artwork by Laura Thurbon
October - November
Songs of Thanksgiving
String Quartet No.1 in C Major, Op.49 Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)
~ break ~
String Quartet No.15 in A minor, Op. 132 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Assai sostenuto - Allegro
Allegro ma non tanto
Alla marcia, assai vivace
Friday, November 2 - 7:00pm in Newton
Sunday, November 4 - 2:00pm in Lexington
Sunday, November 18 - 2:00pm in Lexington
Monday, November 19 - 7:00pm in Winchester
Tuesday, November 20 - 7:00pm in Boston
Friday, November 23 - 7:00pm in Newton
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This season marks the fourth year of our 15-year project pairing the string quartets of Shostakovich and Beethoven and this year’s chapter brings us two of my favorites: Shostakovich’s very first string quartet, and one of Beethoven’s last.
Like Beethoven before him, Shostakovich waited until he was artistically mature to compose his first string quartet. At 31 years old, he had met some huge successes as well as a few crushing disappointments. He writes, “I wrote the first page as a sort of original exercise in the quartet form, not thinking about subsequently completing and releasing it. As a rule, I fairly often write things I don’t publish. They are my type of composer’s studies. But then work on the quartet captivated me and I finished it rather quickly.” Indeed it took Shostakovich just six weeks to finish this work.
This first quartet may come as a surprise to those of you who know Shostakovich’s music well. It is remarkably sunny, and almost entirely devoid of the dissonant, tense writing we associate with much of Shostakovich’s output. He himself described the piece as “Spring-like,” though we think it will work just as well in the Fall!
Beethoven’s extraordinary Op. 132 string quartet, his 15th contribution to this genre, is in my opinion one of the most profound pieces of music ever written. Truly a miracle of creativity and expression, particularly given the incredible challenges Beethoven faced throughout his troubled life. He instructs the performers to play with “the most intimate feeling”, and indeed the writing in this passage and throughout the movement is an incredibly personal reflection by this extraordinary man as he reaches the end of his life. Having grappled with countless health problems, including, famously losing his hearing, Beethoven fell gravely ill as he was writing his Op. 132 quartet and in fact thought for a time that his illness would be fatal. This halted his work on this quartet for a time, but he recovered, and the glorious 3rd movement of the quartet is his response to this miraculous turn of events.
Beethoven’s title to that movement translates as “Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity from a convalescent in the Lydian mode.” His use of the Lydian mode, and the chorale setting of the four voices of the string quartet create a holy space that reflects his immense gratitude to be alive. The patient chorale is interrupted by outbursts of exuberance, where Beethoven writes in the score “feeling new strength.” These moments feel like outbursts of joyous energy interrupting the transcendent peace of the chorale writing. The piece seems to demonstrate Beethoven’s continued belief in the triumph of the human spirit against all odds. It is a theme that returns in many of Beethoven’s works during each period of his life, but this sense of hope is all the more meaningful when you consider Beethoven at the end of his life, utterly deaf and having faced almost every personal challenge you can imagine.
- Sasha Callahan