Copyright: Richard Edward Horner
December 2003

In memory of the author
of this paper

Many works were written for string quartet in the 20th century by renowned composers including Ravel, Debussy, Bartok, Alban Berg, and Shostakovich. Few of them have acheived the level of fame of Bartok's quartets, Alban Berg's Lyric Suite or Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet. Just as the Lyric Suite was a very personal and cryptographic work, so is Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet. Seemingly inextricably linked to rumor and controversy, this work stands as an important reminder and landmark in the history of Shostakovich, Russia, and the world.

The Eighth Quartet was composed during July of 1960. Stalin, whose history of interaction with Shostakovich is well known and documented elsewhere, had been dead for 7 years and Nikita Khrushchev was now the Soviet Premiere but this was still a hard time for Shostakovich. In fact, it was Khrushchev who caused quite an outpouring from Shostakovich. Isaak Glikman provides the following account of some pertinent events from 1960:

What follows is an account of the events preceding the composition of the Eighth Quartet.

During the last ten days of June 1960, Shostakovich came to Leningrad and stayed with his sister Mariya rather than at the Yevropeyskaya Hotel as he usually did. It became clear later that there was a reason for this.

On 28 June I paid Dmitry Dmitriyevich a short visit. He told me that he had recently written Five Satires to Words by Sasha Chorny, and he hoped to acquaint me with this new opus. But the following day - 29 June - Shostakovich called me early in the morning and asked me to come to see him urgently. The moment I saw him I was struck by the lines of suffering on his face, and by his whole air of distress. He hurried me straight into the little room where he had slept, crumped down on the bed and began to weep with great, aching sobs. I was extremely alarmed, imagining that some dreadful harm had befalled either him or someone in his family. In answer to my questioning, he managed through tears to jerk out indistinctly: 'They've been pursuing me for years, hunting me down . . .' Never before had I seen Shostakovich in such a state of hysterical collapse. I gave him a glass of cold water; he drank it down, his teeth chattering, then gradually calmed himself. However, it took about an hour for him to recover enough composure to tell me what had recently been happening in Moscow.

It had been decided on the initiative of Nikita Khrushchov to appoint Shostakovich President of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, but in order for him to take up the post he would have to become a member of the Party. The task of persuading him to take this step had been entrusted to P. N. Pospelov, a member of the Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Federation.

These are the exact words which Shostakovich said to me that June morning in 1960, at the height of the 'thaw': 'Pospelov tried everything he knew to persuade me to join the Party, in which, he said, these days one breathes freely and easily under Nikita Sergeyevich. Pospelov praised Khrushchov to the skies, talking about his youth -- yes, youth was the word he used -- telling me all about his wonderful plans, and about how it really was time I joined the ranks of a Party headed now not by Stalin but by Nikita Sergeyevich. I had almost lost the power of speech, but somehow managed to stammer out my unworthiness to accept such an honour. Clutching at straws, I said that I had never succeeding [sic] in properly grasping Marxism, and surely I ought to wait until I had. Next I pleaded my religious beliefs, and after that tried to argue that there was no overriding reason why a Composers' Union President had to be a Party member, citing Konstantin Fedin and Leonid Sobolev, who were non-Party members high up in the Writers' Union. But Pospelov would not hear of my objections, and mentioned several times Khruschchov's particular concern for the development of music, which he felt I had an obligation to support.

'This conversation completely exhaused me. Later, I had another meeting with Pospelov, when he renewed his efforts and once again simply backed me into a corner. In the end I lost my nerve, and just gave in.'

This account of what had transpired kept being interrupted by my agitated questions, and I reminded Shostakovich of the many times he had said to me that he would never join a Party that endorsed violence. After a long pause he went on: 'The Composers' Union soon got to know the outcome of my discussions with Pospelov, and someone or other cobbled together a statement which I was supposed to parrot at a meeting. But look, I absolutely decided I wasn't going to go to any meeting. I came up here to Leningrad on the quiet to stay with my sister and hide from my tormentors, still hoping that they would think better of it, they might feel some sympathy for me and leave me in peace. And I thought if that didn't happen, I could lock myself in up here and just sit it out. But then yesterday evening they sent telegrams to me demanding my return. But I'm not going, you see, they'll only get me to Moscow if they tie me up and drag me there, you understand, they'll have to tie me up.'

