Quartet No. 7    (source: YouTube 1)

The String Quartet no. 7 in F sharp minor, opus 108, completed in March 1960, is the shortest of all Shostakovich's quartets lasting only about 13 minutes. It has three linked movements marked:

  1. Allegretto, attacca
  2. Lento, attacca
  3. Allegro – Allegretto

The Quartet, the original manuscript of which is lost, was dedicated by Shostakovich "In Memoriam" to his wife Nina2. She had studied at the prestigious Leningrad School of Physics3 and shortly after her graduation Shostakovich and Nina married. Their relationship had not been easy but her sudden death in December 1954, after an emergency operation for a previously undetected cancer of the colon, affected Shostakovich deeply. This is mirrored in his choice of key for the work, F sharp minor, traditionally associated with pain and suffering. Bach, for example, uses it in the St. John Passion when the penitent Peter cries out his remorse. This is also the key of Mahler's tortured and unfinished tenth symphony. His total desolation following the collapse of his marriage with Alma is witnessed in his scribbled words on the score "für dich leben! für dich sterben!" (to live for you! to die for you!) and in the poignant dissonance and screams of the music.

There can be no doubt that Shostakovich deliberately matched the choice of key to the quartet's dedication. As is explained in the article 'The tonal structure of the cycle of quartets' Shostakovich had based the key for a quartet on the submediant of the scale of the preceding quartet. Whilst he had given preference to the major scale he had kept rigorously to this scheme in all of his previous quartets. But in the seventh he suddenly breaks this pattern. Had he maintained his scheme the key of the this quartet would have been E flat major. (The key chosen, F sharp minor, was only due in the twentieth quartet.) He would return to his scheme by using the key of E flat major for his Ninth Quartet and remain with it for almost forty years up until his death in 1975. Only this quartet, dedicated to his first wife but written five years after her death, would be an exception to this general rule.

Certainly the key of F sharp minor is more appropriate for loss and bereavement than E flat major. The latter key is more associated with godliness and human heroism. Beethoven famously chose it for the Eroica Symphony and for the Emperor Concerto whilst Richard Strauss tellingly employed it in 'Ein Heldenleben'. F sharp minor is more morose. Johann Mattheson once wrote "F sharp minor, although it leads to great distress, nevertheless is more languid and love-sick than lethal. Moreover, it has something abandoned, singular, and misanthropic about it"4. It seems that for Shostakovich this choice of key for his Seventh Quartet was more important than maintaining the tonal development of his cycle of string quartets which he had begun in 1938.

It was premièred at the Leningrad Glinka Concert Hall by the Beethoven Quartet (Dmitri Tsyganov, Vasili Shirinsky, Vadim Borisovsky and Sergei Shirinsky), on May 15th, 1960. May was a month which Shostakovich associated with his first wife and their life together: he had announced his engagement to Nina Varzarin in May 1929; had married her on May 13th 1932; their first child, their daughter Galya, was born on May 30th 1936, and their only other child, their son Maxim, had been born on May 10th 1938. His quartet to her is compact and, presumably like their marriage, full of contradictory moods: the first movement being perky, agitated, but full of impish humour; the second dream-like; whilst the third, although at first violent, finally relapses into mellow contemplation.

The music in the first movement, sometimes harsh and biting, simmers with nervous energy. It opens with the first violin playing a short perky little motif starting on F sharp and ending with the same note, being played three times, first by the violin an octave lower, and then by the cello two octaves lower still. Triple notes are in abundance as the music jogs agitatedly forward. With the cello introducing a change of key to E flat major, the viola and second violin begin a series of nervous rapid pulses, which though hardly heard, gnaw at the consciousness. The sense of agitation increases when the first violin, returning to F sharp minor, begins to play pizzicato and places emphasis on some of the weaker beats. But before all this nervousness becomes oppressive the movement fades away into the restful mood of the next movement.

