Listening to instruments of the orchestra – Strings

Posted on March 19, 2012

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Shostakovich – string quartets

In the last few days I have been listening to Shostakovich’s string quartets. It has been a truly gripping experience, a feeling of intimate closeness with the composer, much like a journey side by side with his person struggling with contrasting emotions. The string quartets tell us what words would not be able to describe about the modern artist living in an era of oppression of everything that was more elaborate and multifaceted compared to the “official opinion”. He was an artist who cold not be ignored by the political elite, so he was always forced to take a position. However, he could not express a free and truly dialectic opinion in his music about contrasting elements of history and society, as this would have been regarded as “inappropriate“ by the political regime. Apparently, the string quartet format provided Shostakovich a more intimate and free form of expression as compared to his symphonies, being less vigilantly over watched by his critiques at the Pravda.

There are fifteen string quartets composed by Shostakovich, the same number as his symphonies. The basic tonality of the quartets is different each time, following a structure somewhat similar to the one used by J.S. Bach when he composed his cycle of keyboard preludes and fugues entitled The well-tempered clavier. So it would have come to a total of 24 pieces if Shostakovich could finish them all. However, the succession of the pieces was not following strictly the logical pathway, some “errors” being introduced by the composer, giving rise to much speculation about the possible semantic meanings of the cycle as a whole.

The music is based on contrasting elements of light and darkness: vibrant and passionate passages alternating with melancholic moments. The string quartet seems to be the perfect medium to represent such duality, with the cello and viola being able to provide a shady background for the melancholic bits as well as the necessary pulsation and energy for the passionate sequences. The melodies played by the violins are in constant movement between harmonic and dissonant, depending on the emotional content of the music. The contrast is present at every level of the composition from single measures to movements, to entire quartets and, perhaps, to the complete cycle of the fifteen string quartets, as perhaps the early quartets are “lighter” than the later ones.. Low tones alternate with high ones, pianissimo with fortissimo, slow rhythm with fast, staccato with legato, explosion with inhibition. However, there are at least a couple of things that are constant i.e. the tension generated by oscillating between opposing poles and the emotional intensity of the pieces, giving rise to a pervasive sense of beauty.

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Posted in: Part 1