Saying these last words as if he were swearing an oath, Shostakovich suddenly became absolutely calm, as though by coming to this decision he had loosened the cord from around his neck. He had taken the first step: by not turning up at the session planned with so much pomp and ceremony, he would effectively neutralize it. Overjoyed at this resolve, I said goodbye and after promising to visit the recluse again in a few days' time, I went back out to the dacha my mother had rented in Zelenogorsk.

However, on 1 July, without waiting for my return visit, he suddenly arrived on the doorstep of the dacha late in the evening, clutching a bottle of vodka. It was raining. After a sleepless night with its attendant emotional upsets, he looked completely exhausted.

Dmitry Dmitriyevich had hardly crossed the threshold of our little cottage when he said: 'Please forgive me for coming so late. But I simply had to see you and share my troubles with you.' Little did I realize then that in a few week's' time he would be pouring out the troubles gnawing at his heart and unburdening his sould in the Eighth Quartet.

Once the vodka had begun its job of thawing him out, Shostakovich began to talk, not about the ill-fated meeting, but about the power of fate. He quoted a line from Pushkin's The Gipsies: 'There's no escaping from one's desinty.' Listening to him, I began to wonder unhappily if he were not even now preparing to submit to his fate, having seen that resistance was in vain and he would have eventually to yield. Sadly, this proved to be the case: the meeting, a tragic farce, was simply rearranged for a later date and Shostakovich, his face on fire with shame, read out the prepared statement announcing that he had been accepted into the Party. Thinking back to this episode, I cannot help remembering the title of a marvellous choral work by Shostakovich: Song of Victory. It could stand as an epigraph to the story of how he was forced to join the Communist Party.

The utter fearlessness Shostakovich exhibited in his creative and artistic life coexisted with the fear Stalin's terror had bred in him. Small wonder that, caught in the toils of years of spiritual enslavement, writing the autobiographical Eighth Quartet he gave such dramatic and heart-rending voice to the melody of the son 'Tormented by Grievous Bondage'. (Glikman 91-3)

In regards to Shostakovich's admittance to the communist party, Lev Lebedinsky recalls:

As the date of the meeting where Shostakovich was to be 'admitted to the Party ranks' drew near, Dmitri Dmitriyevich's life became a torment. He went up to Leningrad, where he hid in his sister's flat, as if escaping from his own conscience. I followed him there. The meeting was to take place the next morning in Moscow. Shostakovich was a tangle of nerves; he was so conditioned by fear that no logical argument or reasoning could reach him. In the end I literally physically restrained him from going to the station to take the night train, and forced him to send a telegram saying that he was ill.

Hence the widely publicized Party meeting was a flop because of the absence of . . . Shostakovich himself! The authorities had to resort to a deception, announcing that Shostakovich had been taken ill so suddenly that there was no time to notify all the invited Party members. Since an unprecedented number of people had gathered to witness Shostakovich's ultimate humiliation, in their eyes the cancellation of the Party meeting acquired the proportions of a major public scandal. They all formed the impression that Shostkovich was being pushed into the Party by force. (Wilson 336-7)

It's readily apparent from these accounts that Shostakovich was shaken. It was about this same time, probably 1959, that he was diagnosed with myelitis -- inflamation of the bone marrow or spinal cord. In a letter to Isaak Glikman dated 19 July 1960, Shostakovich provides one explanation for this Eighth Quartet:

I am now back from my trip to Dresden, and have been to see Lev Arnshtam's film Five Days and Five Nights. Much of it gave me great pleasure. Lyolya's goodness of heart absolutely shines through it, and that is the main quality of this film.

