Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975), String Quartet No. 6 in G Major, Opus 101

After another successful Book Salon on Tuesday, June 18th focusing on Shostakovich and the book “The Noise of Time” (by Julian Barnes), David Yang thought it would be timely to include the program note for Shostakovich’s 6th String Quartet featured on the festival this summer.

I. Allegretto
II. Moderato con moto
III. Lento
IV. Lento – Allegretto

There are periods in one’s life, even decades, punctuated by loss. Shostakovich’s sixth quartet was written during such a time. His first wife (and second – they divorced and remarried), physicist Nina Varzar, collapsed and died suddenly on a trip to the Caucasus in 1954; in 1955 the composer’s mother passed away. Two years before this, his colleague Sergei Prokofiev had died; in one of history’s great ironies, Stalin (Prokofiev and Shostakovich’s tormentor) died the same day.

It was in this context that Shostakovich, having celebrated his 50th birthday, met Margarita Kainova, a 32-year-old party official. They married quickly, surprising his friends, and the 6th quartet was written on their honeymoon to the Gulf of Finland between August 7th and 31st in 1956 (exactly 62 years ago). Despite his marriage, given the events of the last few years, one could be excused for expecting the usual bleak Shostakovich fare. However, this is a playful work that shows an optimism we don’t usually associate with the depressed Russian master. These were happy days and the music reflects that – or does it?

In pieces with which he identified strongly, Shostakovich would use his initials in a kind of musical autobiographical gesture (DSCH, for Dmitri SCHostakovich corresponds in German to the notes D, E-flat, C, and B). This is most famously employed in the 8th quartet as a veiled statement of his suffering at the hands of the Soviet authorities. In the 6th quartet, instead of using these pitches in a melody, he stacked them in a chord for an unsettling cadence which ends each movement.

The 6th quartet starts with a sunny movement full of nursery rhymes followed by a simple dance-like second movement. However, the entire work is anchored by the bleak third movement. Here he briefly quotes a folk melody used in Prokofiev’s second quartet, a love song from the Caucasus region in South-Western Russia. Not unlike a product placement in a movie, the ever-pragmatic Prokofiev was forced to pull this kind of stunt to please his handlers in Moscow with a good “proletariat” tune. But why would Shostakovich drop in this brief quote? And for whom was the love song intended?  His new wife? Or could it possibly be his first wife, Nina, who had died so suddenly in the same region where Prokofiev’s theme was from? As Stephen Harris notes in his analysis: Listened to in this way Shostakovich’s Lento ceases to express any resigned contentment but is seen to be a lament. A lament for his dead fellow-composer; for his murdered friends; for his first wife and perhaps, considering the signature in the closing cadence, for himself. The marriage lasted three years.
David Yang, Artistic Director

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