Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 117, was composed in 1964 and premiered by the Beethoven Quartet. The Ninth Quartet was dedicated to his third wife, Irina Antonovna Shostakovich, a young editor he married in 1962.
Shostakovich rarely changed or revised his works, but the Ninth Quartet is one of the rare exceptions. Elizabeth Wilson writes in her biography Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, “Shostakovich finished the first version of the Ninth Quartet in the autumn of 1961. In a fit of depression, or, to quote his own words, ‘in an attack of healthy self-criticism, I burnt it in the stove. This is the second such case in my creative practice. I once did a similar trick of burning my manuscripts, in 1926.
Shostakovich took three years to complete the new Ninth Quartet, finishing it on 28 May 1964. The premiere was by the Beethoven Quartet in Moscow on 20 November 1964. The Beethoven Quartet had the exclusive rights to perform all of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Dmitri Tsyganov, the first violinist, recalled that Shostakovich told him that the first Ninth Quartet was based on “themes from childhood”, and the newer Ninth Quartet was “completely different”.
The piece was written shortly after Shostakovich reluctantly joined the Communist Party. According to the score, it is dedicated “to the victims of fascism and the war“; his son Maxim interprets this as a reference to the victims of all totalitarianism, while his daughter Galina says that he dedicated it to himself, and that the published dedication was imposed by the Russian authorities. Shostakovich’s friend, Lev Lebedinsky, said that Shostakovich thought of the work as his epitaph and that he planned to commit suicide around this time. Peter J. Rabinowitz has also pointed to covert references to Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen in the Eighth Quartet.
The work was written in Dresden, where Shostakovich was to write music for the film Five Days, Five Nights, a joint project by Soviet and East German filmmakers about the bombing of Dresden in World War II.
The quartet was premiered in 1960 in Leningrad by the Beethoven Quartet. In the liner notes of the Borodin Quartet‘s 1962 recording, music critic Erik Smith writes, “The Borodin Quartet played this work to the composer at his Moscow home, hoping for his criticisms. But Shostakovich, overwhelmed by this beautiful realisation of his most personal feelings, buried his head in his hands and wept. When they had finished playing, the four musicians quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets are the following works:
Opus 127: String Quartet No. 12 in E♭ major (1825)
Opus 130: String Quartet No. 13 in B♭ major (1826)
Opus 131: String Quartet No. 14 in C♯ minor (1826)
Opus 132: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor (1825)
Opus 133: Große Fuge in B♭ major (1825; originally the finale to Op. 130; it also exists in a piano four-hands transcription, Op. 134)
Opus 135: String Quartet No. 16 in F major (1826)
These six works are Beethoven’s last major completed compositions. Although dismissed by musicians and audiences of Beethoven’s day, they are now widely considered to be among the greatest musical compositions of all time and they have inspired many later composers.