JEFFREY BROWN: At the start of a new century, the world-renowned Emerson string quartet is honoring Dmitry Shostokovich. He's been called the 20th century's most tragic composer, and one of its greatest. Known more for his symphonies, Shostokovich also wrote 15 quartets during his troubled life as both a hero and, as he's widely seen today, a victim of the soviet totalitarian state. The Emerson has recorded the quartets live, and is now performing them in concerts throughout the country and around the world.
DAVID FINCKEL, Cellist: These quartets are really, just now being discovered as a major body of literature, and to be a part of that, to be helping that to happen through the performances and recordings is really a great thrill. I don't imagine that happening again in my lifetime with any other music.
JEFFREY BROWN: To many, the quartets are Shostokovich's most personal musical statements. Above all, number eight, written in 1960 during a visit to the City of Dresden, in what was then East Germany. The eighth was dedicated to the victims of fascism and war, ostensibly to the millions who died at the hands of the nazis during world but through layers of meaning embedded in the music, the members of the Emerson Quartet believe the piece tells other stories as well.
EUGENE DRUCKER, Violinist: It is dedicated to the victims of fascism and war, and that gave him an opportunity to express great grief, violence, and sardonic humor in this work. But we feel that it is also about the situation in the Soviet Union itself, and he could always use the atrocities perpetrated by the nazis as a metaphor for something much more controversial that he was trying to express about his own country.
JEFFREY BROWN: And about himself. In a letter to a friend, Shostokovich wrote of the eighth, "when I die, it's hardly likely that someone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself." The clues are there, beginning with the very first notes.
SPOKESMAN: It's like a fugue -- in the beginning, those four entrances playing basically four or five notes, which spell the initials of Shostokovich. They sound like this. (Playing cello)
JEFFREY BROWN: The notes, in German notation, spell out "D-S-C-H," the composer's initials, and they're played throughout the piece.
SPOKESMAN: It even appears in the fast movement.
JEFFREY BROWN: Born in 1906, Shostokovich was just 20 when his name became known worldwide. His first symphony, a student composition, was hailed and performed in the west. But in the soviet union, the only critic who mattered was Josef Stalin. The only standard for great art, that which served the party. In 1936, the state-run press denounced Shostokovich's work as "crude, muddled, vulgar," and warned that things "could end very badly." It was a time when millions were being imprisoned or executed. Do you get the sense that his life was literally hanging on the notes that he wrote?
PHILIP SETZER, Violinist: I think it definitely, I mean, literally, did. Art in this kind of totalitarian system takes on a tremendous importance, and it's fascinating to look at the fact that they were so obsessed... That the powers that be were so obsessed with what Shostokovich was writing... But he took that and he made that into an art form. (Strings playing)
JEFFREY BROWN: In the second movement of the eighth quartet, the members of the Emerson hear the century's greatest upheaval, World War II. (Staccato)
LAWRENCE DUTTON, Violinist: You can hear the guns. You can hear the explosions. (Staccato) I think we are actually the artillery over here, you know, we're exploding away.
JEFFREY BROWN: Later in the second movement, a Jewish-sounding theme suggests more of the war's tragedy, the Holocaust. (Playing second movement)
SPOKESMAN: Larry said that the cello and the viola provided a lot of the artillery, but there is also a lot of screaming going on in this movement... (Playing passage from second movement) ...The sound of people being killed, being exterminated.
JEFFREY BROWN: In a memoir published four years after his death, Shostokovich, who was not Jewish, is quoted as saying, "Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair"
SPOKESMAN: It's a very important quote, because it really is a clue to not just to why he uses Jewish sounding music, but why he uses this layering aspect.
JEFFREY BROWN: The passage on Jewish music ends, "they express despair in dance music." (Waltz begins in third movement) And dance music-- a waltz-- begins the eighth quartet's third movement. For the Emerson, it's a dance macabre.
LAWRENCE DUTTON: This is bizarre and strange. It's a twisted waltz. There's a kind of ugliness about it, because we're really relentless in how we, you know, how we play our rhythm against a violin that's repeating and it's a kind of, a bit of a battle.
JEFFREY BROWN: During the war, Shostokovich's stock had risen as a composer contributing to the great national war effort. And in 1949, he was sent by Stalin to the U.S. on a so- called peace mission. He performed before 19,000 in Madison Square Garden. (Playing piano) But the Cold War brought out protesters in New York, and a new round of repression in Moscow. Shostokovich was again denounced. His music was mostly banned from public performance until Stalin's death in 1953. (Playing beginning of fourth movement) The fourth movement of the quartet, three loud knocks suggest the terror of the police state.
PHILIP SETZER: At one point he knew he was in a lot of trouble, and he knew that one of his neighbors was in a lot of trouble, and in one of the letters he talked about hearing them come in the middle of the night, and not knowing which one they were coming for, and then hearing them go to the neighbor's door.
JEFFREY BROWN: They, of course, are the KGB. What we're hearing, in this interpretation, is the knock on the door in the middle of the night, and the sadness that follows. (music playing) Later in this passage, the cello takes the lead. (music playing)
DAVID FINCKEL: It's a magical place. It always... I always feel very... Like I'm in another world in a concert at this moment.
JEFFREY BROWN: With the stakes so high, the composer himself seems to have lived in two worlds. In 1960, the very year the eighth quartet was written, Shostokovich shocked his friends by joining the Communist Party. To what extent he was pressured is not known. For the rest of his life, he would play the public role of the good Communist, while private letters, the writings of friends, and the memoir, "Testimony," show a tortured soul. (music playing) However Shostokovich saw himself in the end, others had no doubt. In a 1985 PBS broadcast, the great cellist and conductor Mislay Rostropovich performed his friend's "Fifth Symphony" and spoke of his legacy.
MTISLAV ROSTROPOVICH: I'm sure he coming off as one of the greatest composers of 20th century. Shostokovich very human composer.
JEFFREY BROWN: Shostokovich himself did not live to see the breakup of the Soviet Union. He died in Moscow in 1975. His eighth quartet ends quietly, hauntingly, without resolution. The Emerson quartet will perform it and other works by Shostokovich throughout the year.