3rd Movement : Emerson Quartet   (source: YouTube)

On the 30 May 1938 in Leningrad, Shostakovich began his first string quartet1, the String Quartet no. 1 in C major, opus 49. The piece has a duration of about 15 minutes and is in four movements, marked:

  1. Moderato,
  2. Moderato,
  3. Allegro molto,
  4. Allegro,

Shostakovich was now almost thirty-two, fairly late for his first adventure in this genre considering how prolific he had been in his youth and how many string quartets he would compose in the rest of his life. He wrote 2:

I began to write it without special ideas and feeling, I thought that nothing would come of it. After all, the quartet is one of the most difficult musical genres. I wrote the first page as a sort of original exercise in the quartet form, not thinking about subsequently completing and releasing it. As a rule, I fairly often write things I don't publish. They are my type of composer's studies. But then work on the quartet captivated me and I finished it rather quickly.

The composition did make rapid progress for he completed it in Leningrad on the 17 July. Realising that it might be compared with his previous work, the monumental Fifth Symphony, he noted3 :

Don't expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical. I would call it 'spring-like'.

The depths which Beethoven explored remain undisturbed in Russian string quartets; they tend to be more relaxed and lack the cerebral intensity so apparent in their Germanic cousins. Moreover 19th-century Russian music was generally a more dilettante affair. Even at the end of this period, when the group of composers (Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin) collectively known either as 'the Five' or 'Kuchka' (handful) were composing, it was only Balakirev who did not have a 'real' job. This amateur tradition affected the way Russian music was perceived. Gerald Abraham writes that4:

The composers of the 'Kuchka' came at the end of the dilettante tradition, though that tradition naturally continued to affect Russian attitudes to music: for instance, the view of chamber music as a relatively lightweight medium has persisted right down to the string quartets of Shostakovich.5

But the First Quartet represents quite a remarkable turn in Shostakovich's works. In it we find none of the spiky dissonance of the earlier Shostakovich - the Russian "enfant terrible". Absent too are those passages which push the instruments to their limits and even, for some listeners, beyond them. This quartet is full of romantic nostalgia, idyllic in sentiment. It is the untroubled work of a soul at rest with itself: a composition of contentment. But it is its ease, its lack of strain, which is so remarkable, because it followed a traumatic episode in Shostakovich's life which started on the evening of 26 January 1936 and which is the subject of a separate article 'The Lady Macbeth Affair'. After this almost fatal episode Shostakovich abandoned any attempts to have his innovative Fourth Symphony performed and started writing his highly popular but more conventionally structured Fifth Symphony. In retrospect it is clear that although he survived the events following the evening of 26 January 1936 they changed his composing style as well as his existence. The episode also marked the end of the artistic freedom in music that flourished after the 1917 revolution in Russia. The task of expressing Socialist Realism in song and opera had begun. But how its strictures were to be applied to absolute music remained unclear and existentially dangerous.

The First String Quartet, distinctly more private compared to the intensely public Fifth Symphony, also illustrates this rebirth, this change of style. Perhaps this is the reason why Shostakovich called it 'spring-like'.

The first movement, marked moderato and opening in the prosaic key of C major, is uncomplicated even wistful and is in the form of a sonata. Throughout just a single voice is heard with the other instruments providing the accompaniment until all four fade away, morendo. In the second movement, again marked moderato but this time in A minor, the viola introduces an element so typical of much of Shostakovich’s music, a simple folk-like tune. This undergoes seven variations before the movement is concluded with a recapitulation. It is only in the third movement, in C sharp minor and marked allegro molto, that any sense of impish mischief arises but galaxies separate it from the squalid criminality of the Mtsensk District and even this whiff of devilry is soon forgotten in the sobriety and comfort of the final movement.

This finale in C major is basically a sonata in form but is shorter than the first movement and more complex. It also displays augmentation and metrical techniques that Shostakovich would use in his later quartets. However the resolution is problematic because, having regained the tonic at the end of the development phase, it is lost during the recapitulation. Only at the very end of the coda is resolution finally achieved with the movement ending triumphantly on C major.

