This January, a number of our concerts will feature Shostakovich's quartet no.12. Here are some of our thoughts about this work:
Shostakovich's quartet no.12 (1968) is sometimes described as the 'musicologist's favourite', which is probably because he introduces a fascinating new palette of colours into the work. The opening cello statement is a twelve-tone note-row, (a clear nod towards the serial techniques developed by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg). However, Shostakovich uses the key signature Db major, (serial works don't have key signatures!), so it becomes clear that he is not working within the rules of the more mathematically developed serial structures, but using twelve-tone material in a more traditional way, which pushes the work into a starker and unsettling sound world.
When Tsiganov, the leader of the Beethoven quartet questioned his use of the twelve-tone music, Shostakovich implied that it was nothing new, saying 'but one finds examples of it in Mozart's music'. There is probably some irony in Shostakovich's words, but we immediately thought of the opening of Mozart's 'Dissonance' quartet, where he introduces one by one, 11 of the 12 semitones, almost like a tone-row. And of course there was Zhdanov's decree that music should be 'melodious and graceful' - twelve-tone melodies were surely not what he had in mind!
One interesting feature of the first movement is that the 2nd violin is silent until it's entry in the 34th bar. This seems to be a homage to the original 2nd violinist of the Beethoven quartet who had died in 1965, (the 34th year of the quartet's career).**
This quartet is dedicated to Tsiganov the 1st violinist of the Beethoven quartet and the next two quartets, 13 and 14 are dedicated to the violist and cellist.
The 2nd movement is a monumental structure that treats the twelve-tone theme in an almost symphonic way, dramatically changing characters, mood, tempi and tone colours and the work ends in a rather triumphant and very conclusive fashion - one of the only quartets to do this. You can really feel a sense of anticipation and build-up, like the finales of some of Beethoven's works.
**As well as this, the work is also the only one that shares an opus number with a Beethoven quartet - op.133, his 'Grosse Fuge. Plus, is it just a coincidence that the 12th quartet introduces use of 'twelve-tone' music!?