Image of Shostskovich on Russian stamp

private versus public compositions

Although Shostakovich was arguably the greatest symphonist since the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, he also composed other excellent instrumental music. Notable amongst these are: the Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57 (1941); the Second Piano Trio in E minor, opus 67 (1944) and the First Violin Concerto in A minor, opus 99 (1948). But most outstanding is his cycle of fifteen string quartets: it is these quartets which are the principle subject of this website. Alongside those of Beethoven and Bartók, Shostakovich's quartets represent a very significant contribution to this genre. Although they echo back to the late Beethoven quartets rather than forward from Bartók's to a more evolutionary style, their number and consistent quality make them impressive1. They also bring to a close the previously poor period in Russian quartet compositions.

Shostakovich's quartets are melodic, lyrical and personal; they do not reflect the solemn, contemporary issues which are often the subject matter of his symphonies. There are no quartets dedicated to the revolutionary events of 1905 or 1917, as is the case in his eleventh and twelfth symphonies; nor to the battle for Leningrad (the seventh symphony); nor to the massacre of 100,000 Jews, Gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war at Babi-Yar in the Ukraine (the thirteenth symphony - the last work of his to be banned in the Soviet Union). Instead the dedications in the quartets, where they occur, are to close friends with whom he shared his life.

Chamber music is by its very nature highly intimate; just a few instruments play and often the musicians appear to be playing more for themselves than for any listener. On hearing the Shostakovich's quartets you become keenly aware that you have entered the personal and inward world of another being; a world full of hope, defiance, despair, sadness; full of pain and fear of death: a deeply intimate world; complex, compassionate, dark and austere. Listening to the whole cycle of quartets gives a feeling of having been personally acquainted with him.

Symphonies, on the other hand are public works; written for a large orchestra; demanding large auditoriums and audiences. As a consequence they are better known to the average concert-goer than his quartets. The symphonies have, therefore, the potential to be an informative 'benchmark' when contemplating his quartets.

Shostakovich wrote fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets. With any other composer this numerical equivalence might reasonably seem at first sight a pure coincidence. But Shostakovich likes numerical shenanigans. It is he who keeps the second violin waiting until the significant 34th bar in the Twelfth Quartet and it is he who so manipulates the tonal structure of the cycle of quartets that his initials appear in the keys of the quartets which are the squares of the natural numbers2.

He could have written sixteen quartets before his death. After the Fifteenth Symphony he composed his Fourteenth and Fifteenth Quartets but instead of writing a sixteenth quartet in the predestined key of B major, which would have been the final letter in his plan to incorporate his initials into certain quartets, he wrote the bleak Viola Sonata Opus 147. It was as if he wished to emphasis that his public and private works were of equal importance to him.

When the symphonies are compared with the quartets interesting differences become apparent. As can be seen in Table 1 the symphonies were written in a variety of keys (minor keys are shown in the table by a lower-case letter) with c (in the 4th and 8th) and d (in the 5th and 12th) occurring twice. Furthermore there is no obvious rule which defines the progression of their keys - in other words the symphonies were not conceived as a cycle and with one exception, they all received their première shortly after their completion.

Table 1: Shostakovich's Symphonies

The exception is the Fourth Symphony. Its performance was delayed because of a crisis in Shostakovich's life which occurred in January 1936. This crisis, discussed in the article entitled 'The Lady Macbeth Affair', was to prove a watershed in his musical creativity as can be seen by comparing the Quartets shown in Table 2 with the Symphonies of Table 1.

Table 2: Shostakovich's Quartets
1C49July 38Oct.38
7f 108Mar.60May 60
8c110July 60Oct.60
9E117May 64Nov.64
10A118July 64Nov.64
12D133Mar.68June 68
14F 142Apr.73Oct.73
15e144May 74Oct.74

From the Tables 1 and 2 it can be seen also that Shostakovich started composing quartets much later in his life than symphonies. He had already completed five symphonies before he began writing string quartets. In his younger years he had concentrated on larger scale works for the opera, the ballet and for orchestras. It was only after the crisis of 1936 that he started writing more chamber music, gradually increasing his output over larger-scale works: in his last decade he was to write five quartets but only two symphonies.

