Shostakovich died in 1975, and in the last decade of his life, his health was not only in serious decline, but he was battling a nervous system disorder -- brittle-bone poliomyelitis -- that crippled his right hand. It was between stays at an orthopedic clinic that treated this condition with some success that he wrote this quartet. Shortly after completing it, he suffered another in a series of heart attacks. Some musicologists have asserted that Shostakovich's sparse scoring in his later symphonies and his propensity for turning out string quartets in his final years owes something to this frustrating and painful condition affecting his hand. This observation is probably sound, and one might further suggest that the composer's declining health and physical suffering may have contributed to the gloomy and dark moods of his late works. This work was premiered in December 1970 by the Beethoven Quartet, the group most closely identified with the composer's quartets during his lifetime.
If one could conclude with reasonable certainty that the character of the String Quartet No. 13 is indeed connected to the physical state of the composer at the time, then one can safely declare that he must have been very ill and quite depressed, for this is a dark work full of tension and doubt, with not a hint of happiness or relief from the gloom and struggle. Yet there is no self-pity here, only a bleak sonic landscape, less a product of a nihilistic philosophy, however, than of a gentle embracing of the realities of a life coming to an end.
The work is in one long movement, marked Adagio - Doppio movimento - Tempo primo. It begins with a solemn, elegiac theme on viola. Soon the other instruments join in and impart a funereal mood, whose atmospherics depend largely on the glacial pacing and processional air of solemnity. If the Twelfth had seemed daring because of its opening 12-tone row on cello, as well as other flirtations with atonal techniques, this work, here and throughout, is more audacious owing to its morbid and intense sound world, a sound world Soviet leaders were uncomfortable explaining. Leningrad Pravda tried to put, if not a happy face on the work after its premiere, then at least a positive one, hailing the quartet as a "glorification...of the human spirit."
After the exposition, the music intensifies and three powerful, insistent dissonant chords bring on a Scherzo-like middle section, wherein the livelier pace of the music is supported and punctuated by percussive clacks, created by the bow striking against the torso of the instrument. This whole passage is sinister and threatening, but eventually subsides without the expected climactic outburst. The dissonant chords have a reappearance, though, before a more permanent quiet arrives.
The main material returns, but nothing like a standard reprise occurs. The mood grows, if anything, even more melancholy and darker. Yet a serenity comes as the work approaches its close. When the viola reprises the opening theme accompanied by remnants of the percussive tapping near the end of the piece, there is a haunting poignancy, as if the death-rattle effect is united peacefully with the serene sadness so as to embrace an inevitable but now bearable fate.