Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich was born in September of 1906. At the age of nine, he began taking piano lessons from his mother, and at thirteen he entered the Petrograd Conservatory. There he studied piano, composition, counterpoint and fugue. After graduating, he started a career as both a pianist and a composer, but soon restricted his piano playing to performances of his own works. His early compositions showed a number of diverse influences from both “traditional” composers and avant-garde trailblazers.
In 1928, Joseph Stalin implemented his first Five-Year Plan. The Soviet Union had been experiencing war threats from Western nations as well as dissatisfaction from the lower class, so Stalin called for rapid industrialization and unification in the event war broke out. Shostakovich’s avant-garde and unique style was shunned. Much of his music shows political influences and messages as well, and it is debated whether he was either a loyal Soviet or a strong dissident.
Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet is performed more frequently than all of his fourteen other quartets combined. The piece is in five movements, each leading right into the next. The opening motif of the piece is repeated throughout each movement, as well as in many of Shostakovich’s other works. The motif, D - E♭ - C - B♮, serves as a sort of signature for him. (DSCH is equivalent to D - E♭ - C - B♮ in German notation, and was representative of D. Sch. – Dmitri Shostakovich.) The first movement is labeled Largo and the second Allegro Molto. The third movement is reminiscent of a waltz, and the fourth movement contains a theme of three eighth notes on the same pitch, reminiscent of knocks on a door.
A recording by the Kronos String Quartet is highlighted below. This quartet, based in San Francisco, California, was founded in 1973. This usually KSQ specializes in the performance of new music, having commissioned many works for their ensemble. This is their take on a canonized classic...