Founded in the early 1920s by graduates from the Moscow conservatory, the Beethoven quartet was already firmly established as one of the finest chamber groups in the Soviet Union by the time Shostakovich began building his own reputation. In 1940, impressed by the composer’s first string quartet, the ensemble approached Shostakovich proposing he write a work they could perform together. The result was this Quintet, an assured and articulate creation, made richer by a musical fluency that enabled the composer to effortlessly borrow from the language of previous eras.
The Prelude and Fugue that form the work’s opening movements finely illustrate the composer’s mastery of contrapuntal techniques. The wild abandon of the third movement’s Scherzo and Trio contrasts with the more subdued, regretful slow fourth movement, while the classical architecture of sonata form supports the final movement’s rousing gestures.
The work was first performed in November 1940, and in 1941 it received the Stalin prize – awarded for achievements that advanced the Soviet Union or the cause of socialism. Indeed, the piece was so enthusiastically received that violinist Dubinsky recalls:
"For a time the Quintet overshadowed even such events as the football matches between the main teams. The Quintet was discussed in trams, people tried to sing in the streets the second defiant theme of the finale...”
No doubt the success of the work played a part in cementing the relationship between Shostakovich and the Beethoven quintet, who went on to premiere all but two of the composer’s 15 string quartets.