Quartet No. 13 : Emerson Quartet   (source: YouTube)

Shostakovich's String Quartet no.13 in B flat minor, Opus 138, was completed on 10 August 1970. This dark, disturbing but highly innovative work illustrates the new voice which Shostakovich had found in his last quartets. The piece is about 20 minutes in duration and is the only quartet in the cycle which consists of just one movement:

  1. Adagio – Doppio movimento – Tempo primo.

Shostakovich had dedicated his previous two quartets to members of the Beethoven String Quartet, an ensemble which, almost without exception, had premièred his works. Its violist, Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky (1901 - 1972), had just retired and so Shostakovich dedicated his Thirteenth Quartet to him leaving his successor, Fyodor Druzhinin, the task of performing at its première one of the most testing viola parts in the quartet literature.

The Thirteenth Quartet does not copy the classical sonata form but is rather an arch – an ABA structure plus coda. Such mirror structures were often used by Bartók and, by dividing the quartet into three sections, this thirteenth quartet recalls Bartók's third string quartet.

Although Shostakovich had started work on the composition a year before its completion, recent research reveals that only at the last minute did he decide upon the exact form of the two outer sections. According to the Russian musicologist, Olga Digonskaia, who has accessed original documents in the Shostakovich Archives in Moscow, Shostakovich initially planned to start the quartet with the allegretto cello pizzicato theme (rehearsal number 21) in the second section 1. However, shortly before finalising the Quartet he wrote the last part of the music to Grigori Kozintsev's film 'King Lear' - the 'Lamentations'. Ms. Digonskaia suggests that when writing the 'Lamentation' for the choral four voices Shostakovich had already in mind the voices of the string quartet. In any case, on completing the score for King Lear, Shostakovich immediately adapted the 'Lamentation' so that it became the basis for the initial and the final - 'reprise' - sections of his new quartet. Furthermore, she suggests, the origin of the coda of the quartet and its breath-taking hairpin crescendo in the final bar, can be traced back to the ending of 'The Storm' in the film with its repeated the B-flats of the first violin in the third octave.

The coda of the quartet, played as a sad lament by the viola over 30 bars and its incredible end, remain in the memory long after the work has finished. Near its beginning a twelve semitone row is played and then the viola climbs into ranges seldom demanded by composers. When it reaches its high final note, a B flat in the third octave, the second and then the first violin join in a snowballing crescendo from pp to sffff, bringing the quartet to a startling and frightening finish. This terrifying conclusion has been compared by Judith Kuhn to "the similar crescendo to nothingness that follows Wozzeck's murder of Marie, in Act 3, Scene 2 of Alban Berg's opera"2. Senseless death in a brutalizing and repressive system3.

The twelve semitone row at the start of the coda is just the last of many such rows in the quartet4. The first appears right at the opening of the work, played not by the cello as in the Twelfth Quartet but by the viola.

The first eight bars of the thirteenth quartet

Again, as with the Twelve Quartet, the row is firmly embedded within tonality. The final note of this row is B, but the note that immediately follows is a semitone lower - B flat - mimicking the return to the tonic in a tonal scale. The 'tonality' of the row is further suggested by the first three notes - B flat, D flat and G flat – a triad in the B flat minor scale, and as if to avoid any lingering doubts, Shostakovich makes B flat minor explicit with a key signature.

Why open a tonal work with a twelve semitone row? Is Shostakovich making an ironic gesture towards serialism - quoting a twelve semitone row and then casually dismissing it as irrelevant to his music by reverting to tonality? No, this is no ironic gesture. Examination of the score reveals that the Thirteenth Quartet is impregnated with twelve semitone rows. There are at least sixteen different examples. Some are fleeting, appearing only once and are then forgotten, but others (including the initial one) return and are used to generate motifs employed within the work. Thus atonality is not peripheral to the Thirteenth Quartet but is an important element of it.