Dresden was an ideal set-up for getting down to creative work. I stayed in the spa town of Görlitz, which is just near a little place called Köningstein, about 40 kilometres from Dresden. A place of incredible beauty -- as it should be, the whole area being known as 'the Switzerland of Saxony'. The good workin conditions justified themselves: I composed my Eighth Quartet. As hard as I tried to rough out the film scores which I am supposed to be doing, I still haven't managed to get anywhere; instead I wrote this ideologically flawed quartet which is of no use to anybody. I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself. The title page could carry the dedication: 'To the memory of the composer of this quartet'. (Glikman 90-1)

Lev Lebedinsky poses another role Shostakovich may have intended for the quartet with this recolection:
The failure of his first attempt to join the Party throws light on the Eighth Quartet written during that period. The quartet begins with the composer's monogram, DSCH, followed by quotations from his earlier works, and ending with the folk dirge, 'Tormented by Grievous Bondage'. The composer dedicated the Quartet to the victims of fascism to disguise his intentions, although, as he considered himself a victim of a fascist regime, the dedication was apt. In fact he intended it as a summation of eveything he had written before. It was his farewell to life. He associated joining the Party with a moral, as well as physical death. On the day of his return from a trip to Dresden, where he had completed the Quartet and purchased a large number of sleeping pills, he played the Quartet to me on the piano and told me with tears in his eyes that it was his last work. He hinted at his intention to commit suicide. Perhaps subconsciously he hoped that I would save him. I managed to remove the pills from his jacket pocket and gave them to his son Maxim, explaining to him the true meaning of the Quartet. I pleaded with him never to let his father out of his sight. During the next few days I spent as much time as possible with Shostakovich until I felt that the danger of suicide had passed. (Wilson 340-1)

The Quartet's published dedication was clever in more ways than one. The Soviet Union approved of this dedication and it served to garner the work promotion. There really is no doubt that Shostakovich is the central figure in this quartet. Aside from the all important role of being the composer, almost all of the motivic material is generated either from Shostakovich's name or allusions to his works. As such, Shostakovich could be seen to be identifying himself to be a victim, especially when considering that, in the previously cited letter to Glikman, Shostakovich previously planned to dedicate the quartet, 'To the memory of the composer of this quartet'. (Glikman 91) Continuing on with that letter, Shostakovich wrote:

The basic theme of the quartet is the four notes D natural, E flat, C natural, B natural -- that is, my initials, D. SCH. The quartet also uses themes from some of my own compositions and the Revolutionary song 'Zamuchen tyazholoy neveolyey' ['Tormented by grievous bondage']. The themes from my own works are as follows: from the First Symphony, the Eighth Symphony, the [Second Piano] Trio, the Cello Concerto, and Lady Macbeth. There are hints of Wagner (the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung) and Tchaikovsky (the second subject of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony). Oh yes, I forgot to mention that there is something else of mine as well, from the Tenth Symphony. Quite a nice little hodge-podge, really. (Glikman 91)

Indeed, and it was composed in a mere three days. Shostakovich goes on to talk about the impending 'self-critical hangover' that was typical for him. He probably did not anticipate the piece becoming as loved, renowned and revered as it has. Aside from the works Shostakovich mentions in his letter to Glikman, there are also quotes or allusions to his Seventh Symphony, Eleventh Symphony and his score to the film The Young Guard.

The first movement begins with a fugal exposition on the DSCH monogram in the standard subject/answer, tonic/dominant format until all voices have entered. That is all of the fugue that is presented now, however. Beginning at measure 13 in the violins is the opening to Shostakovich's First Symphony, the work that vaulted him to fame at 19. Shostakovich even manages to weave an instance of his monogram in the second violin into this passage during this quote.

1st Symphony Excerpt

1st Symphony Quote

At measure 46 the first violin plays a rotation of the DSCH monogram while the cello plays the original version first heard at the beginning. Some sources argue that the continuation of the violin line is the continuum or unifying motif for the final scene of Lady Macbeth, but this does not appear to be the case. At measure 51, the first violin alludes to the first movement of the 7th Symphony and then the second violin does the same. The third note of the line is flatted as if it has been placed in the phrygian mode.

