Jerusalem Quartet   (source: YouTube)

Did Shostakovich really believe, when composing the String Quartet no. 4, that it would ever be performed?

But what could have hinder a performance? Conventionally this quartet, opus 83 in D major, completed on the 27th December 1949, seems above reproach. In structure it returns to a traditional four movement format:

  1. Allegretto,
  2. Andantino,
  3. Allegretto, attacca
  4. Allegretto

Its duration is normal, about 24 minutes, and the Quartet is dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich's close friend Pyotr Vladimirovich Vil'yams (1902 - 1947) who was an uncontroversial Russian stage designer and a painter noted for his portraits, one of which was of Shostakovich himself1.

The problem with the Fourth Quartet lies not in its structure, its length or dedication: it lies in its content. To understand why we must follow what had occurred, both in Shostakovich's life and in international politics, in the months leading to Quartet's composition.

Between the writing of the Third Quartet and the Fourth, Shostakovich's music had been denounced in a new crack-down in Soviet ideological correctness. The result was a virtual ban on performances of his works and his dismissal, in 1948, as professor in the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories. With the loss of employment and performance revenues, Shostakovich's finances became dire. He took commissions to compose film music and sought opportunities to demonstrate his commitment to Socialist Realism. The first step on the road to redemption occurred when he submitted a seven-movement oratorio entitled The Song of the Forests, opus 81, celebrating 'The Great Stalinist Plan for Remaking Nature', a fifteen-year project for planting trees to protect southern Central Asia from drought 2. The oratorio fulfilled the requirements of Socialist Realism and was consequently an outstanding success, winning the Stalin Prize - First Grade3.

The use of folk music was another standard way to fulfil the requirements of Socialist Realism and avoid the charge of 'Formalism'. Folk music had the virtues of being accessible, traditional and melodious. Shostakovich had developed a particular interest in Jewish folk music. This had begun in 1943 when he was orchestrating Venyamin Fleishman's opera Rothschild's Violin and he had incorporated distinctive Jewish intonations into the fourth movement of his Second Piano Trio opus 67, composed in 1944. The Trio had been a success winning the Stalin prize (category two) in 1946 and it was not one of the works which, by order of the censorship board in February 1948, had been eliminated from the repertory.

But what was the aesthetic attraction of Jewish music for Shostakovich? Solomon Volkov quotes Shostakovich as saying:

This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my idea of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express their despair in dance music. All folk music is lovely, but I can say that the Jewish folk music is unique.4

Although the accuracy of Volkov when quoting Shostakovich is often challenged he is generally regarded as correctly representing the composer's sentiments. Also the musicologist and biographer of Shostakovich, Laurel E. Fay, confirms his affinity to Jewish intonations:

The inflected modes of Jewish music went hand in hand with his own natural gravitation towards modes with flattened scale degrees. Shostakovich was attracted by the ambiguities in Jewish music, its ability to project radically different emotions simultaneously. 5

Thus using Jewish musical idioms in his compositions seemed to Shostakovich a plausible way to retain his artistic integrity whilst fulfilling his 'public' promises to write politically acceptable music.

Why was Jewish music politically acceptable? Partly because Soviet Jewry had integrated well into communist society. Indeed many prominent members of the communist parties, that had taken control of countries in eastern Europe following the occupation by the Red Army, were Jewish. At this time communism appealed to many Jews. Not only had the Soviet Union's victory over Hitler's Germany saved many of them from the Nazi extermination camps, but communism seemed to offer an international political alternative to a people who had traditionally suffered in European nationalist regimes.

Moreover Stalin was supporting Jewish organisations at home and abroad. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which had been formed during the war to gain the support of Jews outside the Soviet Union in their struggle against the Nazis, was still receiving official backing. Furthermore on the international stage the USSR had used its new seat at the United Nations to support Zionism and advocate the creation of a Jewish State in the Middle East.

Aware of the personal consequences of composing a politically ill-advised work, but confident that the Jewish idioms would be acceptable, Shostakovich started work that August on a song-cycle entitled From Jewish Folk Poetry. It was completed in October 1948.

But Stalin's latent anti-Semitism was about to surface, spurred on by the change in international politics. Stalin might have supported the foundation of Israel to block any British influence in the Middle East, but it was now becoming clear that the State of Israel was not going to be a Soviet ally in the intensifying Cold War. Furthermore the enthusiasm on the Moscow streets, which had greeted Israeli Ambassador Golda Meir on her visit on 11th September 1948, must have caused Stalin to fear that the city, traditionally known as the third Rome, might soon become a second Jerusalem.

