Review Summary: Dmitri Shostakovich’s 8th opus for a string quartet is more than just another expedition into the world of 20th century neoclassicism, it’s an unapologetic outlet of emotions ‘dedicated to the victims of fascism and war’.
‘Dedicated towards the victims of fascism and war’; this dedication has sparked much debate as to why Shostakovich attached this particular sentiment to this opus. One Google search and you’d find out about his debilitating disease, his forced joining of the Russian communist party and plans of suicide. Some say the dedication was meant as an epitaph to himself, some claim it was imposed by the authorities, but let’s not forget that Shostakovich lived through two world wars and thus saw the consequences. He saw families bereaved of loved ones, the devastating struggles war imposed, and the frantic scare of sudden attack. I personally believe this opus is documentation of the feelings of all those that were wronged by the greedy and the deluded. Even if it is the case that the authorities did tell him to write and dedicate this opus the way he did - even if it is the case that the dedication is based entirely on the struggles that he had to face himself - there is one thing that I am absolutely certain of… he meant and felt every single damn note of it.
The very opening motif of the first movement, based on the letters of his name, immediately mark this release as a deeply personal one, and as the contrapuntal motifs spiral around each other in the opening passage, an image of grief is quite clearly stated. As the texture shifts and more chromatic ideas are introduced, Shostakovich keeps the sorrowful atmosphere sustained for over five minutes without ever losing a constant sense of bleak hopelessness.
When the second movement arrives it comes with a kick, changing the plodding tempo of the first movement into a fast paced fight for survival. With greater sense of pulse and energy, Shostakovich evokes a sense panic and despair. The violins screech and the cello hysterically attacks the bass notes, conjuring an image of the desperation of the innocent having war waged against them.
The following three movements have characteristics that lie between those of the first two, but the suite doesn't ever feel repetitive or drawn out. Lasting only 20 minutes, Shostakovich gives us a heartfelt, concise, yet fully explored account of the emotions felt by many in the early 20th century.
With every single listen I have of this gloriously emotional suite it becomes more and more apparent to me that the dedication was a genuine gesture of empathy towards those who faced misfortune. It’s a dark, but incredibly beautiful and well put together opus of music that speaks volumes more than any lyric could, and stands out as being of the best 20th century neoclassicism has to offer.