7th Symphony Excerpt

7th Symphony Quote

Beginning at measure 55 is the hint of Tchaikovsky in the first violin which Shostakovich had actually hinted at previously in his Fifth Symphony. Meanwhile, the second violin begins to play the Seventh Symphony allusion in its intervallically correct form. The complete allusion is seen in the second violin at measures 65-66.

Evgeny Mravinsky conducts the Leningrad Phil - Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony I - Excerpt

Rostropovich conducts the National Symphony Orchestra - Shostakovich 5th Symphony I - Excerpt

5th Symphony Allusion

The movement ends with a seemingly unresolved harmony.

The second movement begins with a texture reminiscient of the third movement of Shostakovich's Eight Symphony.

Bernard Haitink conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra - Shostakovich 8th Symphony III - Excerpt #1

8th Symphony Allusion #1

DSCH appears a number of times but then is played in quick succession by all four instruments across 4 octaves at measure 62 before several canon begin at measure 69 based on the DSCH monogram. The Eight Symphony type texture returns at measure 76 with the hits now on beat three.

Bernard Haitink conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra - Shostakovich 8th Symphony III - Excerpt #2

8th Symphony Allusion #2

Several transpositions and rotations of the monogram are presented before the quote from the Second Piano Trio appears at measure 126.

Argerich, Kremer, Maisky - Shostakovich Piano Trio #2 IV - Excerpt

Piano Trio Quote

Following the Piano Trio quote, there is development on the monogram and a new triplet figure before the Eight Symphony texture reappears at measure 233. Development on several ideas is heard from measure 289 until the Piano Trio material reappears at measure 324. This time, however, the roles are reversed as the violins are playing the arpeggios instead of the cello and viola. Meanwhile, the cello and viola are playing in higher registers than before so the heavy quality is now gone.

The second movement ends with abrupt silence which is broken by the third movement beginning with none-other-than the DSCH monogram. This leads into a waltz which is in a rondo form. The noteable quote, that of the First Cello Concerto, first appears at measure 140. The opening bars of the concerto are played but the first violin is playing the cello line.

1st Cello Concerto I - Excerpt

1st Cello Concerto Quote

Measure 152 begins a series of 78 parallel fifths which subside for 4 measures only to begin a new series of 116 parallel fifths from measures 169 to 188. All the previous ideas are restated and developed before the waltz dies down and ends on a very slow and subdued single line in the first violin.

The fourth movement begins with three jarring hits. What appears to be the Cello Concerto theme played in augmentation is inserted between instances of this brutal, three hit motif. While the pitch content mimicks that of the Cello Concerto theme, when presented in this augmented form, the quote can actually be traced to the film score for The Young Guard. In the Young Guard Suite, the only form in which the music is commercially available to the best of this author's knowledge, the progression appears in the Death of the Heroes movement. Unfortunately, the score to The Young Guard has never been published and the 42 volume collected works set includes only the overture.

Young Guard Suite - Death of the Heroes - Excerpt
Young Guard Quote

At measure 34 begins a quote from the third movement of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony before the music returns to that of the Cello Concerto and The Young Guard.

Rudolf Barshai conducts WDR Symphony Orchestra - Shostakovich Symphony 10 III - Excerpt

10th Symphony Quote

At measure 117 begins an allusion to Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony's third movement entitled Eternal Memory. This allusion has been presented in the minor mode as opposed to it's original major form.

Rudolf Barshai conducts WDR Symphony Orchestra - Shostakovic Symphony 11 III 'Eternal Memory' - Excerpt

11th Symphony Allusion

Following that is a most marvellous quote from Lady Macbeth. Beginning at measure 132, the cello plays Katerina's aria from the final act of the opera when she goes to see Sergei while they are both en route to prison in Siberia.

