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A new recording of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, deeply original and enigmatic works—encompassing charming simplicity and dazzling virtuosity—whose style is perfectly captured by pianist Peter Donohoe.
With hindsight, perhaps one could draw the conclusion that the struggles Shostakovich had within himself have sometimes been mistaken for an attempt on his part to reveal aspects of the unimaginably complex and constantly developing political situation in which he was working. Of all the great Soviet composers, Shostakovich is the most politicised by historians, and yet he remains the most questioning, at the same time as which he almost never reveals the answers, and usually not even the questions.
These theoretical component characters could equally be interpreted as part conflict between two opposing parts of the composer’s personality, a satire upon himself, a lament for the beloved past and a genuine triumph of the spirit over adversity. That Shostakovich’s most popular and most politically savvy work—his Fifth Symphony—is ambiguous and and enigmatic from first note to last is part of its greatness.
Of all Shostakovich’s large scale works, that symphony is the closest in style to the Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues for Piano Solo, written 14 years later. With the similarities in his approach to tonality and many other aspects of his technique of composition comes a similar enigma. Is the apparent triumph of the huge final fugue (which even shares its key of D minor with the Fifth Symphony and resolves at the end in a massive statement of the major) a deliberate parody of a triumph, inspired by inner thoughts regarding the political system, or more specifically Shostakovich’s Svengali—the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin? Or is it a true triumph in which the apparent ambiguity created by Shostakovich’s acerbic harmony is a red herring? We will never know. In Shostakovich’s music we often sense that there is a hidden message. The ultimate enigma of this great composer is that we can never be sure of what the message is.
Influence of Bach
Shostakovich admired Bach’s music enormously. This applied in particular to the latter’s toweringly great polyphonic writing—not only in his choral and organ works, but most relevantly in Das Wohltempierte Klavier (‘The Forty Eight Preludes and Fugues’). Along with so many late 19th and early 20th Century Russian composers, Shostakovich held the traditional disciplines of counterpoint, polyphony and fugal writing essential to the art of composition.’
Shostakovich was inspired by the playing of Tatiana Nicolayeva, whom he heard—significantly performing Bach—when he was a jury member at the Leipzig Bach Competition in 1951. His admiration for Nicolayeva and his desire to create these works for her was such that he produced all twenty four Preludes and Fugues in a few months. As he wrote them—in the order in which they appear in the final published version—she learned them. That he was able to write so quickly was characteristic of the composer, but it is also significant as it contributes to the feeling that one can take the cycle as conceived as a single work.
They were published in two halves, entitled Volume One and Volume Two. Each volume is divisible into three groups of four, and each coupling of an adjacent major and minor key is logical—they easily form an interdependent pair. It is thus satisfying to hear these works in groups of two adjacent ones, four (starting with Nos 1, 5, 9, 13, 17, or 21), twelve (either volume separately) or complete. It follows that Shostakovich had in mind the context of each one when writing its successor. It is of course valid to play any of them singly, or to simply form groups out of selected ones from across the collection.
Shostakovich was famously able to compose convincingly in the style of many other composers, and often produced extraordinary pastiches to order. Such works as The Gadfly and The Age of Gold demonstrate this, but this talent sometimes spilled over into his symphonic works—e.g. the second movement of his Piano Concerto No 2. Throughout the Preludes and Fugues, despite the immense variety and the occasional echo of Hindemith, Prokofiev and of course Bach, there is no pastiche—no poking fun at styles other than his own. Everyone of these works is a gem, not only of originality that makes them all uniquely Shostakovich, but also very deeply and sincerely felt.
Prelude and Fugue No 1 in C major
The opening of this sublime and diverse set of pieces is already enigmatic. The prelude is based on a rhythmic figure consisting of quarter note, dotted quarter note, eighth note and two quarter notes in 3/4 time—reminiscent of a sarabande.
By comparison, the fugue—which is in four voices—is choral in style and beatific in mood. This is Shostakovich at his most spiritual, and is, perhaps more than any of the set, reminiscent of Bach—in particular, the mood of the Prelude and Fugue that occupies exactly the same position in Volume One of ‘The Forty-Eight’.
Prelude and Fugue No 2 in A minor
The prelude is a swift toccata—a perpetuum mobile of whirling sixteenth notes that seems to be an accompaniment without a melody. It is punctuated only at one point by a succession of long Es that threaten to become a melody, but disappear almost as soon as they arrive.
