“DSCH” – Shostakovich’s Motto
Shostakovich’s full name in German, “Schostakowitsch” provides the key to the composer’s musical signature.
In English musical notation we have the letters A to G (in the treble clef, EGBDF on the lines and FACE in the spaces) and from these a limited number of words can be concocted.
The German language is more accommodating for here we have the two additional letters ‘H’ and ‘S’. The note B flat is written ‘B’ while B natural is ‘H’. E flat is called ‘Es’ and pronounced like the letter ‘S’.
For Shostakovich’s epigram, the composer took his initial ‘D’ and the first three letters of his surname in a hybrid German/English spelling (see example).
Of course the motif BACH is possible, and was used by the composer himself, and by Brahms and Liszt (amongst others). Like BACH, the DSCH motto does not belong to any key but is probably more fruitful than its famous precursor. Shostakovich introduces his plaintive motto at its original pitch in the third and fourth movements of the Tenth Symphony:
and ‘DSCH’ is omnipresent in his Eighth Quartet:
He first openly spotlighted it in 1953, though it occurs earlier and possibly unwittingly in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District pitched a perfect fourth higher with a ‘near miss’ in the Scherzo of the First Violin Concerto of 1947.
In the Seventh Quartet his initials ‘DS’ are introduced in the very first bar and are featured throughout this work, with DSCH occurring in bars 5 and 6 after fig. 22 at the end of the Lento, albeit disguised in an unfamiliar rhythm. The opening viola phrase of the Fifth Quartet is an anagram of the motto. Inexplicably, the composer introduced a slurred parody of his epigram in the third movement of the Fifteenth Symphony and humorously sets his name, occupation, and nationality to the motto in the brief work Preface to the Complete Collection of my Works and a Brief Reflection upon this Preface, Opus 123:
There is a semitone between the first and second notes and the third and fourth, a minor third between the second and third notes, while the complete motto spans a diminished fourth. A number of Shostakovich’s compositions – the First Cello and Second Violin Concertos, Twelfth and Thirteenth Quartets among them – do not feature the monogram but they are saturated with its intervals.
After Shostakovich was in trouble with the authorities in 1936, his fellow composer Benjamin Britten, composed a Festival Cantata, Opus 30, Rejoice in the Lamb:
This setting of words written in a madhouse by the eighteenth century poet, Christopher Smart. The words which concern us are: ‘For the officers of the peace are at variance with me and the watchman strikes me with his staff. For silly fellow, silly fellow is against me.’ The Shostakovich motto is featured prominently and the chorus takes up those four notes for the words ‘silly fellow’. It is surely more than coincidental that when Shostakovich was in disgrace in Russia with ‘officers of the peace’, Britten should introduce this secret message of sympathy. Did, then, Benjamin Britten discover and initiate the use of the DSCH motto in 1943? Later, in 1968, he was to dedicate the church parable, The Prodigal Son, Opus 81, to Shostakovich.
(Adapted from the late Derek Hulme’s text for the first and second editions of his Catalogue)