1.18.2010

The First Meausure and 3/4ths of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes, Op. 34



There is nothing to me quite like a 24 prelude set. They hold a certain and gripping fascination with me. Fischer's Ariadne and Bach's WTCs, Chopin's revolutionary Op. 28, Alkan's concluding Op. 31, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Zaderatsky, Debussy, Palmgren, Hindemith, Kabalevsky: such studies in variation and cohesion and practicality and politics and science and love and life, life in all shades and moods and devices, life in particular events, sun-moon, inhale-exhale, all strung together to weave a particular story: life.
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In reading a book by Lawrence Kramer I've become more aware of what he calls the "fate of melody". It's when you have a melody like a character in a story and you walk along with them through their struggles and triumphs. It's a concept that's really helped me truly listen to the drama that's there for the hearkening. I am also working through the Shostakovich Preludes, two a month, for the sheer love of it all and noticed a few wonderful characteristics of this music.

Like most prelude sets, Shostakovich's Op. 34 starts with a prelude in C Major. By this time it's probably just tradition to start with this key, yet it hearkens back to the tuning temperament experiments of the 18th century and reminds me of the key new students learn first. All white keys. Simplicity. And that's just what this prelude begins with. The first thing we hear is a lone example of an Alberti bass figure playing all three notes of the C major chord. It comes out of nowhere, mf, alone and shying away as soon as it speaks in a diminuendo to p. That first figure is the loudest part of the whole piece. Playing or listening, I feel as though I've missed something as the notes fade into accompaniment. The strangeness increases when we notice the three notes play a C major chord in second inversion with the fifth of the chord (G) on the bottom. The tonic (C) is not even played second, but has to wait for the third (E) before we can be totally sure where we stand. Second inversion triads are very unstable and usually appear at cadences with more of a suspended V feel than anything else.

Suffice it to say that the first three notes, based on their placement and dynamics already give us things to think about: Is this a cadence? Is this piece going to tell me what it's about or just hint at things? Did I miss something? Such a strange way to start a prelude. Such a strange way to start a whole set of 24 preludes.

Suddenly, as if to wipe away all our fears and questions and tears, a tolling C octave booms out of the depths of the piano. A whole new light is shed on the initial notes. The stability of the whole is established without question: C major, king of keys! Yet all is not completely well. The question remains, why that first measure of naked Alberti to begin with? Why the initial confusion? Why not start with the foundational C at the onset? The hero has appeared. Yet the hero is late. What can we trust in this piece? What sort of journey are we getting ourselves into?

It turns out that Shostakovich has us in for a bumpy and satirical ride with these preludes. Over and over again he subverts our ideas of destination, manners, convention, mood, and even accompaniment's relation to melody. For example the Alberti figure of No. 1 goes on to be traded between hands and fall into all sorts of mischief with meter and direction and in the end almost slips into the wrong tonality at the cadence.

What interests me most these days is the idea of a comparative analysis of prelude sets between three Soviet composers: Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, and Zaderatsky. Each composed around the same time sets of 24 preludes in each major and minor key, yet came from very different places in terms of political/artistic mindset. Shostakovich presents an enigma, for seeming to obey the ordinances of the anti-formalism, yet reviling the strictures. He seems to have continually wavered in official opinion. We may never really know. However Kabalevsky stayed much more in the "good lists" of the Soviet authorities, some would say the poster child of Soviet Realism. In such climes he thrived. Not so Zaderatsky. Forbidden to play or publish his music, forced out of major cities, and essentially rubbed out of the pages of history, Zaderatsky was eventually imprisoned and sent to the mines of the GuLag for decades of his life. It was during his imprisonment that he composed his 24 preludes, using blank telegram forms as sheet paper.

I hope one day to explore these three men and their preludes in more scintillating detail.

MR out.

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