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Dimitri Shostakovich

Rudolf Barshai arranged Chamber Symphony for Strings, Opus 110a from Dmitri Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8. Shostakovich composed the Quartet in a three-day period in 1960. At the time, the "official" story behind the Quartet was that Shostakovich had been so shocked and distressed upon witnessing the destruction in Dresden that he composed the piece to express his horror of Fascism. The quartet's subtitle, "To the Memory of the Victims of Facism," no doubt helped to fuel this myth. But in fact, the "victim" to which Shostakovich was referring is himself: he composed Quartet No. 8 as a musical and autobiographical suicide note. However deep his despair, Shostakovich did not commit suicide -- he died fifteen years later of natural causes.

From the first performance of his First Symphony in 1926 to his death in 1975, Shostakovich captivated the world with his visceral compositions. He wrote a total of 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, four operas, four ballets, 36 film scores, and numerous piano, choral, and chamber works. So why would such a phenomenally successful and beloved artist contemplate suicide?

Despite his acclaim, Shostakovich had recurring difficulty with the Communist party. In 1936, Stalin denounced Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and banned his music. In 1948, Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony brought him trouble because it was not revolutionary enough. And then, in 1959 the Communist Party decided to make Shostakovich First Secretary of the Composer's Union -- which required him to join the Communist Party. After living in fear of the Party for most of his life, Shostakovich was hardly clamoring to join. However, in the Cold War Soviet Union, one did not openly discuss dissenting beliefs. So Shostakovich wrote the Quartet No. 8 to express his despair, hoping that the audience would be able to read between the lines.

The five parts of Quartet No. 8 depict significant moments -- both positive and negative -- in the composer's life. The piece is dominated by the repeated use of Shostakovich's musical "signature" of D, E flat, C, and B. This recurring motif both binds the piece together and gives it an oppressive, almost inescapable quality. In the second movement (Allegro Molto, featured here as arranged by Barshai for the New Century Chamber Orchestra), the relentless repetition conjures images of prison or endless pursuit: the strings race around each other with a manic urgency, swelling and spreading until they form a seemingly inescapable web. The piece's breathless, unsettling quality influenced both the work of Bernard Hermann, who composed the music for Psycho, and the band Faith No More, who sampled it in "Malpractice," on their 1992 album Angel Dust.

Each of the Quartet's movements contains quotations from Shostakovich's other works. The second movement uses a theme from Shostakovich's Second Piano Trio (1944). The fifth and final movement, Largo (also arranged by Barshai for The New Century Chamber Orchestra), links Shostakovich's musical signature with a quote from Act IV of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It has a chilling, resigned, funereal quality: the final statement of a hopeless man.

In pieces like Quartet No. 8, Shostakovich looked into the dark places of his soul and his past to create moving tributes to the power of art and music. A quarter-century after his death, his music lives on as a powerful statement of his courage and his creativity.

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