The fugue in three voices that follows, is a grotesque dance, with a subject in two sections—a baroque motif of two bars followed by a series of leaps of a seventh, leading to acerbic harmonic clashes. The keyboard writing is very demanding; the wide leaps and the clarity needed for this piece demand great finger strength.
Prelude and Fugue No 3 in G major
The prelude is declamatory, at first alternating between a strong unison phrase in the lower register and an almost plaintive single line in the treble, with insistent repeated notes a notable feature. Eventually the tessitura of the two characters is reversed, they are superimposed, and the unison phrase becomes a chorale The harmonies become increasingly dissonant, and the piece concludes with an unresolved suspension played fortissimo, over which pounds the repeated note figure.
Out of this rising tension catapults the energetic fugue—a wild piece in 6/8 time requiring brilliance of finger-work and clarity of texture. This virtuoso fugue in three voices is one of the most demanding of the whole cycle, and is again reminiscent of Hindemith, with its angular subject and displaced accents.
Prelude and Fugue No 4 in E minor
The sad prelude is built on drooping pairs of eighth notes, over which appears a sighing motif in long notes. The tonality is ambiguous in characteristic Shostakovich fashion, but E minor is rarely far away. Near the end an unexpected rising scale takes us into A-flat major for a moment of pure ecstasy and calm, after which the desolate E minor immediately returns.
The double fugue that follows is one of the three in the cycle that gradually builds from a quiet opening to a fortissimo final climax; the majority of the slower fugues climax in the middle, and return to their opening moods, whilst most of the quicker ones remain a static statement.
Prelude and Fugue No 5 in D major
In the prelude the ambiguous atmosphere—a mixture of simple rural charm and melancholy—is in sharp contrast to its predecessor. A folk-style melody is supported by continuous arpeggiated chords, suggesting a lute or some other simple folk instrument, in the treble. Meanwhile in the bass is an equally folky line, redolent of the sound of a cello.
The fugue has a simple construction, whose subject is in two parts—a repeated motif whose main characteristic is two groups of four repeated notes, and then a series of downward-falling pairs of repeated notes. In three voices, the work is one of the most lighthearted of the cycle, and has a mood of untarnished naïveté.
Prelude and Fugue No 6 in B minor
The powerful prelude in B minor is in the style of a Baroque French Overture, with its marcato double dotted rhythms. However, the harmonies are exclusively and strikingly Shostakovichian—in particular the chorale melody that appears after a few lines—reminiscent of certain of his symphonies. The piece dies away unexpectedly, as if suddenly all its energy has drained away, leaving the link to the fugue.
The pianissimo opening of the fugue in four voices grows out of the end of the prelude. The mood of this beautiful fugue is dark and foreboding, although there are some blissfully sunny moments and modulations to distant tonalities on the way.
Prelude and Fugue No 7 in A major
A pastoral and naïve mood dominates the prelude. The music is in a lilting 12/8 time, and in an unusually simple tonal style. However, occasional strange harmonic turns indicate something disturbing underneath.
The fugue—in three voices—is based on a remarkable subject consisting entirely of the notes of a broken chord of A major. There is almost no chromaticism in this piece, and the harmonic variety comes from the—sometimes surprising—juxtaposition of blocks of tonal harmony, creating an impression of naïve wonderment.
Prelude and Fugue No 8 in F sharp minor
One of the most significant of the cycle, the enormously moving fugue is preceded by an equally disturbing prelude. The style of both prelude and fugue is arrestingly Jewish. Although the prelude alone could be taken to be a fairly light-hearted dance, in the context of the fugue, it becomes a grotesque parody.
The fugue subject is extraordinary, consisting of two characters—a bar-long downward-looking phrase that is repeated, and returns in the eighth bar, and an upward leap of an augmented fourth that resolves onto the note one semitone below, giving the impression of a pained sigh. The enormous fugue in three voices that is built upon this series of motifs becomes increasingly chromatic and tortured.
Prelude and Fugue No 9 in E major
With the tragic mood of its predecessor still in the air, the strikingly beautiful and questioning prelude in E major is as unexpected as it is ambiguous. Notated largely on four staves, it consists of a series of phrases alternating between the two extremes of the keyboard—mostly unharmonised and in unison two octaves apart.