Stalin's reaction was swift. On September 21st 1948 Pravda published an article by Ilya Ehrenburg indicating clearly the change of line on Zionism. From January 1949 articles began to appear in Pravda attacking 'cosmopolitans without a fatherland', 'unpatriotic groups of theatre critics', 'rootless cosmopolitans', 'persons without identity' and 'passport-less wanderers'. Yiddish schools and theatres were shut down, Yiddish newspapers banned and libraries closed. 6

By the beginning of 1949 Shostakovich realised that his song-cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry was not going to renew his fortunes and he abandoned any attempt to have it publicly performed.

But in February 1949 his chances to regain acceptance dramatically changed. Much to his surprise he received a phone call from Stalin. The infallible leader informed Shostakovich personally that he had decided that the composer was to be an official Soviet spokesman at the 'Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace' to be held in New York. During the conversation, and despite his inherent nervousness, Shostakovich was able to convey the inconsistency of a composer representing a state in which his music was effectively banned. On 16 March 1949, four days before Shostakovich departed for the USA, the order of the previous year banning the works of formalist composers was cancelled on Stalin's instructions.7

Whilst in New York Shostakovich attended a concert in which he heard, and liked, Bartók's Sixth Quartet. Whether or not influenced by the indigenous folk music of eastern Europe that inspired many of Bartók's compositions, Shostakovich began, on his return from the USA in April 1949, to compose the Fourth Quartet completing it on the 27 December of that year. This Quartet, especially in its final movement, evoked Jewish folk music.

It seems strange that Shostakovich, having only recently abandoned attempts to have the song-cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry performed, would again employ 'Jewish' intonations in this new quartet. He knew that the circumstances, that had allowed his Second Piano Trio to be a success, were past. Both absolute music and music with words had to conform to the prevailing ideology, that is why his First Violin Concerto (1948) had not been performed. His new quartet was yet another example of non-programmatic chamber music. What Stalin's Soviet Union demanded was music that fulfilled the requirements of 'Socialist Realism'. So had Shostakovich begun to compose deliberately just 'for the drawer'; to write music that could not risk being performed?

No, from what followed it is clear that he was not composing 'for the drawer': he intended to have his Fourth Quartet performed. He might have been emboldened by his attendance at the Congress in New York where, despite provocation, he had stuck loyally to the Party line. Perhaps he now felt he was back in favour and could take the risk. Whatever his motivation was, Shostakovich wanted the piece performed.

He gave the score to the Beethoven Quartet and they started rehearsing the Fourth Quartet on 10 February 1950. On 15 May, almost five months after its work's completion, the Beethoven Quartet performed the work in the presence of the head of the music division of the Committee for Artistic Affairs, Alexander Kholodilin. Also present were some other composers, Shostakovich and his wife Nina. The piece was played twice.8 This was the decisive moment. On hearing the Fourth Quartet this selected audience became acutely aware of Shostakovich's insensibility to the dire political reaction the piece would provoke. Their advice convinced him to withhold the quartet.

So Shostakovich did intended this work to be performed directly after its completion. It was only when the prevailing circumstances prevented this, that the score was put to one side; it had to wait for better times; it had to wait until Stalin died.

From the start of the first movement there is a sense of the strange and exotic. The key of D major traditionally evokes power and glory. For 18th century composers this was a specially bright key because the trumpets of the time were tuned to D major. Yet the quartet commences with the four string instruments combining to produce a sound reminiscent of wailing bagpipes. The music, which is Eastern in flavour with a slight indication of hidden grief, first rises sharply into a dissonant chaos but then subsides into a more gentle and harmonious world which anticipates the second movement . This next movement, in F minor, is more straightforward: a waltz explicitly wistful, sad and nostalgic which has a persistent two-note accompaniment and terminates in F major.

The third movement of the Fourth Quartet is not a scherzo but a dreamy allegretto in C minor gently reminiscent of the mechanical perpetual motion in other works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Along with the two proceeding movements, its tonal ambiguities prepare the way for the concluding movement into which it flows without a pause.

However the heart of the quartet, and one of the highlights of the whole cycle of quartets, is this remarkable fourth movement. Here the sadness of the second movement and the vitality of the third abruptly fuse to produce the violent, wailing and screaming tones of a danse macabre. The blatant use of Jewish motifs produces a finale full of breathtaking excitement and heart-rendering lamentation. The wailing violin combines with the pulsating foot-stomping rhythm to produce an unforgettable blend of elation and grotesque horror. Here, as in the second piano trio, is the image of death; of Jews being forced to dance on their own newly-dug graves at Treblinka. This is remarkable, nightmarish music: music only for those who cannot dream at night.

