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Dimitri Shostakovich
Article added in February 2001
 
The Grammy Award winning performance of the Shostakovich String Quartets by the Emerson String Quartet - a biography of Dimitri Shostakovich
Article added on February 27, 2001, based on the article in the German edition of March/April 2000.


Shostakovich: The String Quartets
Deutsche Grammophon, 2000. Get the CD-box from: Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de.
 
The Emerson String Quartet was created in 1976. Its founders are the violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer. In 1977, violinist Lawrence Dutton and, in 1979, cellist David Finckel joined them. The quartet borrowed its name from the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1978, the Emerson String Quartet  won the Naumburg Award for Chamber Music. It is the resident quartet at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, Connecticut.
 
After recording the complete quartets by Beethoven and Bartůk, the Emerson String Quartet turned to the 15 string quartets composed by Shostakovich. For four years, the quartet had played them at their concerts. The five CDs are the result of live recordings, but for each of the quartets, several performances at the Aspen Music Festival were used and cut together.
 
Shostakovich (1906-75) wrote his quartets between 1938 (Quartet 1, op. 49) and 1974 (Quartet 15, op. 144). He began to deal with this form of music at a relatively late age, first in 1931, when he composed two pieces for a string quartet for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk. In 1936, the years of Stalin's terror began with arrests, executions and show trials. In the following three years, more than seven million people were arrested. In an article published in the Pravda intitled "Chaos instead of music", Shostakovich was accused of creating "deliberately a disharmonic, chaotic flood of sounds". His music was called "an absurd game, which could end in disaster".
 
Later, Shostakovich wrote about his first quartet of 1938 that, while composing, he tried to imagine images of his childhood, naive and cheerful atmospheres, that match with Spring. Mostly, Shostakovich hid behind a mask, but here and there he let his true face appear, as Philip Setzer remarks in his sleeve notes. As for the quartets, each and every one has its history, which is reflected in the music and this is what makes them so impressive - as the recordings by the Emerson String Quartet testify. The 15 stories are told in the CD's booklet. The performances as well as the compositions are outstanding.

 
The Memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich
 
Published by Solomon Volkov. Article based on the new German edition published by Propylšen in 1999 (1979), therefore, quotes may differ from the English edition. Get the US paperback edition from Amazon.com and the German edition Die Memoiren des Dmitri Schostakowitsch from Amazon.de.
 
In 1979, posthumously, the memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) were published by the Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov, who had smuggled the manuscript abroad before he emigrated to the United States in 1976. The memoirs are the result of conversations Volkov had with Shostakovich. The composer signed the pages he had read with the word "read" and his initials. In 1974, Shostakovich gave Volkov a picture with the dedication: "... In memory of the discussions about Glasunov, Sochenko, Meyerhold. D. Sh." After its publication, the book was immediately attacked by the Soviets because it contained a lot of political observations and unsparing comments, which were embarrassing for the Soviet Government. With the help of family members and friends of Shostakovich, the Soviets tried to question the book's content and Volkov's integrity. Despite a few critical, even derogatory remarks about the United States, the memoirs were a useful weapon in the Cold War because they were politically correct from the Western perspective. They were a reckoning with the Soviet regime in general and Stalinism in particular - and all this from a man who, despite moments of apparent disgrace, was considered for decades a State artist in accordance with the party line.
 
Despite these facts, the book was considered a fake for years. Laurel E. Fay remarked upon non-matching data between the memoirs and Shostakovich's curriculum vitae. Furthermore, several passages of the book could be found in earlier essays by the composer, often word for word. In 1981, Shostakovich's son Maxim emigrated in the West. Slowly, he began to move away from his earlier criticism of the memoirs. In the preface to the Finnish edition of the book, he completely changed sides. He began to stress the critical position of his father towards the Soviet regime. Ian MacDonald's book The New Shostakovich, published in 1990, did not contradict the general message of the memoirs, neither did Shostakovich's letters from the years 1941 to 1971, published in 1995 by Isaak Glikman. Even if still not everybody is convinced of the authenticity of the memoirs today, including Shostakovich's third wife, a majority of specialists consider them an authentic source. The passages repeated word for word are now explained by the photographic memory of the composer. The book contains a lot of insights, information on teachers, composers and other artists as well as on the functioning of the Stalinist regime. Shostakovich's judgements are often harsh, extremely open and sometimes unfair. At least after the period of Stalinist terror, one would have wished that he had been more critical in public too. But he remained entirely in line with the Party. The remark that, at least in his music, Shostakovich never lied is justified. Whatever the truth about the book's authenticity: Se non Ť vero, Ť ben trovato. - Sheet music by Dmitri Shostakovich.

 

Emerson String Quartet. Copyright: Deutsche Grammophon.


Added on July 24, 2006: On July 28, 2006 in the year of the composer's 100th birthday, EMI will release a 10 box set with all 15 symphonies by Dimitri Shostakovich recorded by Mariss Jansons directing various orchestras. Get the CD box set Shostakovich - The Complete Symphonies from Amazon.de or Amazon.co.uk. Sheet music by Dmitri Shostakovich.


Shostakovich with his mother. Copyright: Propylšen.
 

Shostakovich with Ivan Sollertinski (on the right), 1930s. Coypright: Propylšen.