Shostakovich String Quartet No. 1 in C-Major, Op. 49

Tracy Engman Finkelshteyn, Violin

John Helmich, Violin

Roslyn Green, Viola

George Work, Cello

Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a Soviet-era Russian composer. He lived the majority of his life under the watchful eye of the Soviet Union who kept him on a tight leash. Constantly under scrutiny from his government, he did his best to please the government as well as attempting to develop his own style. Shostakovich’s music has a very distinct sound, but this was not easy for him to achieve. One prominent example of his sound is seen in his Fourth Symphony. This was a monumental work that he decided to withdraw before its scheduled premier. Although he never explained why, many musicologists have surmised that the symphony would have brought him under intense scrutiny from the Soviet government. The work was daring and different. When it was composed, the Soviet government had been cracking down on art that was not “Russian” enough. Shostakovich was not in good standing with the Soviet government at this time, and feared what they might do to him, whether it be his career or his life. He wrote his Fifth Symphony soon after which put him back in good standing with the Soviet government due to it being a much more conservative work than the fourth.

Shostakovich was 31 when he wrote his first string quartet; a rather late age for composers to write their first. In it, there are not nearly as many of the striking dissonances that his music has come to be known for. Conversely, it is filled with nostalgia for the Romantic period. The first movement is rather wistful with a single instrument playing the melody and others providing accompaniment in the conventional sonata-allegro form. The second movement begins with the viola playing a folk-like melody that undergoes multiple variations throughout the movement before concluding with a restatement of the melody. The third movement is more daring than the others, but compared to Shostakovich’s other works, rather tame. The strings are muted and the movement features a modified version of the classical scherzo-trio form, ending with the two sections blending together. The final movement also follows the sonata-allegro form, but the sense of key is lost throughout until finally returning us to the key of C-Major in a triumphant ending. As a study in the string quartet genre and never intended to be published, Shostakovich fully realized the work into a staple of the repertoire that is beloved by both audiences and performers today.