About this work
The second string quartet by Shostakovich had marked a watershed in his developing mastery of the genre. He returned to the medium two years later, producing his next string quartet in 1946. As Robert Matthew-Walker points out, however, he had by now also "successfully tackled a formal challenge which had long fascinated Beethoven -- the joining-together of movements of different character, yet done in such a way as to make their continuation both seamless and inevitable...he had not thus far attempted it in quartet writing."
Like its predecessor, the third also anticipates certain aspects found in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9, both in terms of its structural mastery, but more especially for its originality of concept and deeply personal language. The work is set (following Beethoven's lead) in five movements rather than the usual four, opening rather lightheartedly with a bright F major Allegretto. Its rather simplistic first group gives way to a second idea, in C, which is actually related rhythmically to the theme which occurs at the same point in the Ninth Symphony. There is also a Classical double bar and repeat (as with the Second Quartet and Ninth Symphony) to close the exposition. But the development is a tersely argued double fugue, and the recapitulation is reached only after considerable harmonic wrestlings have been overcome.
Next comes a movement headed simply Moderato con moto, bringing uncomfortable memories of the biting Scherzo from Symphony No. 5. The key, points out Matthew-Walker, "is F minor -- so near and yet so far from the clear F major which began the work." Conflict and unrestrained violence akin to the terrifying emotions unleashed in Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet permeate the acerbic third movement, a quasi-Mahlerian blend of Scherzo and March, with 3/4 and 2/4 time signatures exchanged in almost every measure. The music undoubtedly anticipates the shocking second movement of the Tenth Symphony.
There follows an extended, heartrending Passacaglia (very suggestive of that found in Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1, of 1947-1948). It starts fortissimo, but the dynamic level declines as it runs its course, setting the scene for the finale, which brings faster-moving music and more confident ideas.
As Robert Matthew-Walker concludes, "It is sometimes claimed, not always convincingly, that there is often a hidden meaning in Shostakovich's work." In the case of his Third String Quartet, this notion may well have some foundation. The Borodin Quartet, who knew the composer well, insisted upon the following subtitles being appended to the movements whenever they performed this work. These were never published, and in any case, these epithets closely mirror the music itself, and are worth restating here:
I: "Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm"
II: "Rumblings of unrest and anticipation"
III: "The forces of war unleashed"
IV: "Homage to the dead"
V: "The eternal question: Why? And for what?"