Boris Giltburg on Shostakovich
I am a hardcore fan of Dmitri Shostakovich, addicted to sheer raw emotional power of his music, to the way he knew to take very basic human emotions (hope, fear, anger, anxiety, sometimes love), capture them in notes, and throw them at the listener with such strength that one reverberates with shock.
He was a superb pianist himself, yet his output for solo piano is relatively sparse – two sonatas, a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, and several sets of piano miniatures. It is rather in the two colossal cycles of 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets that he created his greatest masterpieces – none of which are normally accessible to us, pianists. Call it greed if you wish, or yearning, or love, but I badly wanted to play that Shostakovich, and that led me first to arranging his String Quartet No. 8 for piano, and now, his String Quartet No. 3.
The 3rd String Quartet was composed in 1946, and Shostakovich considered it a ‘war quartet’, similar to the ‘war symphonies’ Nos. 7 and 8. Members of the Beethoven Quartet, who gave the premiere in Moscow, mentioned that before publication Shostakovich considered titles for the five movements:
- Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm
- Rumblings of unrest and anticipation
- The forces of war unleashed
- In memory of the fallen
- The eternal questions: why? and for what purpose?
… but withdrew the titles at the last moment, considering them (especially the last one) imprudent in the celebratory mood prevalent in Soviet press and official public discourse at that time. I think there might have been another reason – these titles stem so naturally from the music and the narrative arc it depicts, that they might well be superfluous.
String quartets are supposed not to be easily arrangeable for piano, but this one fit surprisingly comfortably in two hands, and required almost no alteration from the original score. Only in one place I added a doubling in octaves: at the climax of the last movement, when the funeral march of the fourth movements comes back in the cello and viola, appearing in counterpoint under a triple-forte wailing of the violins. It is possibly the greatest moment of anguish in the entire quartet, but when simply transcribed to the piano as written, it lacked the power and weight which the strings are able to project there. Hence the doubling – to better match the spirit of the music, by utilizing the full range and power of the piano keyboard for once. The quartet ends on a very long F-major pedal point, above which the upper voice, playing the finale’s theme, climbs to stratospheric heights. There is a sense of transcendence and transformation after the pain and turmoil of all that came before; and, against hope, a feeling of an embrace and of solace too.