Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No.9

Program Note

The early ’60s were a unique turning point in Dmitri Shostakovich’s lifelong struggle to stay politically afloat in the Soviet Union. Part of Khrushchev’s anti-Stalinist strategy involved ingratiating himself and his administration with leading artists, exchanging relaxed vigilance from the apparat for a certain degree of party loyalty. Shostakovich’s work was visibly aboveground at this point in his career, having left behind his two public denouncements in 1936 and 1948 in order to publish music which conformed to Soviet “pure music” guidelines. His decision to join the Communist Party in 1960 locked him into more patriotic responsibilities, among them his promised tribute to Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution in the Twelfth Symphony, The Year 1917 (1961), and a propagandist anti-formalism article in Pravda magazine signed by the composer. In the next year, however, Shostakovich wrote the Thirteenth Symphony, Babi Yar, using texts by Yevgeny Yevtushenko on themes of Nazi and Soviet anti-Semitism during World War II. The poet began to attract government ire close to the premiere of the symphony, landing Shostakovich in hot water with the party once again. The Holocaust references were censored for future performances, despite (or, perhaps, due to) an overwhelming public reception at the first performance. This was the last piece of concert music Shostakovich worked on before the Ninth Quartet, which makes some references to klezmer music in its third movement.

Shostakovich famously composed most of his work in his head, usually transcribing his ideas without hearing them aloud or revising his manuscripts. However, unsatisfied with the exploration of childhood themes which had manifested in his Ninth Quartet, he burned the first draft in 1961 “in an attack of healthy self-criticism,” labeling it “the second such case in my creative practice.” It took Shostakovich a couple of years to revisit the Ninth Quartet, completing it in May 1964, just before a summer holiday in Dilizhan. Its final version shared nothing with the burned copy save the key of E-flat major, critical to Shostakovich’s premise for his cycle of fifteen string quartets. It is dedicated to the composer’s third wife, Irina, whom he married in 1962. 

—Josh Davidoff