The Legend of the Eighth Quartet

Three decades of misrepresentation

It was once a standard component of the Shostakovich-as-Communist myth that his Eighth Quartet was a protest against war and (Nazi) fascism provoked by its composer's shock at seeing the ruins of Dresden in July 1960. While still peddled in sleeve-notes, this idea seems increasingly dubious. Writing in 1989 in The New Shostakovich, I suggested that the quartet was indeed a piece of protest music, but a protest instead against the Communist Party into which Shostakovich was then in the process of being forcibly enrolled.

This guess was confirmed by the composer's colleague Lev Lebedinsky in his letter to Novy Mir (1990, No. 3). The Eighth Quartet, writes Lebedinsky, was meant as a last testament, following which Shostakovich had intended to kill himself rather than face the shame of being misrepresented to the world as a Communist. Only the urgings of his friends dissuaded him from suicide.

Clearly, this new explanation of the Eighth Quartet makes better sense than the old one, accounting (as the latter did not) for the work's pointedly autobiographical content. As for its sub-title, this, too, conceals another meaning. For years before the slogans and placards against "fascism" (ie., Communism) appeared during the coup of August 1991, Soviet Communists had been called fascists by their dissident opponents. Following the "bodyguard of lies" method employed by him to protect the hidden agenda of several earlier works, Shostakovich seems to have invoked the standard post-war East European formula of a "Memorial to the Victims of Fascism" to cover himself against Soviet reprisals whilst indicating his true intentions to his fellow dissidents.

Possibly this idea occurred to him while he was in Dresden in July 1960, perhaps after visiting such a memorial. There is no need, however, to believe that the quartet was composed (as distinct from being merely written down) in those legendary three days. If the new explanation of the genesis of the work is correct, Shostakovich must have been thinking about it for some time - indeed, if his usual practice is anything to go by, he had almost certainly composed most of it in his head before arriving in Dresden.

If this is true, why did he choose that time and place in which to write it down? It is conceivable that this much of the old legend of the Eighth Quartet is authentic: that though the music itself had already been composed, it was the sight of Dresden in ruins that galvanized Shostakovich into committing it to paper. On the other hand, there is the more prosaic possibility that staying at the ministerial guest-house at Gohrisch merely offered the composer a convenient break in which to do some writing and that the sight of Dresden played no part either in the conception of the music or in spurring it to be set down.

Evidence to support this alternative conclusion is provided by an article in Sachsische Neueste Nachrichten (13th August 1975) in which the journal's music critic Hermann Werner Finke asserts that Shostakovich first visited Dresden while in East Germany for the Bach Festival held at Leipzig during the week of 23rd-29th July 1950. During this stay in the city, according to Finke, Shostakovich amongst other things attended a concert by the Oborin-Oistrakh-Knushevitsky trio at Dresden's Great Hall and visited the Academy of Music and Theatre on Mendelsohn Avenue. As to how much of the city he saw, the itinerary sketched by Finke implies at least a day's activity - and since the round trip from Leipzig to Dresden is one hundred and fifty miles (suggesting that the composer must have stayed in Dresden overnight), the likelihood that Shostakovich's East German hosts could have spirited him in and out of the city without letting him see the state it was in (or, indeed, that they had some motive for doing so) seems small.

Having in all probability seen the full extent of the ruination of Dresden in 1950, it seems unlikely that Shostakovich would have found a similar experience in 1960 traumatic in itself, let alone the shocking stimulus to creation crucial to the old legend of the Eighth Quartet. What may actually have happened is that Dresden in 1960 reminded Shostakovich of Dresden in 1950 - and hence of himself in 1950, arguably the loneliest, most politically repressed period in his life. Since such an explanation accords convincingly with the quartet's autobiographical and anti-Communist nature, I would suggest that it is true.

In which case, can we persuade the broadcasting automatons who still retail the old "official" line on the Eighth Quartet to cease referring to the war in connection with this work and start talking about Shostakovich's life under Stalinist Terror? (And, in particular, to stop trotting out the canard that the three-note pounding in the fourth movement mimics gunfire or bombs falling - rather than the almost certain reality: that it represents a fist pounding on a door in the middle of the night.)

Copyright 1990/1994

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