The First String Quartet differs sharply from Shostakovich’s later quartets. It is a strikingly pure and neo-classical piece, a model of grace, lightness, delicate emotion and balance. It is not surprising to discover that Shostakovich apparently considered subtitling it ‘Spring’. It was begun in the early summer immediately after the birth of his son Maxim, at a time of personal joy which must have meant the more in the wake of the tumultuous events of the preceding two years: the composer’s public condemnation and humiliation with the publication in the newspaper ‘Pravda’ of the article ‘Muddle instead of music’; the withdrawal of most of his music from the possibility of public performance; the sudden cancellation of his vast Fourth Symphony; and the bitter-sweet triumph of his Fifth Symphony in the autumn of 1937.
The first two movements of the First Quartet are both marked moderato. The effect is of a very gentle opening sonata movement and a lyrical slow movement that is lighter and more lilting that we would expect. The scherzo and finale are both quicker and more lively.
Note by Gerard McBurney