Shostakovich’s Eleventh Quartet was written in January 1966 in memory of the composer’s old friend and colleague Vasily Shirinsky who had died in the previous year. Shirinsky had been second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, who had premiered all Shostakovich’s previous quartets and also – together with the composer – his Piano Quintet.
This work is sometimes described as the beginning of Shostakovich’s late style, with its shifting and enigmatic harmonies and a feeling of elegiac elusiveness. Nonetheless it is still an accessibly lyrical piece with touching moments of great sweetness and notable passages of whimsy and humour, almost as though the composer were remembering sharing a joke with the musician whose memory is here being celebrated.
The form is fascinating, a sequence of seven contrasted episodes each of which grows out the previous one, like a flower unfolding and revealing more and more of itself. Shostakovich even gives each episode a title. The opening ‘Introduction’ melts into a curious little ‘Scherzo’ with striking whoops and leaps in the melody. A violent ‘Recitative’ introduces a scrap of funeral chant which also reappears in the next two movements, an ‘Etude’ and a ‘Humoresque’, the latter with an unusually prominent part for the second violin, a tribute to Shirinsky’s old position in the original Beethoven Quartet. An ‘Elegy’ for Shirinsky follows, a real funeral march and still with echoes of the chant. The wistful ‘Finale’ recalls earlier music including the whoops from the ‘Scherzo’ and, of course, the same forlorn scrap of funeral chant.
Note by Gerard McBurney