Shostakovich/Auerbach: 24 Preludes for Piano, Op. 34
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1979) composed his Twenty-four Preludes for piano between December 1932 and March 1933. The work emulated The Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) in the idea of 24 keyboard preludes covering each of the major and minor keys.*
The 26-year-old Shostakovich infused his preludes with a broad palette of emotions and gestures. Some of the preludes maintain one consistent emotion (or attitude) throughout. Others may unexpectedly change emotional expression suddenly.
These sharp turns were to become hallmarks of Shostakovich’s style, and in some ways they mirrored his life under the Communist regime. For example, frequently, he and other prominent Russian composers were periodically denounced by the government’s news services for some (usually imagined) infraction of governmental fine-arts policy. The most (in-)famous of these was his 1948 censure (alongside Prokofiev and others) for “formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies” — whatever the authorities imagined those to be. At other times, just as predictably, he would be lauded, often receiving some honor or prize. One of his highest honors was an appointment to membership in the Supreme Soviet in 1962.
The Preludes are short essays. However, they also became the proving ground for content that we can hear in Shostakovich’s mature symphonies, concertos, and chamber works.
*Shostakovich differed from Bach in the matter of organization, that is, the order of keys — major and minor. The First Prelude (and Fugue) in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Book I) is in the key of C major and so is that of Shostakovich’s first Prelude. However, Bach then follows each major key with its parallel minor (e.g., C Major and C minor). He then proceeds to the next higher key on the keyboard, (C-sharp Major and C-sharp Minor, etc.), completing the whole series in the key of B Minor.
Shostakovich organized his 24 Preludes by following each major key with its relative minor key, that is, the minor key with the same number of sharps or flats required to play correctly in that key (e.g., C Major and A Minor — no sharps or flats). Then, he proceeds to the pair of keys requiring one sharp: G Major and E Minor. The next pair requires two sharps (D Major and B Minor), etc. Following the six-sharp pair, the composer switches to six flats (E-flat minor) for Preludes no. 15 and 16, then works his way back to one flat (F Major and D minor) for Preludes 23 and 24. Another point of interest is that Bach composed a sequel: the WTC (Book II), and Shostakovich composed his sequel, 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op. 87, in 1950-51.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2022
About Lera Auerbach (arranger of the Shostakovich Preludes heard today)
A renaissance artist for modern times, Lera Auerbach is a widely recognized conductor, pianist, and composer. She is also a published poet and an exhibited visual artist. All of her work is interconnected as part of a cohesive and comprehensive artistic worldview.
Lera Auerbach has become one of today’s most sought after and exciting creative voices. Her performances and music are featured in the world’s leading stages – from Vienna’s Musikverein and London’s Royal Albert Hall to New York’s Carnegie Hall and Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center.
Auerbach is equally prolific in literature and the visual arts. She incorporates these forms into her professional creative process, often simultaneously expressing ideas visually, in words, and through music. She has published three books of poetry in Russian, and her first English-language book, Excess of Being – in which she explores the rare form of aphorisms. Her next book, an illustrated work for children, A is for Oboe, will be published by Penguin Random House in the fall of 2021. Auerbach has been drawing and painting all her life as part of her creative process. Her visual art is exhibited regularly, included in private collections, and is represented by leading galleries.
Lera Auerbach holds multiple degrees from the Juilliard School in New York and Hannover University of Music, Drama, and Media in Germany. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, selected her in 2007 as a Young Global Leader and since 2014 she serves as a Cultural Leader. Internationale Musikverlage Hans Sikorski publishes her work, and recordings are available on Deutsche Grammophon, Nonesuch, Alpha Classics, BIS, Cedille, and many other labels.
Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147
Shostakovich was a pianist, not a string player. Yet he clearly valued above all that vocal quality in string instruments that allowed them to stand as surrogates for the composer’s personal voice in quartet, concerto, or sonata, evoking public debate or private soliloquy.Malcolm MacDonald
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one of the 20th century’s musical geniuses and probably the most successful Russian composer of the Stalin era. Yes, he had occasional doctrinal scuffles with the Communist regime (which alternately praised or condemned him). Yet he nonetheless became quite prolific, composing 9 operas, 40 film scores, 15 symphonies, and 15 string quartets.
He was a “workaholic,” composing the Viola Sonata’s first two movements in ten days during early July 1975 and the third in two days later that month. Soon after that, he entered the hospital. Evidently, everyone knew this would be the composer’s final hospitalization. So, his publisher rushed the sonata’s typesetting, and on August 9, 1975, the day of his death, the composer was proof-reading his final work.
