My poem with images on the fifteen string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich has now appeared in the final issue, the 167th, of Toronto’s Descant, an issue likely to become a collector’s item. There may be a few left on bookstore shelves.
The poem, titled “Shostakovich in Peace River,” concludes “The Underside of Time,” which is the middle section of Golden Shadows, the third part of my book Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden.
I was 27 when Shostakovich died in 1975, so he was a living composer to me, the last, I often think, of the great symphonists in the classical tradition. Stravinsky had died in 1971, Prokofiev, on the same day as Stalin, in 1953. The last six symphonies and twelve of the fifteen string quartets were written during my lifetime. Symphony 14, written in 1969, I heard performed as a major work in Toronto as early as 1988.
Art is of its time, and of its place. Though music may be termed absolute, that is largely because it speaks with sounds that are not words. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, though in that sense absolute, is nonetheless a treatise on how even temperament expands music into a greater range of keys, and thus changes the nature of music conclusively. Without Bach, there is not the Beethoven we know. And without Beethoven, there is no Wagner.
Like Beethoven, Shostakovich in his later years moved not entirely away from symphonic and other orchestral composing, but wrote increasingly more frequently for the string quartet, that performance group that provides the clearest, most compelling medium for the delivery and enunciation of musical ideas. It has intimacy without unnecessary grandeur; breadth and depth without percussive storm. It has the ability to transmit clarity without needing the hearer to fully understand; it permits the working out of ideas with a transparency that can fill itself with longing and fulfilment; and so place before the hearer the possibility of transfiguration, and the limitations of life within death.
As an example. The 8th string quartet revolves around the allegro molto of its second movement, which is a duality of violence unconstrained, and uncontainable despair. It destroys the equilibrium of the listener, and so prepares him for the review that continues in the balance of the quartet. But the theme of this allegro is from the second piano trio, also a great work, but where the theme is more introspective, more restrained, not uncontrolled. And the sound, with its piano component, is more bartered than bare. With the four string players, it is now the wailing hurt of emotions caught in the vortex of confinement.
As I have written elsewhere, the impetus for the Golden Shadows section of Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden was clearly precipitated by an April, 2011 trip to San Francisco, which re-awakened the stimulus of the city and its connection with artistic undertaking and its dense collection of the varieties in life.
I found part of an answer regarding content and structure in Gustav Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, the first Deryck Cooke performing version of which, recorded by Eugene Ormandy, I purchased as long ago as October, 1966, in Ottawa; and the score to the adagio of which I purchased several years later in Montréal. How the book came to be overlain with Mahler’s Tenth Symphony is due to finding, in San Francisco’s City Lights, Norman Lebrecht’s excellent book on the composer, Why Mahler?
The propulsive motivation from the Lebrecht book was flautist Gareth Davies’s observation, upon having returned to performance after recovering from cancer, on the flute solo that comes in the opening section of the finale of the symphony:
Two bars before the flute solo, where the horns almost pre-echo the opening phrase, I felt completely isolated, almost as if on a thin mountain ridge with a drop either side—perhaps even with life on one side and death on the other. The music searches for peace and finally as it drops down, for me I felt a sense of acceptance of what will be. — Gareth Davies, in Norman Lebrecht’s Why Mahler?, p. 246.
Intertwined with these, and specifically with an “acceptance of what will be,” was my own background in Leiden, where I was born. During the composition of the contents of my book, the Dickens of Bleak House and, to a lesser extent, of Little Dorrit was a supplementary influence, and my mind also returned to Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus—and, as it came about, to a re-examination of the symphonies of Shostakovich, which had made such an impression on me, on long winter walks in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, where I served for several years as a municipal chief administrative officer, and later, when in a similar capacity, this was coupled with a study, on long winter walks in Peace River, Alberta, of his extraordinary 15 string quartets.
As I have also written elsewhere, it was revelatory studying these string quartets on winter walks along the river. The warmer waters of the Smoky River empty into the Peace, and at sunrise raise fog, through which the morning sun shines with great brilliance. Some days the trees are beautiful with frost, the ravens ink black against the snow, the waxwings an elegiac grey against the shrubbery at riverside.
Around the same time I also re-read Wendy Lesser‘s book on the string quartets of Shostakovich, Music for Silenced Voices, which I had also found at City Lights in San Francisco.
I returned to Vancouver in the spring of 2015, and, as good fortune would have it, the fabled Borodin Quartet, with its profound relationship to Shostakovich, was to perform the entire cycle of quartets.
On May 5th, at the Vancouver Playhouse, the Quartet played the first three string quartets. I learned that the request to repeat the playing of the cycle given here in 1969 came from the Quartet, not from the sponsoring Friends of Chamber Music. This will be the only venue the Quartet will play the cycle in this, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the original Quartet. They are musicians of the highest order, and lock themselves inside the music during their performance of it. The first concert concluded with the 3rd quartet, with its two concluding movements filled with profound retrospection. The hall was about two-thirds full, largely aged, and intensely attentive and appreciative. A standing ovation was given. I was able to sit in the first row, and hear everything I knew how to hear.
The series resumed on May 7th with the 4th quartet and a transfigurative playing of the 5th; and, during the DSCH cadences on the ‘cello at the conclusion of each movement of the 6th, one could swear the ghost of the composer arose, standing between the violist and the ‘cellist. All this music has mysteries, and it will take a great deal more to better understand it.
On May 9th, the works were the 7th, 8th, and 9th quartets, all excellently interpreted. These are all works of astonishing invention and technical demand, and require the most intense and assured musicianship and emotional sensitivity. The Quartet did not fail them. Not the savage recollection in the allegro molto of the 8th quartet, nor the sustained concentration of the 9th, nor the compression of love and loss in the 7th.
The concert of May 11th was inspired, the performers impassioned by their interlocution between the composer and his audience. The 10th quartet was a complete musical world infused with a wholeness of intellectual and emotional communication; the 11th unrelentingly compelling; and, the 12th, darkness and light the 12th, darkness and light made audible and touchingly momentous. In my mind, the best concert so far in the series, and the playing of the 10th quartet unequalled.
At the reception after the concert of May 9th I had the opportunity to meet each of the performers—Ruben Aharonian, the superb and astonishing first violin; Sergei Lomovsky, the incredibly fine second violin; Igor Naidin, the impeccable violist; and, ‘cellist Vladimir Balshin, who draws incomparable beauty, subtlety, and expressivity from his instrument and from the music through his playing. Mr. Aharonian met Shostakovich in 1973, and I asked of this, and Mr. Aharonian was gracious to retell the vignette. It is, in its way, telling of our humanity to shake the hand of one who has spoken to the composer, and to bring one, however minutely, closer to him. But I Ieft the theatre elated, by this, by the performers, and by the music. And so I remain.
The Borodin Quartet played the fifth and last concert of the Shostakovich cycle on May 13th. The last and 15th quartet was played in candlelight, as if it were, and may well be, a self-composed requiem written by the composer in his final months, terminally ill. The snuffing of the candles after the last notes had sounded, and a request by the players for no applause at the work’s conclusion, left only the smoke from the extinguished candles rising to the ceiling of the theatre.
When the Quartet did return to the stage, it was to a thunderous standing ovation, and the Quartet gave as an encore the first movement of the 1st quartet. It was very fitting, and set the essence, I would even say the truth, of the cycle in motion once again.
That night I could not sleep. All that I heard was music.