In July 1960, Dimitri Shostakovich was in Dresden, writing music for a film about the bombing of that city during World War II. While there, he composed his String Quartet No. 8 in C minor in just three days. (The work was later transcribed for string orchestra, in a version known as the Chamber Symphony in C minor, Opus 110a.)
A work of great melancholy and despair, there has been much conjecture as to what it is about. Is it about fascism and war? About the composer’s life as a closet political dissident? Is it a reflection of a deep depression and suicidal thoughts? Shostakovich certainly had reason to be depressed: he had lived for years under the repressive Stalinist regime and was often persecuted for his musical compositions; he was beginning to show the signs of a degenerative muscular weakness; and perhaps most devastating, he had recently joined the Communist party – very likely under political pressure.
The overall consensus — that this string quartet is an autobiographical work — is supported by the repeated use of the composer’s signature motif—four notes, D, E-flat, C and B, which in German musical notation are written as D, S, C, and H, the same letters that appear in the German spelling of his name, Dimitri Schostakowitsch. While the score bears the dedication "to the victims of fascism and the war", in a letter to a friend Shostakovich wrote: “I reflected that if I die some day, then it’s hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory, so I decided to write one myself.”
In the liner notes of the Borodin Quartet’s 1962 recording, the music critic Erik Smith wrote, "The Borodin Quartet played this work for the composer at his Moscow home, hoping for his criticisms. But Shostakovich, overwhelmed by this beautiful realization of his most personal feelings, buried his head in his hands and wept. When they had finished playing, the four musicians quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room.”