Poster of Shostakovich Concert, Amsterdam 2006

Most visitors to this site are initially interested in the best known of all of Shostakovich's fifteen string quartets: the Eighth. If this is your prime interest then just click the number eight in the navigation bar above. If, on the other hand, you would like to sample the varieties of styles displayed in the other quartets then the Fourth, Sixth and Thirteenth Quartets may be fruitful starting points. Alternatively, below is a justification why the navigation list on the right might be interesting.

Ways to Listen to the Quartets

There seems to be three ways that we listen to music - be it pop, jazz, classical or whatever. The first is the most common: we use it as background music. We listen but our thoughts are elsewhere. We are shopping in the supermarket, or enjoying ourselves at a nightclub, or we use it to block all other distractions whilst studying. In these cases the music creates a backcloth, an environment in which we feel well and relaxed. We are not really conscious of the music; we might not even remember afterwards what was played. We hear the music rather than listen to it.

The second way is typified by falling onto the sofa with the headphones on, gazing at the ceiling and letting ourselves be seduced by the pleasure of the sound. We indulge ourselves in a sensual experience which Wagner exemplified in the 'Liebestod'. We submerge ourselves in the music and it overwhelms us. Lost in rapture we are conscious of nothing else. Consumed by the music we let our feelings freely drift in its cross-currents. But we are mesmerized emotionally, but not intellectually: we are engulfed in an aural occurrence, but not in a dispassionate analysis of the musical structure. This is a deeply subjective sensation. We react as individual beings and our innermost predilections amplify the music's emotional impulse.

The third way is rarer, maybe equally valuable, but certainly not superior. We scrutinise the music itself. In other words we ignore our emotional reactions to the music and are concerned only with the music as a composition. We examine it through the eyepiece of the academic; the historian; the musicologist. It is its form rather than its effect on us which is important. We are interested in perceiving the musical ideas; dissecting them and seeing how they reappear, develop and resurface. We follow the syntax of the piece; how it is constructed; how the various elements are related to each other; we analysis and follow the logic of music's development. We also try to understand the music in a wider context; relate it to the time of its composition; to the circumstances and conditions of its creation. When we listen to a composition in this way it seems that the deeper our background knowledge is, the richer is our musical experience.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich1 wrote fifteen string quartets and in listening to any of them in this third manner some background information is essential. There are two reasons:

first Shostakovich lived in a period of history and in a society which has now vanished. His creative life was deeply influenced by the ideology and practice of Soviet communism and the polemics of the Cold War, two factors which not only determined the body politic but restricted intellectual freedom in Russia in all disciplines ranging from genetics to pure mathematics, from chess theory to classical music composition.

Shostakovich was the Soviet Union's most outstanding composer achieving almost iconic status in his lifetime. He was a patriotic Russian, a loyal communist and a willing part of the elite. Publicly he identified himself with the Soviet Union's political system but privately he refused to accept its cultural restrictions and at times he pushed artistic innovation to the limits of political acceptance. As a consequence some of his compositions were condemned as being incompatible with the official definition of acceptable music and at times his life in the Soviet Union became precarious.

An understanding, therefore, of how and why artistic freedom within the Soviet Union was restricted, as well as the Soviet Union's theory of aesthetics, is useful for a deeper appreciation of Shostakovich's works. Three articles in the section 'Music and Soviet Communism' try to help the reader to fathom the aesthetics and policies of a political system now confined to history books. These do not make light reading because, unfortunately, an insight into another world requires a suspension of our own deeply-held, though often critically unchallenged, cultural premises.

The first, entitled 'Communism and Artistic Freedom', examines the political reality within the Soviet Union. It attempts to differentiate Soviet Communism from more familiar forms of government and to explain why it felt justified to restrict artistic expression as well explaining its means of ensuring that its policies were realised.

The second article entitled 'Socialist Realism and music' defines the aesthetic standards that the Soviet authorities demanded from their composers. In other words what type of music it required, and what boundaries it placed on artistic expression. It was under the constraints of 'Socialist Realism' that Shostakovich's first string quartets were composed.