The bubbly fugue that follows completely dispels any unease created by the prelude. This fugue is written in only two voices—the only one of the twenty four. Thus it has the sound of a Baroque two-part invention, but with Shostakovich’s unique twists of tonality, and a very thorough working-out of the fugue.
Prelude and Fugue No 10 in C sharp minor
One of the most obviously Bachian ideas forms the basis of the prelude—the opening is a quote—almost certainly a conscious one—from that of No 7 in E flat major of Volume One of ‘The Forty-Eight’. This passage alternates with chorale-type passages played in the lower registers.
The fugue is one of the most inspired. In three voices, it is in a moderate tempo, the atmosphere autumnal. Towards the end, over a dominant pedal-point, the music becomes particularly beautiful, rising to a lyrical climax which then falls away to the final phrase.
Prelude and Fugue No 11 in B major
This prelude is Shostakovich typically clowning around with a folky melody, adding incongruous notes to an apparently predictable tune, rendering it unpredictable in the extreme. It is reminiscent of the finale of his Ninth Symphony. But whereas in the symphony the tune is transmogrified into a grotesque and monstrous version of itself later in the movement, here it disappears off at the end in a happy-go-lucky fashion.
The happy mood is interrupted by the fugue, which is designed to be in the same tempo and to emerge directly from the prelude. Amongst the most difficult to play of the whole cycle, it is a wild and whirling Hopak, reminiscent of the finale of the Tenth Symphony, with its hysterical virtuosity.
Prelude and Fugue No 12 in G sharp minor
The magnificent prelude has the form of a Passacaglia throughout. At its climax, one is reminded of one of Russia’s great Orthodox Cathedrals. As the piece dies away, a ghostly pre-echo of the fugue’s main subject is heard in the tenor, but nothing can prepare one for the avalanche of composer-virtuosity into which one is suddenly hurled.
The fugue in three voices is an extraordinary tour de force. It has an angular subject, the tempo is fast, and the time signature 5/4. The climax towards which the first section hurtles is characterised by harsh dissonance, fortissimo octaves in the bass and a feeling of forward movement. A pedal-point on the dominant is reached and a pianissimo reworking of the fugue begins. A ghostly memory of the earlier aggression progresses, and the fugue gradually dies away. The final cadence is exquisitely beautiful, with dissonances gradually becoming more and more concordant and spaced further apart. Volume One finishes, very unexpectedly, on a pianississimo chord of G sharp major.
Prelude and Fugue No 13 in F sharp major
The second volume of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues opens with a prelude whose main quality is contented naïveté. A expressive sequence of arabesques in the treble, in varying and unpredictable time signatures, alternates with a series of calmly undulating chords.
The fugue is unique in this collection in that it is the only one written in five voices. Although this renders the writing very unpianistic, and its execution extremely arduous, it is one of the most profoundly beautiful piano works of the 20th Century. Marked Adagio, it is choral in style—reminiscent of the singing of Russian Orthodox Church choirs—and takes us through a remarkable tapestry of different tonalities.
Prelude and Fugue No 14 in E flat minor
After the sublime beauty and serene calm of the F sharp major, the intense sadness and overwhelming dark foreboding of this prelude comes as a shock. A fortissimo tremolo begins the work. This dies down to what turns out to be hugely taxing on the performer, as the tremolo is the first of many that underlie almost the whole piece, and thus continues for an enormously long time. The melody line eventually builds in dynamic, reaching a desperate climax, before subsiding to a brief moment of uneasy calm. The music remains uneasy and extremely sad, but now without the incessant and oppressive tremolos that help to make this piece, along with Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata, one of the most pessimistic and menacing piano works ever penned.
The fugue is again in total contrast. Although the sadness set up by the prelude does not evaporate, its threatening nature has disappeared. Instead, the fugue is a grey, autumnal dance in a moderately quick 3/4 time.
Prelude and Fugue No 15 in D flat major
Perhaps the best known of these works for reasons of its technical demands as well as its memorability, the D-flat major poses a particular enigma, stemming from the extraordinary contrast between prelude and fugue; the former is unambiguously tonal, witty and superficially populist, and the latter almost completely atonal (the very end being the exception), aggressive, and uncompromising throughout. As so often with this composer, one senses a message—one that remains intangible, and yet difficult to deny.
The prelude is uninhibitedly in the style of a rustic folk dance. It is somewhat reminiscent of the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony, whose position in between one of Shostakovich’s most significant movements (the first) and one of profound lament (the third) gives it a context that makes it seem a snarlingly sarcastic parody.
