Writing to Music: Shostakovich String Quartet No.

8 in C Minor Year II Workshop, Fall 2011
Sean Mills

Free writing (5 minutes) Brief Introduction: Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor Op. 110 was written in three days, July 12–14 1960, and it was premiered in Leningrad that the same year by the Beethoven Quartet, for which Shostakovich wrote most of his fifteen string quartets. (Show CD cover of Shostakovich onstage with the Beethoven Quartet). Ask students if they know what a string quartet is and which instruments are involved. (A string quartet is a musical ensemble of four string players—usually two violin players, a violist and a cellist; the string quartet is one of the most prominent chamber ensembles in classical music.) FFW: Loop 1 (10–12 minutes): I will play the first three relatively short movements separately. Listen to each and write as you listen, recording your impressions freely. You may draw associations between your own language and what you hear. Also, try to describe any visual scenes or images that come to mind. Movement I is called ―Largo‖ (from the Italian meaning slow and broad, or the Latin word largus, abundant). It has a very slow tempo. Movement II is ―Allegro molto.‖ It is much faster, very brisk and energetic. Movement III is labeled ―Allegretto,‖ which is faster than a largo or an andante (meaning moderately slow) but is slower than an allegro. FFW: Loop 2 (10 minutes): This time I will give you more information about the context of the music. The Eighth Quartet was written during the composer’s stay in Dresden while working on the film score for Five Days, Five Nights, a Soviet–East German film (a wartime story about Soviet soldiers helping recover remnants of art from the Zwinger Palace after the American and British firebombing of Dresden in 1945.) The music of the quartet is completely separate from the film score, but its dedication reads: ―To the memory of the victims of fascism and wars.‖ (Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s son, interprets this to mean it as a reference to the victims of all totalitarianism, while his daughter Galina said it was dedicated to the composer himself.) By nature, non-programmatic instrumental music is considered to be absolute and subjective to the listener—that is, it speaks nothing but sound. Richard Wagner famously said, ―Where music can go no further, there comes the word.‖ For this loop, you don’t have to be an expert on the time period or have any particular historical knowledge about this piece or when it was written. Write as you listen again and try to record what you’re hearing that evokes the emotional aspects of the piece. Allow yourself to bring your own words to what you’re hearing as I play the three movements in succession.

Share (10 minutes; voluntary): What are you hearing? Choose one of your FFWs, either the one of your purest impressions or the second one, in which you try to imagine the context or a story, and read aloud the words that came to the page while listening. FFW: Loop 3 (10 minutes; post-listening): This quartet was written very quickly and surreptitiously, in ―white heat,‖ it is often said, while he was composing the film score. Because of the Soviet regime’s fear of dark and tragic personal expression, the composer suppressed the quartet, but said later in his memoirs, ―the eighth is an autobiographical quartet.‖ As you can hear, it is an outpouring, a deeply personal statement. It was written at a difficult time in the composer’s life when he was dealing with illness and personal crisis. In the opening four-note motif of the first movement, Shostakovich uses his own name—D.Sch.—an abbreviation, which is made up of the notes D, E-flat, C, and B (in Russia, as in Germany, ―S‖ is E-flat, and B is ―H,‖ and is the equivalent of B-flat). The composer also quotes himself in the quartet, reinterpreting his previous work. He references his Symphonies 1, 5, and 10, the Piano Trio, the Cello Concerto No. 1, and his opera Lady Macbeth. Thinking about all of this, reflect on what we’ve been writing in our workshop so far, with names (your own name and what it means to you), your personal statements (consider our small group critique of Catherine Sbeglia’s essay about personal tragedy and overcoming it), and your own narratives. Write for 10 minutes on what you now know and have responded to in the music as it relates to your experience with personal statements. Share (10 minutes; voluntary): Ask students to read from Loop 3 about their own personal reflections related to the listening exercise. Process: (5 minutes): As a wrap-up, write about the overall experience of this session and how it made you think or feel differently from other writing exercises.