‘A Boy Was Born’ – Opening Night

19th February 2013 marked the opening of the ‘A Boy Was Born’ Festival held by The University of Sheffield to celebrate Benjamin Britten’s centenary. The concert included Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 and Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13, performed by the Chilingirian Quartet. It is ‘renowned for its thrilling interpretations of the great quartets’, even holding a Corbett Medal in recognition of services to Chamber Music.

The Britten was written in his penultimate year. It has been called unsettling and haunted, foreshadowing the composer’s death and indeed, was premièred following his death. Similarly, Franz Schubert’s quartet was written in 1824, four years prior to his death.

Shostakovich also wrote his quartet in the later part of his life, a mere fifteen years prior to his death. In 1960 when the piece was written, Shostakovich’s personal life has been wrought with tragedy – family deaths and his increasing ill-health culminating in caving to pressure to join the Communist Party in his home, Russia, despite refusing for years.

The Soviet authorities explained Shostakovich’s piece by saying he was struck by the tragedy witnessed on a trip to Dresden in East Germany following the Second World War. However, in the book claiming to be Shostakovich’s memoirs ‘Testimony’, he supposedly called the piece “autobiographical” and that it quotes a famous Russian song ‘Exhausted by the hardships of prison.’ This reflects Shostakovich’s situation, controlled by Soviet government and the fact that his piece draws more attention to himself than to the victims of war.

He does this by making frequent use of his musical signature (the DSCH motif), as well as using quotations of his preview works, throughout the quartet. For example, in the largo first and fifth movements, he creates sections of fugue-like quality using the motif. In the ferocious second movement it is used to increase intensity. He further builds tension in this movement by quoting the ‘Jewish theme’ from his second piano trio, in a combination of tragic Jewish folk music, fortississimo, urgent triplets, molto expressivo direction, piercingly high violin melody and second violin, sul G.

This despair was noted by the Chilingirian Quartet and evident in their performance. Attention to dynamics was important in such an expressive piece and this was pulled off phenomenally well by the quartet. Particularly impressive was their crescendo and attacca at the end of the movement, essential to bring the listener appropriately into the third movement. The deep tone of the cello was warm and rich and the quartet was well-balanced performing as a whole. However, the high notes were less impressive from the violin – often shrill rather than piercing and intense, and the viola was occasionally scratchy. Additionally, the piece seemed to be played too quickly, resulting in some muddled and unclear sections. Despite these problems, overall the performance was enjoyable and appreciated by the enthusiastic, packed audience.


Click these links to find out more about:

the ‘A Boy Was Born’ Festival – http://www.aboywasborn.co.uk/

festivals celebrating Britten’s centenary around the world – http://www.britten100.org/

the Chilingirian Quartet – http://www.chilingirianquartet.co.uk/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s