In the summer of 1962 Shostakovich married his third wife Irina Supinskaya. Shortly afterwards he began writing a Ninth Quartet, which he called ‘a children’s piece’ inspired by ‘toys and excursions’. This idea collapsed after only a few pages and it was two years later he wrote what we now know as his Ninth, a very different piece which he dedicated to Irina.
It would be hard to imagine anything less childlike than this grand and spacious utterance. It has sometimes been described as ‘symphonic’, though if it is symphonic in scale, it is also of almost Schubertian lyric intimacy and pathos. Moreover, although the quartet is cast as a five movement structure, each successive movement follows seamlessly from what went before. Even the very opening of the first movement feels as though the music had already started before the players had begun and only in the frightening final bars of the whole work does Shostakovich’s restless invention achieve a feeling of finality.
This is also one of those rare Shostakovich works shot through with chant-like material, which gives the music if not a religious aura then certainly many moments of rapt contemplation. It is this chant-like material too which helps Shostakovich draw the different parts of the structure together so that after the opening two movements (slow and slower), an acidulous military march of a scherzo, and another paragraph of flowing slow music, the long fifth and final movement welds together everything we have heard so far. In this final movement there is also, as so often in Shostakovich’s quartets, a powerful feeling of Jewish ‘klezmer’ music.
Note by Gerard McBurney