Borodin String Quartet   (source: YouTube)

The String Quartet no.15 in E flat minor, opus 144, is one of the most moving of all Shostakovich's compositions and is arguably the most intimate quartet in the cycle. If there were a season for all things, then Shostakovich's Fifteenth Quartet would dwell in the darkness of mid-winter. The profound melancholy of the music is akin to a requiem. Shostakovich's concern with death is clearer here than in any other earlier chamber work.

Beethoven concluded his cycle of quartets with the transcendental question 'Muss es sein?' (must it be?). Shostakovich's answer, like Beethoven's, seems also to be a yes - 'Es muss so sein!' (it has to be!); but only because there is no alternative; nor could there ever have been an alternative. Everything had to be the way it was. Shostakovich's Fifteenth Quartet embodies a Spinozian fatalism. And this work, like the personality of that once defiled philosopher, is loveable, restrained and supremely stoic.

The Quartet no. 15, Shostakovich's final and longest string quartet, was started in February 1974 and completed three months later in a Moscow hospital on 17th May. 1974. The quartet is written in the mysterious but traditionally morbid key of E flat minor and bears no dedication.

The Fifteenth Quartet has six movements1:

  1. Elegy – Adagio, attacca
  2. Serenade – Adagio , attacca
  3. Intermezzo – Adagio, attacca
  4. Nocturne – Adagio, attacca
  5. Funeral March – Adagio molto, attacca
  6. Epilogue – Adagio

All of the movements are in the key of E flat minor; all are marked adagio; all flow seamlessly into one another.

Play the first movement so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience leaves the hall out of sheer boredom.

were Shostakovich's strange instructions for its performance2, but his advice can be understood when the movement is heard. The elegy is sombre, unhurried and peaceful. It starts with a fugue, but this quickly ceases after all four voices have been heard. The second theme is in C major and suggests the innocence of the first quartet. But the music seems not to progress. It seems that time has ceased; that we are in a platonic world of perfection and beauty, where change is impossible; an incorruptible world of motionless eternity.

The opening of the next movement, the serenade, remains indelibly in the memory. The motionless world of the elegy is scattered by four sets of three searing cries that break out one after another from the first and second violin and the viola. The first is in B flat and refers back to the Thirteenth Quartet which ended on a similarly sustained pitch. Each, equal in duration, start ppp and expand to sffff. Are they screams of anguish? Their significance is not revealed but their effect is to introduce change and motion; time is moving again. These cries recur during the movement, before a tortured waltz appears. Then the next movement begins, an intermezzo, introduced through a deep pedal, and a dramatic solo violin cadenza occurs before the nocturne emerges. A simple march rhythm becomes apparent which leads to the funeral march. Slowly, however, the passion subsides and the final movement, the epilogue, begins. This movement based on the final eight bars of the first recalls its sense of timelessness although without making reference to its fugue. The music, depleted of energy, culminates in a fateful and bleak viola solo only to terminate in a despairing morendo3.

Richard N. Burke makes the interesting suggestion4 that the fifteenth quartet is constructed as a chronological narrative. Beginning with the second movement the passage of life is recorded; the serenade which typically represents youth and hope is followed, after an intermezzo, by the nocturne of old age and finally by death. After burial, depicted by the funeral march, the protagonist would be remembered in an epilogue and an elegy. In Burke's interpretation Shostakovich has placed this elegy at the beginning of the work as an analepsis or cinematic flashback which gives meaning to the final moments of the epilogue. The twelve cries on the two violins and viola at the beginning of the serenade serve to destroy the peace of the elegy and mark the transition to the remaining section of the quartet.

Burke's idea is attractive because it recalls Shostakovich's familiarity with the movies both as a young cinema pianist and later as a composer of film music5. But the idea is confined to technique. The meaning of those twelve screams and in particular the first, the B flat, which recalls the death and murder themes of the Thirteenth Quartet, remains open. As for the question who the protagonist of the piece might be, Shostakovich's contemporaries were in no doubt that the composer meant it to be himself 6.

