Emerson String Quartet

Shostakovich began working on the String Quartet no.14 in F sharp, opus 142, in the middle of 1972. That summer he travelled to Britain and the Republic of Ireland using the occasion to visit Aldeburgh in England. This remote sea-side town on the east coast with its shingle beaches, salt marshes and reed-beds was the home of his friend Benjamin Britten. Shostakovich had dedicated his Fourteenth Symphony to him three years previously and greatly admired Britten's work, in particular his War Requiem. It was to take Shostakovich almost three quarters of a year to complete the quartet, for it was only finished on April 23rd, 1973 in Moscow after a two-and-a-half week stay in Repino near Leningrad (now known by its older name of St. Petersburg) and a trip to Copenhagen where he was to receive the Danish Sonning prize1.

This is a three movement work of about 27 minutes duration. The movements are marked:

  1. Allegretto,
  2. Adagio, attacca
  3. Allegretto - Adagio.

Each movement is approximately nine minutes long, and the second and third are played together without a pause. Its key of F sharp major is traditionally associated with transcendence and radiance and this almost whimsical work is the most accessible of Shostakovich's darker late quartets. This quartet has stronger melodic lines than the Thirteenth Quartet, is less intense but also contains twelve tone rows.

This is the last of the "Quartet of Quartets" which had begun with his Eleventh String Quartet. Each had been dedicated to one of the original members of the Beethoven String Quartet, a quartet that was to première all of Shostakovich's string quartets except the first and last. This quartet was dedicated to its cellist Sergei Petrovich Shirinsky (1903 - 1974) whom Shostakovich had known since 1926 2. Just as the Thirteenth Quartet had given full reign to the viola, it is the cello which dominates in this quartet.

The first six bars provide the material for the first movement. It begins with the viola repeating an F sharp followed by a cheerful little theme, in an animated tempo, played first by the cello then repeated on the violin. As the movement progresses the cello is featured prominently, but is accompanied with dissonant outbursts of chords from the other instruments. Just before the conclusion there is a deep sigh which will be expanded in the final movement of the quartet.

The second movement resembles a beautiful varnish covering a fathomless depth of anguish. It is a passacaglia in form though certainly an unconventional one with variations, fluctuations and embellishments. The movement commences with an unaccompanied theme on the first violin which is then joined by the cello. The cello begins by repeating the theme but then enters into a sparse, intense and lengthy dialogue with the violin. Finally the other instruments then join in with a viola pizzicato accompaniment, but the cello continues its lengthy song ending only when the second violin plays a series of As. Similarly the final section of the movement ends with a series of C sharps being played this time by the first violin.

Into the third movement Shostakovich embedded two cryptic references to the dedicatee, Sergei Shirinsky. The first occurs in the second to seventh bars where the pitch of the plucked notes is a cryptogram for Seryozha the affectionate form of Sergei. These notes: D sharp, E, D, E, G and A may be read as:

DS:D sharp being equivalent to E flat and hence to S in German notation
Ee:the note E
Dre:this being the solfeggio equivalent of D
Eyo:this is how the Cyrillic letter ë is pronounced
Gzh:this is how the Cyrillic letter Ж is pronounced. It sounds like j in the French 'je' or similar to g
Aa:the note A

Thus the six notes become S-e-re-yo-zh-a.

The second reference occurs with a quote from Shostakovich's fateful opera 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District'. This is Katerina's beautiful aria, Seryozha, khoroshiy moy (Seryozha, my darling) from Act 4 which is quoted on the cello about three minutes into the movement.

Seryozha, my darling

This aria had previously been used in the darker Eighth Quartet for another purpose, but here it is clearly meant as a loving tribute to Sergei Shirinsky. The cello, prominent throughout the movement, brings the work to a conclusion with notes in C sharp (the dominant of F sharp major). With the exception of the Ninth and Twelfth all the quartets since the Third ended morendo, and the Fourteenth Quartet maintains this tradition.

A vignette from a rehearsal is recalled by Fyodor Druzhinin3 :

When the rehearsal was over, Dmitri Dmitriyevich was visibly excited. He got up and addressed us with these words: 'My dear friends, this has been for me one of the happiest moments of my life: first of all, because I think the Quartet has turned out well, Sergei, and secondly I have had the good fortune to play in the Beethoven Quartet, even if I only played with one finger! And how did you like my Italian bit?' We immediately knew what he meant by this last remark, as in the second movement4 and in the Finale's coda, there is a short but wonderfully beautiful and sensual melody. It evokes a nagging but unquenchable ache of the heart, perhaps because this vocal phrase verges on banality. 5

Shostakovich referred to this melody, a duet with the cello playing above the first violin, as his 'Italian bit' because its style is reminiscent of the 'Angel's Serenade', Leggenda Valacca, by the Italian composer and cellist Gaetano Braga 6. Braga's serenade is mentioned near the beginning of Chekhov's short story 'The Black Monk' where the protagonist, Kovrin, hears it being played on the violin. The serenade, beautiful but death-ridden, is central to the story and reappears to herald Kovrin's death at its conclusion, just as the theme returns in the quartet's coda 7. At the time of writing the Fourteenth Quartet Shostakovich was adapting 'The Black Monk' for a one-act opera. This, his last opera project, would ultimately remain unfinished.

The Beethoven String Quartet had the honour of performing the première of the quartet three times. Once on October 30th, 1973 at the USSR Composersí Club in Moscow, then the public première in Leningrad on 12 November and finally the official Moscow première on 18 November 1973. The autograph score presented to Sergei Shirinsky on the 30th June 1973 is now kept by his family.

Shostakovich was awarded the Glinka Prize (the State Prize of the Russian Federation) for the Fourteenth String Quartet - and another composition, Loyalty opus 136, a work of eight ballads for male choir - in 1974. A transcription of the quartet for piano four hands exists written by Anatoli Dmitriev.


  1. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 275 back

  2. Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (London: Faber and Faber, 1994) p. 438 back

  3. Fyodor Serafimovich Druzhinin (1931 - 2007) became the violist in the Beethoven String Quartet in 1964 when Vadim Borisovsky retired. It is to him that Shostakovich dedicated his last work, the Viola Sonata, op. 147. back

  4. Following the rehearsal number 53 in score. back

  5. The quotation is from Wilson, Shostakovich, p. 440. The above footnote is not part of the original quote. back

  6. Gaeanto Braga was born on 9 June 1829 in Giulianova in Abruzzi and died on 21 November 1907 in Milan. His serenade was extremely popular at the turn of the twentieth century but is now rarely heard. back

  7. The influence of music on the content and form of Chekhov's 'The Black Monk' is discussed in detail by Rosamund Bartlett, 'Sonata Form in Chekhov's "The Black Monk"' in A. Wachtel (ed.) Intersections and transpositions: Russian music, literature, and society (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1998). back