Composers Datebook

Shostakovich and his String Quartets

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) String Quartet No. 15, Op. 144 Emerson String Quartet DG 463 284

Composers Datebook for November 15, 2020


November 15, 2020


In 1974, St. Petersburg was still called “Leningrad” and still very much a part of what we now call the “former Soviet Union.” Back then, the most famous living Soviet composer was Dmitri Shostakovich, whose health was rapidly failing from the cancer that would claim his life the following year.

On today’s date in 1974, Shostakovich’s final string quartet, his Fifteenth, was given its premiere performance by the Taneyev Quartet. The work was supposed to have been premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, but their cellist died unexpectedly, and, mindful of his own mortality, Shostakovich was reluctant to postpone the scheduled premiere. After all, he himself might not be around by the time the Beethoven Quartet found a replacement cellist.

When his String Quartet No. 1 had premiered in 1938, Shostakovich had described that work as “joyful, merry, lyrical” and “spring-like.” His Fifteenth Quartet, on the other hand, is obviously a “winter-work,” written by someone who knows he may never see another spring.

If Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies represent the “public” side of a Soviet composer, his fifteen string quartets might be described as chronicling his “private” inner world of hopes, fears, and dreams.

Music Played in Today's Program

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) String Quartet No. 15, Op. 144 Emerson String Quartet DG 463 284

On This Day


  • 1738 - German-English composer, oboist, and astronomer (Sir) William Herschel, in Hannover;

  • 1934 - English composer, pianist and organist Peter Dickinson, in Lytham St. Annes, Lancashire;


  • 1787 - German-Bohemian composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, age 73, in Vienna;

  • 1986 - Polish-born French composer Alexandre Tansman, age 89, in Paris;


  • 1732 - Handel: opera “Catone” in London (see Julian date: Nov. 4);

  • 1807 - first public performance of Beethoven: Symphony No. 4, at a benefit concert for charities (The very first performance had been in March of the same year at private concert underwritten by the aristocracy and performed at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven's patrons);

  • 1832 - Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 ("Reformation") in Berlin;

  • 1903 - d'Albert: opera "Tiefland" (The Lowlands) (1st version), in Prague at the New German Theater;

  • 1909 - Vaughan Williams: song-cycle, "On Wenlock Edge," in London;

  • 1920 - Holst: orchestral suite, "The Planets," Queen's Hall, London, conductor Albert Coates (first public performance);

  • 1927 - Jerome Kern: musical "Show Boat," in Washington, D.C.;

  • 1930 - Stravinsky: "Symphony of Psalms," in Brussels (see also Dec 13, 1930);

  • 1974 - Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 15, in Leningrad, by the Taneyev Quartet;

  • 1974 - William Grant Still: opera "Bayou Legend," by Opera South in Jackson, Miss.;

  • 1983 - John Harbison: "Mirabai Songs" (to poems of Mirabai, translated by Robert Bly), at Emmanuel Church in Boston, by soprano Susan Larson and pianist Craig Smith; A chamber orchestra version of this song cycle premiered in Cambridge, Mass., on Feb. 1, 1984;

  • 2001 - Michael Daugherty: "Philadelphia Stories," at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, David Zinman, conducting;

  • 2002 - Jake Heggie: “Holy the Firm,” for cello and orchestra, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Calif., by the Oakland East Bay Symphony conducted by Michael Morgan, with Emil Miland the soloist;


  • 1926 - First broadcast of a music program on the NBC radio network, featuring the New York Symphony conducted by Walter Damrosch, the New York Oratorio Society, and the Goldman Band, with vocal soloists Mary Garden and Tito Ruffo, and pianist Harold Bauer;

  • 1989 - Leonard Bernstein refused a National Medal of the Arts from President George Bush in protest against revoked NEA funding for a New York City exhibit on AIDS;