Rasumowsky Quartet

Shostakovich's quartet no. 1, his opus 49, was not the first work that he had written for a string quartet. In the night of the 31 October to the 1 November 1931, while staying in Batumi, Georgia, on the Black Sea, he dashed off two pieces and dedicated them to the Jean Vuillaume Quartet1. However these were transcriptions of other works rather than compositions originally intended as a string quartet.

The first piece, marked Adagio, is a beautifully melodic work pregnant with nostalgic sensuality. It is played in the YouTube link above by the Rasumowsky Quartet and is a popular piece as an 'encore' at the end of a concert. The work, however, is a transcription of an aria which Shostakovich was writing for his up-coming 1932 opera 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District', (opus 29)2. It is Katerina’s, aria 'The foal runs after the filly' from Act 1, Scene 3. The quartet version is less robust than its original in the opera which can be seen in another YouTube excerpt at the end of this article. In the opera the aria's intimate sensuality only emphasises Katerina's sexual frustration.

The second transcription is from the polka from his first ballet 'The Golden Age', op. 22 (1929-30). Although 'The Golden Age' was a 'collective work' it illustrates Shostakovich's leanings towards the pawky3 : it is ballet about a football team4.

Another work by Shostakovich for string quartets before 1938 is his score to the film 'The Girlfriends' (Podrugi)5. This 1934-5 Lenfilm production, directed by Shostakovich's friend, Lev Arnshtam, tells the story of three friends Natasha, Zoya and Asya who become nurses in the civil war having joined the communist party. The score consists of 23 different pieces most of which are written for a string quartet although often supplemented by a trumpet, harp or piano6.

The film was premièred on 19 February 1936, just three weeks after Shostakovich's condemnation in the Pravda article, but his film score was not subjected to any hostile criticism. Nevertheless it is little known probably because Shostakovich failed to make a suite of the music.

The written score has indeed been lost. In 1938, during a restoration of the film by the director Sergei Yutkevich, part of the second movement from Shostakovich's First Quartet was added for the credit sequence at the beginning of the film. Subsequently some fragments of three movements were found in the Glinka museum. When some other movements were later discovered it became clear that Shostakovich had made alterations to his original score for the film. Even with these discoveries the written scores of 15 of the 23 movements have remained lost and needed to be reconstructed by ear from the film track7.

Of particular interest is the appearance in the score of the revolutionary song 'Zamuchen tiazheloi nevolei' (Tormented by a Lack of Freedom) which Shostakovich was to employ again, when working with Lev Arnshtam on another film, in his Eighth Quartet.

Lady Macbeth - 'Zherebyónok k kobylke torópitsa'

Opening Image:

The only information given in YouTube for this extract is that it is played by the German Rasumowsky Quartet. Unfortunately the date of the recording is not stated. Their official website is http://www.rasumowsky.de.

Closing Image:

The debut of the Dutch soprano, Eva-Maria Westbroek, at 'De Nederlandse Opera' was as Katerina Lvovna Izmailova - Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth. The YouTube site provides little data but I suspect this extract is from her later performance at the Royal Opera House, London, in 2006.


  1. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.68. back

  2. Shostakovich started composing for his opera 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District' at the end of 1930 and finished in December 1932. back

  3. This sly humour can also be heard in the delightful parody of two works by Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti entitled 'Two Pieces for Wind Orchestra', opus 17, composed in 1927. Like the two compositions for the Jean Vuillaume Quartet, the first Scarlatti piece is played 'straight'. But, as in the polka for the quartet, Shostakovich's humour breaks through in the second transcription. back

  4. 'The Golden Age', op. 22 (1929-30) was Shostakovich's first ballet. He was to write two more; 'The Bolt', op. 27 (1931) and 'The Limpid Stream', op. 39 (1935). After the watershed of the Pravda article of 1936 he wrote no more. back

  5. The Japanese computer scientist 'Tokai' has made the films with Shostakovich scores available online at his cleverly named 'shostakovi.ch' domain. 'The Girlfriends' may be seen in the original at that website.

    Some of the most popular music written by Shostakovich occurs in films. The so-called 'second waltz' of the Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2 (1938) is played in Mikhail Kalatozov's 1955 film 'The First Echelon'. Equally popular is the 'Romance' which was composed for Alexander Faintsimmer's film 'The Gadfly'.

    Another reference is made to Shostakovich's film music in the article discussing the Fifteenth Quartet. back

  6. Such a combination may be found in the First Piano Concerto which was written about this time. back

  7. The reconstruction of the film score was done by the musicologist Mark Fitz-Gerald. His recording is available under Naxos 8.572138. back