Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Major: Klezmer Strains

Dmitri Shostakovich composed his String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 68 over the course of 19 days in September of 1944. He had just completed the haunting Second Piano Trio, and (a year earlier) the Eighth Symphony. While the Second World War still raged, the tide had turned, and a Soviet victory over the Nazis was all but assured. Shostakovich found refuge at a “house of rest and creativity,” a government-sponsored retreat for writers and composers in Ivanovo, approximately 300 kilometers northeast of Moscow. Two months after its completion, the Second String Quartet was premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, along with the Second Piano Trio at a concert in Leningrad on November 12, 1944. The score was dedicated to the composer, Vissarion J. Shebalin, whom Shostakovich lauded as an example of “goodness, honesty and exceptional adherence to principle.”

The musicologist, Kai Christiansen, notes that Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies “were large spectacles staged for grand public expression subject to broad scrutiny by a totalitarian regime, subject, as well, to the changing complex public image Shostakovich chose, or was forced, to display.” In contrast, the fifteen string quartets, the first of which was written in 1938, and the last of which came a year before the composer’s death in 1974, offered a private, intimate escape. In the words of Christiansen, “they embody music Shostakovich wrote for colleagues, friends, family and himself.” Occasionally, in the string quartets, Shostakovich attempts to enter the metaphysical expanses of Beethoven’s late quartets.

As with the music of Mahler, the sounds of klezmer folk tunes waft in from remote Russian and Ukrainian villages. Judith Kuhn writes that Shostakovich’s unique “twist on folk music

was to make use of the inflections of the music of Eastern European Jewry, an ethnic group historically oppressed within Russia and Eastern Europe. ‘Jewish’ inflections, whether related to klezmer or to sacred sources, saturate the Second Quartet with their syncopated rhythms, ‘oom-pa’ accompaniments, ambivalent minor-mode dances, and ‘oriental’ augmented seconds.

Unfolding in sonata form, the first movement (Moderato con moto) bears the unusual title, “Overture.” In the opening bars, the first violin introduces an exuberant melody which brightly proclaims A major. With jubilant athleticism, the melodic line leaps, accompanied by open fifths. Soon, the cello picks up the theme. In his biography of Shostakovich, Ian MacDonald hears “some mannerism of Stalin’s personality or style of speech” in the nervous second theme.

The second movement (Recitative and Romance. Adagio) enters the time-altering world of late Beethoven. The violin engages in a lamenting soliloquy which takes the form of an extended recitative. The cello opens the door to the tender, wistful Romance. The movement concludes with a return of the recitative, and the simple closing cadence of a hymn.

The third movement is a nervous, rhythmically off-kilter waltz. Muted throughout, the instrumental voices engage in a veiled, melancholy dance. The lines sweep in and dissipate as ghostly breezes.

The final movement (Adagio – Moderato con moto) is a theme and variations. The plaintive theme is introduced by the viola and suggests a Russian folk song. Out of this simple melodic seed explodes a series of far-flung musical adventures which include wild, sardonic dances, lamentations, and valiant declarations. The final cadence resolves, not in the home key of A major, but with a tragic turn to the parallel minor.

I. Ouverture. Moderato con moto:

II. Recitative and Romance. Adagio:

III. Waltz. Allegro:

IV. Theme with Variations. Adagio – Moderato con moto:

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About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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