Work

String Quartet No. 11 in F minor • Quatuor à cordes no 11 en fa mineur, op 122, op 122 (1966)

Dmitri Shostakovich

string quartet

Movements

  • 1. Introduction — Andantino
  • 2. Scherzo — Allegretto
  • 3. Récitatif — Adagio
  • 4. Étude — Allegro
  • 5. Humoresque — Allegro
  • 6. Elégie — Adagio
  • 7. Conclusion — Moderato

Performances

Program Notes

Shostakovich was one of the twentieth century’s most important and prolific composers of symphonies and string quartets, leaving behind 15 works in both these categories. As was the case for most great composers, they were not however interchangeable genres; the string quartet was certainly not for Shostakovich a kind of chamber symphony. Although there exist great stylistic differences between the first and last of his symphonies and quartets, on the whole, the former show the composer confronted with his outside world (on a patriotic, historical or humanistic level), while the latter show him expressing his more inner world (ranging from the optimistic ingenuousness of his first quartet to the morbid bodings of his last). It is incidentally quite significant that his symphonic output was more concentrated in the first half of his career, while that of string quartets grew in prominence toward the end of his life.

The famous Russian string quartet, the Beethoven Quartet, was the greatest exponent of Shostakovich’s chamber music throughout his career. This was the ensemble that premiered all his string quartets save the first and last, for which they gave the second performance. Quartets Nos. 11 to 14 were each dedicated to one of the Beethoven Quartet’s founding members. String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 was dedicated to the original second violin, Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, who had died shortly before its composition. The work was premiered on March 25, 1966 with Nikolai Zabavnikov as second violin.

Opus 122 presents itself as an uninterrupted succession of seven movements, all bearing the title of a form having marked the history of the genre. While it is the first violin who ushers in the Introduction as well as the Scherzo’s pregnant main theme, it is the second violin alone who very significantly bridges the (mortuary) Elegy and the Finale (recalling past material, in particular that dance-like theme from the Scherzo). Despite a certain sparseness in the overall scoring, the atmosphere—especially in the core of the work—is emotionally highly charged: note the initial violence of the Recitative, the nervous impetuousness of the Etude, the quasi-sardonic tone of the Humoresque, and the intense profundity of the Elegy.

Jacques-André Houle