Blair Quartet sets its sights on Beethoven, Shostakovich and Brahms

blairquartetThe Blair String Quartet has played its fair share of contemporary music over the years. For its spring concert this Friday at Ingram Hall, the quartet will perform only proven masterpieces.

Brahms’ String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major, Op. 67 and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110  will open the concert. Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 will round out the program.

“We designed the program around works that our quartet in its current configuration has not played before,” says Blair violinist Cornelia Heard.

Cellist Felix Wang, for instance, has not performed Beethoven’s Op. 135 with the other members of the ensemble – Heard, violinist Christian Teal and violist John Kochanowski. Heard, meanwhile, has played the first two Brahms quartets but not the third.

Composed in 1875, Brahms’ String Quartet No. 3 is a natural choice to open the program, since it goes down easily. It’s a cheerful work that the composer once described as a “useless trifle.” Writing a lighthearted piece was no doubt therapeutic for Brahms, who at the time was also putting the finishing touches on his dramatic and emotionally high-strung Symphony No. 1.

Speaking of high strung, Shostakovich wrote his String Quartet No. 8 in 1960, shortly after he finally relented and joined the Communist Party. There’s been a considerable amount of historical revisionism regarding Shostakovich’s life in recent years. The revisionists have tried to portray the composer as a courageous dissident who filled his scores with veiled, sardonic attacks on the Soviet Union in general and Stalin in particular.

That fantasy has been debunked by such musicologists as Richard Taruskin (who gave an enlightening lecture at Belmont University on Monday evening) and Laurel Fay, both of whom have shown that the composer was more of a fearful and compliant personality – in Stalin’s Russia those qualities allowed one to live a longer if not happier life.

One work in which Shostakovich does seem to make a stand is his Quartet No. 8. The work is certainly biographical and begins with a four-note motif D-S-C-H (in German musical notation, the S is E-flat and H is B natural) that represents the composer’s initials (Dmitri SCHtokowitsch). The work also freely quotes earlier Shostakovich works, such as the Symphony No. 5 and the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The quartet is dedicated to the “victims of fascism and war,” and it’s widely believed that Shostakovich was lumping both Nazis and Bolsheviks into that fascist category.

Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 135 presents its own enigma. The composer titled the final movement “The Difficult Decision.” Under the opening chords, Beethoven wrote “Must it Be?” Beneath the faster main theme, he responded “It must be!”

“I think Beethoven knew this was going to be his last substantial work,” says Heard, who noted that Beethoven died just a few months after completing the quartet. “He was making the difficult decision not to write another work like this again.”


Blair String Quartet plays music of Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich. The performance is 8 p.m. Friday, March 29 at Ingram Hall, 2400 Blakemore Ave. Admission is free.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.