Seventh unfolds in three compact movements, linked not by continuous sound but by the “attacca” directive between movements so as to prevent disruptive pauses. The first movement begins impishly with the first violin descending in little three-note grouplets until it knocks three times on the home pitch. Not only does the light texture and soft volume add to the impishness, but Shostakovich plays metric games that keep the two types of three-note groupings delightfully off-kilter. The cello presents the stealthy second theme, made agitated by inner instruments’ insistent repeated notes—a Shostakovich hallmark. He cleverly alters the return of the first theme by evening out the rhythm and having the strings play pizzicato. Before the first theme ends, the strings don their mutes, keeping them on through the return of the agitated music and into the hushed ending with the three repeated notes.

Still muted, the second violin initiates the slow movement with a rocking arpeggio, which provides a perfect backdrop for the haunting theme of the first violin. The viola and cello’s eerie theme in octave unison receives another of Shostakovish’s insistent repeated-note accompaniments in the second violin, which continues as the first violin floats in. The concluding somber four-note descent leaves the movement sounding open-ended.

The finale crashes in with unexpected violence, whereupon we hear the slow four-note descent again. Shostakovich then launches a belligerent, thrilling fugue of irresistible forward momentum. Just when the intensity becomes nearly unbearable, he suddenly brings back the main theme from the first movement in a terrifically aggressive version, reminiscent at times of the Cello Concerto he had just completed. Miraculously, he then turns his fugue theme into a gentle, muted waltz. With a kind of nostalgic look at the impish material of the first movement, the piece dies away introspectively.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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