String Quartet No. 1 (Shostakovich)

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Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 1 in C major (Op. 49) was composed in six weeks during the summer of 1938. It carries no dedication.

This string quartet has none of the bravura of the fifth symphony which preceded it. Instead, the composer seemed to have discovered a new kind of distinctly Russian neoclassicism. The tone is chiefly optimistic, although the minor-keyed inner movements provide a contrast. Shostakovich wrote of this quartet "I visualized childhood scenes, somewhat naïve and bright moods associated with spring."[1][2]


The work was premiered in Leningrad on 10 October 1938 by the Glazunov Quartet. It was also premiered in Moscow on 16 November 1938 by the Beethoven Quartet. This premiere began a lifelong friendship between Shostakovich and the quartet.[3]


In the traditional style of a string quartet, the work has four movements:

  1. Moderato (4 min.)
  2. Moderato (5 min.)
  3. Allegro molto (2 min.)
  4. Allegro (3 min.)

Playing time is approximately 14 minutes.

First Movement

The first movement, in C major, is in sonata-allegro form. The exposition starts with flowing chords under an opening theme, which then moves to a tentative but happy second theme pushed along by continuous short notes. After a brief development section and recapitulation, the movement closes with a content coda (ending).

Second Movement

The happy mood of the first movement is contrasted by the slow second movement, in A minor. It consists of eight variations on a folk tune melody first played on the solo viola. This melody is not actually from a Russian folksong, but a creation by Shostakovich based on folksong tradition. After four melancholy variations, the music moves into a lighter mood for two variations, then back into minor for the last two variations. The movement ends with a pizzicato A minor chord.

Third Movement

The third movement, a scherzo, is set in the remote key of C-sharp minor. It begins with a single note quickly repeated on the viola in 3/4 time, creating a nervous mood. After a bit of fast melody, it then moves to a trio in F-sharp major which is slightly more relaxed, but still apprehensive and quick. The scherzo is repeated again, and an ironic coda, which references the trio, brings a close to the movement.

Fourth Movement

The last movement, in the home key of C major, brings the springlike mood back full force, in the form of an energetic finale. The opening immediately sets a cheerful mood with trills and light-hearted melodies. There is, however, still a darker side which clashes with the happy mood in the exciting development, which leads to the vibrant recapitulation and coda. The ending bars are an impressive climax, with the viola and cello playing rapid notes in their lowest registers while the violins hammer out C major chords above.



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