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Unrhymed Poetry

String Quartet in D-major, Op.18, No.3        |       Ludwig van Beethoven (1770—1827)



II. Andante con moto

III. Allegro

IV. Presto



String Quartet No.5 in B-flat major, Op.92       |       Dmitri Shostakovich (1906—1975)


I. Allegro non troppo

II. Andante

III. Moderato                   

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We continue to explore the full breadth of Shostakovich and Beethoven quartets each year, and in this pairing, we meet the two composers at pivotal moments in their lives. Shostakovich wrote his 5th quartet in 1952, at a very dark time—one year before Stalin would die—and kept it hidden until he felt safe enough to publish it more than a year later. Beethoven’s opus 18 no. 3 quartet was actually composed first, but he did not place it as opus 18, no. 1 because of the impression that the “first” would make on the world and the rest of his career. It is masterfully crafted, but understated, and he tucked it away in the middle of his set of six initial quartets. 


I chose to name this program Unrhymed Poetry, from Walt Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass, because the structure of both pieces is delightfully fluid, and the outbreaks of passion, darkness, and humor in the Shostakovich seem related to Whitman’s candor and disdain for poetic structural convention. The op.18 no. 3 of Beethoven, while it definitely shows awareness of tradition, contains some of the most earnest and beautiful music I know—emotional, precisely crafted, and absolute poetry, without a single superfluous note. So, as I was reading the Whitman preface, it struck me as somehow a kindred spirit to this music. All were written by strong personalities, attuned to the people they lived among and the times, expressing through art something truly original about their lives. Whitman wrote:


"…but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors…but always most in the common people…their deathless attachment to freedom—their curiosity and welcome of novelty—their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy—their susceptibility to a slight—the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors—the fluency of their speech—their delight in music…their good temper and open-handedness—the terrible significance of their elections—the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry."


Shostakovich wrote about Beethoven in The New York Times on December 20, 1931:

"There can be no music without ideology. The old composers, whether they knew it or not, were upholding a political theory. Most of them, of course, were bolstering the rule of the upper classes. Only Beethoven was a forerunner of the revolutionary movement. If you read his letters, you will see how often he wrote to his friends that he wished to give new ideas to the public and rouse it to revolt against its masters."


In this particular quartet, we probably don’t feel the full power that would compel the Times quote above, but the seeds are there distinctly. At the beginning you might think you’re listening to Haydn or Mozart; as the work develops, Beethoven's innovative and experimental stamp is revealed.


Shostakovich, on the other hand, was reeling from the effects of ideology being forced upon artists when he wrote his fifth quartet. Composers were being censored and punished, and Shostakovich had just been forced to publicly read a humiliating apology for writing music that “dwells too much on the dark and fearful aspects of reality”. He wrote some cheerful-on-the-surface music to appease the Communist Party, but continued to write honestly in private. This piece shares with us some of his inner thoughts, including, I believe, mourning for friends whose voices had been silenced, and passion for his student, Galina Ustvolskaya, a brilliant composer who did not return his feelings. In the first movement, he quotes the theme from a trio she wrote, full of energy and promise.

- Megumi Stohs Lewis

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