3.15.2010

D. Shostakovich, 34/17,18; Lover and Iconoclast






Will the class please open their Shostakovich "24 Preludes" Op. 34 books to Preludes numbers 17 in A-flat Major and 18 in f minor? Very good. We will now glean several inferences from these two wonderful pieces.
Even the brief look we had at the first prelude of this set demonstrated the complex and exciting task of interpretation that these preludes offer. As I've played through more and more of these pieces I am struck by the volatile nature of Shostakovich's compositions: expectations are broken or used ironically, melody and accompaniment vie for supremacy or refuse to stand on their own, and harmonies and cadences dash a prelude's dream of being "in a key". It's all very Kafka, very modern, very fun!
Picture
de Hooch
When I turned to the prelude in A-flat Major I was expecting nothing less. "Standard waltz figure?!?! HA! You can't fool me with your cynical use of dance rhythms! Aha! Time signature changes!!!! Deception!!!!" ... Yes. This piece starts with a standard waltz "oom-pa-pa". Then in the fourth measure it changes to common time and continues in a very un-waltz-like manner. However, what makes this piece surprising hinges on the use of the expression mark "amoroso". Shosy only used "amoroso" once before in the preludes: at the very end of the turgid and frenzied prelude in B Major No. 9. In this piece we've been battered through a chromatic gauntlet with a cadence barely in sight. But at the last moment the cadence is avoided and shoved into a gooey and lugubrious b-flat harmony that piddles out into a reluctant and ungracious b major almost as an afterthought. That b-flat section is marked "amoroso", a fake and heart-breaking lover that leaves you not a little indignant. The A-flat prelude is different. "Amoroso" is indicated in the third measure, the moment that the right hand melody wakes up. Lead by the Largo tempo indication, this melody takes on the character of a curious and adventurous child. It toddles into time signature changes. It trips into accelerandos and ritardandos. It adds all manner of chromatic filigree. In its own childish way it attempts dramatic climax. And all this time the left hand, the "oom-pa-pa", is eternally patient, pausing, directing, reminding, supporting, watching. It does not get angry that it's not doing what a good waltz rhythm should. Rather it is content to love this burgeoning melody any way that it can. It's a shepherd to a frolicsome lamb, a female humpback whale lifting her child to the surface for a breath, a father teaching his son to ride a bike. Both melody and accompaniment are at peace with who they are, they are truly living. This "amoroso" is surprisingly genuine and refreshing and in my mind stands out as one of Shostakovich's more beautiful pieces.
Picture
Blake
F-minor, the key of woe and chromatic despair! This next prelude, like all that came before and comes after, creates a whole new mood. It begins with a mezzo-forte canon on the octave. "How contrapuntal! How learned! How serious and grave! I'll believe anything it tells me!" Counterpoint in this context seems to elicit a feeling of aged authority: music of the spheres, JS Bach, hours of tedious "Gradus ad Parnassum", the conservatory. Canons are a thinking person's sport and I like them. However, we should NOT get over-excited with this whole canon thing and lulled into a false sense of security! Be critical! This is Shosy we're talking about! And yes, upon closer inspection of this impish piece, the odious and discomfiting function of the canon becomes clear. The secondary theme at measure eight (which itself is based off of a static tableau of the canon theme) works itself into a fortissimo outburst in a matter of eight measures. After this any and every melody is thwarted by the arrival or interruption of the canon: 1) an inverted fragment at measure eighteen, 2) grumbling in the shadows at twenty, 3) crashing c minor's wedding at twenty-four with a whole new canonic episode, 4) a transposed fragment at thirty-three, 5) a hasty recapitulation at thirty-six, and lastly 6) a squashing of the secondary themes recapitulation at forty-five leading to a stunted ending. In addition the canon voices are only separated by a quarter note which elicits a sense of impatience or as though its bravado were a cover-up for some failure or malfeasance. To sum up, the canonic writing in this prelude serves two contradictory purposes: 1) it unifies the short piece thematically and creates a sense of self-justification owed to rule-abiding contrapuntal devices, and conversely 2) it is a spirit of disorder and discord, ruining cadences, melodies, accompaniment by its presence. It is the canon of the goddess Ate from "The Faerie Queen" Book IV:

"Likewise unequall were her handes twaine,
That one did reach, the other pusht away,
That one did make, the other mard againe,
And sought to bring all things unto decay;"

Good preluding!

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