The latter plunges the listener very suddenly into a world of unequal bar lengths: the fugue subject itself consists of three bars of 3/4, one of 4/4, one more of 3/4, and one of 5/4, which renders it inevitable that the whole fugue is a nightmarish and exhausting avalanche of unpredictable rhythms. It is at the same time amusing, questioning, sarcastic and deliberately incongruous; perhaps it could be said that it is the opposite form of incongruousness to that of the ending of Mozart’s Musical Joke, or Charles Ives’ Second Symphony, in which tonal music has a deliberately wrong chord at the end—here we have atonal music that has a surprise tonal ending.
Prelude and Fugue No 16 in B flat minor
According to Tatiana Nicolayeva, the B-flat Minor prelude is the only one of the forty eight pieces that make up this cycle about which Shostakovich had second thoughts. The original composition had been very different, and the composer decided later to create a piece using the model of a Mozartian set of variations. His rethinking would not seem atypical of most composers’ ways of working. That he untypically had second thoughts over this prelude is significant only because the composer was perhaps searching for the perfect way to introduce the strangest of all the fugues.
The form of the prelude is indeed similar to that of a set of variations written by Mozart. However, the style of the music is very typical of Shostakovich, and very Russian in the dark, choral style of its opening theme. There are three variations upon this theme, after which a coda introduces new harmonies. The music slows and becomes even darker, with the last phrase intoned in the bottom octave of the piano, preparing the way for the mood of the fugue.
Prelude and Fugue No 17 in A flat major
This prelude returns to the rustic character of the preludes in D major and D flat major, although here the music has a more unquestioning quality. The melancholy of the D major and the sarcasm of the D flat major are both mostly absent here. Instead, a pastoral melody line is accompanied by a simple ostinato, reminiscent of the sound of an organ grinder. The ending is almost bluesy—strikingly reminiscent of 1950s American jazz.
The fugue, rather than being in contrast to the prelude, as characterises most of these works, seems to continue the same mood. It has a rustic dance flavour to it, even though it is in a 5/4 time signature throughout, and later becomes extremely complex pianistically. It has, probably coincidentally, a style suggestive of English country dance; the ghost of Percy Grainger seems to hover above the piece, with its witty harmonic twists and turns.
Prelude and Fugue No 18 in F minor
A beautiful melody line opens the prelude, tinged with a longing sadness. The pitch gradually descends towards the bass. Unexpectedly, the mood is transformed as the key changes to the distant one of D major, the tempo becomes Adagio, and an ecstatic moment, represented by very simple slow-moving chords is an unexpected as it is brief.
The fugue is based on a singing and simple subject, from which the rhythm of a quarter note followed by two eighth notes becomes the dominant force of its later development. As always, the fugue, in three voices, passes through many other keys. Again there is a suggestion of a conflict between minor and major during the final bars, created by the music hovering between F major and A flat. The final resolution in F major is like an echo of the same uneasy calm that concluded the prelude.
Prelude and Fugue No 19 in E flat major
The same suspended unease comes with the end of this prelude. It results from the progress of the majestic chorale that opens it, as it alternates several times with a nervous and tonally ambiguous passage of short chords. The fugue, in three voices, that follows is perhaps the most unapproachable of the twenty four from the first-time listener’s point of view. However, it is a very fine example of the form, and, in the final bars, after the fugue’s strangeness has been fully worked out, there is a curiously satisfying and surprisingly gentle resolution onto the tonic.
Listeners’ difficulty on first hearing stems from its consistent 5/4 time combined with a modal subject that, although revolving around the tonic E flat pitch, is chromatic to the degree that it is almost atonal. The complex harmonies are particularly highlighted by the mostly legato and lyrical phrasing required by the composer. Thus the whole fugue is a mêlée of strange contrapuntal but lyrical lines and acerbic harmonies—that is, until the coda, in which the harmony is resolved in a way that at least implies a diatonic solution.
Prelude and Fugue No 20 in C minor
This is a very special pair of pieces. The relationship between the theme of the prelude and the fugue subject is made obvious by their thematic simplicity, unifying the two works. The prelude is very ponderous and atmospheric. The opening phrase is dark and mysterious. The line of notes later becomes the subject of the fugue. It is answered by a lonely voice in the treble. This contrast is repeated several times over—the immediately obvious similarity to many of the composer’s symphonic slow movements is compounded with each phrase.