The final article, 'The Lady Macbeth Affair', discusses the event which caused Shostakovich to re-define his own artistic style within the bounds of 'Socialist Realism'. The condemnation of his opera 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District' 2 on the 28th of January 1936 was so bitter that Shostakovich, despite his theatrical talent, never wrote another opera. Following the event he placed his style firmly within the 'humanistic' tradition, as opposed to 'modernistic' tradition, of twentieth century music3.

The second reason why extra-musical knowledge seems essential for a deeper understanding of Shostakovich's string quartets is that they appear to have semantic content: they seem to be saying something. This is in itself strange for just as it would appear impossible for purely instrumental music to represent social reality (which is what 'Socialist Realism' demanded) so too would it seem impossible for music without the aid of words to convey a message. Yet throughout his works Shostakovich makes intensive use of musical quotations from songs, operettas and operas all of which have, of course, textual content. Furthermore his compositions contain, like many composers before him, encryptions achieved through numbers and the letters associated with notes. As a result Shostakovich's works give an impression of containing covert messages.

But this desire to analyse must be held in check. Deciphering covert messages will certainly enhance our understanding, but it fails to explain our emotional delight. Shostakovich's most famous quartet, the Eighth, is easily dissected but its power is typically encountered long before any understanding of its origins.

A description of each individual quartet can be read by clicking the relevant number in the navigation bar at the top of the page. Each description contains an example taken from a movement (usually one of the lighter ones!) from the quartet in question. If a quick overview of his fifteen quartets is required then the article 'The quartets and symphonies compared' might prove useful.

A close examination of the choice of key for each quartet shows that Shostakovich was following a plan; a plan that would illustrate his identification with the cycle by associating his initials with certain quartets. This is explained in another, more technical, article entitled 'The tonal structure of the cycle of quartets'.

There is an article entitled 'The genealogy of the string quartet' which deals with the evolution of the string quartet over the centuries, and another, 'Earlier works for string quartets', which examines Shostakovich's compositions for these four string instruments that were transcriptions of other works or film music.

The concluding (and regrettably destructive) paragraph of footnote 12 on the page dedicated to String Quartet No. 6 will suffice to explain why I give no recommendations for recordings. Nevertheless I do make suggestions for further reading in the 'Bibliography'.

Finally many of the pages of this website have extensive footnotes which are not used exclusively to cite academic references but often introduce connections between the string quartets and aspects of literature, philosophy and history. It is my hope that such footnotes could be a jumping board into other themes which might interest the reader. But there are, I confess, a few which are purely personal indulgences.

Opening Image:

Poster for a Shostakovich centenary concert, Amsterdam 2006. Source: Stephen Harris 2006


  1. The normal English (and Portuguese) translation of Shostakovich's Cyrillic name
    Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович.
    The transliteration rendering is Dmitrij Dmitrievič Šostakovič.
    In other Western European languages his name is translated as :
    Dmitrij Sjostakovitj (Danish and Swedish);
    Dmitri Dmitrijevitsj Sjostakovitsj (Dutch);
    Dmitri Dmitrievitch Chostakovitch (French);
    Dmitri Dmitrijewitsch Schostakowitsch (German);
    Dmitrij Dmitrievic Sostakovic (Italian);
    Dymitr Dmitrijewicz Szostakowicz (Polish);
    Dmitri Dmítrievich Shostakóvich (Spanish).  back

  2. This website is concerned with Shostakovich's string quartets and not with this opera. Nevertheless the condemnation of the work was so crucial to his style after 1936 that an extract from the opera is given in the closing image of 'Earlier works for string quartets'back

  3. Rather than attempting to define here what I mean by the 'humanistic' and 'modernistic' traditions in music, I hope to be understood by saying that I would regard Britten, Mahler, Nielsen, Prokofiev and Sibelius as belonging to the former and Bartók, Berg, Boulez, Messiaen, Schoenberg and Webern as being members of the latter.  back