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 Dimtri 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. So much so that the Emerson String Quartet, an ensemble formed two years after Shostakovich’s death, celebrated its 25th anniversary season by collaborating with a British theater troupe and, with the help of historical audio and video clips, put Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Quartet chillingly in the context of the composer’s—and the Soviet Union’s—troubled life and times.