Dark, difficult, intense

The string quartets of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich may not make for easy listening. That said, the Mondavi Center has committed to a three-year program to bring them the complete cycle to the concert stage.

The string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich have a bitterly humorous slant and a dissident agenda related through a personal, sometimes desperate bent. These traits are manifest in many ways: violent blasts of sound, sarcastic melodies—whistling past the graveyard—and somber, elegiac, slow movements.

The dissent is never explicit; that would have invited the worst. Hundreds of Shostakovich’s artistic peers were piled into Siberian gulags or were killed by Stalin’s secret police for open expression or simply appearing to be too intelligent. Shostakovich was nearly purged twice; he lived, for decades, in fear of his life. He said what he had to say in order to survive, parroting official announcements as a government spokesman—and, by all accounts, loathing himself for doing so. You can hear that in the music, too.

Critics use phrases like “tragic intensity,” “grotesque and bizarre wit,” “parody” and “savage sarcasm” to describe Shostakovich. The term “brutal” also crops up. He was fascinated by Hamlet, the talented prince who suffers under a murderous, usurping king. Do a Google search for “Shostakovich” and “gloom,” and you will get hundreds of hits.

Above all, the Shostakovich quartets are brilliant, edgy, decidedly dangerous music, which can elicit powerful emotions: music like no other. Taken together, the 15 quartets that Shostakovich left us form a searing, intense, highly personal body of work that begins in 1938 before World War II and ends with a particularly bleak effort that Shostakovich wrote while hospitalized in 1974, shortly before his death. The quartets are a musical diary of a great composer’s private thoughts and passions, an agonized voice from a creative artist trapped in a grim, totalitarian system that required that art serve the state.

But, for all their darkness, the experience of listening to the Shostakovich quartets is somehow liberating. It’s as though Shostakovich sensed that by chronicling the horrors, he could find a way to emerge with his integrity intact and wriggle his way to an unrestricted space—in creative terms, at least.

A complete performance cycle of all 15 Shostakovich quartets is relatively rare. But a cycle is currently under way at the Mondavi Center, with the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ) and music historian Robert Greenberg teaming up for programs at quarterly intervals. The first program, covering the first two quartets, was in December. But the series works into the meat of the matter on March 16, with String Quartet No. 3 and String Quartet No. 4. The 2 p.m. performance in the Mondavi Center’s 250-seat Studio Theatre sold out in a flash back in November, but a second performance has been added at 8 p.m., and that one still has seats available. The remainder of the quartets will be performed throughout the next three years.

Sandy Wilson, cellist with the ASQ, acknowledged that taking on all 15 Shostakovich quartets is “a monster” in terms of workload. But he likes the stretched-out approach. “Technically, [the cycle] could be done in ‘quicktime,’ in the span of four or five concerts [in a week],” he said. “But I’m not really certain that would be such a great experience for the listener. And we don’t want to have people leaving the hall and slashing their wrists. This is very serious music, and, taken as a whole, it certainly explores the dark side of humanity. … [In fact], it can be quite depressing.”

Depressing? Yeah. But also surprisingly popular, beyond the bounds of the “usual” classical audience. The ASQ and Greenberg’s unconventionally timed series of Saturday-morning concerts in San Francisco were a success. “[They were] one of the hottest tickets in town, selling out long in advance of each year’s first concert—and with long lines of concertgoers waiting for cancellations, hoping to get in at the last minute,” said ASQ second violin Frederick Lifsitz.

These aren’t your usual string-quartet events. “We’ve deliberately kept these presentations informal,” Wilson said. “We don’t dress in formal concert attire; we dress down. We try not to make an entrance from the green room; we get out there in dribs and drabs and practice in our chairs.”

Greenberg, a composer who served for several years as music historian for National Public Radio’s weekend edition of All Things Considered, is the project’s special ingredient. Greenberg gets pumped up when he speaks. When introducing one of the ASQ’s all-Beethoven concerts, Greenberg once said, “Folks, the opening of this work by Beethoven ain’t pretty. It’s like watching Mike Tyson fight when he’s hungry.”

Greenberg had a blunt take on Shostakovich: “He was a great hero in his own way, a closet dissident who wrote tremendously dissident music,” he said. “Of course, he was also a coward who said whatever he needed to say in order to survive. And he managed to survive when a lot of his friends and colleagues did not manage to survive—and frankly, he was a witness to it all.”

A few details: Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906. He was a boy during World War I, and he was 11 when the Russian Revolution overthrew the czar in 1917. Many Russian intellectuals bailed out for the West in the years that followed, including composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky, impresario Serge Diaghilev and choreographer George Balanchine.

