Quartet no.4

String Quartet No.4 in D major, op.83
  1. Allegretto
  2. Andantino
  3. Allegretto
  4. Finale-Allegretto

Looking at the score, the Fourth Quartet appears a relatively simple and straight-forward work: three apparently light Allegretto movements and an Andantino slow movement. Indeed, the Quartet starts with a kind of mock innocence, its bare fifths and crudely simple harmonic language suggesting something pastoral – reflecting, perhaps, Socialist Realist art's typical celebration of rural Russia and her folk traditions. Yet increasingly sour notes are sounded, suggesting all is not well with this studied simplicity. After this relatively brief Allegretto follows a beautiful slow movement – gentle and almost consoling at first in character, but curdling as it touches a deeper expressive vein; the first violin rises in keen lament, drawing its colleagues into a higher tessitura, before the music subsides into noble resignation. The next movement is a furtive scherzo, its nervous bustling and scampering suggesting the preparation of a major event. This leads without a break into the finale where, heralded with the pomp of resonant pizzicato chords, a theme of a patently Jewish character takes centre stage. Shostakovich had already made use of Jewish themes in several previous works including his Second Quartet. But using such a theme in 1949 was controversial in Stalinist Russia, since among official circles anti-Semitism was on the rise and was to reach its culmination in the so-called Doctor's Plot. Shostakovich, as a close friend of the Jewish refugee composer Moisey Weinberg, was aware of this rising tide, and as a gesture of empathy with this persecuted minority, created several works – including the First Violin Concerto, and most overtly in the song cycle From Jewish Poetry – in which he made quotation or allusion to their music, once explaining: “Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music.”

Note by Daniel Jaffe

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