Michael’s Musings: Fifteen String Quartets as a Work-in-Progress

November 2, 2012 9:31 am

As I wrote in Ottawa Life Magazine some time ago,


a major part of this “Work-in-Progress” – my Easter String Quartet – has been composed and, from my point of view, thrillingly recorded.

Now the challenge is to present the Easter String Quartet on YouTube as powerfully as possible without taking the main concentration off the music itself.

This is a most gratifying new exercise for myself and my wife, Irene Mettler.

It is basically, after the very few visuals I selected from a universe of Easter graphics, an editing job.

My dearest friend of all time, Irene, is a visual perfectionist – her work accompanies selections from my 1985 album Reaching Out–


and she will know exactly how to take the master shots – and the details within them that I have cropped – and mix them together.

The visual content and style of the videos will largely be Irene’s!

We are in no hurry.

The hoped-for “feast” will appear on YouTube… when it appears.

The actual “Work-in-Progress”, as this article’s title states, is Fifteen String Quartets!

All of them are inspired by some large or small corner of the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments.


Why 15?!

Dmitri Shostakovich!! He composed 15 brilliant string quartets from his undeniably Godless retreat in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin et al.

While Michael Tilson Thomas


and his San Francisco Symphony brilliantly lay out a most telling exegesis of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, Wendy Lesser


examines all 15 of the composer’s string quartets in wonderfully impressive detail.

Ed Villiamy of London’s Guardian has this opening paragraph for his review of Ms. Lesser’s book:

People compelled – even infatuated – by the music of Dmitri Shostakovich tend to have reached this condition as a result of two experiences, and I am no different. First come the symphonies: on a life-changing night at the Proms in 1971 when the Leningrad Philharmonic under Arvid Jansons performed Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, I began to understand the composer’s ability to say two different things at the same time: the censors and party cronies at the premiere in 1937 heard a penitent return to classical style after a terrifying reprimand for experiments in modernism, while the audience heard Shostakovich’s searing requiem for the victims of Stalin’s great terror. This high-wire act would come to characterize Shostakovich’s public music, as he condemned himself to a life on the rack.

No… my predicament, as an American exile in Canada, is hardly the undeniable melodrama that Shostakovich had to endure while telling two stories at the very same time.

I more resemble the colorful expatriates of Paris in their pre-World War II heyday.

Why didn’t Shostakovich join Sergei Rachmaninoff


and Igor Stravinsky


as Russian expatriates?

Why didn’t Sergei Prokofiev do likewise?

Hmmm… as with all questions about Dmitri Shostakovich, nothing is at first what it appears to be.

Both Shostakovich and Prokofiev are captured in a play – Master Class – that appeared in Canada more than 20 years ago. Here, from 1989’s Theatre Research in Canada:

Master Class deals with a meeting in January 1948 between Joseph Stalin and Russia’s two leading composers, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. Also present is Andrei Zhdanov, to whom Stalin has given the task of overseeing Soviet cultural policy.  Although the action which (David) Pownall involves these historical characters in never actually took place, there was a real meeting and the events leading up to the clash depicted in the play are only too depressingly real. Through the meeting Pownall explores, among other themes, the role of the artist in society, and raises some disturbing questions about the relationship between art and politics. Post-war Soviet society is the backdrop, but the themes explored are universally relevant. They are particularly interesting for Canadians to reflect upon. No nation which has witnessed government attempts to change the traditional “arm’s length” policy towards arts funding can be complacent about the play’s content.

I have never seen nor read the play so I’m assuming that, at the very least, we have two terrified artists confronting an excruciatingly villainous dictator.

None of this Stalinist melodrama, as most of the human race and Judeo-Christian history have digested it, is fiction.

It is, in my frank opinion, profoundly Biblical.

Ergo, my string quartets, in contrast to Shostakovich’s predicament, will all be inspired by the St. James Bible.

While my Easter String Quartet, my first of this genre, has three movements hopefully capturing at least some of the drama within Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The string quartet I have recently completed, my second, is entitled The David.

The first movement of my second string quartet is inspired by David’s relationship with Bathsheba.

The second movement will capture, I trust, the predicament King David found himself in when utterly imprisoned within the all powerful magnetism of Bathsheba, while seeking solace from God in his 23rd Psalm.

The third and final movement, I pray, will leave us in the most universally complex and Haunted Heaven that the contrite but sin-ridden David found himself trapped in.

Following this, my String Quartet # 3 is caught between the drama of the New Testament’s Mary Magdalene and the Old Testament’s Ahab and Jezebel.

Elijah the prophet versus Ahab and Jezebel creates a most astoundingly fertile and disturbingly dramatic Three-Cornered Hat.

