In the early part of his career Shostakovich was generally known - despite the success of his First Symphony - as a musical joker, a satirist, often termed ‘the Soviet Rossini’. His characteristic sphere of operations was the stage, whether in ballet, opera, incidental music for the theatre or vaudeville. It was during the 1930s, when the Soviet state apparatus mounted some of its severest political attacks on his musical language, that he began to re-make himself as a composer on the epic scale and in the great classical forms, especially symphony and string quartet: ‘the Soviet Beethoven’. However, it was only in 1938, when he already had five symphonies to his credit, that Shostakovich wrote the first of his 15 string quartets. Up to that time he had displayed little interest in this purest and traditionally most abstract of musical media (and indeed the Second Quartet did not follow until he had completed Symphony No. 8, six years later).