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The Dresden Quartet
Intensely Human, No. 2
There are certain works—paintings, films, books, gardens—that have an effect on me that I can only describe by saying: in their presence, I remember that I am a human being. Dry shallowness falls away. In this series, I share works that have this effect on me, along with a short essay explaining what I see in them.
See also, part 1.
String Quartet No. 8, Dmitri Shostakovich, 1960
Christ Breaking Down the Gates of Hell, Unknown artist imitating Hieronymus Bosch, 1540-60
During the firebombings of Dresden, a survivor claims that a building incinerated with phosphorus became so overheated that violent air currents rushed in and people fleeing down the street were sucked flying through the windows and doors. This is almost certainly made up, but it captures something of the surreal intensity of the terror the Allied forces inflicted on the population of Dresden in February 1945.
Seven months after the attack, the German photographer Richard Peter made it into the city, previously known as Florence on the Elbe for its Baroque magnificence, climbed into the tower of the city hall, and took this picture.
By 1960, most of the debris had been cleared from Dresden. But rebuilding was slower, leaving large parts of the city a grid of streets crisscrossing an empty field.
To keep a forest from growing over the outline of the lost neighborhoods, the authorities kept sheep grazing among the ruins.
It was here, on the 12th to the 14th of July 1960, that Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet composer, wrote his String Quartet No. 8. He was in Dresden to make a score for Five Days, Five Nights, a film about a German communist recovering classical paintings from the ruins of the Zwinger palatial complex in Dresden after the firebombings. But depressed, Shostakovich spent most of his time in a residence reserved for high-ranking members of the East German government, an hour’s drive to the southeast of Dresden, contemplating suicide at a spa—his hands were afflicted by an unknown disease that made it impossible for him to play the piano and his second marriage had just ended; an unhappy marriage he had thrown himself into immediately after the death of his first wife, the physicist Nina Varzar. The string quartet, written in a three-day burst of energy, quotes melodies from the major works of Shostakovich’s career. It also quotes the symphony Tchaikovsky wrote before killing himself by drinking water infected by cholera. This made Shostakovich’s friends worried.
Unlike symphonies, which require 80 to a hundred musicians and a concert hall, quartets cost almost nothing to perform. You just need four musicians and a living room. If symphonies are big publishing, quartets are the blogosphere. It is the form that composers turn to when they want to do work that is too daring or personal to be viable on a large stage.
In 1936, Shostakovich had learned the danger of using large stages to explore his more daring ideas. At the time, his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was hailed as one of the USSR’s proudest cultural achievements. It had run continuously for two years in Moscow and was being staged in opera houses worldwide.
Then Stalin went to see it. Stalin, then at the height of his power, was not above writing opera reviews and soon one appeared in Pravda. It was unsigned, but most readers would have known who had written it, or at least for whom it spoke. The editorial called the opera “an actual crime.” Shostakovich had flung filth in the face of the Russian people. “Things,” the editorial noted, “could end very badly.”
The next symphony, the fifth, Shostakovich introduced as a “creative response of a Soviet artist to justified criticism.” It was a markedly more conventional work. He had given in and got to live.
But the State was less vigilant in spotting the subversiveness of minor works, like quartets.
String quartet number eight, the Dresden quartet, was dedicated to “the victims of fascism and war”—and this is partly a cover-up. It was a front that made it palatable to the State. But the dedication also does speak to a genuine horror that Shostakovich experienced when walking the empty fields of Dresden. The composition has several passages that can be read as expressions of the firebombings: there are the violin stabs in the fourth movement that sounds like aerial alarms, and there is the Jewish dance in the second movement, one of the most intense and gnarled pieces of music I have ever heard: it sounds quite like a firestorm where people get sucked into burning buildings.
But all the deeper, unspoken allusions in the piece point toward Shostakovich himself, the self-quotes, the very personal references to other musical pieces, and most notably, the motif that opens the composition. This melodic line, D Eb C B, in Russian music notation is spelled D S C H, as in: D. Schostakovich. Again and again: DSCH, DSCH, DSCH—over a hundred times his name appears coded in the composition.
There is something movingly pathetic about repeating your name over and over again in a composition. Shostakovich was not a heroic man. He made his music conform to the demands of the State, he allowed himself to be used as international PR for the USSR, his name was regularly attached to official statements lending support to Soviet foreign policy and expounding on the Stalinist doctrine of “socialist realism.” When visiting New York in 1949, people demonstrated outside his hotel with signs urging Shostakovich to jump out of the window and stay in the west. Shostakovich did not jump. At a press conference in New York, Nabokov asked him whether he supported the then recent denunciation of Stravinsky’s music in the Soviet Union. A great admirer of Stravinsky, an important influence on his music, Shostakovich answered yes. He was appalled by the state, and the terror it unleashed on the population, killing several of his friends, but his defiance stretched no further than smuggling his initials into his compositions.
When judging artists in totalitarian regimes, it is tempting to elevate the dissidents. Solsynitzyn collecting the stories of Gulag prisoners and smuggling them out to the West. Tarkovsky refusing to edit his films in line with the demands from the Soviet censors and fleeing to West Europe.
But openly defying the state, like Solsynitzin, was often a death sentence, and Tarkovsky spent the last years of his life being eaten by cancer in Paris, unable to reunite with his wife and teenage son, who was held behind in the USSR. This is too much to ask of a coward like Shostakovich—as it is too much for most of us.
When I hear Shostakovich repeat his name again and again, what I hear is: “I, Dmitri Shostakovich, deserve to exist, in the face of this inhuman terror, in spite my cowardice, I deserve to exist.” And in that moment, I feel like I, too, with all my limitations, deserve to exist.
You can listen to it here. This is the recording that the Borodino Quartet did of the piece, and Shostakovich particularly liked their interpretation:
Once they [Borodin Quartet] came to his apartment to play the Quartet No 8. When they finished, he was silent for a few minutes. Then he stood up and left the room without a word. They sat there for a while, and then his wife came and they took their stuff and left. The next day Shostakovich called Berlinsky and said, ‘I’m sorry for my silence yesterday, but I was so touched—please just play the way you played.’
I also recommend their version of Shostakovich’s 15th, and final, quartet.