By Sasha Margolis | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine

Seldom has a composer been more closely connected with a particular group of performers than Dmitri Shostakovich was with the Beethoven Quartet. Though little known in the West, the Beethoven Quartet was one of the Soviet Union’s supreme chamber ensembles. Indeed, the group existed nearly as long as the Soviet Union itself, from 1923 to 1987, and was remarkable in many ways—for maintaining the same personnel for its first 41 years, for presenting Moscow’s first Beethoven cycle, and especially for the Shostakovich connection. Of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets, the Beethovens premiered 13. Six are dedicated to them, or to one of their individual members.

The Beethovens also premiered Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet—with the composer at the keyboard—and first violinist Dmitri Tsyganov (1903–92) and cellist Sergei Shirinsky (1903–74) joined Shostakovich to debut his E-minor Trio. Tsyganov and violist Vadim Borisovsky (1900–72) made solo transcriptions of Shostakovich works. The Viola Sonata, Shostakovich’s final work, was written for Borisovsky’s successor in the viola chair, Fyodor Druzhinin (1932–2007). Indeed, the 37-year Beethoven-Shostakovich relationship was intimate, complex, and of immense historical significance.

The Beethoven Quartet’s story began in 1923, when second violinist Vasily Shirinsky (1901–65), having written a quartet as his Moscow Conservatory graduation composition, needed a group to perform it for evaluation. He recruited his half-brother Sergei, and friends Tsyganov and Borisovsky. The faculty examiners were enthusiastic, insisting the friends stay together and call themselves the Moscow Conservatory Quartet. Amongst themselves, the four pledged to rehearse every day, and forget about making a living from quartets.

Soon, four distinct personalities emerged. Second violinist Shirinsky was the quiet authority, the last word in quartet disputes, and master of sly rehearsal techniques. Rather than saying, “Let’s play down bow,” he’d ask, “Oh, is it easier for you to do that up bow?” If he disliked the way a colleague played an accent, he’d throw in an exaggerated accent of his own. Brother Sergei was open, smiling, friendly. About Borisovsky, who is considered the father of Russian viola playing, Shostakovich once said: “If asked what exactly attracts me most in Borisovsky’s personality, I would answer: Everything.” First violinist Tsyganov, a “charismatic, exciting player” in Druzhinin’s estimation, was the quartet’s public face.

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Dmitri Shostakovich, photo: Deutsche Fotothek

They found quick success, winning first prizes in the All-Soviet Quartet Competition in 1925 and 1927, then visiting Germany, where composer-violist Paul Hindemith humorously dubbed Borisovsky “chairman” of the “World Union of Viola Players,” and the Berliner Tageblatt’s critic wrote: “These young people played the Hindemith Quartet with a pronounced threat of a Bolshevik invasion from the East.” This line placed them in the good graces of powerful cultural commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky. They would remain a favored, effectively official group. In 1931, they were allowed to adopt the Beethoven sobriquet.

Meanwhile, Shostakovich (1906–75), a few years younger than the Beethoven members, was earning fame as a pianist, and for his first five symphonies and two operas. In 1938, at a seasoned 32, he completed his First Quartet. In the Soviet climate of the time, chamber music was just being embraced as an appropriately accessible, “socialist realist” art form for composers to essay. Shostakovich’s lighthearted First was happily received upon its October premiere by Leningrad’s Glazunov Quartet. The Beethovens gave the Moscow premiere in November—and immediately began pestering Shostakovich for something they could debut.


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In response came the Piano Quintet, written with the idea that Shostakovich himself could tour with the popular Glazunov and Beethoven Quartets. In 1944 came the Second Quartet, premiered by the Beethovens, along with the E-minor Trio. The connection between composer and performers was already strong: When Tsyganov later told Shostakovich he felt the work’s second-movement violin recitative had been written just for him, he was told,“Yes, indeed it was, Mitya. I wrote it for you.”

The Beethovens would go on to premiere the next 12 quartets. The Third, introduced shortly after their 5,000th rehearsal together, was dedicated to them, as was the Fifth, composed for their 30th anniversary, and given “as a testimony of my admiration of your wonderful art, of my deep gratitude for your splendid performance of my works, and of my great love for you.”

This love arose from deep knowledge. Shostakovich was closely involved in preparing his quartets’ premieres, from an initial piano play-through for the Beethoven Quartet to rehearsing with them so they understood his concept. He solicited their advice on technical matters, and at times, asked their opinions on whether, in the fraught Soviet atmosphere, the political moment was right for certain works. He also benefited from their status: Tsyganov felt the group “had two equal musical patrons—Beethoven and Shostakovich,” and critic Wendy Lesser has speculated that the “subliminal and at times explicit pairing of Beethoven’s quartets with Shostakovich’s was one of the many gifts they brought him as a group.”

