The 11th quartet is an extraordinary and rather cryptic work in which Shostakovich departs from the usual 4 movement structure and instead writes 7 shorter movements (or 'minatures'), all played without a break. The titles, Introduction, Scherzo, Recitative, Etude, Humoresque, Elegy & Finale, only tell half the story. On first listening the work can sound sparse and disjointed, but perhaps this reflects the background of the quartet. It is dedicated to the memory of Vasily Shirinsky, the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet (who premiered most of Shostakovich's quartets). Vasily had been a great friend to Shostakovich and his death came as a severe shock. The quartet considered disbanding (they probably felt similarly disjointed at the time), but Shostakovich urged them to continue and wrote them this new quartet.
The 7 movements are bound together by a motif first introduced on the cello. The motif is based around one single note (an F#), and when playing it there is a sense that the music is trying to get going, only to fail time and time again. The titles of the movements often seem contradictory to their mood. The Scherzo feels far from happy or light and quickly evaporates until all that remains is a low held C in the viola. Similarly, the Humoresque, far from providing light relief, sees the second violin repeatedly mimicking a cuckoo call, perhaps a reference to the old Russian superstition that the number of calls represents the remaining years of life. The Elegy provides the emotional heart of the work and it is hard not to feel the fullness of the sense of loss. The second violin solo that leads into the Finale is played con sordino and is an echo of the first violin melody, as if Shirinsky's ghost is present. The quartet ends with the first violin holding a top c for almost 30 seconds and it can be interpreted in many ways; a ghostly note fading into oblivion, a spirit rising up on it's final journey or a distant cry of anguish and pain. However the last note is played, there is no escaping the immense effect Shirinsky's death had on those around him, and the premiere of the quartet was to have far reaching consequences for Shostakovich's already poor health. The premier took place on May 28th 1966. Shostakovich was to perform in the first half and wrote to his friend Glikman of his terrible nerves.
'When I think that the concert is not that far off, my right hand starts to go on strike altogether.'
The concert was a success with the new eleventh quartet encored, but the extreme nervous tension had taken its toll and Shostakovich was taken ill that night. Shostakovich had in fact suffered a heart attack and although not fatal he was never to fully recover. Some have suggested that it was that night that saw the start of Shostakovich's slow descent to death.