One of Shostakovich’s most troubling and unusual works is his Eighth Quartet. He composed it in three days flat, while staying in East Germany and preparing to write the score for a film about the bombing of Dresden, ‘Five days, five nights’. Unbeknownst even to his close friends at this time, Shostakovich had given in to pressure from Khrushchev’s government and agreed to join the Communist Party, something he had always resisted before and which, as he knew in advance, would be regarded as a betrayal by many of friends and colleagues.
To one friend he moodily observed that this quartet was essentially an obituary for himself and ‘You could even write on the first page “This work was written in memory of its composer”’. Almost the entire 5-movement piece is taken up with quotations from his earlier compositions from his First Symphony op.10 to his recent First Cello Concerto op.107, as well as frequent reference to his own initials – the 4-note motif DSCH (D, E flat, C, B natural) – and to a gloomy revolutionary song which begins ‘Tormented by grievous bondage’. There are also references to Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Wagner.
Despite the music’s peculiar and almost collage-like origins, this is a piece of shattering power and emotional strength, and nowadays one of Shostakovich’s most popular pieces with audiences all over the world. It has many times been used in the sound-tracks of movies and as theatrical incidental music, and has also been arranged for different combinations of instruments. Of these the most famous is by the conductor Rudolf Barshai, who called his often-played version a Chamber Symphony. In this form it is usually given the opus number 110a.
Note by Gerard McBurney