Notes on Shostakovich’s 3rd String Quartet
by Mimi Morris-Kim
The String Quartet No. 3 in F major, opus 73, was the only work Dmitri Shostakovich composed in 1946. He was very pleased with it. He wrote to the second violinist and manager of the Beethoven Quartet, for whom he wrote the piece, that “it seems to me that I have never been as pleased with a composition as with this Quartet. Probably I am wrong, but that is exactly how I feel right now.”
His original plan was that the quartet would reflect the history of World War II in Russia and that each of its 5 movements would have a programmatic title.
Movement 1, Allegretto, was to be “Calm unawareness of future cataclysm”
Movement 2, Moderato con moto, was to be “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation”
Movement 3, Allegro non troppo, was “The forces of war unleashed”
Movement 4, Adagio, was “Homage to the dead”
Movement 5, Moderato, was entitled, “The eternal question- Why? And for what?’
After the initial performance, Shostakovich withdrew the titles, and no one is sure why. It may have been that he wanted to avoid political pressure. His previous work, the 9th Symphony, was widely criticized by the government and even Stalin himself. Bruised by that experience, he may have wanted to lay low. It also may have been that he saw in the work a more universal experience and expression, one that perhaps he did not want to tie so distinctly to one time and one place.
As a performer it is helpful to have the titles. The opening of the 3rd movement with its alternating 2/4 and 3/4 measures sounds exactly like gunshots, and in the creepy second movement waltz, it is easy to see a metaphor for the unraveling of Russian and European society in the face of the horrors of war. And yet, as someone two generations removed from that war and a continent away, I can appreciate its universality. The eternal questions, Why? And for what? are as relevant in the churches where we are performing this in Chestnut Hill and Princeton as they were in 1946 Leningrad.