A Fugue or a Prelude Every Three Days

Shostakovich – inspired by Bach. © Charles Thibo

A year ago, I published my first post on Johann Sebastian Bach, not really knowing where my journey through centuries of classical music would lead me. I have learned a lot since then, about music, about history, about mankind. The journey made me meet Dmitry Shostakovich, a controversial and fascinating composer. Today’s post will be about Shostakovich and how he followed-up on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Now wait a minute, that’s a leap of 250 years. Yes, indeed. But isn’t Bach God? Isn’t he immortal and eternal? Bach was, is and will be.

On a jury in Leipzig

In the summer of 1950, Dmitry Shostakovich traveled to Leipzig, the cultural heart of the now defunct German Democratic Republic, a socialist puppet state guided by Moscow through the Cold War. The world celebrated the 200 anniversary of Bach’s death and Shostakovich was tasked to serve on the jury of the first ever International Bach Competition. One of the competitors was Tatyana Nikolayeva (1924-1993). She was ready to play any of Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier. A few months later, Shostakovich invited Nikolayeva to his home and performed preludes and fugues in C major and A minor he had just composed. Bach’s music had set a wheel into motion…

Around the circle of fifths

Between October 1950 and March 1951 Shostakovich wrote a complete cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, proceeding around the circle of fifths* alternating major and minor keys. The idea to write a whole cycle covering all keys came over time. He composed a piece, played it for Nikolayeva, proceeded to another one, averaging a prelude or a fugue every three days or so. While he was studying composition in the 20s, he had called fugues “stunts” – artificial technical exercises. When he had finished Op. 87, he was proud as a peacock. He told a colleague, he had written these pieces for all the Soviet composers: “No one here knows how to write fugues.”

“Individual aloofness”

Now imagine, a composer who for most of his life had to live with the label of being “formalistic” as opposed to adhering to “social realism” had let himself being inspired by Bach’s monumental “Well-Tempered Clavier” to preserve his heritage in the heart of the Soviet Union. Daring, wasn’t it. Shostakovich soon found out, just how daring he had been. On March 31, 1951 he performed the first half of the cycle at a gathering of the Union of Composers. He never got a chance to perform the second half as Op. 87 met fierce criticism. Constructivist complexity (almost as bad as formalism), gloomy moods (not allowed in an optimist, forward-looking society) and individual aloofness (a deadly sin in a collectivist society) – those were the charged launched at the composer. Publication of the score and public performances were forbidden.

Tatyana Nikolayeva’s triumph

However, part of the failure to impress the censor was due to Shostakovich’s poor pianistic performance. Tatyana Nikolayeva took it upon herself to present the 24 Preludes and Fugues a second time in the summer 1951. Publication was authorized, and encouraged by this first step, the pianist presented all 24 parts in December 1952 to the general public. When asked whether there was any way Shostakovich could be persuaded to compose 24 additional fugues and preludes to match Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”, the composer replied with a firm: “Never!”

Transcending Johann Sebastian Bach

In this work, Shostakovich did not merely replicate Bach, he gave it additional dimensions. While references to and  quotations from Bach’s cycle are abundant throughout the work, e.g. No. 2 in A minor and No. 10 in C sharp minor, the harmonic language is very much Shostakovich’s. It appears very modern, sometimes even jazz-like, with many contrasting elements e.g. the juxtaposition of a dark and a light theme in  No. 3 in G major or change of tempi and coloratura in No. 8 in F sharp minor. He did not hesitate to borrow melodies from lullabies or folk songs as introduction for a fugue or a prelude growing in complexity over time like in No. 15 in D flat major.

Did I say jazz-like? Would you be surprised if I told you that the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett has recorded Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues? No, you wouldn’t. It’s divine, nothing less.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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2 thoughts on “A Fugue or a Prelude Every Three Days”

  1. Very interesting article about Shostakovich indeed! Except: Bach was not God, but an amazing musical “evangelist”! I think you would agree. 🙂

    1. It refers to a quote of Hector Berlioz in my previous post on Bach: “There is no other God than Bach and Mendelssohn is his prophet!”

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