Members of the Alexander String Quartet are, left to right, Paul Yarbrough, Zakarias Grafilo, Sandy Wilson and Frederick Lifsitz.

But Shostakovich was still a kid, and he stayed. His musical gifts propelled him into the Petrograd Conservatory when he was 13, where he was befriended by Alexander Glazunov, the conservatory director, onetime child prodigy and pupil of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 1 while a teen at the conservatory. It was performed throughout Europe and made him famous by age 21. A prolific composer, Shostakovich quickly became the artistic darling of the new Soviet state.

All that came to a screeching halt when Josef Stalin heard Shostakovich’s still-modern opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District in 1936. Stalin left in disgust and is said to have personally dictated the subsequent editorial in Pravda, headlined “Chaos Instead of Music.” The warning couldn’t have been more blatant.

Shostakovich promptly withdrew his Symphony No. 4. Friends stopped calling. Convinced that his arrest was imminent, the composer carried soap and a toothbrush whenever he left his house. “Stalin was a spider, and anyone who approached his net had to die,” Shostakovich was quoted by writer Solomon Volkov as saying in Testimony (the purported memoir, published in 1979, that Shostakovich may or may not have dictated to Volkov).

Shostakovich responded with his Symphony No. 5, penitently subtitled, “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism.” It’s a harrowing piece, with an upbeat end. Pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, who defected from the USSR during a concert tour in 1963, has suggested that the Soviet authorities missed the music’s critical tilt and “hailed [it] only because of the D major at the end.” Western listeners like that major chord, as well. Symphony No. 5 is still the composer’s best-known work in the West.

It was after his political vindication following Symphony No. 5 that Shostakovich—all of 32 years old, but a veteran—began to write string quartets. A divide soon emerged. Shostakovich wrote big pieces that glorified the state, such as The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland, in 1952, while preparing much moodier chamber works, written on his own time.

“Symphonies are public works,” Greenberg explained. “To perform a symphony means having a large number of people present to play it and a large number of people to hear it.

“But a string quartet is a private exercise. Yes, it can be played in a concert, but it can also be played in your living room. And composers tend to save some of their most profound thoughts for the intimacy of the string quartet. Shostakovich does things in his string quartets that go beyond any of his other pieces. And he lived a life of such stress and variety and richness that it’s impossible that these pieces would not be spectacular.”

Take Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3, written in 1946. Greenberg said it was originally a programmatic work about war—ostensibly concerning Nazi conquest but, in Greenberg’s view, more likely dealing with Stalin’s policy of forcible execution and exile. “The titles of the third quartet’s five movements were originally ‘Calm Unawareness of the Future Cataclysm,’ ‘Rumblings of Unrest and Anticipation,’ ‘The Forces of War Unleashed,’ ‘The Funeral: Homage to the Dead’ and ‘The Eternal Question: Why and for What?’ But Shostakovich withdrew those titles, probably for good reason.”

As for Quartet No. 4 (1949), Greenberg said, “It’s one of those pieces that Shostakovich kept in his desk drawer [until after Stalin’s death in 1953]. One of the reasons is that it uses a considerable amount of Jewish music. It’s not an understatement to say that Shostakovich sympathized almost entirely with the plight of Russian Jews [purged en masse by Stalin]. It was the Holocaust all over again in Russia.

“Shostakovich was fascinated by Jewish music, music that cried through its laughter,” Greenberg added. “Many of his friends were Jewish; his last wife was Jewish. Jewish music would be for Shostakovich something like what African-American music would be for an American like Gershwin—exotic, music of great pathos and rhythmic excitement.” (In Testimony, Shostakovich was quoted by Volkov as saying he’d seen the American film version of Fiddler on the Roof; Shostakovich reportedly said the “infection” of anti-Semitism “is alive, and who knows if it will ever disappear.”)

Stalin died in 1953, but Shostakovich continued to be a symbol of the arts within the Soviet system. Shostakovich eventually was compelled to join the Communist Party because party membership was necessary to become head of the composer’s union. And in the 1960s, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, he sang a tune by Shostakovich in his space capsule.

Shostakovich’s string quartets got darker all the while. And Russian intellectuals kept leaving the country. Shostakovich’s son, conductor Maxim Shostakovich, left soon after his father’s death.

When the elder Shostakovich died in 1975, he was buried with full honors as a Soviet patriot. But his image made a 180-degree turn following the publication of Testimony in 1979.