As a musician and a passionate lover of classical music, I am often inspired and influenced by artistic masterpieces written by the great composers. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, however, has always held a special place in my heart and has had a major effect on my experience as a musician. It was the piece that first got me deeply interested in classical music. I was fortunate enough to be able to prepare and perform it with close friends at a New England Music Camp I attend every summer. This work is one of the great artistic achievements of twentieth century music. It has greatly influenced my career as a musician and as a human being, and has been of greet inspiration and comfort to me many times.
I clearly remember the first time I heard the Eighth Quartet. I was twelve and attending New England Music Camp. One of my favorite faculty members, Matthew Quayle, allowed me to borrow a compact disc he thought I would enjoy. It was titled Black Angels, and among other pieces it contained a performance of the Eighth Quartet. I was spellbound and listened to it over and over that afternoon. It struck me as a piece of music that spoke a passionate language that I could understand. It spoke of anguish and suffering, of defiance and courage. I had never heard anything like it before in my life. When I returned from camp, I immersed myself in Shostakovich’s music and learned everything that I could about his life.
I not only admire the Eighth Quartet for its musical aspect, but also for what it represents. When I investigated Shostakovich’s background, I discovered that he composed during Soviet Russia and fought against the tyranny of Stalin and other Soviet rulers by composing music that truly expressed the emotions and thoughts of the Russian people. Because there could be no suggestion that the Soviet regime was anything less than a Marxist paradise, composers were required to compose happy music that glorified the Stalinist regime. Shostakovich, however, refused and was steadfast in composing music that reflected the Russian people’s suffering. That he was able to compose and play such powerful music in face of great opposition has always inspired me.
Shostakovich composed the quartet it in four days while he was visiting Dresden after the firestorm. It is known as one of his most famous compositions. He dedicated it to “the memory of himself” and sent letters to several of his close friends. His son, Maxim, noticed something was wrong and discovered sleeping pills his father had bought. Maxim took them away, suspecting Shostakovich’s planned suicide method. Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet was his musical suicide note. The Quartet is in five movements without pause, a continuous development of an emotional idea. It reflects Shostakovich’s inner turmoil, depression, and lack of hope. The final movement becomes somber and reflective, becoming until the music finally dies away. The depth of meaning and expression in this piece is incredible. I often find myself crying as I listen to the hopelessness and desperation he expresses at the end of the last movement.
When I was fifteen and still attending New England Music Camp, I was fortunate enough to play my favorite movement of this Quartet, a wild dance full of agitation, dissonance, and despair. I played it with three of my closest friends and was coached by my favorite teacher, all of whom shared my love of this work. Furthermore, we performed the movement on electric instruments, which seemed to intensify the piece, in the words of our coach, “into a sound out of Shostakovich’s wildest dreams”. The experience was thrilling, one of the most memorable of my life. I looked forward to quartet rehearsal every day, and all of the rehearsals seemed to pass far too rapidly, as exhausting as they were. The movement we prepared was the most rigorous of the Quartet’s movements. It consists of dissonant cords requiring aggressive attacks, endless and fast aggressive note progressions, and a lot of concentration in order to keep all of the chaotic parts in unison. Although the piece was exhausting to play, we found that we couldn’t stop playing it, and called our group “High on Shosti”, titled after our apparent addiction to the Quartet. I can think of no other time I have enjoyed myself as much as I did when I played with my quartet. We were also able to learn an immense amount of music from our teacher, Jameson Platte. Every session with him, although only an hour long, was exciting and enlightening. Not only was I able to enjoy the thrill of my favorite piece, but I also learned an immense amount about cello performance and technique.
No piece of music can be equivalent to Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. Between its musical excellence and deep expression, I can think of no other piece that has influenced me as much. By immersing myself in the life and works of this great man, Dmitri Shostakovich, I have gained insight into the human cost of Soviet Russia, and have been introduced to many of the heroic Russian artists, like Shostakovich, who fought for freedom of expression in one of Russia’s dark times. The music of Shostakovich truly expresses the power music can have on an individual and on society.