The three and a half minute second movement opens with a rising, then falling, four-note motif played on the muted second violin. With it we enter into a new, minimalist world which, twenty years later, Philip Glass and his factory would commercially inhabit. This world seduces through hypnosis; through the slow metamorphosis of repeated, lyrical phrases. On the fifth bar the first violin enters, and soaring an octave higher than its partner, adds a further soothing and soporific balm to the sleepiness already induced by the second violin's seductive repetitions. With a glissando on the viola from F to D flat we slip from the material world and into sleep. The first violin becomes silent and the hypnotic minimalist motif is heard again distinctly on the second violin, followed by the deeper-voiced viola recalling the soothing tune of the first violin and then the cello. Heavy and deep in sleep we can now only hear our heartbeat on the doublets of the second violin and experience our deepest, subconscious thoughts, disturbing, sinister, full of remorse and nostalgic, being played out on  the viola  and the cello an octave below it. Then with the return of the first violin we gradually float back into consciousness; the heartbeat disappearing and to the minimalist motif on the viola we gradually wake. Rested but tender after this slumber we are poorly-prepared for the shock which now awaits us.

Suddenly with the commencement of the third movement we are confronted with the fortissimo yapping of an attacking dog5. Then an accusatory, vitriolic canon begins waves of ferocious assaults; first from the viola, then the second violin , followed again by the viola and finally from the first violin. But these on closer inspection are just the transformations of a dream world; the barking is just the notes which started the first movement, its "perky little motif", reversed. Even the first subject of the canon bears a close resemblance to music played on the viola as we regained consciousness at the end of the second movement. But before the mounting intensity becomes unbearable it is abruptly terminated by the same innocent motif, subtly changed though still full of its impish humour, with which the first movement had commenced. Suddenly, miraculously, the aggravation disperses and disappears. The pace slows down by a third,  from allegro to allegretto, and we are back  to F sharp minor. The first part of the canon reappears but, with the change of pace and tonality, undergoes a metamorphosis into the dream world of the previous movement. Then, rendered as a waltz, it intermingles with other motifs. Finally, after a brief echo of the first movement's pizzicato, the music loses force, collapses and dies away - morendo.

Photograph of Shostakovich, his first wife Nina and their friend Sollertinsky dated 1932

Closing Image:

The photo shows Shostakovich with his first wife, Nina, and their friend Sollertinsky


  1. Unfortunately neither the name of the string ensemble nor the names of the performers are given in this 2009 recording. However the first violin is played by Caeli Smith . back

  2. Because of their dedications the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Quartets form a subset. They are 'personal' quartets. Number seven is dedicated to his first wife Nina, and number nine to his third wife Irina. The Eighth Quartet is dedicated to 'The Victims of Fascism and War' but, as is mentioned in the discussion of the Eighth Quartet, Shostakovich regarded it as dedicated to himself. back

  3. Amongst her co-students had been Lev Landau and George Gamow. Landau was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1962 for theoretical work on superfluidity. Like Nina (and Shostakovich) Landau is buried in the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow. George Gamov became widely known for his popular 'Mr Tompkins' books which give an 'Alice in Wonderland' description of relativity and quantum theory. But Gamow's sense of fun extended to more serious works. In 1948 his paper 'The Origin of Chemical Elements' was published in the journal 'Physical Review'. Written with his graduate student Ralph Alpher, they added the name of a fellow physicist, Hans Bethe, to make their publication become known as the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow (αβγ) paper. back

  4. This often quoted remark is by the German-born composer and musical theorist, Johann Mattheson (1681-1764). I have not been able to confirm the source although references to it in the internet appear to place it in his 1713 publication 'Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre'. back

  5. Of course the extent to which it sounds like a yapping dog probably depends on the recording you are hearing! However my metaphor should be understood as a reference to the thoughts of another author on the affectations of keys, Christian Schubart, who lived after Johann Mattheson. Schubart wrote in 1806 in an article entitled 'Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst' that F sharp minor was 'A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.' I do not intend to suggest that Shostakovich meant this section to be canine-friendly, but I am certain that Shostakovich's choice of key signature for each quartet in the cycle was deliberate and selected to support the quartet's intended emotional or biographic reference. The affectation of keys has a long tradition in the history of music and its influence on any tonal cycle of music, particularly ones composed for instruments that are not equally tempered, surely deserves serious consideration. back