D. Shostakovich, 34/4; The Emotive Tortoise

I thought I'd follow Chopin's example and follow the C Major prelude with E minor (heh heh... music nerd joke...). There are three elements that hop out at me in the first bars of this piece.

The first is that it's a fugue, question in tonic, answer in dominant. It's relatively slow (Moderato) and the theme takes its time unfolding. The complete exposition occurs almost half way through the piece at measure 13 when the bass voice gets its turn.* 

Secondly the time signature is 5/4. We already talked about this rhythm in the context of Prelude 21 in B-flat Major. It's a little strange... yet... 

...the most remarkable aspect of this piece is the feeling, the atmosphere, the character created by the first two potentially disastrous and jarring elements. Espressivo et sempre legato is the order for the day with plenty of cresc. and dim. to go around.

That is to say that this piece does not sound fugue-ish nor 5/4-ish, in the pejorative sense. On the contrary it is one of the most expressive, sensitive, and ruminating of preludes. It moves with that steady pulse of the ricarcare, passing obliquely through its own melodic foliage. There are no strict countermelodies, but rather a fantasia of inventive lines playing off the yearning arc of the main theme. No accidentals. Aeolian placidity reigns over all. Sections are suggested by the addition or subtraction of voices. The 5/4 gives a weightlessness and chant-like effect, more like floating than stumbling.

And then something different happens! Measures 27 and 28 foment with foreign and hurried 16th notes and come to a trilling halt on A-flat Major. Totally out of the blue! Totally unexpected! Followed by silence, then a fragmented gesture, then a last drone-accompanied theme. The question in my mind is why that A-flat explosion? Did the texture get too excited for the steady pace of the theme? Is that what we expect from a prelude, a sort of climax somewhere around the golden mean (check out Scriabin's preludes)? Did the pondering of the piece get too close to something uncomfortable outside its diatonic world? Is the climax internal or external? The prelude is obviously distracted by the outburst.

In the end the piece is whole. It is somewhat at peace with itself, its theme intact, its beauty legitimate. The fluttering of springtime accidentals cannot halt it for long on whatever it is seeking. It's fine being a fugue in E minor and not a character piece in A-flat Major. It has its own languidly beautiful song to sing. I like that. This piece has character and is secure in itself. Steady on!

* I don't find it all that remarkable (or iconoclastic or even devilishly sarcastic) that Shosy composed a fugue in his set of preludes. Stylus fantasticus is stylus fantasticus! It's just what it is! Look it up! Besides, his textures are often so sparse and skeletal that you could say that he's just highlighting the contrapuntal nature of his music through this piece. It's not a far leap.

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