Dmitri Shostakovich: Quartet No. 8
Few 20th century chamber works speak more directly of desolation than Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet. Inlaid with quotes from his own oeuvre, and with references to Wagner’s funeral march for Siegfried and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony, the quartet can be heard both as a summation of multiple tragedies past and as a portent of impending death. Yet the composer’s own intentions are not entirely clear. We know that in June 1960 Shostakovich joined the Communist Party, a decision which was pragmatic but oddly timed, as the harshest years of Soviet artistic repression, under Stalin, were long past; that one month later, during a stay in Dresden to work on the score for a film about post-war devastation, Shostakovich spent three days compulsively writing the string quartet instead; deep personal torment seems intertwined here with a sense of broader collective loss. Like Siegfried’s death, one man’s tragedy, in the context of an epic societal struggle, takes on larger meanings. A four note sequence representing Shostakovich’s name (D Eb C B) acts as a unifying motif. It opens the first movement, is compressed in the second, becomes a waltz in the third, and is echoed in the phrases preceding the fourth movement’s “raps at the door.” The Largo fifth movement recapitulates material from the first, and ends with a tonic drone underneath a slowly shifting Ab to G, bringing harmonic, but not emotional, resolution.
Viktor Ullmann: String Quartet No. 3
The Third Quartet can in many ways be seen as a culmination of Ullmann’s development as a composer. In it one finds an exemplary balance of rigor and passion, a compelling formal logic, and a wealth of beautiful melodic writing. Although the work unfolds in a single musical span, its structure can easily be divided into a traditional four-movement structure where each of the four movements is linked by sophisticated motivic inter-relations. The first movement, Allegro moderato is primarily lyrical in character and full of wonderfully luxurious harmonic writing, lightened at one point by a wonderfully waltz-like melody. The second, Presto, is ferocious and violent in much the same way as the second movement of Shotakovich’s famous Eighth Quartet. If the first movement has introduced the protag- onists of our story, then the second has brought us music fit for the vilest villains. Before the third movement begins Ullmann brings back a passionate and despairing reminiscence of the first movement- what was nostalgia in the first movement is now transformed into genuine despair. The third movement, Largo, is truly the work’s heart of darkness, beginning with a fugue of desolate and unrelenting intensity. The waltz theme of the first movement here returns full of sadness. Like the Presto before it, the character of the Rondo Finale is overwhelmingly antagonistic, violent and often terrifying, and is built from a horrific manipulation of the theme of the first movement. However, just when all is despair, Ullmann brings back the music of the first movement in the shape we first encountered it, but nostalgia replaced by defiance and regret replaced by passion. Ullman’s voice represents passionate defiance from within the walls of the concentration camp during humanity’s darkest hour. If ever any person wrote truly courageous music, it was surely Ullmann and this is surely that music.
George Cohen: Playing for our lives
Playing for our lives was composed for the Cassatt String Quartet, who gave the premiere of the piece at Symphony Space in February 2012. The Cassatts planned a program of music of the composers who were interned in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin (Theresienstadt), and asked me to compose a piece which would be a contemporary memorial and tribute to the musical life of that place. Terezin, near Prague, was in essence a transit camp, where Jews and some other prisoners were kept until transport to the death camps such as Auschwitz. The Nazis allowed a certain amount of art and education to take place at Terezin, both as a way of occupying the prisoners, and also since it served their purpose of deceiving the world as to the nature of concentration camps in general. And there were a great number of excellent artists of all sorts in the camp, among those many excellent performers and several excellent composers—and so musical life flourished with a passion in these very strange surroundings.
In my string quartet, I have used several musical essences of the life at Terezin. One is the Yiddish folk song “Beryozkele” (Little birch tree), a poignant song that was arranged there by the composer Viktor Ullmann (I use the melody, not his arrangement). Folk songs—Czech, Hebrew and Yiddish—were important parts of the lives especially of the children at Terezin, who sang them in choirs formed in their barracks. The second is a lullaby from Hans Krasa’s opera Brundibar, which was one of the most important musical experiences of Terezin--an opera performed entirely by children as the singers, and which was so popular there that it was performed more than 50 times. Finally, I use excerpts from Verdi’s Requiem, a piece that was championed at Terezin by the dynamic conductor Rafael Schachter, and was also performed many times, but by three different choruses--as after each of the first two performances, virtually the entire chorus was transported to their deaths at Auschwitz.
With all of these pieces, but especially the Requiem, the layers of paradox and poignancy are extraordinarily powerful: for the prisoners, music was something that gave them deep joy; at the same time, the Nazis used the concerts as a propaganda tool to fool the world as to the nature of the camp. The Requiem spoke to people of their own deaths, but at the same time, in speaking of a Dies Irae—a day of wrath—was a defiant stab at the Nazis.
In my quartet, these various feelings and musical elements are woven together to create a memorial to the musical and emotional life of the camp. “Beryozkele” and its tender lament dominate the early part of the piece; the middle section is a set of variations on the lullaby from Brundibar, as the music attempts to bring the joy of that piece to the fore; and the final section is dominated by elements of the Requiem, with its passion, anger, and also quiet mourning.
The title of the piece is inspired by a quote from Paul Rabinowitsch, who at the age of 14, was the trumpet player in Brundibar, and was one of the few in that opera to survive the war: “When the SS was present, I always had this shadowy feeling at the back of my head. I knew I could not play wrong, and you can hear every wrong note very clearly on a trumpet. Rahm [the commandant of Terezin] would notice, I thought to myself, and be mad at me, and put me on a transport. And in those moments it was as if I were playing for my life.”