In the first movement, the most important thing to notice is that Shostakovich was composing in “free atonality.” that is, in no traditional key. We hear this in the viola’s pizzicato introduction, which is joined by the piano, playing “plucky” notes in counterpoint to the viola. The music broadens, and, on an equal footing, viola and piano present a lengthy dramatic outburst. The texture changes when the viola etches out melodies in tremolo (rapid, repeated bowing on each note) in a long statement. Eventually, the music turns back to an echo of the movement’s opening, ending in a calm mood.
As a “cure” for the first movement’s seriousness, the central movement is a true scherzo (“joke”). It is a comic fast waltz, but frequently turns into a raucous march. If the first movement was often atonal (in no particular key), the scherzo counterbalances it in several places by placing the viola in one key and the piano in another key: “bi-tonality” for comic effect. In the central section, viola and piano reverse jobs: the piano hammers out a melody while the viola attempts an accompaniment as loud as the piano. This exchange recurs in the reprise of fragments from the first section. Eventually, the individual functions of melody and accompaniment become blurred, and a return of the comic march does not help. The ending comically leaves these matters unresolved.
With the third movement, Adagio, we arrive at the sonata’s poignant center of gravity. It begins with an unaccompanied cantilena from the viola. When the piano enters (also unaccompanied), we may “get” the music’s true direction. According to Fjodor Druzhinin, the Sonata’s dedicatee, Shostakovich composed this movement in memory of Beethoven. Now the piano proves it with the repeated three-note pattern closely reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (Op. 27, no. 2). This three-note figure will recur many times in the course of the Adagio, always in the piano (Beethoven’s instrument). As the movement progresses, we hear a further reference to that famous, touching piece of music: a repeated note (dah-dee-daaah). The Adagio’s steady flow is later interrupted only by a declamatory cadenza from the viola (unaccompanied), but the piano joins in again. Gradually, the composer leads us thunderously back to a “Moonlight” piano accompaniment to support a flowing viola line. During the final minute, the viola-piano dialogue unravels softly. Thus, we have the touching ending of the Viola Sonata — and of the beloved composer’s life.
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67
The E Minor Piano Trio by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) belongs to the same period as his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the Eighth Quartet. These works share not only a World War II genesis but certain emotional characteristics as well. Anxiety, tension, and tragedy are moods associated with wartime, which critics have also identified in these works.
The Piano Trio has, in addition, a more personal side. In February 1944, the composer’s very close friend Ivan Sollertinsky died suddenly of a heart attack. Within days, Shostakovich began composing the Piano Trio No. 2, dedicating it to the memory of Sollertinsky. Between that time and early August, when he completed the second movement, Russian troops had liberated Nazi death camps at Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, and Majdanek. The shattering reality of the Holocaust began to be revealed with that news, and Shostakovich, who had been extremely sympathetic toward Soviet Jews since at least the late 1930s, was deeply grieved.
Thus, the tragic significance of the piano trio took a turn at the midpoint, becoming an elegy for the murdered Jews of the Holocaust. Shostakovich consciously emulated Jewish style music in the trio, especially the final movement. When the work was premiered in November 1944 (with the composer at the piano), the audience was profoundly moved. One listener reported, “The music left a devastating impression. People cried openly. By audience demand, the last ‘Jewish’ part of the Trio had to be repeated.”
At the opening of the work, the violin and cello parts play in exchanged ranges, producing an unusual tone quality. Each voices an elegiac, modal theme. The piano’s low entry with the theme leads to discussion among the instruments, which evolves into a second section containing more energetic material. Some of this is cheerful — often to the point of banality. The movement winds down to a quiet ending.
The second movement is a scherzo with all the verve and stomping of a Beethoven work. Violin and cello often chase each other, but cooperating closely at other times, with the piano set off aurally. The movement shows, harmonically, the “classical” side of the composer’s aesthetic palette.
Heavy piano chords at the opening of the third movement immediately cast a funereal mood. A taut, emotional dialogue between violin and cello follows, set against the somber background of chords from the piano. Shostakovich here gives the listener a glimpse into the wrenching agony he was feeling.
The finale follows directly, carrying the listener into the trio’s famous “Jewish” theme. About Jewish music, Shostakovich said:
I think, if we speak of musical impressions, that Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it; it is multifaceted; it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It is almost always laughter through tears.Dmitry Shostakovich
However, here the melody’s treatment is eerie, possibly even menacing, as in a danse macabre. This may have been prompted by a story the composer received of SS guards making their victims dance beside their own graves. A series of variants on the theme proceeds, punctuated by sardonic cadences and some new material also informed by Jewish musical tradition. About the halfway point, the dance reaches a crazed pitch, only to be released in a passionate outpouring. A brief but lush development follows, capped by a return of the Jewish theme in the piano. The elegiac chords from the third movement now return, combined with bits of the Jewish theme, to form a coda that lays the E Minor Piano Trio peacefully to rest.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2022
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