Approximate 35 minutes in length, the work is unforgettably death-bonded. We sense that these are the composer's final words and that the whole cycle of quartets has terminated. We have travelled from the innocence of the first quartet into a world full of memories, pain, resignation, peace and death. Significantly too, but only to be expected from this composer, we know that with the key signature of six flats we cannot travel any further: we are now at the greatest tonal distant from the C major of the first quartet; the journey took 36 years.

The quartet had its première on the 15th November 1974 at the Leningrad Composers‘ Club, with Shostakovich present. It was performed by the Taneyev Quartet (Vladimir Ovcharek, Grigori Lutsky, Vissarion Soloviev and Josif Levinzon) 7. Thus along with the first quartet it is distinguished by not having been first presented by the Beethoven Quartet. This break with tradition was due to the sudden death of the cellist Sergei Shirinsky on the 18th October 1974 shortly before the planned première by the Beethoven Quartet 8. They did however give the first Moscow performance on the 11th January 1975 and it was to them that Shostakovich gave his instructions for the first movement. The autographed score of the quartet is preserved in the Shostakovich family archive.

Despite being terminally ill, Shostakovich found the energy to attend all the rehearsals for the première of Vainberg's opera, The Madonna and the Soldier, in February and March of 1975. But at the end of March he was again hospitalised and after a short period of convalescing in April and May was back in hospital in July. There he died at 6:30 pm on 9 August 1975. The funeral took place five days later 9.

He is buried close to his first wife Nina in the prestigious Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. Near its south-east wall stands a dark grey stone marking the grave. Inscribed under a rather incongruous cross 10 is his name Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович ; the years of his birth and death, 1906 and 1975; and his persistent four note motif D, E-flat, C and B.

Shostakovich's grave in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow

Moscow, Novodevichy Cemetery, Section 2, Lot 39, Grave 7

Closing Image:

Shostakovich's grave. Source: Stephen Harris 2008


  1. Wendy Lesser uses Shostakovich's descriptions for the movements of the Fifteenth Quartet for the titles of the six chapters in her highly recommended book Music for silenced voices: Shostakovich and his fifteenth quartets (Yale University Press, 2011). back

  2. Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 470 back

  3. A very comprehensive analysis of the fifteenth quartet can be found in Jonathan Drury, 'Traditionalism in Shostakovich's Fifteenth String Quartet', South African Journal of Musicology, 10 (1990) 9-32. back

  4. Richard N. Burke, 'Film, narrative, and Shostakovich's last quartet', The Musical Quarterly, 83:3 (1999) 413-429. back

  5. Shostakovich wrote the scores to 36 films starting with New Babylon premièred 18 March 1929 and ending with King Lear premièred 4 February 1971. John Riley's book "Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film" (London: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2005) details all these works. back

  6. The use in all six movements of E flat (es or simply S in German notation) is not a reference to the composer's surname as the pronunciation of the Cyrillic letter Ш is best represent by the combination of of S, C and H back

  7. Shostakovich had maintained a close relationship with the Taneyev Quartet over a number of years. According to their first violinist, Vladimir Ovcharek, Shostakovich had sent them copies of his quartets, starting with the Fourth, allowing the Taneyev Quartet to perform them immediately after the Beethoven Quartet had given the première. See Wilson, Shostakovich, p. 443. back

  8. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.281. back

  9. A detailed description of the funeral is given in Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 472-76. back

  10. Although there is more than a trace of existential nihilism in the final passages of Shostakovich’s final symphony, his Fifteenth, the ending of his Fourteenth Symphony is generally considered to be the musical testament of Shostakovich's atheism. Once when Shostakovich was listening to a recording of Britten's War Requiem he was asked if he believed in God. His answer was unequivocal "No, and I am very sorry about it." L. Lebedinsky, 'Iz bessistemnïkh zapisey', Muzïkal'naya zhizn', (1993) 21-22; quoted in Fay, Shostakovich, p.263. fn.90. back