The Emotional Alchemy of Music

Dimitri Shostakovich, born 110 years ago today.

I heard my first live Shostakovich a month ago and I'm still thinking about it.  On a Sunday afternoon in August  the impeccable St. Petersburg String Quartet gave a riveting rendition of the Russian composer's String Quartet No. 8 in C minor (Opus 110).  The performance was a revelation. By the time it was over, I felt like I knew this man.

A Bit About the Composer

Dimitri Shostakovich  (1906-1975)  lived through the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Stalin holocaust.  His entire life he played a game of cat-and-mouse with the Russian government. The stakes: his physical and creative survival.

In order to please Stalin, and save himself, he knuckled under to pressure to pull certain works, such as his Fourth Symphony, and to write "safer" versions to stay in the government's good graces.  He live an oppressed life.  His fifteen string quartets, which for the most part remained private during his lifetime, became the vehicle for his personal feelings.

Quartet No. 8, Broken Down

The piece is marked throughout by a repressed feeling, a sense of constraint and sense of threat.  In it Shostakovich reveals his own mental and emotional state.

Five conjoined movements comprise the piece, which is played straight through without pause: Largo, Allegro, Allegretto, Largo, Largo.  It's an odd mix with all those slow Largo movements.  For musicophiles, there is a repeated melodic variation throughout using the musical equivalent of Shostakovich's initials, the notes D, E-flat, C, and B.

(Listen to the entire Eighth Quartet here23:02)

1/ In the first movement (Largo 4:33) the four instruments (two violins, viola, and cello) weave a spare, layered sound that is both melancholy and slightly menacing.  The atmosphere created is hypnotic.  I was immediately drawn in and caught, like a fly in the spider's web.

2/ The abrupt launch into the frantic second Allegro (2:52) movement filled me with a panicky breathlessness. My heart beat faster and I leaned forward in my seat. The notes themselves sounded as if they wanted to break out of their dissonant harmonies but couldn't.  This movement appears as number five on a YouTube list of "50 Darkest Pieces of Classical Music."

Composer and author Jan Swafford writes in The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, "... this quartet is a self-portrait of the composer, brooding once more on a scene of devastation.”  This second movement captures that intensity

3/ The jaunty and eerie waltz of the third movement (Allegretto 4:05) is dubbed by some critics as a dance of death.  In it, Shostakovich communicates a sense of inevitability and hopelessness, along with a bizarre carefree quality.  In some ways, this combination made it the scariest movement.

4/ The ominous fourth movement (Largo 4:45) enters with three low notes hammered out, threatening blows.  Swafford writes that,  “… the string quartets ... were all along his private rebellion against his times.”  As I listened, I felt the terror Shostakovich must have experienced in his own home as he worked away on his "private music." I felt the crush of oppression, his conflict over the artistic compromises he made with the Russian government, the strait jacket of his survival.  And the fear of the knock at the door, expressed so unequivocally in this movement, signalling who knew what awful portent.

5/ Yet the fourth movement ends with an ethereal, almost pastoral sound, moving directly into the last movement, another Largo (3:40).  This section initially contains more movement and melody.  By the end it dissolves into a slow harmonized melody, a drifting away into the void, a wish for release, perhaps only known through death.

Music's Emotional Alchemy

I have known some scary emotions in my life, frightening ones so huge I felt they could overwhelm me. I have stood on the edge of craziness, fearing for my own sanity.  But these moments passed.  The most difficult circumstances of my life cannot compare to those that Shostakovich experienced, circumstances I can only imagine.

Yet sitting in the acoustically vibrant hall at Music Mountain, listening to the outpouring of this repressed composer, I felt connected to the composer.  Music created a bridge across fifty-plus years from the time the piece was written in 1960 to today, a bridge that linked an oppressed composer living in the dark days of Russia to a 21st-century American woman.

I walked across that bridge and I was changed.

Music can do this, both construct the bridge and show the path across it.

Through sound and vibration I experienced the visceral physicality of repression. I was transported to another place, another body, another time. My heart was softened up a bit, and my view of the world expanded.

This is the power of music.  This is the emotional alchemy that can take place in live performance.