As for the imposing body of work by Dmitri Shostakovich, famous string players and their quartets worldwide pay homage to this Russian giant’s undeniably singular achievement: an intensely personal autobiography of 15 musical “volumes” with multiple movements each.

As Mr. Vulliamy remarks:

Then come the quartets: 15 years later, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I heard most of a cycle played by the Borodin Quartet, and felt the almost equally shattering impact of raw emotion in music.

Perhaps Shostakovich suspected that his desire for Dostoyevskian authenticity could only be inspired by Joseph Stalin. Stalin?! The man who had not only imprisoned the composer’s creative freedom but had threatened his life?!

In addition, it never hurts, as Pablo Picasso knows all too well,


to have the International Communist Party as a press agent.

All I have as an audience that might be interested in string quartets is the entire Judeo-Christian civilization.

I think it’s a fair contest.

All that’s missing in my oeuvre are 15 symphonies!!

At this point, I only hope to produce three, hopefully memorable symphonies, an opera and a cello concerto.

Then again, Mr. Vulliamy stresses Wendy Lesser’s distinctions between the “pure” quartets and the… uh… “impurity” of the larger works:

(Wendy) Lesser calls the quartets Shostakovich’s “pure” music, by way of contrast to the “impurity” of the symphonies and other work, as demanded by the composer’s navigation of a precarious route between creative honesty and survival in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Later in the book, she likewise divides Shostakovich’s life between that which is “true” in private and “false” in public.

The question keeps coming up: Why, under such horrors, didn’t Dmitri Shostakovich flee the Soviet Union?

Then again, why didn’t Sergei Prokofiev?

Here is one, profoundly intriguing point of view:

Most recent writing on the composer has dealt, at least subliminally, with fallout from the so-called “Shostakovich Question”, raised in a book entitled Testimony by Solomon Volkov, which purported to contain the composer’s inner thoughts, portraying him as a dissident in the Solzhenitsyn mould. Lesser dismisses Volkov early on; she establishes instead “the doubleness, the irony, whereby he says one thing… and at the same time lets his listeners know that the opposite is the case”. It’s an auspicious start.

Wendy Lesser’s book, on the other hand, takes no more important point of view than the content within Shostakovich’s 15 quartets.

“It (the 11th Quartet) is like the empty ruin of a once joyous house, a crumbling, disintegrating memorial to lost happiness”.

Mr. Vulliamy, a wonderfully enjoyable writer, continues on the Shostakovich Paradox:

The west has fixated on a version of Shostakovich: a haunted and haunting man, anxious, depressive, even suicidal. It pervades the atmosphere of every concert programme (sic) – they tend to be full of pictures of a dolorous, persecuted, almost martyred composer. Lesser does give a glimpse of the man who played poker, had a complex love life and adored football – he was a fan of Zenit Leningrad. But even as we arrive at the 2nd Quartet, we reach, Lesser says, “true Shostakovich territory . . . let’s call it death”.


Vulliamy balances the scales with such seminal additions as this:

There is a photograph of Shostakovich I love, which shows him laughing, briefcase on his lap, between two friends at a match of his beloved Zenit. Another shows him in what appears to be a gentlemen’s club, lighting a cigarette from a candelabra beneath a picture of a scantily-clad woman. These hint at another Shostakovich.

Eventually our reviewer of the Lesser book comes to the most important question:

In this endless debate over why Shostakovich joined the Communist party, why he did not defect – over whether he was a party toady or an heroic dissident, tortured genius or wily survivor – it remains possible that none of the descriptions is true, or indeed that they all are. The political labels simply do not stick, nor, one suspects, were they intended by him to do so.

Mr. Vulliamy sums up the mystery of Dmitri Shostakovich this way:

Shostakovich’s life was one of haunted ambivalence and conflicting emotions and affiliations.

There was obviously, as with my life, more Heaven to the Haunted House of Dmitri Shostakovich than either his quartets or symphonies are willing to admit.

With the St. James Bible as my guide, and the joyous distance from America that I can rejoice in as a Canadian resident, my own 15 String Quartets and hoped-for larger works might not carry the density of profound pain one feels in Shostakovich. Had I stayed in America, my musical creations certainly would have greater despair in them. Even as a lapsed Catholic, I find “despair” of any kind the profoundest form of ingratitude.

The closest thing to this Judas’ Suicidal Syndrome, as I call it, and on a massive scale, is, for me at least, Communist atheism.

The Communist infiltration of the Catholic Church has more personal desperation to it than might, perhaps, be admitted by the Politburo.

It’s not all that important, however.

The Dmitri Shostakoviches of the world can all be found initially in the Bible.

That’s why I don’t think my own 15 String Quartets will be missing much.




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