Shostakovich’s final string quartet is also one of his most unusual. Cast as six linked slow movements, all in the technically difficult key of E flat minor, it was inspired in part by Haydn’s Seven Last Words, but also contains references to several other works in the string quartet repertory including Beethoven’s C sharp minor quartet op.131 and Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet. In the very closing bars it quotes from the funeral march at the end of Shostakovich’s own Sixth Symphony op.54.
This is one of the most complex and elusive of Shostakovich’s chamber works, at times agonisingly slow, but heart-stoppingly beautiful, spare and concentrated. The overall effect is of a series of different ways of saying farewell or taking leave of the world, each suggesting a different traditional musical genre. The first movement – ‘Elegy’ - begins as a fugue, transforms itself into the shadow of a sonata, and also manages to quote from the Russian Orthodox prayer for the dead. This is followed by a ‘Serenade’ with strange recollections of the sound of a guitar or mandolin that keeps petering out or dying away. An ‘Intermezzo’ is followed by a sombre and distorted ‘Nocturne’ and then a ‘Funeral March’ that begins grandly but keeps collapsing on itself. The final ‘Epilogue’ recapitulates themes from all the previous five movements, and interweaves suggestions of the purifying Magic Fire music from the end of Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’.
Note by Gerard McBurney