Shostakovich dedicated his Twelfth Quartet to his friend Dmitri Tsyganov who was the first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet. When Tsyganov asked him what the piece was like the composer replied “It’s a symphony, a symphony!” Certainly this is a grand work, written in the full flood of his last creative period when he was dogged by ill-health and endless stays in hospital but was still discovering ever more ways forward for his music.
One of more remarkable of those ways was Shostakovich’s prominent use of 12-note rows. By this time, quite a few younger Soviet composers were writing 12-note music, some in the expressive Schoenberg tradition, others in the more constructivist post-Darmstadt serial manner. Shostakovich knew what they were doing but like Benjamin Britten at approximately the same period he adopts a different approach, treating the chromaticism of 12-note music as a way of creating discrete points of arrival and departure, like symbols or signs to help us grasp the structure of the music.
There are only two movements in this quartet. After the restless harmonic and melodic exploration of the first movement, there follows a gigantic structure nearly 20 minutes in length and, as Shostakovich’s remark to Shirinsky suggested, almost orchestral in effect. It begins as a tumultuous scherzo, the music seemingly swept along by a whirlwind. At its centre point, the winds die away and a poignant and tender funeral march appears which plays repeatedly with the notes D and E flat (Es in German notation), suggesting the composer’s own initials DS. While he was writing this quartet Shostakovich confessed to a friend that every time he wrote a new piece he was haunted by fears that he would not live to complete it. He was indeed very sick by this stage in his life and it was perfectly true that each new piece could have been his last.
Bit by bit, this funeral march is attacked by other kinds of music, memories return of the first movement and then the whirlwind begins again, but this time shot through with major key inflections where earlier the music had been in the minor. This gives the drive towards the end a stirring feel of power and triumph against the odds.
Note by Gerard McBurney