Unlike the symphonies none of the quartets were written in the same key. Furthermore the remoteness of the key from the purely diatonic C major tends to increase with opus number. This is not a random walk but a calculated journey through tonality: a journey that took 36 years. The article entitled "The tonal structure of the cycle of quartets" examines the tonality of the quartets as an opus.

Like the symphonies, the string quartets received a première shortly after their completion. But there is again a noticeable exception. The Fourth Quartet was composed in 1949 but was first performed only four years later. Indeed the Fifth Quartet (which was also uncommonly delayed) was heard just before the Fourth. Again the delay is explained by another crisis in Shostakovich's life, What occurred in 1953 to make their performances possible is explained in the article on the Fourth Quartet.

Whilst each quartet is distinct there is some commonality in form. Shostakovich diverted from the normal practice of allowing pauses between the movements. All the movements in quartets nos. 5, 7, 8, 9, 11 and 15 are to be linked together. Furthermore the last two movements of quartets 3, 4, 6, 10 and 14 are to be played without a pause occurring between them. Even the last two movements of the second quartet, whilst not marked attacca , lend themselves to being so played. Since quartet no. 13 has only one movement, there only remains quartets no. 1 and no. 12 that are played with the traditional pauses between each movement. Otherwise with the exception of muting and beat indications Shostakovich is remarkable in allowing performers freedom when interpreting his music. There is no 'authentic' voice of Shostakovich which mercifully relieves the hearer of this distraction when choosing a recording.

With such a large number of string quartets there is inevitably a temptation to seek simplicity by grouping them together. But they are fifteen interrelated works, each an independent member of a meta-composition. Like Bach's 'Das Wohltemperierte Klavier' each individual composition is just one window onto an overall structure, just a facet of a crystal. And this crystal is the 'super-composition': an organic, homogeneous substance. Nevertheless groupings of the quartets could be conceived. One attempt might be to see the first five as developing a growing independence from the Russian tradition so apparent in the First Quartet. The next five quartets, numbers 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, could be grouped together because of their association with close, even intimate, individuals even if the person is not explicitly named.

The last four, maybe even the last five, quartets are reminiscent of the late quartets of Beethoven in that they retreat into an the inner world of the composer. These quartets, with the exception of the fourteenth, are full of death and remorse. All six movements of the Fifteenth Quartet are marked 'Adagio'. These latter works are the desolate outer planets in Shostakovich's universe, not the mercurial and martial worlds of his youth. But they are also worlds where a spiritual peace might be achievable.

Perhaps not surprisingly this division into three sets - each of five quartets – also corresponds to the political periods in which they were composed. The first five were written in Stalin's time. Their compromised form and their possibility to be performed result from that dictator's ruthless censor.

The second group, quartets 6 to10, were written in the more relaxed period of 'The Khrushchev Thaw' and their more relaxed and experimental form reflect the slight easing of aesthetic doctrines under that leader.

The final five quartets were composed in the Brezhnev era and their sense of impending termination seems appropriate to the political destiny of that time.

Today the Eighth Quartet is by far the most popular of all Shostakovich's quartets and is probably the most played of any quartet composed in the last half of the twentieth century. But all of them are worthy to be heard. For a real foot-stomping surprise you might try the last movement (the fourth) of the Fourth Quartet. Pure Klezmer. Or there is the equally rhythmic though more demanding Ninth Quartet; or the simpler Borodin-like, 'Kismet', style of the First Quartet, or the beautifully solemn passacaglia of the Sixth Quartet.

Closing Image:

Shostakovich on a very public Russian second millennium stamp. The photo is in the public domain. The image on the right-hand side of the stamp is based on a photograph of Shostakovich with Richter and Oistrakh.


  1. The lack of evolution within Shostakovich's quartets is explained by the cultural conservatism of Socialist Realism. When Stalin died in 1953 this policy was continued under Khrushchev. Only the last five quartets were composed in a more dissident era, and it is there - in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Quartets - that we first hear traces of serialism.

    This conservatism is particularly apparent when Shostakovich's quartets are compared with contemporary compositions. Following John Cage's seminal 1949/50 work, 'String Quartet in Four Parts' the quartet became a means of exploring a range of different techniques, tonalities and presentations. Almost all quartets written in the second half of last century display a revolutionary/evolutionary élan totally absent in Shostakovich's. back

  2. The concluding section of the article entitled 'The tonal structure of the cycle of quartets' gives a detailed explanation of this idea. back