Myung-Whun Chung conducts Orchestre et Choeurs De L'Opera Bastille with Maria Ewing as Katerina - Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk Act IV - Excerpt

Lady Macbeth Quote

In English: "Seryozha! My dearest! At last, at last! I've gone the whole day without seeing you. Seryozha! Even the pain in my legs has gone and the tiredness, and the anguish. Everything's forgotten once I'm with you, Seryozha! Seryozha!"

Several instances of the Cello Concerto and Young Guard motives reappear to close out the movement.

The fifth movement is a fugue on the subject DSCH. The beginning is the exactly the same music as at measure 46 of the first movement. The countersubject for this fugue is the melody from the revolutionary song Shostakovich mentions in his letter to Glickman, 'Zamuchen tyazholoy nevolyey' or 'Tormented by grievous bondage'. Shostakovich's monogram is a member of set class (0134) which is set 4-3 in Forte's list. This set has 12 members, one for each transposition. In the first half of the fugue, Shostakovich visits all the keys that he needs to present the theme in to have sounded every transposition of his monogram in the quartet.

Fifth mvmt, first half
1st half of the fugue SCORE:

The melody to the revolutionary song is played alone and then followed by 4 voice stretto in a sort of counter-exposition beginning at measure 54.

Fifth mvmt, ending

Beginning at measure 71, the revolutionary song melody is played against a pedal point which is interrupted for an instance of DSCH. The final pedal recreates the end of the first movement. This time, however, the first violin line resolves as if the latter four movements of the quartet were all an interruption or prolongation.

Now that the details have been hammered out, the significance of the material should be looked at. The first thing the listener hears is Shostakovich's monogram. DSCH is, literally, the subject of the fugal exposition and the quartet itself. He even confirmed this in his statements that the quartet was autobiographical. The first quotes and allusions are from his First Symphony, Seventh Symphony and Fifth Symphony. So here are three of Shostakovich's most famous works, the one that vaulted him to fame, and two more very famous works whose creations were subject to Stalin's will.

For those who are unaware, an article appeared in Pravda January 1936 after Stalin saw, and was abhorred with, Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth. The article was believed to have come from Stalin himself. It stated that such formalist tendencies as those Shostakovich was engaging in could end very badly for the composer. Shostakovich was, understandably, terrified by this. The Fifth Symphony is subtitled 'a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism' and was his heroic creation for the appeasement of Stalin. Luckily, it served its purpose. The Seventh Symphony, 'Leningrad' was the result of Shostakovich being in the besieged city during the second World War. Stalin ordered him air lifted out of the surrounded and starving city, in part, so that he could write this heroic work.

Moving on to the second movement of the quartet, the allusion to the Eight Symphony has a very violent nature to it. It is juxtaposed with the quote from the Piano Trio. Now, the noticable flavor of this section of the Piano Trio is that of Jewish music. Before the more poignant implications of this are explained, perhaps it would be wise to first dispell a common rumor regarding this section. This section is often called a dance of death and people misinterpret it as being a reference to a song Jews sang in Nazi concentration camps. Even if this were the case, it could not have been Shostakovich's intent. The Second Piano Trio was written in 1944. At this time in the Soviet Union, the details of the Holocaust were not yet known. It's a simple matter of chronology.

Moving on to the actual implications of the quote's Jewishness, look again at Shostakovich's monogram DSCH. The four notes span a diminished fourth which is a very typical interval, especially in a four-note form, of Klezmer music. It is no secret that Jews were persecuted in Stalinist terrors and purges. As a result, many Jews hid their heritage by merely taking on other names. Interestingly enough, Lenin and all his early heads of state (Trotsky, Kamenev, Sverdlow and Zinoviev) were actually Jewish. Regardless, as a consequence of all of this, Shostakovich wrote several pieces 'for the drawer'. Amongst them were the First Violin Concerto with its Klezmerish second movement scherzo and the song-cylcle From Jewish Folk Poetry. These works resided in Shostakovich's drawer, unplayed, until the atmosphere in the Soviet Union was less harsh towards Jews. It is unknown whether Shostakovich was, in any part, of Jewish descent, but it is not inconceivable. So, perhaps the Piano Trio quote serves to put Jewishness alongside violence as Stalin not only dictated, to some degree, what Shostakovich could write, but also his lineage -- who he was.

