top of page



Shostakovich cycle

An analysis/proposal for the Flinders Quartet 2019


The full tonal scheme of Shostakovich’s proposed 24 quartets can be considered as an overall “tone poem.”

It is the heir to the influence of Bach’s 24 preludes and fugues and the use of the motif B-A-C-H, with its defined tonal scheme. (Major to minor then ascending a semitone)


Shostakovich acknowledged his debt to Bach with his 24 preludes and fugues op 87  - but with major to relative minor and using the dominant as the tonic for the next so the structure becomes ascending sharps (major/rel. minor) and descending flats.


For the string quartets he used the submediant to define the tonic of the rising scale so the cycle has an increasing number of flats and a decreasing number of sharps.


This is fine until grief demands a change at quartet no. 7 with a cry of anguish in F sharp minor and then again at Q9 with a shift to E flat major but as explained by one analysis, the cycle remains (or returns ) to mathematical rigour.


Further, Shostakovich’s debt to Bach (B-A-C-H) continues with his repeated use of the motif D-S-C-H  -his initials which translated from the German musical notation are the D –S – E flat- C.

An explanation for this is at :


Shostakovich String Quartets


and this explanation identifies the keys in the quartets that corresponded to his initials. Q4 (D): Q9 (S or E flat): Q1 (C): Q16 (H or B).


From this I have identified a cycle based on both this overall structural breakdown that considers these quartets and others in the cycle that are compositionally driven by the DSCH motif, and then considered which are the movements that are the central drivers of the quartets, compositionally most importantly but also chronologically which as most analysts agree, and particularly Wendy Lesser, his music is better understood within the personal/socio/political environment within which it was composed.


This Cycle proposal, takes as a starting point each movement of his last quartet Q15, which also defines each chapter of Lesser’s book, and ‘populates’ it with music drawn across the range of the quartets with the aim of drawing a narrative that allows the music to evoke the creative journey of Shostakovich’s life – as Lesser attempted to do with the structure of her book.


There is much more that can be said about all of this,

but all it needs, is to result in a connected musical flow and be a program that is manageable physically, technically and emotionally by the players.

So conceptually, each of the Q15 movements, (itself a reflective introspection) hang in the space which is the filled by reminisces.


“In the wake of Tchaikovsky, Adagio was not simply a tempo marking in Russian music but a mode of musical thinking implying an act of remembrance.” (Dr. Sigrid Neef – liner notes for complete set of Shostokovich quartets by Borodin Quartet (BMG – Melodiya)





  1. Elergy – Adagio, attacca.


Q1(1938)      Moderato


                        Allegro molto

                        *– in the draft this was originally the first movement but was felt to be too optimistic and may have been politically misinterpreted so was shifted to last. Interesting to now play this as first to better reflect the intent.

Program notes softened it a little: “don’t expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical – I would call it “spring-like.” ( he didn’t want it to be compared to his monumental 5thSymphony – it’s a change of style after pressures of social realism where affecting him).


  1. Serenade – Adagio, 


Q4 (1949)     Allegretto



                        he had been under intense political pressure, his music denounced. As a negotiation of accepting representation as a Soviet delegate abroad to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York a ban on performances was lifted by Stalin and he participated in U.S. commitments very much as a puppet voice of the Soviet ideal . Maybe given confidence by contact with Bartok, his identification with folk music, Jewish in particular, its tonalities and modulations and the burying of despair in dance music, he thought he could escape political censure.  

This Q was written on his return from the U.S. but after 2 performances to the censuring Committee for Artistic Affairs, was considered risky and was put aside until after the death of Stalin.


  1. Intermezzo – Adagio,


Q6 (1956)     Allegretto

                        Moderato con moto


                        Lento – Allegretto

The 3rdmovement is a passacaglia in B flat minor. Perhaps reflects how Shostakovich use musical forms to express his feelings. 

“The third movement remembers the dead. Ever since the 8thSymphony of 1943, Shostakovich had chosen the form of passacaglia – a set of variations on an unvarying ground – as a symbol of grief and remembrance.” (Dr. Sigrid Neef – liner notes for complete set of Shostokovich quartets by Borodin Quartet (BMG – Melodiya)


  1. Nocturne –Adagio, 

Q7 (1960) 13 mins.

Allegro ,


Allegro – Allegretto


In F sharp minor, this quartet disrupts the tonal rule and is suggested here as a full quartet. It is a turning point in the tonal scheme – an interjection into the mathematical ‘grand plan’ and so can be seen as a chance to give full narrative voice to the middle of the more mashed up cycle. It somehow gives space to its meaning and the process of dedication and memory. It’s a turning point in the cycle so is better played as a full quartet rather than the most popular 8th– gives the cycle a bit more uncompromising edge. 

Written to the memory of his wife Nina, his pain is mirrored in this choice of key. It has precedents -  ‘It was used by Bach in the St John passion and Mahler in his tortured and unfinished tenth symphony following the collapse of his marriage – Mahler scribbled on the score “to live for you! to die for you.


  1. Funeral March – Adagio molto, attacca


Q8 (1960)


Allegro molto , 




This was written while in Dresden writing a film score concerned with the ruin of Dresden – often called the Dresden Quartet, - Shostakovich identifies this with through his dedication “In remembrance of the Victims of Fascism and war” – but later scholarship based on his claimed memoirs takes this further and locates it as firmly autobiographical as by extension to all Russians and particularly in this movement with quotation  known by all Russians “Exhausted by the hardships of prison.”







  1. Epilogue – Adagio



Q9 (1964)     

Allegro - unlike others there is no morendo – “most exhilarating final in the whole cycle –finish on a high point –like a footnote to optimism 



Q10 3rdmovement– extends the narrative of passacaglia

(a theme with 8 subtle variation – sublime and heart breaking)

This would probably only work here if the Q 9 is included.








Playlist summary 


1.  Q15i.elergy – adagio. -12’33”


 Q1 iv. allegro molto  -2’20”


  1. Q15ii.serenade – adagio, -5’28”


 Q4 iv. allegretto  - 9’30”


  1. Q15 iii.Intermezzo – adagio, – 2’01”


 Q6 iii, lento, 


      4.    Q15iv. Nocturne –adagio, -5’ 04”


 Q7  - 13 mins.

 i.  Allegro , 

 ii. Lento, 

 iii. Allegro – allegretto                                              57’26” - Interval


  1. Q15v. Funeral march – adagio molto,  - 4’55”


 Q8  iii. largo, – 4’45”


       6.  Q15vi. Epilogue – adagio – 6’45”


Q #9   v. Allegro  - 9’55”                                         30’20”  87’46”


Q10 iv. Allegretto –Andante  - 6’32”                       plus encore:   94’18”

bottom of page