The Fourth Quartet finally received its première on December 3rd 1953 in Moscow, nine months after Stalin's death 9 and one month after the Fifth had first been performed.

By that time things had slightly eased, at least temporarily. Beria, Stalin's head of the secret police, was quickly executed and Khrushchev's ascent to power had begun. Now after the harsh years of Stalinism a thaw could be felt which allowed works like the Fourth Quartet to be performed. But Shostakovich, although recognising that the times had changed, remained cynical. He wrote to his young friend Edison Denisov10 Edik, the times are new but the informers are old.

The autographed manuscript of the Fourth Quartet is kept at the Glinka Museum in Moscow.


  1. This dedication is missing on the first publication. In 1954 Shostakovich wrote it onto the score of the first violinist of the Beethoven String Quartet, Dmitri Tsyganov (Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.176, fn.54).
    The oil on canvas portrait is at the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture, Ulitsa Fadeeva 4, Moscow 125047. back

  2. This idea came from the professional self-promoter and amateur geneticist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko whose unscientific theories in crop manipulation where to render grievous, if not fatal, damage to the Soviet Union. Like his benefactor, Stalin, Lysenko dealt ruthlessly with any perceived opposition. 'The Great Stalinist Plan for Remaking Nature' was Lysenko's plan to change the climate of Siberia by planting millions of trees there in clumps. His untested theory was that trees of the same species, rather than deprive each other, would die to let the strongest in their vicinity survive. The 15-year project commenced in 1948; five years later in 1953 it was abandoned.

    Shostakovich asked Yevgeniy Dolmantovsky, a poet favoured by the Party, to write the texts for the oratorio. Later, during the destalinization period, some verses became politically unacceptable and were quickly revised by Dolmatovsky. (Jack Weiner, "The Destalinization of Dmitrii Shostakovich's 'Song of the Forests', Op. 81 (1949)", Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 38, No. 4 (1984), pp.214-222.)
    In a letter to Denisov on 12 February 1957 Shostakovich wrote cynically "The poet, a slave of honour, has corrected the text in the spirit of the times. Unlike his colleague Pushkin - also a slave of honour - he has not perished and has no intention of perishing."
    (Dmitri Schostakowisch: Briefe an Edison Denissow, Musik des Ostens, Bd. 10, ed. H. Unverricht (Kassel, 1986), 198.) back

  3. The oratorio was so bland that it convinced Western listeners that Shostakovich was now burnt out. Shostakovich seemed to share their sentiments. "...after [the première of the oratorio] Shostakovich returned to his room at the Hotel Europe and began to sob, burying his head in the pillow. He sought consolation in vodka" ( Fay, Shostakovich, p.175,). Fay is in turn quoting S. Khentova, Udivitel'nïy Shostakovich (St. Petersburg, 1993). back

  4. Solomon Volkov, 'Testimony: The memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich' (London: Faber and Faber, 1987) p.119. back

  5. Fay, Shostakovich, p.169. back

  6. See Tony Judt, 'Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945' (London: Vintage Books, 2010) p.183. Ilya Ehrenburg (1891 - 1967) was a popular Soviet writer who worked as a correspondent during the Spanish Civil and Second World Wars. His article was the harbinger of a Jewish purge that was to last until Stalin's death in 1953. It merged with the political terror and show trials being inflicted on the communist satellite states of eastern Europe from 1948 to 1953 causing millions of people to be executed, 'disappear' or to be sent to the Gulag where the usual sentence was 25 years. back

  7. Whilst relieving his situation in the Soviet Union Shostakovich's attendance at the 'The Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace' started a decline in the West's appreciation for his music. The Conference, held as the Cold War had become established and under the auspices of the Soviet financed 'World Peace Council', was rightly seen in the West as a front for Soviet propaganda. Shostakovich's presence caused him, and thus his compositions, to be seen as subordinate to these aims. A year later a second conference was planned for Sheffield in the UK but the then Prime Minister and leader of the British left-wing Labour Party, Clement Attlee, refused visas to Soviet participants, including Shostakovich, saying that the Congress was a "bogus forum of peace with the real aim of sabotaging national defence". The West countered by holding its own 'Congress for Cultural Freedom' in Berlin in June 1950. back

  8. Fay, Shostakovich, p.176. back

  9. Stalin's death occurred on 5 March 1953 the same day that Prokofiev died. For further comments see footnote 11 to 'String Quartet No. 6'. back

  10. [10]. Fay, Shostakovich, p.184. back