About this work
When Shostakovich composed his first string quartet, he had already written, among other things, five symphonies and incurred the rancor, often fatal, of Stalin. It was not enough for those in Shostakovich's position to be tough: they had also to be lucky. The black humor in Shostakovich's music reflects one way of coping with danger. Such humor shows in the last movement of this quartet. The quartet as a whole stands out, however, in sunny contrast to many of his later quartets. He began it as an exercise, but quickly became absorbed in his task and finished it in six weeks. He made alterations. The movements that were to be first and last switched positions. The work is brief, fewer than 15 minutes long.
Shostakovich denied that he intended the quartets to carry any meanings different from that of his other music, but this denial takes little account of the special qualities of the string quartet. In intimacy and concentration of means it becomes a more personal document than other musical forms. Although there may be a unity of meaning in Shostakovich's music, the string quartets speak more directly and on a more personal level.
The first movement (moderato) begins with a united voicing of the theme that develops under the urging of the cello. The viola sings over pulsing strings and the violin in high register enters over plucked strings. The music suggests bird songs and flight. The cello repeats the main theme while the other strings embroider. The cello underlines the theme, now played at a slower tempo. The cello goes its own way and has a brief solo. The slower pace is maintained to the end.
The viola opens the second movement (also moderato), and the opening pace is the same as that with which the first movement ended. Plucked cello accompanies the viola, but the violins enter and widely spaced sounds result. The viola's attempt to take over gives way almost immediately to the violins. The tempo becomes slightly brisker and the instruments on a basis of equality develop the dance-like theme. A soft passage for the cello produces a moment of silence, but the music resumes at a slower tempo and more ethereal sound. The movement ends gently with plucked strings.
The third movement (allegro molto) is a gentle perpetuum mobile, gentle and rocking. The viola and cello develop a theme while the violins embroider. Briefly the violins take control, but viola and cello take this short movement to its abrupt end.
The fourth movement (allegro) is only slightly longer than the third. The violins announce the main theme and all the instruments toss it about. The harmonies are acerbic and the phrasing abrupt. The violin plays the lightly skipping theme high above the other instruments. It's gay but somewhat manic. The music turns on an abrupt unison chord and goes to a quick and slightly conventional conclusion that underlines the sardonic nature of its ingredients.