D. Shostakovich, 34/21,22; The Happy Hunchback and the Romantic Skeleton

Several things speak out to me from a months work on Shostakovich's B-flat Major and g minor preludes. I am continually amazed at the variety of his invention and ideas.

Prelude 21 in B-flat Major sets itself off immediately by a continuous rhythm of 5/4, Allegretto poco moderato. Irregular meters are always novel and interesting to me. They touch for me into the messy rhythmic past of renaissance and medieval musics, a world before the perfectly rounded phrases of the more pithy Classical composers. The rhythm is lurching, neither the march of 4/4 nor the jig or waltz of 6/8. There's a breath taken or forgotten, a footing lost or hesitated upon. I bet the regular meters made fun of 5/8 in elementary school. He can be a bit awkward.
However Shostakovich deals with this interesting meter (and not for the first time) with ease and self-assurance. The melodies in this short piece oscillate between the angular and the stepwise. Sequences and cadences are punctuated by a heavy use of suspensions, often with a flatted upper note. Yet the character is happy, jolly, blithe, frohlich. There are no angry outbursts or embarrassing punctuations of the meter's deformity. Dynamics remain on a whole in the piano range, swelling only in measures 21 and 22, a momentary insistence by G-flat major, which the piece acquiesces too with gladness. The third to the last measure brings up this same idea, but the end pinches it out with a self-satisfied tonic.

The next prelude contains a haunting beauty that I continue to come back to. I particularly love Shosy's penchant for sparse, contrapuntal texture and the way he uses those means to come to surprising and refreshing ends. This prelude begins with a single, intoning chord right from the play book of Grieg, a pianissimo g minor. Then anadagio dance begins between two sinuous melodic lines, lines that push and wave each other quickly into such tonalities as D-flat major and G-flat major. Just at the climax however the spell is broken by a sighing motive that echoes after a silence. This device is used again and again to create a sort of cadence, a self-reflective and somewhat depressing cadence.
This prelude is jammed with emotion. There are a total of fourespressivo indications with one espressivo molto. Wreathing lines, hasty crescendos, hastier diminuendos, upward bass scales, and downward soprano wails, this piece oozes with Romantic possibilities. Except for one thing. Romantic music is not just full of emotion. It is full of chords, big, German, Brahms, MacDowell, six-notes-with-one-hand, colorful chords. Shosy's prelude is a Romantic stripped of his Romantic clothing, a bare bones shadow, still attempting to plumb some depths, yet perhaps too fragile to get there.
And where is it trying to get to? It seems to me that Fairy Land, that beautiful ideal makes its appearance in measures 36 through 38. A sudden silence follows a sequencing outcry and our ears are suddenly and pianissimo-ly wrapped in deep, resounding, full chords, like quiet, far off thunder. The Grieg bell at the beginning of the piece seems as though it could have been a promise or a desire. And here is in the least a passing vision of something wonderful that this prelude has been longing for this whole time. It is by no means satisfied however and ends in with a doleful scalar passage. However the ending chord is the same voicing as the very first chord. The piece finally rests in the beauty of a complete, comforting harmony.

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