What Shostakovich does not do is to develop these rows according to the rules of serialism. For example, his rows are not equally inverted, reversed or subjected to reversed inversion, indeed the last two never occur in the quartet and the second, inversion, rarely. Furthermore dodecaphonic chords are absent: rows when they occur are melodic. Whilst realising that atonality could expand the expressive boundaries of the string quartet, Shostakovich, like other composers of this time, regarded the rules of serialism as too restrictive.

In a 1958 interview 5, long before composing this quartet, Shostakovich had stated this opinion:

I am totally convinced that music, like every other human activity must search for new ways. Nevertheless it seems to me that those who see this path in dodecaphony make a great mistake. The narrow dogmatism of this artificial system limits enormously the creative fantasies of the composer and his individual style.

As already mentioned, this rejection of the straight-jacket of serialism was not new. Other composers such as Hindemith and Britten were using twelve semitone rows free from the constraints of serialism. Indeed serialism's last flush had been in the 50's, with works like Boulez's 'Structures 1' (1952) and Stockhausen's 'Gruppen' (1957). Since then the 'air from another planet' that Schönberg had felt in his second string quartet, Op. 10, (1908/21) had become suffocating 6.

So what was Shostakovich's purpose in using twelve semitone rows? If they were so important to justify reappearing throughout the whole work then what were they representing? Shostakovich's next sentence in this 1958 interview seems to answer this question.

I believe that the expressive potential of dodecaphony is very limited. At best it is capable of expressing conditions of depression or paralysing fear.

Depression and paralysing fear7. Could it be that it is this dark, depressing association and this debilitating 'Angst', that explains the rows of the Thirteen Quartet. But what is the cause of this paralysing fear? It could not be the persecutions that Shostakovich had suffered in 1936 and 1948 – those times had gone. What was troubling Shostakovich and what impregnates the whole of this quartet were his reflections on the finality of approaching death.

Shostakovich had good reasons to entertain such reflections at this time. His health was bad and he was spending many months in hospital for a growing number of reasons. In April 1966 after the première of the 11th Quartet he had had a heart attack. In April and May 1970 he was hospitalised at the Kurgan orthopaedic clinic, east of the Urals, only to return there again at the end of August and remain until October. Even after the Thirteen Quartet was finished, his health continued to rapidly deteriorate. In September 1971 he suffered a second heart attack, and that winter was again hospitalised. In the autumn of 1972 and throughout the winter he remained in hospital undergoing radiation therapy against renal colic and lung cancer. Further radiation treatment was to follow in March 1972. Shostakovich could sense approaching oblivion.

Death was also the subject of the Fourteenth Symphony, often regarded as the companion to this quartet. This symphony which, but for its lack of a choir, would be better classified as an oratorio, was finished shortly before the thirteenth quartet. Its collection of eleven poems sung by a soprano and bass are all concern death: it is an angry protest against the brevity of life.

Talking about the symphony Shostakovich said 8:

...... various kinds of religious teaching have suggested that as bad as life might be, when you die everything will be fine; what awaits you there is perfect peace ...... I am following in the footsteps of the great Russian composer Mussorgsky. His cycle Songs and Dances of Death - maybe not all of it, but at least "The Field Marshal" - is a great protest against death ...... (Death) awaits all of us. I do not see anything good about such an end to our lives and this is what I am trying to convey in this work.

The choice of the sombre B flat minor scale for the symphony's spiritual sibling, the Thirteenth Quartet, was inevitable given Shostakovich's formula for generating a cycle of quartets 9. With its five flats it is not easy to play on strings; many of the brighter sounds are not available so the colour is dark and bleak 10. This feeling Shostakovich reinforces in the quartet by using the 'Lamentation' material from the film King Lear in its outer sections. The depression, strengthened by the alienating twelve-note rows, culminates in the horrific, despairing scream which ends the quartet.

And mortality is also present in the middle section – the doppio movimento. Here we hear a walking bass line. “A jam session from Hell”, according to Eugene Drucker, second violin in the Emerson Quartet 11, adding “It's fugal, so its jazzy and fugal at the same time”. Undoubtedly so - a grim death dance - and a close inspection of the cello voice shows it also to be a passacaglia based on three independent twelve tone rows. Only one of these is subjected to repetition before being transferred to the first violin where it is inverted 12.

