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David Fanning

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8

Ashgate, ISBN 0 7546 0699 6

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This new book on Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet is part of the series entitled Landmarks in Music since 1950. David Fanning is a leading figure in the field of Shostakovich scholarship, and this particular work undoubtedly rates as a suitable case for treatment.

The general standard of production is first class, and the plan is clearly structured and imaginatively laid out, both in design and on the page. The music is put into the context of the composer’s life and times, and there is a thorough and detailed analysis of the quartet. Finally a collection of appendices offers some relevant documentary material. There is even an accompanying CD featuring an excellent performance by the Rosamunde Quartet, of which more anon.

The opening chapter is entitled ‘Pacing the 8th Quartet’, and ‘considers some of the problems associated with Shostakovich’s reputation and historical position’. Since this work is absolutely central, both chronologically, musically and psychologically, to the composer’s nature and achievement, such an approach is fully justified as a means of introducing it. A good deal of time is spent trading comments about the various approaches to these matters, as found among the offerings of the many writers and commentators who have published commentaries about the music. After a while this roll-call began to feel an indulgence, with too much attention paid to others and too little of the (perceptive and well informed) thoughts of Mr Fanning himself. A pity.

Preparing the ground continues in an extended chapter entitled ‘The USSR and Shostakovich in the Thaw’. This explores both thoroughly and compellingly the composer’s life and times, and the range and nature of his creative work during the years up to the composition of the Quartet.

The Quartet No. 8 was completed in 1960, and was closely connected with a visit to Dresden which rekindled in Shostakovich many vivid memories of the war. At this time he was working on the score of a film to be directed by his friend Lev Arnstam, a Russian-East German collaboration entitled Five Days and Five Nights, dealing with how Russian soldiers saved many priceless paintings from the city's art gallery following the intense Allied bombing raids in 1945, which caused more civilian deaths than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.

The imagery of Dresden in Ruins (Shostakovich's own title for the film music) was transferred in more personal terms to the music of the Quartet, which can the thus be regarded as an instrumental war requiem. For this is an intensely private and emotionally committed composition, containing several quotations from earlier compositions, as well as the obsessive deployment of the composer's musical motto D-S-C-H (D-E flat-C-B, in German notation).

There are five clearly defined movements, and these are played in a single sweep, without pauses. The Quartet opens with the motto, which is treated obsessively. From this point and throughout the work the analysis is substantial and thorough (though some might call it pedantic). Fanning is concerned to articulate his ideas about the music as lucidly as possible, and he therefore organises the process of analysis with due care and attention. It is a tribute to his achievement that he succeeds in this exacting aim. What seems less convincing, however, is the attempt to link a large proportion of the Quartet with ‘allusions and affinities’ in addition to the unequivocal series of ‘quotations’. The latter need not be contested, since they are beyond doubt; but the former can only be described as a can of worms. To be fair, Fanning admits as much on page 51: ‘These uncontested quotations may be supplemented by allusions and affinities that are less explicit and whose status is unconfirmed. . . . All will be discussed in the following analysis.’ But even the carefully prepared lists and charts fail to clinch the argument, and don’t really convince.

Each of the thorough sections of analysis, delivered movement by movement, has interesting and compelling ideas to propose. And each section is followed by a summary, clearly articulated in such a way that the musically untrained should be able to follow and understand.

At first sight it seems a thoughtful and positive bonus that a CD recording should be included as part of the package. In his admittedly restricted discussion of recommended recordings, Fanning praises that of the Rosamunde Quartet, and justly so. But on closer consideration the bonus of the attached CD brings its frustrations also. The details of content are hidden away in the later stages of the book, and why should the approach be so shame-faced? Moreover the music by Burian and Webern, also contained on the disc, is otherwise ignored, which is particularly frustrating, not least because the artists clearly extol its virtues in their performances. The whole attitude is conveyed, moreover, by the sloppy packaging which puts the CD in a flimsy polythene cover ‘arbitrarily’ attached to the inside cover of the book.

I go further. If the purpose of the book is to communicate about the music in question, then why not – at least in the case of the shorter analytical commentaries – include timing details for the CD in connection with the main points under discussion? For anyone with the required time, knowledge and skill, to organize this is not so difficult a task. Surely if a job is worth doing it is worth doing well, and the inclusion of the CD here is not done well at all. This is a real disappointment, an essentially good idea undermined by half-hearted editorial compromise.

However, to complain long and loud about these frustrations would be unfair. The general achievement of this book is positive, and does justice to one of the greatest works in the chamber music literature of the 20th century. This is confirmed by the compelling series of documents gathered in the various appendices, which include the transcripts of interviews with Shostakovich and those who knew him.

Terry Barfoot

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