String Quartet No.5 in f minor, Op.33 "The Slavonic"
Winner of the prestigious Stalin Prize in 1943, the highest honor then available to a Soviet artist, Shebalin's Fifth String Quartet, known as The Slavonic, was composed the year before. Although Shebalin often used Russian or Slavic themes in his music, critics have noted that he perhaps was intentionally writing a ‘nationalist’ work with Slavic themes because at that time the Soviet Union was being threatened with extinction by the invading German army. The quartet is unusual in that it has five movements. The opening begins Moderato. With its descending melodies in the minor, it strikes a typically Russian note. The main part of the movement, Allegro, is more upbeat and optimistic with vague echoes of Tchaikovsky. The second movement, Andante, is noteworthy for its dramatic and powerful climax which occurs in the middle section before the music slowly melts away into nothingness. The third movement, Allegretto, serves as a scherzo. Another slow movement, also an Andante, follows. The main theme is the same as that used by Tchaikovsky in his March Slav, only here Shebalin presents it in a dark and funereal setting. The finale, Allegro energico, brings back early thematic material and ties the entire work together.
Writing of his visit to Shostakovich, the Polish composer Krzystztof Meyer said that in Shostakovich’s study he found pictures of only three composers: Mahler, Mussorgsky and Shebalin. Not only Shostakovich but most of Shebalin’s contemporaries regarded him as being in the front rank of composers from their generation. Vissarion Shebalin (1902-63) was born in Omsk, Siberia where he began his musical studies. Later at the Moscow Conservatory, he studied under Myaskovsky. During the 1920’s he was attracted by modernism, but during the 1930’s he was drawn to traditionalism with its attachment to folkloric melodies. By 1942, he was appointed director of the Moscow Conservatory. When Stalin came to power, Shebalin was forced, as were all of the other major Soviet composers, to find some sort of modus vivendi with Socialist Realism. Although his music is well-known within Russia, it is virtually never heard outside of it. Chamber music always interested Shebalin and constitutes a sizeable part of his output. His nine string quartets span the length of his entire career from student right up until his death. They are an important body of work which deserves to be better known and to be performed.
This Quartet is one of the most important in works in the Soviet literature and can stand alongside of the best works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Within Russia it is held in the highest regard. It surprising that it has never made its mark abroad. It will certainly be success in the concert hall were it deserves to be heard and to enter the repertoire, but it is also well within the reach of amateur players presenting no great technical difficulties.