This quartet with its four movements, a sonata in C followed by a slow movement and then a scherzo, and concluding with another sonata also in C, is classical in form. As such it is an easy introduction to the remaining quartets, although not typical of them. Like Prokofiev's first symphony, 'the Classical', it is a piece of exquisite perfection. Emotional depth will come in later works. For me Shostakovich's First Quartet is reminiscent of those sugary, alabaster busts of Mozart so often seen in the living-rooms of my childhood which made me suspicious, until I heard the G-minor quintet, of Mozart's depth.6

On the 27 July 1938 Shostakovich wrote a letter to Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky a historian and critic of the performing arts and literature and a leading figure in the cultural life of Leningrad. Sollertinsky was Shostakovich’s closest confident from 1927 until his death in 1944. In his letter he wrote7:

I have also completed my quartet, the beginning of which I played to you. In the process of composition I regrouped in mid-stream. The first movement became the last, the last first. Four movements in all. It didn’t turn out particularly well. But, you know, it’s hard to compose well. One has to know how.

The statement about reorganising is interesting. With the two outer movements reversed the quartet gives a different, less optimistic impression. It would have then started with the confident Allegro and gradually become less up-beat only to end morendo. What caused Shostakovich to change the order of the movements remains unknown. It could have been for artistic reasons or because he felt the more uplifting ending was better suited for an era of 'Socialist Realism'.

Although the simplicity of the C major key is appropriate for the mood of the quartet, it is tempting, retrospectively, to read more into the choice. His other great cycles, the 24 Preludes, opus. 34, and the 24 Preludes and Fugues, opus 87, both start with an innocent-sounding composition in C major and then using this unadorned root branch off into the complexities of other tonalities. But it seems unlikely that Shostakovich planned at this stage a cycle of quartets. Indeed the first quartet is separated from the second by six years, so it would appear that, at this stage, Shostakovich had not yet developed the affinity for the genre which was to become so obvious in his later years.

The quartet was premièred in Leningrad on the 10 October 1938 by the Glazunov Quartet. The original manuscript is lost but there is an autographed piano score in which the positions of the first and fourth movements are substituted at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). Unlike those early transcriptions for the Jean Vuillaume Quartet in 1931 this first quartet bears no dedication.

Opening Image:

The only information given in YouTube for this extract is that it is played by the Emerson Quartet. Unfortunately the date of the recording is not stated. Their official website is http://www.emersonquartet.com. The photograph taken in 1935 is in the public domain.


  1. The article entitled 'Earlier works for string quartets' explains why this was not his first musical venture with a string quartet.  back

  2. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.111.  back

  3. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.112.  back

  4. Gerald Abraham, The Tradition of Western Music (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1974), p.55.

    Abraham (1904 - 1988) was an English musicologist and a contemporary of Shostakovich. His book, although published in 1974, dates back to lectures given at the height of the Cold War in London and Berkeley towards the end of the sixties.   back

  5. Abraham's conjecture went further. He believed that all compositional craft stagnated in the Soviet Union, because of its rejection of foreign influences. All Soviet music he dismissed as having been frozen in the style of Russia's late 19th century composers: it was 'provincial in the worst sense'. His opinion was not unrepresentative of Western musicologists who lived within in the Cold War era and even some who survived it. As a consequence Abraham makes only this single reference to Soviet composers in an otherwise highly informative book.

    Such a fundamental opinion regarding the aesthetics of Soviet art needs to be addressed independently of any individual quartet or work. The three articles listed in the section 'Music and Soviet Communisum' on this website may help in evaluating its validity.   back

  6. For a similar sentiment see Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A personal view (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1987) p.168. This quintet, KV 516, is just one example of Mozart use of the key of G minor to express introspective melancholia.  back

  7. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.112.  back