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Shostakovich’s interest in Jewish music (‘klezmer’, or village wedding-music) had already twice found an outlet in 1944 with his completion of the opera ‘Rothschild’s Violin’ by his pupil Veniamin Fleishman, and in his Second Piano Trio op.67 in memory of his lifelong friend Ivan Sollertinsky. His next major work, the Second String Quartet, written in the autumn of the same year, is equally influenced by Jewish melodies and especially by the kind of klezmer material that had been collected in the villages of western Russia and the Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s by the distinguished folklorist Moishe Beregovsky.
The Second Quartet has a classical four-movement model; its consists of an opening movement preceded by an introduction, a slow movement, a dance-like scherzo and a finale. At the same time it is drawing not only on the unclassical models of klezmer melodies but also on the context in which those melodies were originally played, a traditional village wedding celebration. The first movement makes play with the kind of melody with which klezmer musicians, led by a solo violinist, would welcome guests to the party. There follow two examples of the kind of music with which the musicians would entertain the guests as they sat waiting for the bride. ‘Recitative and Romance’ borrows carefully from klezmer models in which, in return for gifts of money, the leading violinist would improvise a florid introduction and then launch into a haunting and more familiar melody. And this is answered by an energetic waltz. Finally, in the ‘Theme and Variations’ of the Finale, Shostakovich evokes the ever-accelerating whirl of the dance – starting slowly and getting ever faster - as the party really hits its stride.
Note by Gerard McBurney