Autobiography in music first became popular during the Romantic era but can be seen in instrumental music from the Modern and Contemporary eras as well. Writing music about one’s own life gave composers an outlet to process emotions and also acted as a source of powerful emotions that could be written into melodies.
One of the most notable works of autobiographical music is Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 (1960). It is dedicated to the “victims of fascism and war,” and, being that Shostakovich lived in the USSR under the communist regime, it makes sense that he would have felt inclined to dedicate a piece to the victims of Soviet oppression. Upon closer analysis, it is clear that this work is dedicated to a specific victim of fascism and war: Dmitri himself. In 1960, Shostakovich reluctantly joined the Communist Party and, in trying to cope with his decision, decided to compose an autobiographical quartet. Having lived under the rule of leaders such as Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev, Shostakovich was certainly a victim of repressive regimes. Stalin even appointed Shostakovich to work as a composer of the Soviet Union, where he was practically enslaved to write nationalist music lacking personal expression.
The main theme of the quartet is a series of four notes first played by the cello and then canonically repeated by all four instruments. The notes — D, E-flat, C B — correspond to the German note names D, S, C and H. In German, Shostakovich’s name is spelled “Schostakowitsch,” thus making the DSCH pattern his initials (sometimes described as his ‘musical signature’). The second movement erupts out of the first in a complete frenzy. The DSCH motif is heard throughout this movement, which is representative the of conflict in Shostakovich’s mind. The third movement is more tame, and is written as a waltz. About halfway through this movement, the cello has a lyrical solo passage very high in its register while the two violinists mimic the haunting sound of an air-raid siren in the background, which is an homage to the fear that war instilled in Shostakovich. The fourth movement begins with the first violinist holding a single tone while the other three instruments play a series of three accented notes over and over again, which is meant to represent Soviet officials or Nazi soldiers banging on Shostakovich’s door. This movement eventually progresses into a series of chilling and beautiful harmonies that seem uncharacteristic of the work, which, up until that point, had been largely dissonant. The final movement is a reprise of the first movement, potentially representing the mournful conclusion of his life.
The autobiographical references certainly do not end there. This work transmits a depth that is rarely found in instrumental music. Many scholars have done extensive analysis of this work; some of whom have concluded that it may have been written with the intent of being a suicide note, despite Shostakovich’s not actually having committed suicide.
Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (1960)