As a composer in the USSR, Shostakovich had to obtain the approval of Soviet officials whenever he published a new piece. He was denounced twice under Stalin’s regime, and so, when this piece was written in 1960, he allowed Khrushchev’s government to present it as a reaction to the destruction of Communist East Germany during the Second World War. However, many musicologists now consider the work to be a kind of musical autobiography, and some have even suggested that it is a suicide note, as it was published shortly after Shostakovich had given into pressure to join the Communist Party, going against his own morals in the process.
The movement is written in arch form – ABCB1A1 – which is unusual in classical music (it is more frequently seen in minimalism). The full structure is:
- Section A – bars 1-27 (with an introduction in bars 1-11)
- Section B – bars 28-49
- Section C – bars 50-85
- Section B1 – bars 86-104
- Section A1 – bars 104-126
With the exception of B1, every section ends with a statement of Shostakovich’s DSCH motif at its original pitch, which signals a transition between the different parts of the piece.
Section A1 leads directly into the second movement, with no break between the two.
The texture of the piece can generally be considered to be contrapuntal, although the movement of the different parts is often relatively static.
In bars 1-11, the piece begins with imitative entries of the DSCH motif (starting with a monophonic cello), before going into two part counterpoint in bars 19-23. Bars 23-27 use a homorhythmic texture, and bars 28-45 use melody dominated homophony with drones. Other textures include the use of melody and countermelody in bars 50-78 and four part free-counterpoint in bars 92-94. There is also use of parallels, for example the octaves in bars 11-12.
Harmony and Tonality
The main key of the piece is C minor, although the tonality is often ambiguous. For example, the first four entries in section A use all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, and bars 11-16 use a B natural violin pedal coupled with chromatic movement in the viola and cello.
The quote from Shostakovich’s First Symphony (bars 16-23) hints at C# minor, B minor and A minor. Later, the E naturals in bars 55-71 suggest C major, but the D flats hint at F minor. Bars 86-91 are in A minor, and there is a brief phrase in C major in bars 95-104, before the piece settles in C minor in section A1.
The dissonances used are generally not overt, although there is an appoggiatura in bars 82-83, while the perfect cadence in bar 27 contains a 9-8 suspension. Other harmonic features include the tonic and dominant pedals in bars 28-49, and the enharmonic alteration of the final note (from Ab to G#) to create a transition into the second movement.
The piece uses a standard string quartet (two violins, viola and cello), with the low tessitura used by all four instruments contributing to the sombre mood. Open strings are rarely used (as is common in modern string music, as performers will often want to use vibrato on most notes).
Rhythm and Metre
The time signature of the piece is 4/4, but the tempo marking indicates a minim beat (which lends itself to the slow tempo). Many of the notes throughout the piece are sustained, particularly in sections B and C (for example, in bars 28-49), and there is rhythmic augmentation of the DSCH motif in bars 79-82.
There is some syncopation at cadences (such as in bars 24-25 and 120-121), and the Symphony no. 1 quote uses dotted rhythms. Otherwise, the rhythms used are simple, and the piece is not technically challenging.
As has been mentioned, there are numerous uses throughout the piece of the DSCH motif. This series of four notes (D, Eb, C, B natural) corresponds in the German musical alphabet to Shostakovich’s initials, and he uses it in a number of his works. In bar 118, the second violin plays this motif followed immediately by a countermelody (this countermelody also appears in bar 55, and is used as the main melody at bar 50).
There are a number of musical quotes in this movement – Shostakovich quotes his own First Symphony in bars 11-23, and in bar 55 combines two themes from his Fifth Symphony. Some musicologists have suggested that the expressive falling melody in bars 25-45 is a parody of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetique’ Symphony.
The movement of the melody is generally conjunct, including scalic (bars 67-70) and chromatic scalic (bars 28-30 and 87-89) passages. There is also a sequence in bars 19-23. Despite this, the melodies often use a narrow range of pitches.