The effect of this bass line, augmented by a ghostly series of tied notes on the other instruments, an extended tremolo on the viola, and a three sinister notes (so reminiscent of the Eighth and Seventh Quartets) repeatedly plucked on the strings, is disturbing. But the real horror for performers are the sharp bone-like raps marked in the score. To achieve these whip-cracks they are instructed to subject the bellies of the instruments to a volley of blows from the wood of the bows: in other words to use them as a drum! Many of today's professional quartets (their Stradivari or Guarneri being probably on loan!) refuse to follow Shostakovich's clear directions13.

First the violist is to hit his instrument (a symbolic 13 times – the Thirteenth Quartet being dedicated to the violist), then the second violinist (a staggering 16 times) and finally the cellist (8 times) – only the first violinist is spared the ordeal. Finally in the concluding bars of the coda the the second violin receives its last hammering with another six blows (making a total of twenty-two blows alone on this instrument)14.

Avant-garde works composed at this time often called for percussion, but rarely so radical. For example, George Crumb's quartet “Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”, completed as Crumb explicitly documents on Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 15 - the same year as Shostakovich's thirteenth quartet - is a much harsher aural experience than Shostakovich's, but the two have interesting similarities 16. Both are structured as an arch bordered by lamentations (in Crumb called 'threnodies') and have violin pitches in the upper octaves. And both deal with death; although the emphasis in 'Black Angels' is Manichaean: Crumb is more concerned with the battle of Good with Evil, rather than with Shostakovich's contemplation of purposeless human existence17. Nevertheless the numerous percussion effects demanded by Crumb are arguably more conventional, if still highly unusual for quartets - tam-tam gongs, crystal glasses and vocal counting. But when instructing the instruments to be struck Crumb stipulates using the knuckles and the flat of the hand, methods far less radical than those demanded by Shostakovich.

The Thirteenth Quartet had its première on the 11th December 1970 at the USSR Composers’ Club in Moscow being performed by the Beethoven Quartet (whose members were now Dmitri Tsyganov, Nikolai Zabavnikov, Fyodor Druzhinin and Sergei Shirinsky). The autographed score is preserved by the Borisovsky family. A transcription of the quartet for piano four hands exists having been written by Anatoli Dmitriev.

Opening Image:

The only information given in YouTube for this recording is that it is played by the Emerson String Quartet. Their official website is http://www.emersonquartet.com


  1. Olga Dombrovskaia,'Hamlet, King Lear and their companions: the other side of film music'. in Alexander Ivashkin and Andrew Kirkman (eds.) Contemplating Shostakovich: Life, Music and Film 2012 (Ashgate publishing Ltd, Farnham, England, 2012) p. 141 to 166 back

  2. Judith Kuhn, 'The string quartets: in dialogue with form and tradition' in P. Fairclough and D. Fanning (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich (Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 64 back

  3. Alban Berg's atonal opera 'Wozzeck', a work that influenced Shostakovich's early musical development, was based on a play by Georg Büchner (1813 - 37) entitled 'Woyzeck'. It tells the true story of a murder that took place in 1821 in Leipzig where an oppressed Johann Christian Woyzeck murdered his ex-mistress by stabbing her seven times. Büchner's play, written at the age of twenty-two, is regarded as being the first tragic play with a working-class protagonist. Previously at twenty-one Büchner had written 'Danton’s Death' a play that has a claim to be the greatest political tragedy ever written. Sadly for the German theatre Büchner died of typhus at twenty-three; but his critical attitude towards the establishment was continued in Brecht and is still present in contemporary German theatre. back

  4. Jacques Wildberger, 'Ausdruck lähmender Angst: über die Bedeutung von Zwölftonreihen in Spätwerken von Schostakowitsch.' Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 151 (1990) 4-11

    I have relied heavily on this analysis by the late Swiss composer Jacques Wildberger (1922-2006) for this discussion of twelve semitone rows in the Thirteenth Quartet. back

  5. Shostakovich in an interview at the Polish festival of contemporary music - 'Warszawska Jesien' - in 1958, quoted in Krzysztof Meyer 'Dmitri Schostakowitsch' Leipzig 1980, p. 182. back

  6. Arnold Schönberg's second quartet is an example of composers' efforts in the twentieth century to use the string quartet as an experimental test-bed. The first three movements are tonal, in F sharp minor, D minor and E flat minor respectively but the third movement is more radical with a soprano voice joining the quartet to sing a poem of Stefan George. Another of his poems 'Entrückung' (Rapture) is sung in the fourth and final movement. It starts with the words 'Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten' (I feel the air from another planet) and whilst it is sung the music abandons all pretence to tonality.

