Like many of the great composers before him Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, among others , Shostakovich possessed the skills of a keyboard virtuoso, and might well have sustained a successful career as such. His graduation exercise from the Leningrad Conservatory, the First Symphony, catapulted him at the age of twenty to worldwide attention, and he decided to devote the bulk of his efforts to composition. Significantly enough, the First Symphony contained a prominent part for the piano. Shostakovich continued to write music for his instrument throughout his twenties — about half his output during these years was for or with piano — which he also performed. Thereafter, coinciding with the sharp reduction of his performing activity, he wrote only seldom for solo piano.
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Like many of the great composers before him Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, among others , Shostakovich possessed the skills of a keyboard virtuoso, and might well have sustained a successful career as such.
His graduation exercise from the Leningrad Conservatory, the First Symphony, catapulted him at the age of twenty to worldwide attention, and he decided to devote the bulk of his efforts to composition. Significantly enough, the First Symphony contained a prominent part for the piano. Shostakovich continued to write music for his instrument throughout his twenties — about half his output during these years was for or with piano — which he also performed.
Thereafter, coinciding with the sharp reduction of his performing activity, he wrote only seldom for solo piano. Among the works of his later years was the monumental set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. The inspiration came principally from Bach, as it has for similar sets from other composers: Hans Huber, Castelnuovo-Tedesco for guitar duo and Niels Viggo Bentzon for preludes and fugues together; Chopin, Scriabin, Busoni, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich himself Op.
In , Shostakovich was sent by his government as the head of a Soviet delegation to East Germany for the ceremonies surrounding the bicentenary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Among the events was a piano competition in Leipzig, where Shostakovich sat on the jury.
One of the contestants was the year-old Tatyana Nikolayeva, whose playing of the Well-Tempered Clavier so impressed Shostakovich that upon returning to Moscow, he undertook to create a similar work himself. The cycle was not given as a unit until a year later when Tatiana Nikolayeva performed it at the same venue in two sessions, on December 23 and 28, He himself never did so, though he recorded all of it. He did often perform the preludes and fugues in groups of three to six, as have many other pianists, notably Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels.
Selected numbers have been arranged for such diverse instruments as organ, accordion, double bass with piano and string orchestra.
They are 24 masterpieces, each with its own internal world. Take for example the first fugue C major , which employs only the white keys of the piano throughout, or the seventh A major , whose subject is built entirely from a major triad. In the preludes too, there is in each one a sense of experimentation, of compressing a single idea into a few pages of music to see where it will go.
Chordal writing alternates with flowing chromatic passages. The fugal subject is built almost entirely from the intervals of the fourth and the fifth. The five-note rhythmic cell upon which it is based recalls a jocular passage from the third movement of the Fourth Symphony.
The Fugue is actually a double fugue. Two separate subjects are introduced in turn the second in slightly faster tempo , then are combined fortissimo in a towering musical edifice. The fugal subject is based entirely on the notes of the tonic chord A — C-sharp — E. The Fugue too incorporates this rhythmic figure into its fold. The subject is exceptionally long — nine measures — and thereafter unwinds in three-part texture to an unrelenting tread and highly dissonant harmony.
This Prelude is also notable for its extremes of range, which cover nearly the entire keyboard; three staves are required to notate it. The Fugue is the only one of the 24 in two voices only, and exudes an atmosphere of joy and exuberance. Many listeners hear in it strong reverberations of a Bach two-part invention. In fact, it, as well as its Fugue, is often regarded as the most Bachian of the set. For sheer, unabashed joy and an almost reckless sense of abandon, the Fugue is hard to beat.
The intellectual rigor with which Shostakovich creates a fugue from his angular, raw-boned subject is truly awe-inspiring. Thus, the stage is set for the culmination of the first volume. Your email address will not be published. Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.
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Shostakovich: Preludes & Fugues
Success here depends upon unwavering concentration from musician and listener alike. But the mountain analogy only gets you so far. When Levit reached the final page of the last, defiant fugue — the effort and intensity registering on his face and his hands pounding out its final unisons — it was clear that this was a long, lonely and intensely moving pilgrimage to some of the subtlest landscapes the piano can paint. He was devastated by the wildly negative response the work received at its first performance. Nerves affected his playing that day — this is, even when immaculately played, a taxing listen, and it must have seemed much more difficult to comprehend with added wrong notes. Sixty-five year later, the cycle is a relative rarity, but boasts more fine exponents than ever before. That first prelude also signals a lot about what follows musically.
From Despair to Delight
The cycle was composed in and while Shostakovich was in Moscow and premiered by pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva in Leningrad in December ;  it was published the same year. The complete work takes about two and a half hours to play. Each piece is in two parts— a prelude and a fugue —varying in pace, length and complexity for example, Fugue No. Bach 's The Well-Tempered Clavier , an earlier set of 48 preludes and fugues, is widely held to be the direct inspiration for Shostakovich's cycle, largely based on the work's composition history see below. References to and quotations from Bach's cycle appear throughout the work.