Saturday, November 13, 2010

Shostakovich - String Quartets 4 & 5 (Manhattan String Quartet)

"The monstrous disharmony of war has come to an end. Henceforth, the fingers of violinists will lay down the machine guns they have been gripping, and will again touch the obedient, singing strings of their violins-touch them with inspiration. Now sounds the bright melody of peace and creative work." - Dimitri Shostakovich

Yet things would not be as optimistic as Shostakovich, and many other Russian artists, composers, and film-makers would have hoped. These quartets, written during the period between 1946 - 1952, proved to be a dark one in Soviet History. Having already endured the pre-war purges and the grist-mill of WWII, artists hoped that the return to peace and security would allow Stalin and his cultural commissars to ease their grip on artists.
This did not prove to be the case, and millions were sent to Siberian labor camps, had their lives, families, and careers destroyed, under the cultural scrutiny of Andrei Zhdanov. In this climate, Shostakovich would not dare to undertake any symphonies or grandiose statements, having already been flogged by the critics for formalism, pretentiousness, modernism. Shostakovich served as a favored whipping post against the avant-garde, and other forms of 'dissident' thought.
During this period, Shostakovich frequently turned to string quartets and film music, which were considered minor and of less consequence, and thus paid less attention to. In these outlets, he would rage and poke fun, declaim his unbent spirit against totalitarian regimes, like 'signing' his work with his trademark 'DSCh' theme, a sequence of D, E flat, C, B natural, as notated in German, and standing for the composer's initials. This music is private and haunting, explosive and contemplative. It serves as a sort of diary, of a unique and troubling period in Human history, written by a man well-familiar with his emotional landscapes, and an eloquent tongue and pen, to set it down for all time.
Shostakovich's string quartets have been a personal favorite. The string quartet is one of my favorite instrumental combos, small and focused and intimate, allowing the performers to really vibe off each other, to reach soaring crescendoes of passion and revelation. I always find it invigorating, and thought-provoking to consider the risks that Shostakovich took, and the overwhelming urge to express himself and be true to his artistic vision. Often, i find his symphonies to be rather bloated and grandiose, as was expected of him, and of Soviet Realism. Militaristic, and democratic. Modern flourishes were considered self-aggrandizing, and degenerate. So he snuck it all in, in his quartets and film music.

I've been house sitting for a friend, during Nov. and have been allowed access to her music library. She plays cello, and played with a variety of New York ensembles, during the 80s and 90s. I offer this selection, to start, as its something i'm pretty familiar with, and i've been listening to a lot this week. I'm hoping to provide little slivers of insight and inspiration, in this space, pockets and corners of stories and lives. A brief glimpse behind the eyeballs, perhaps even a momentary consideration of what it is like to be someone else.

Music is all around us, every second of every day, and everybody seems to have their own passionate soundtrack. The idea of 'better' or 'best' seem to be rapidly disappearing, to be replaced by personal preference. Someone quietly murmuring, 'this is what its like to be me.'
I'm not really hoping to be authoritative, more like subjective or impressionistic, although i do hope to continue to hone my craft at writing, and making music of my own. I'm hoping to provide slivers of moments, melodies and moonbeams, pockets of prose and collected recollections.

ps... the file name is slightly misleading, as its only the 4th and 5th quartets, but the quality is super good! I hope you enjoy.


  1. Thanks, looks good. Oh, and if in that library you run across the Budapest Quartet playing late Beethoven, you know what to do.

  2. will do, duck! Thanks for the comment.

  3. Shostakovitch's comment is both seriously moving and irresistably tempting...not like bait in a trap but more to do with finally hearing truth in the voice of comfort...but the music is the clarion call to herald the ushering-in of the new, if only brief, harmony that is peace. Note for note, this is the proof that verifies Dimitri's sentiments. I consider this to be a gift that awaits every ear for its own acceptance. For, who among us doesn't know that 'war' is nothing but a costume word to clothe the nakedness of senseless killing? Thanks!