    Schönberg's quartet, scandalous at the time, has greatly influenced the development of music in the twentieth century. Apart from atonality even the soprano voice augmenting the string quartet was adopted by Darius Milhaud in his quartet no. 3; by Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) in his quartet no. 13; in the second quartet of George Rochberg (1918- 2005); by Betsy Jolas (1926 - ) in her second quartet and by Brian Ferneyhough (1943 - ) in his fourth quartet.

    See: Robin Stowell, 'Extending the technical and expressive frontiers' in Robin Stowell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet , (CUP, 2003) p. 171 back

  7. I am not sure if Shostakovich's comment about serialism expressing 'paralysing fear' would be shared by everyone. Nevertheless atonality does produce a sense of drift and purposeless. Tonality, like the Enlightenment in which it flourished, brought with it a sense of progress and direction. It was only later with rise of German Romanticism that the ideas associated with tonality, began to weaken. Many of Schubert's Lieder, for example, fail to end in their initial key. back

  8. From Shostakovich's spoken introduction to a recording (Melodiya 33M 40-41707) of his Fourteenth Symphony on 21 June 1969. Quoted in Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 261 back

  9. For more information please see the article on this website 'The tonal structure of the cycle of quartets' back

  10. A description of this key taken from Christian Schubart's "Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst" from 1785 is amusing. He characterises B flat minor as "A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key." Translated by Rita Steblin in 'A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983). back

  11. Wendy Lesser, 'Music For Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets' (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011) p.242 back

  12. The row in question is that played by the cello at rehearsal number 24. back

  13. see Lesser p. 238. back

  14. As far as I am aware no explanation has been given until now (22 November 2014) for the large number and the strange distribution of the strikes on the four instruments. So let me offer a suggestion. The strikes represent the passage of time, each beat recalling a year which had past in Shostakovich's relationship with one of his three wives. Each instrument in the quartet represents a person – the first violin represents the composer; the second violin is his first wife, Nina Vasilyevna Varzar; his second wife, Margarita Andreyevna Kainova, is represented by the viola and the third wife, Irina Antonova Supinskaya, by the cello.

    The first set of 16 beats on the second violin represent the number of years Nina had been dead (she died in 1954 and the quartet was composed in 1970). The final set of 6 strokes on the second violin brings the total number of strikes on this instrument to 22 which was the number of years he was married to Nina (1932 to 1954). It also brings the total of all strikes in the quartet to 43 - the number of years that had passed since he first met the then eighteen-year old Nina in 1927.

    Thirteen years previously he had been married to his second wife, Margarita, and this is the number of strikes on the viola. Lastly the 8 strokes on the cello are the number of years he had been married to his third wife, Irina (they married in 1962).

    Too fanciful? Maybe, but remember this was the composer who was keeping the second violin quiet for 34 bars in his Twelfth Quartet and was arranging his cycle of quartets so that the keys D, S, C and H fell on perfect squares. back

  15. and also as he notes, 'in tempore belli' – in time of war: a reference to the American-Vietnamese conflict at that time. back

  16. However there are also significant differences. Whereas Crumb quotes the 'Dies Irae', Tartini's 'Devil's Trill' and Schubert's quartet D. 810, 'Death and the Maiden' in his quartet, Shostakovich in his Thirteenth Quartet restrains from quoting other works. back

  17. In their 1990 recording entitled 'Black Angels' the Kronos Quartet include Crumb's quartet alongside Shostakovich's Eighth thereby emphasising the 'in tempore belli' aspect of both works. back