String Quartet No. 8, movement 1 - Shostakovich

  • Created by: Annie
  • Created on: 15-03-12 10:42


  • Dmitri Shostakovich lived all his life in Russia, where he was one of several prominent composers who periodically suffered harsh criticism from the Soviet state
  • In 1960, Shostakovich was deeply humiliated by being forced to join the Communist party
  • In July of that year Shostakovich visited Germany where he saw the remains of the beautiful and historic city of Dresden after its intensive bombing in the Second World War
  • It is said that this experience inspired his eight string quartet, completed in just three days and dedicated to the 'memory of the victims of fascism and war'
  • The words have the potential double meaning that many Russian dissidents used under the Soviet regime in Russia
  • They had long referred to the Communists as 'fascists' and they would have understood that 'victims of facism' did not necessarily refer exclusively to those persecuted by the Nazis. It is likely that Shostakovich saw himself as one of those victims and intended the eighth quartet to be his final work and own memorial
  • The string quartet (for two violins, a viola and a cello) has been the most popular type of chamber music since the late 18th century
  • This quartet is in five interconnected movements, and this is the first

The cipher and the quotations

  • The personal nature of this work is evident in Shostokovich's use of quotations from earlier works, almost as if he is looking back on his life
  • He makes use of a cipher - in this case, a group of letters with a hidden meaning
  • It is first heard in the opening cello notes: D-Eb-C-B
  • In German these pitches are known as D-Es-C-H and, since, Es is pronounced like the letter S, they transliterate to D Sch(ostakovich), a musical encryption of the German version of part of the composer's name
  • He used this motto in other works but in the eight quartet it permeates the music, giving the work a powerful sense of unity


  • The first movement of the quartet is in arch form, which we can represent as A B C B1 A1
  • The last two sections are modified repeats of the first two sections, with their order reversed
  • A = bars 0-27
  • B = bars 28-49
  • C = bars 50-86
  • B1 = bars 87-104
  • A1 = bars 104-126
  • The movement begins with an anacrusis
  • Although the time signature is 4/4, Shostakovich's metronome mark suggests a slow minim beat


  • The movement opens with imitative treatment of the DSCH motif heard first by the cello (C minor) and answered by the viola (G minor), restated by the second violin (C minor) and answered by the first violin (F minor)
  • Although the harmony is dissonant this choice of keys (I, IV and V in C minor) reveals how Shostakovich's style is often essentially tonal, although there are no simple cadences to define this tonality
  • The low tessitura of all the parts establishes the sombre tone of the movement from the outset
  •  DSCH returns to the viola (marked 'solo') in bars…


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