The Moscow Show Trial of the Twenty-One occurred in March, 1938. It was one of the culminating events of Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936 through 1938. All of the defendants were prominent, and were accused as Trotskyites guilty of murder, assassination, and treason. Particularly prominent amongst them was Nikolai Bukharin, former ally of Lenin and Stalin and member of the Politburo. All were convicted. Bukharin, who was shot, was, according to one account, first forced to watch the execution of sixteen of the others.
Shostakovich’s first quartet was written in the summer of 1938, about a year after the composition of the Fifth Symphony, which restored him to official favour after having fallen from it in 1936. Shostakovich’s second child, and son, Maxim, was born on May 10, 1938. There is more to this quartet than immediately meets the ear.
First, there is the selection of tempi – a moderato in three, followed by a moderato that sounds slower because it is in two, then a furious allegro molto, as fast as possible, and then a slight relaxation into a concluding allegro.
The use of repeated notes, that is, the ostinato of iteration, whether the pulse is regular or accelerated, is frequent. The quartet opens with three chords on C, somewhat reminiscent of the three-note figure in the Fifth Symphony, which end always as an incomplete phrase, and in the finale, as an ironic reaffirmation of uncertain closure. But in the quartet the repetitions resolve themselves. Even as soon as the third chord of the opening, the ‘cello begins to move into a commentary that is most frequently a counter-weight to the lyrical wanderings of the first violin. This weight is emphasized from time to time by the use of double-stopping or glissandi. The inner parts are often restrained to emphasis of the triple meter, but in diminished note values, typically eighth notes, six to the bar, rather than quarter notes, three to the bar. The viola, in particular, is obsessively given the note G to repeat, almost to the point of exhaustion. The pulse of the music changes to four towards the end of the movement, but the repetition of notes continues, and with the return, for the conclusion, to triple meter has the first violin now obsessing with repeated notes, six to the bar, over the ‘cello’s final lyrical contemplation, which subsides into an extended double-stop sounded heavily during the final twelve bars.
In sudden contrast, the second movement is sounded around the voice of the viola, which seems to recall aspects of remembrances both through the introspective nature of its tone and a distant recollection of time past through the theme’s folkloric characteristics. For the melody, in the form of seven variations, insists on itself throughout. Michael Parloff, in one of his lectures on the quartets, points out the theme first appears, on viola, when the opening credits roll in Lev Arnshtam’s 1936 film, Girl Friends, which Shostakovich scored in the year before his denunciation.
The allegro molto, which, in addition to being played as fast as possible, has the strings muted throughout, instantly removes this need for reflection and returns to the insistence of the present, again with a compulsive use of repeated notes, six to the triple meter, if this time on the note G#, again in the viola, although this time the note is permitted to wander, as if in an approaching panic, up and down and into double-stops; until repetition gives way to oscillation, which in turn is slowed to a figuration of half note followed by quarter, for many bars, in block chords that imply a type or sense of imposed serenity. The entire pattern—repetition, oscillation, augmentation—is then repeated in brief, with the oscillation winning out.
And it is this oscillation that opens the final movement, with the first violin endeavouring to find a way through by means of unconvinced jauntiness, a hard wandering into harsher harmonies that are single-, double-, triple-, and quadruple-stopped. But the repetition recurs, in all of its earlier formats and tempi, until the pace quickens with the employment of cut time, as if reviewing the material with a haste now somewhat approaching the desperate, to bring the movement, and the quartet, to a conclusion with the now inevitable three-note figures.
In my poem, Shostakovich in Peace River, published in Toronto’s Descant 167, and which concludes The Underside of Time segment of the third part of my book, Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden, this quartet is described as “Modulants expérimentaux près des thinning peripheries of tenebrosity.”