Soviet composers had been advised to ideally include folk music in their compositions. When you hear the last movement of this quartet 'Allegretto' and in particular Shostakovich's use of Jewish folk melodies, it becomes clear that this was probably not what Stalin had in mind! (There was also a major upsurge in anti-semitic campaigning throughout 1948 and several of Shostakovich's works including the song cycle 'From Jewish Folk Poetry' and the first violin concerto were withheld from public performance until 1955.)
At the beginning of 1948 Shostakovich, along with some other prominent composers, was officially accused of 'Formalism'. Many of Shostakovich's works were thought by the authorities to display “cynical, pernicious grotesquerie, the tone of relentless mockery and ridicule, emphasis on the ugliness and cruelty of life, the cold irony of stylisation”.
Shostakovich made a contrite public apology, expressed his gratitude to the Party for condemning his errors, and pledged to write more accessible music. The music he was composing at that time may have illustrated his truer feelings however!
The first movement in many ways is quite troubling. Although it opens in a fairly benign manner, quite quickly the movement crescendos to a dissonant and seemingly angry climax, with clashing harmonies and a powerful drone. The movement never quite recovers from this, descending into a melancholy waltz-like section. There is a story of the Borodin Quartet 'auditioning' this work before the 'Ministry of Culture' to see if a public performance might be possible - not an easy job to perform this movement in an optimistic or uplifting way!
In this quartet there is often a feeling that we're singing a message through our instruments. This is especially the case in what is in many ways the heart of the work, the 2nd movement 'Andantino', which contains some of the most beautiful and intimate music, but also anxiety-ridden and with deep sadness.
The 3rd movement 'Allegretto' is a fast paced scherzo-dance, verging on the manic and grotesque, which about half-way through introduces a galloping 'William Tell' - like motif. Whenever we play this theme, it seems like Shostakovich is invoking a sense of irony (a similar theme comes again in quartet no.9), but more of the story and the emotional pull of this quartet can perhaps be explained by Shostakovich's dedication. Quartet no.4 is dedicated to Pyotr Vilyams, an artist and set designer for the Bolshoi theatre. (He had earned a Stalin Prize for his 1942 production of Rossini's 'William Tell'.) Vilyams had died in late 1947, aged 45 - he and his wife Nina were very close friends of the Shostakovich family.
The finale could perhaps be considered a highlight of the whole quartet cycle. Shostakovich brilliantly fuses the sadness of the second movement and the vitality of the third to produce a dramatic conclusion to the quartet. The use of Jewish dance motifs (as mentioned earlier) produces a movement full of excitement laced with lamentation. The pleading violin part combines at times with a pulsating oom-pah rhythm to produce an unforgettable blend of emotion. Solomon Volkov quotes Shostakovich as saying:
'This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my idea of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express their despair in dance music.'
This is extraordinary music full of power and pathos, especially the magical ending, which leaves us all full of questions.
We hope you enjoy our performances of this and other Shostakovich quartets in the coming months!