4.24.2010

D. Shostakovich, 34/19,20; The Crumbling Facade and the Devouring Flame

Picture
J.W. Smith
Thank goodness for post pre-scheduling. I'm probably somewhere in Nebraska right now, but piano music is always in my heart.

Shostakovich. Preludes 19 and 20. Lock and load!

Prelude No. 19 in E-flat major has the look of a bucolic lullaby. When I say the look, I mean what the sight-reader sees when they glance through a book of sheet music: Andantino, in an easy 6/8, a lolling patten in the bass that rocks around the tonic, not many sixteenths, some accidentals, melodic... all these things can be gleaned from a cursory glance and are usually the things I check out when I get a new book of music. All the Vivos and Prestissimos and Allegro con agitato fuoco e tempestuoso belligroso festivamente must wait for hours of intense concentration and steely endurance. Prelude 19, on the other hand, looks like a lark, and invites me to the dance.
And yet Shosy's acerbic personality cannot lay quiet in such a lulling barcarole. The melody has problems; eyes, fingers, ears all agree that there is something aberrant about the melody. Already in the third measure rising fourths shift into foreign, chromatic notes. However slight this shift may seem it sets the precedent for consequent forays into foreign tonalities. Measure 10 should meet in a pleasant tonic cadence. Yet there is an interruption just at that point into D major, followed by A major, B-flat seven, and at last E-flat. The piece makes no apologies for this uncalled for digression. No excuses. No angry bursts. It just slips into an alternate personality and then back like a bilingual person who lapses into a different language for several words of a sentence. A wonderfully shaped, imitative section is in the same vein of strangeness, doodling around in the land of sharps. Measure 23 attains the heights of the melodic mountain in A-flat major, then echoes at pianissimo in A-flat minor (a favorite device of Shosy in these preludes). The small recapitulation slips through D-D-flat-C-C-flat-B-flat before finding rest in the tonic. And lastly measure 37 shades the last melodic cadence in chromaticisms. All these shifts occur without ado and either suggests that the piece is unaware of its own lapses in tonality or that it cannot help and is choosing to ignore such problems. The coda contains the only thing akin to an outburst, and the only evidence of uneasiness on the part of the piece. The ending is uneasy and wandering and melts into a colorful tonic.

C minor conjures for me pathos and passion and woe; Beethoven's languid, impassioned sonatas, Bach's organ toccatas with rumbling C pedals shaking dry bones to life, Chopin's funeral march. It's also a hand thing, the severity of B-natural to A-flat in the harmonic scale, the feel of the jutting, black E-flat as you roll by on an arpeggio. Delicious.

Allegretto furioso. There's something odd about that. Allegro furioso, sure. But allegretto seems less frantic and driving and more calculating and deliberate. To me the marking suggests something different than a furious outburst of magma-passion. The pace is such that the piece can take a breath and look around and see that it's raving and ranting, and still choose to continue. It's a tempo of righteous justice. It has all its faculties and bends them all toward expostulating or undoing or destroying something that it truly wrong.
Picture
P. and G. Brizzi
The most potent vehicle of this slow-motion anger is dynamics. Prelude 20 begins in forte and never backs off, ending at the extremes of the piano at a screaming fortississimo. A variety of jarring and powerful devices are used to add to the turbulent scene: parallel melody in measures 1 and 2, descending chromatic lines (and octaves) throughout, blatant tritones as in measure 8, tone clusters in 20 and 21, and that driving ending with a Neopolitan pedal under the A-flat-A-B-flat-B-C minor sweep to the finish line. At the same time the piece is divided into regular divisions (measures 1-7, 8-11), almost satisfying cadences (measure 4), texture shifts (measure 12 and 24), and a theme recapitulation (measure 21).

It's interesting to consider another angry prelude of a different era, Chopin's soaring Prelude No. 18 in F minor. With a tempo of Allegro molto this prelude violently moves through a series of jarring and violent figures, often in parallel octaves, thematic shifts, low grumbling trills, ending in fortississimo "stingers". By contrast Shostakovich's anger moves with a collected precision. There is a control evident in the pace and movement of the C minor prelude. It is a strange mixture of raving passion and calm precision.

This prelude is the prelude of Isaiah's contradictory Helper of Israel, destroyer/lover, warrior/mother:

41:2-3
"Who has stirred up one from the east, whom victory meets at every step?
He hands nations over to him and subdues kings before him.
He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow.
He pursues them and moves on unscathed, by a path his feet have not traveled before."
42:13-16
The Lord will march out like a mighty man, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal;
with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies.
"For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.
I will lay waste the mountains and hills and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn rivers into islands and dry up the pools.
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.

These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them."

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