Chamber symphony in C minor op. 110a is one of the most popular works of Dmitry Shostakovich. In fact, it is not an original composition, but a masterful adaptation for string orchestra of his Quartet No 8 Op. 110. Made with the special permission of the Master in 1967 by the famous conductor Rudolf Barshai, founder and artistic director of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.
And what is the history behind the String Quartet № 8? In the summer of 1960, Shostakovich was invited to Dresden to write music for the director Lev Arnshtam’s Five Days, Five Nights. The plot tells of eight Soviet soldiers sent to find valuable paintings stolen by the Nazis in the ruins of the city. Dmitry Dmitrievich was accommodated to compose at the government residence in the resort of Gohrisch. Experiencing a terrible depression after the pressure to become a member of the Communist Party and excited by the senseless destruction of historic Dresden in 1945 by British and American bombers, instead of the film score, he created his Quartet No 8 in three days.
The dedication written in the score reads: “In memory of the victims of fascism and war”.
We must not forget Shostakovich’s tendency to be veiled in speech, in allegory. According to the testimonies of his friends, not only in communication, but also in parody quoting or speaking in the official spirit of ideological clichés. Even more so in his works. Behind the formal dedication of the Eighth Quartet, there is another initiation. It is illuminated by a letter from the composer to Isaac Glikman: “As much as I tried to start the film music, I didn’t like it. Instead, I composed a quartet that was unnecessary and ideologically unsustainable. I thought that if I died suddenly, hardly anyone would write and dedicate a work to my memory. So I decided to do something similar myself. “In memory of the composer of this quartet” should be written on the cover.
The leitmotif of the quartet are my initials D.Sch. The quartet also includes themes from my works, as well as from the revolutionary song “Tortured by Severe Trouble”… The theme of Wagner’s mourning march from “Twilight of the Gods” and also Tchaikovsky (the second theme from the first part of the Sixth Symphony) pass briefly… The result was a nice mixture. The pseudo-tragedy of this quartet is such that as I wrote it, I shed as many tears as you shed after half a dozen mugs of beer. When I got home, I tried to play it twice, and tears came to my eyes again. But no longer only because of its pseudo-tragedy, but also because of the astonishment of the wonderful integrity of the form. “.
The memory of Stalin’s terror, of fear, of killed illusions, of one’s own humiliations, is poured into this penetrating autobiographical work. The leitmotif of the DSCH sound monogram permeates the entire quartet. Shostakovich also cites themes from his iconic works written in different years: the First, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Tenth Symphonies, the Piano Trio and the First Cello Concerto, the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The five parts of the cyclic form pass into each other without interruption – the sorrowful first part, the demonic dance of death, the ironic waltz, the frightening abrupt chords at the beginning of Part IV, cutting through the musical epitaph for the victims (according to Maxim, Shostakovich’s son, they symbolize the ominous knocks on the door with which the KGB invades the night), the mourning finale-fugue.
After the premiere performance of the Quartet No 8 in Leningrad on October 2nd, 1960 by the Beethoven Quartet, Rudolf Barshai received an order from Peters Publishing House to rewrite the quartet for string orchestra. The composer was initially skeptical, but when he became acquainted with the orchestration, he approved of the score and exclaimed:”Sounds better than the quartet in the original! We will give the work a new name – Chamber Symphony Opus 110a” . Barshay orchestrated 4 more of the string quartets and recorded them for Deutsche Grammophon. As a token of gratitude, Shostakovich dedicated his Symphony № 14 to the conductor and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.