The third movement's lone important quote is that of the First Cello Concerto. This is the piece in which Shostakovich, in the finale, mangles Stalin's favorite song 'Suliko' -- the song which every Russian knew as it was on the radio many times every day in case Stalin were to tune in.

The fourth movement brings with it another oft misunderstood figure. Many rumors claim that the three hits that begin the movement and are heard throughout depict either the Nazi Gestapo or the Soviet Secret Police knocking at the door. Another less popular rumor is that it depicts gun fire over Dresden, the ruined city Shostakovich visited at the time of this quartet's composition. This author has no idea where these ideas originated and has yet to see them mentioned in a scholarly source.

The next new quote in this movement is that from the third movement of the Tenth Symphony. This one is rather difficult to pick out as it is not a particularly memorable passage in the symphony. Its significance, however, should not be discounted on account of this. That third movement is one of Shostakovich's more codified pieces of music. Not only does it contain all twelve transpositions of his monogram, as this quartet does, but it also contains the musical signiature of one Elmira Nazirova exactly twelve times. Elmira was a student of Shostakovich's who he was probably in love, or at least infatuated, with. Her signiature is obfuscated by the fact that it's always played in the horns which are a transposing instrument. Near the end of the movement, both monograms are sounded together.

The next new allusion is from the third movement, Eternal Memory, of the Eleventh Symphony. This passage, while played in the major mode in the symphony, is found in the quartet in the minor mode. Perhaps this is Shostakovich having a bleak outlook on being remembered. Afterall, he said the quartet was to be an autobiographical memoriam piece since he thought no one else would write one.

Immediately following that is Katerina's aria from the final act of Lady Macbeth. At this point in the opera, Katerina and Sergei are prisoners in a convoy on their way to Siberia for murdering Katerina's previous husband Zinovi Izmailov. In this scene Katerina bribes a guard so that she can make her way over to see Sergei. When she sees him, she sings 'Seryozha! My dearest! At last, at last! I've gone the whole day without seeing you.' to the tune of the cello solo in the quartet. In the opera, Sergei is less than pleased to see her as he blames her for their predicament. Katerina then proceeds to beg for his forgiveness unsuccessfully. Just as the opera's music takes a jarring turn for worse, in the quartet the augmented Cello Concerto quote and along with the execution motif are heard again and again before the movement ends. Keep in mind that it was this opera, Lady Macbeth, that landed Shostakovich in trouble in the first place and had him thinking he might be killed.

The final movement fugue places the subject, DSCH, in counterpoint against the revolutionary song. There are several acceptable translations of the song's title. 'Tormented by lack of freedom' would be the one to best bolster the points made here. Although, 'Tormenented by hardship of prison' would not be too far off either. Perhaps Shostakovich is asserting that his life is rarely seperable from hardship and, even when the two do seperate, the hardship is bound to reappear. 'Prison' in the Soviet Union often meant Siberia which, in turn, meant death. The quartet ends with the direction 'morendo' which translates as 'dying away' which coincides with the image of this quartet being a suicide note.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to discover the true meaning of this quartet and all of its allusions. Taruskin wisely says, "Definative reading, especially biographical reading, locks music in the past. Better let it remain supple, adaptable, ready to serve the future's needs." (Bartlett 29) Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Shostakovich, and other composers, are rarely completely forthcoming with the meaning of their works. A colleague of mine said he once foolishly asked Shostakovich what something of his meant. Shostakovich's reply was, "Why don't you ask musicologists? They know everything." Hopefully this document will serve moreso to inform than to lock this wonderful piece into one view.


Glikman, Isaak. Story of a Friendship : the letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, 1941-1975 / with a commentary by Isaak Glikman. Trans. Anthony Phillips. Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 2001.
Taruskin, Richard. "Shostakovich and Us." Shostakovich in Context. Ed.
Bartlett, Rosamund. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2000. 1-29.
Wilson, Elizabeth. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c1994.


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