Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday Recommendation: Shostakovich's Quality of Sadness

Every Sunday, from now on, I'll recommend you some work of art. This weekend: Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet Number 8 in C Minor. I won't recap who he is, or what the song is, since I'm going to link you to much better explanations. Here's the music:

And the second two movements:

My impressions: well, I was brought to thinking about this piece, which is one of my favorite pieces of all time, because of a friend who linked me to the Moonlight Sonata, and to Chopin's Nocturne Op.9 No.2.

Those two songs are very sad. And I love them too (I hadn't heard Chopin's Nocturne before, but I'm glad I did). The difference is in the quality of emotion, the nuance of scale--which is good, because if we were just going to perfection of emotion, the Moonlight Sonata might have ended sad music for the rest of history. You just can't beat the Moonlight Sonata at its game.

But of course, sadness comes in many flavors and varieties--bet you can't have just one--and Chopin and Beethoven are looking at a specific, classical kind of sadness. The classical image of sadness that I get from those pieces are the sadness that surrounds itself in beauty for comfort; the idea being, "if I suffer, I might as well suffer poetically--that way my suffering won't have been for naught, because in the pangs of birth will come something beautiful." That's what harmony means for me emotionally--no matter what the content is (here, sadness), it lies in a supreme order--that order gives it its meaning, that meaning gives it its comfort.

Shostakovich is not striving for that kind of sadness, or that kind of beauty--even though what he brings up is just as beautiful. Shostakovich is investigating a sadness that reacts in anger, in fury at the chaos around it. The rhythms in the third movement (my favorite, and I suspect many peoples' favorite) are lurching; the second and fourth movements explode out of the natural endings of the first and third; at times a dissonant squeal simply sits above the music. Dissonance is the chaos that the anger is rebelling against.

Interestingly, my familiarity with the song comes from tracks I purchased of (without being sourced). When I went to find clips on YouTube, almost all of the renditions I found were much faster and more manic than mine; it seems as though whomever conducted the version I'm listening to as I'm typing this (the one I bought from eMusic) is more familiar with the former (Beethoven/Chopin) sadness than the latter (Shostakovich) sadness. I was shocked when I heard the renditions on YouTube--the recording age makes you very reliant on certain renditions of your favorite song--but pleasantly so.

Listen to it. Enjoy the Russian sensibility (and irritability).

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