Sometimes, Shostakovich would mark tempi only after a Beethoven Quartet premiere, using their performance as a guide. Aficionados listening to Beethoven recordings will note that their tempi are generally faster than other groups’. One possible reason: Tsyganov “was by nature a fast player,” according to Valentin Berlinsky, cellist of the Borodin Quartet, younger rivals for Shostakovich’s attentions. But Shostakovich was a propulsive performer, too. David Mogilevsky, the Glazunov’s cellist, wrote of quintet performances: “We, the string players, wanted to ‘sing’ . . . Shostakovich accentuated the constructive, motor elements . . . The emotional restraint of his playing led to a certain contradiction with the nature of the strings. He demanded the minimum use of vibrato. The fast tempi excluded in themselves any possibility of emotional exaggeration.” Not coincidentally, listeners will find Beethoven recordings notably straightforward from an interpretive standpoint, and tonally less lush than some.

There is a question of whether the quartets, when played quickly, appeared to conform better with the socialist realist aesthetic. Shostakovich wrote his Fourth Quartet during a difficult period when his music was largely blacklisted. Hoping for a performance, he enlisted the Borodin Quartet to audition the piece before the Ministry of Culture. According to Borodin first violinist Rostislav Dubinsky, “We put our hearts and souls into that performance. We emphasized everything that socialist realism requires to be concealed. We spoke the truth!” But then, worried about the effect they’d created, they played it a second time, differently: “The tempi were faster, the sound lighter. We removed all possible ‘anti-Soviet’ insinuations from the music . . . We lied!” Berlinsky, however, gives an alternate view: “There is a story in circulation that we had to play the quartet twice . . . once in our genuine interpretation, and a second time ‘optimistically,’ to convince the authorities of its ‘socialist’ content. It’s a pretty invention, but it’s not true: you cannot lie in music.”

Whatever the truth about tempi—and truth—the Fourth Quartet happens to have occasioned some ambivalence on Shostakovich’s part regarding the Beethovens. Shostakovich’s composer colleague Edison Denisov wrote: “Dmitri Dmitriyevich is satisfied with the Beethoven’s performance of the Fifth Quartet. But he says that they don’t play the Fourth Quartet well. He wanted to give the premiere to Dubinsky . . . but the Beethovens announced that this would lead to a break in their relations.” Like many long marriages, the Shostakovich-Beethoven Quartet relationship encompassed loyalty and jealousy, dissatisfaction and profound attachment. Mstislav Rostropovich reported Shostakovich saying, in later years: “You know, the Beethovens no longer play so well. But when I see that they are still together, it gives me a feeling of security—I know that everything in the world is still all right, because they continue to exist.”

The Beethovens did continue to exist. But in 1964, change arrived: Borisovsky fell ill. Forced to retire, he was replaced by his student, Druzhinin. The following year, Vasily Shirinsky died suddenly of a stroke, and was replaced by Tsyganov’s student Nikolai Zabavnikov (1937–2001). The newly configured ensemble decided to relearn the extant Shostakovich quartets, under the composer’s guidance. Meanwhile, Shirinsky’s death set in motion the creation of what would eventually be four new works, dedicated one each to the Beethoven Quartet’s original members. 

The Eleventh is imbued with sorrow over Shirinsky’s death. The Twelfth was composed for Tsyganov’s 65th birthday, and the violinist felt that in it, Shostakovich “reached the very core of my musical nature”—particularly in the second movement’s austere but insistent pizzicato passage. The Thirteenth, written for Borisovsky’s 70th birthday, is in Druzhinin’s estimation a “hymn to the viola.” The Fourteenth is, according to Berlinsky, a portrait of cellist Sergei Shirinsky. In other works, Shostakovich employs a musical motto, DSCH (D-E#-C-B) made of notes corresponding to the spelling of his own name (Dmitri SCHostakovich.) He does the same here with Shirinsky’s nickname, Seryozha, and in addition, quotes his own aria from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, “Seryozha, my darling.”

Upon receiving Shostakovich’s dedication, Shirinsky said, “Well, I can die now.” Tragically, in 1974, while the Beethovens were rehearsing Shostakovich’s final, Fifteenth Quartet, he did suddenly die. Shostakovich, fearful that his own death was imminent, felt in a hurry to hear the piece, and turned to the younger Taneyev Quartet to premiere it. As with the First, the Beethovens could only give the piece its Moscow premiere in January 1975, with new cellist Evgeny Altman (1932–83).

In this oddly symmetrical fashion, the Shostakovich-Beethoven Quartet story came to a close, though the quartet didn’t dissolve until just before the Soviet Union itself. But in 1975 came a postscript: Shostakovich enlisted Druzhinin’s close involvement in composing his valedictory Viola Sonata. A premiere was scheduled for the composer’s 69th birthday. But by the time the day came, he was already dead.

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