Shostakovich’s String Quartet no 8
One of the first works ever discussed in one of my first ever university music lectures was Shostakovich’s String Quartet no 8. It had never occurred to me before then that someone could have a musical signature. (I don’t want to go into German note names here, so for the uninitiated I’ll just say that this particular system of naming notes allows Shostakovich to create a musical motif which spells out his initials.) Though the meaning is sometimes debated, the work is dedicated to the “victims of fascism and war,” and already there in that lecture theatre the emotion and power of this work grabbed me.
A couple of years later I was given the opportunity to perform this work, in its chamber orchestra arrangement by Rudolf Barshai. The director of this ensemble pushed me to work harder than I’d ever worked before; the rehearsal process, in which our director demanded the highest technical standard and emotional commitment, was one of the most rewarding yet draining musical experiences of my young life.
It was through performing Shostakovich that I realised how rewarding playing inner voices can be. In my opinion Shostakovich is one of those composers who writes really great second violin parts – technically challenging, harmonically interesting, with little moments here and there to come to the fore. When I was later given the opportunity to perform this same work as a member of the first violins, I missed the gritty, grounded feeling and harmonic richness of the second violin part. (I once heard an excellent orchestral violinist, who’d been asked to play first violin in a quartet, describe herself as a career second violinist. Finally, I could relate to that sentiment.)
The Borodin Quartet is known for having worked with Shostakovich on all of his quartets. The Quartet still possesses scores with notes from those early rehearsals with the composer, and as members have changed, the old wisdom has been passed down. Though the Quartet admits their interpretations do not remain stagnant, how fascinating to get a little glimpse into how the composer may have envisaged one of my favourite works of chamber music.