The beautiful fugue in four voices is one of the greatest of the cycle. The simple subject—a derivative of the first bar of the prelude—is itself modal. Again the atmosphere is one of quiet melancholia, its major key episodes especially radiant in contrast. The augmentation of the fugal writing that occurs in the latter half is particularly poignant, as is the use of pedal point. However, the hushed serene beauty of the C major coda, where Shostakovich uses the major key material to resolve the tonality, is perhaps the most poignant moment of all.
Prelude and Fugue No 21 in B flat major
This pair of works constitutes a formidable challenge for the performer. Whilst the prelude requires a fleet delicacy and extreme speed on the part of the right hand, the extensive fugue makes extraordinary demands of energy and entails the negotiation of some very unpianistic leaps.
The prelude is a tour de force. Its relentless sixteenth notes in the treble are accompanied for the most part by continuous quarter notes in the bass. It could be taken as an étude for the right hand, given that at no point does the left hand take over the semi quavers; Chopin and Liszt would undoubtedly have reversed the roles of the hands at some point. The predominant mood is one of humour throughout, and after several modulations into distant keys, the piece snuffs itself out like a light.
The fugue in three voices begins lightly, in the style of a quick 3/4 dance. The mood is bright, the harmonies angular—with a hint of Hindemith—and the gradual increase in tension very exciting. The piece ends in a very boisterous orchestral style, with an extended hemiola on the final cadence.
Prelude and Fugue No 22 in G minor
This prelude is a beautiful but sad—almost mournful—piece, based almost entirely on Shostakovich’s characteristic and expressive slurred pairs of notes, reminiscent of the earlier prelude in E minor (No 4 of the cycle).
The fugue is in three voices, and is another of Shostakovich’s autumnal and deliberately suspenseful statements. Vocal in style, the subject has a harmonic simplicity that make parts of it sound as if they could be from any period of music. The work remains in the minor key at the end, and the whole impression of both prelude and fugue is one of suspenseful irresolution—a refusal to answer the intangible questions posed by itself.
Prelude and Fugue No 23 in F major
This prelude constitutes one of Shostakovich’s most profoundly romantic and moving creations. The influence of Mahler—particularly the famous Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony and the finale of the Ninth—is immediately obvious from the yearning turn that appears in the melody of the first phrase to the unexpected melting modulations and the beautiful harmony of the final few bars. It has an atmosphere of calmness and serene beauty that completely belies any ambiguity suggested by earlier works in the cycle.
In contrast with the prelude, the F major fugue is lyrical, leisurely and amiable. Its position as the penultimate fugue in the cycle of twenty four gives it a special significance that it seems at first unwilling to adopt. However, if one views it as the successor to a particularly open-hearted and nostalgic prelude, and the predecessor to the uniquely powerful final prelude and fugue, its static nature takes on a logical significance in the grand scale of the cycle as a whole.
Prelude and Fugue No 24 in D minor
The D minor is the climax, not only of this magnificent cycle of preludes and fugues, but perhaps of the whole of Shostakovich’s piano works. The slow declamatory majesty of the opening of the prelude rises like a monolith from the apparently calculated stasis of the preceding fugue in F major. After a few bars the tension increases even more and a crisis is reached with three fortissimo bars. After the music subsides, an heroic theme in G major sounds; this has the character of a military memorial eulogy played on a distant trumpet, and will later become the subject of the fugue.
The final work in this cycle is in two sections. The first is a quiet fully worked-out fugue—complete in its own right, built from the pianissimo trumpet tune that appears after the first statement of the prelude. A succession of continuous eighth notes heralds the beginning of the second part of this enormous piece. The eighth notes that create the forward movement towards the coda are again in pairs, similar to those of the Preludes in E minor (No 4) and G minor (No 22), giving the music a similarly yearning character. Again, the mood of the first movement of the composer’s own Tenth Symphony is here evoked. From here onwards, the music is not fugal at all, but constitutes a coda to the whole cycle. Gradually the tension increases until, out of an avalanche of octaves in the key of C minor, the tonality shifts suddenly to a triumphant D major, and the majestic trumpet tune of the fugue subject blares out. This ‘triumphant moment’ is one of only two occasions on which the dynamic level of ‘fortississimo’ is used in the cycle of twenty four preludes and fugues—the other being at the end.
Peter Donohoe © 2014