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Work

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich Composer

24 Preludes, Op.34   

Performances: 40
Tracks: 460
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Musicology:
  • 24 Preludes, Op.34
    Key: F
    Year: 1932-33
    Genre: Prelude / Fugue
    Pr. Instrument: Piano
    • 1.Moderato in C
    • 2.Allegretto in A-
    • 3.Andante in G
    • 4.Moderato in E-
    • 5.Allegro in D ('Velocity etude')
    • 6.Allegretto in B-
    • 7.Andante in A
    • 8.Allegretto in F#-
    • 9.Presto in E
    • 10.Moderato non troppo in C#-
    • 11.Allegretto in B
    • 12.Allegretto non troppo in G#-
    • 13.Moderato in F#
    • 14.Adagio in Eb ('Zoya Prelude')
    • 15.Allegretto in Db
    • 16.Andantino in Bb-
    • 17.Largo in Ab
    • 18.Allegretto in F-
    • 19.Andantino in Eb
    • 20.Allegretto furioso in C-
    • 21.Allegretto poco moderato in Bb
    • 22.Adagio in G-
    • 23.Moderato in F
    • 24.Allegretto in D-
As most are aware by now, Shostakovich is not as well known for his piano music as he is for his symphonies and quartets, but his keyboard works should certainly not be dismissed. Prior to the present set of preludes Shostakovich had not composed anything for piano since his Op. 10 Aphorisms of 1927. These brash works, immediately preceded by the equally brash Piano Sonata No. 1 (1926), represent the composer at his most iconoclastic. The 24 Preludes, however, show a somewhat mellowed composer, drawing, as Shostakovich did at his best, upon diverse eras of the musical past, but still clearly communicating his own rather melancholy personality. These are neither Bach preludes nor Chopin preludes, but contain elements of each, as well as elements resembling the character pieces of various other composers.

Keys will be given in this analysis, though the composer only barely follows them, usually beginning and ending in them only. The dreamy C major prelude (Moderato) is the leadoff piece here, and it immediately establishes an atmosphere closer to the world of Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives than to the composer's own earlier piano works. The next prelude (A minor), is playful and brash, but Shostakovich dispatches it in well under a minute, curtailing its waywardness. The third, marked Andante, in G, is also dreamy and again brings Prokofiev to mind.

The next several preludes bring marked contrasts: the E minor (No. 4) is rather philosophical and Bach-like; the half-minute D major is bristling with energy; and the ensuing B minor is humorous and full of color. No. 7, in A, is a ponderous Andante, and the next two, in F sharp minor and E, respectively, present livelier and then rambunctious music, the latter being a roller-coaster Presto. No. 10, in C sharp minor, brings color in its melancholy, and the following Allegretto, in B, bursts from the starting gate but slows down near the finish line and ends softly. The twelfth piece (G sharp minor) also begins rapidly, but its demeanor is tamer, as if to carry on the mood of its predecessor's closing bars.

If the first 12 pieces offer variety in their pacing and pianistic execution, while remaining within a limited emotional range, the latter dozen are slightly more varied. No. 13, in F sharp, is humorous but subdued, less extravagant than several counterparts in the first half, and No. 14, in E flat minor, is the most serious and morose entry, sounding like late Liszt, replete with tremolos and dark chords. Lightness returns with the D major, a playful but nervous Allegretto.

The march that ensues in No. 16 (B flat minor) is satiric and vaguely recalls Schubert. The next, in A flat, hints at sentimentality, then deftly wanders into a parody of that emotion. No. 18, in F minor, is another short, playful piece, while the next entry, in E flat, sounds similar in mood to No. 17. The Allegro furioso marking of No. 20 (C minor), continues the trend that the faster items here are the shorter. This one is less furious than its marking suggests, but quite sarcastic and brash instead. The next (B major), is also short, but emotionally cold, neither playful nor satiric.

No. 22, in G minor, is slow and gloomy, though this mood is broken in the next two pieces, in F major and D minor, respectively, the former actually divulging a genuine radiance in its eccentricity, and the latter a zany piece with much color in its march-like theme. A performance of this collection lasts about a half hour.

© All Music Guide

1.Moderato in C

Two weeks after completing his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich began composing his cycle of 24 Preludes in late December 1932. Following Chopin's plan in his preludes, Shostakovich's intention was to compose a piece in each of the major and minor keys, arranged in the circle of fifths with each major-key prelude followed by a minor-key prelude in the relative minor.

The first of these, then, was the C major Prelude. The work is a mere 21 bars long and takes not much more than a minute to perform. The tempo indication is Moderato and the time signature is common time. The Prelude starts with its loudest dynamic marking, mezzo forte, followed by a diminuendo, and its climax and conclusion are both pianississimo. The work starts with what sounds like an Alberti figure in the right hand, and this figure becomes the basis of the harmony. Over a series of slow pedal points in the bass, the right hand unfolds a wistfully melancholic melody that skitters between major and minor keys and between C major, D flat major, and F sharp minor. The Prelude ends with an octave C in the deep bass of the piano as the melody wanders through the harmonic minor up to a minor third an octave above middle C.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

2.Allegretto in A-

In his 24 Preludes, Op. 34, Shostakovich's plan was the same as Chopin's in his set of preludes: to compose a complete cycle of the works in each of the major and minor keys, working through the circle of fifths starting on C and following each major key prelude with a prelude in the relative minor.

Thus the second prelude is in A minor. It is, however, Shostakovich's kind of A minor: an A minor that can slide into C minor or slip into B minor with the greatest of ease. Almost more morbid than melancholic, the A minor Prelude is more minor than minor: its two climaxes—the first fortissimo, the second fortississimo—are both in the dominant minor. Indeed, so minor keyed is the work that one of its very few sustained major triads occurs is a Neapolitan chord functioning as the pivot to the final cadence.

In form, the prelude is a sly dance, almost a Russian tango, in triple time with Shostakovich's patented tempo indication of Allegretto. The aching melody is full of chromatic half steps, increasing the work's sense of minor-key morbidity. Although only 38 bars long and taking about a minute to perform, the piece expresses a world of sadness.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

3.Andante in G

Shostakovich undertook his 24 Preludes, Op. 34, in late December 1932, with the intention of composing a prelude a day. This pace was no more than typically breakneck: over the two years immediately preceding the preludes, Shostakovich had composed two three-act ballets, The Age of Gold and The Bolt, the three-act opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the extended music-hall revue Hypothetically Murdered, incidental music for three plays, the scores to three films, and a song cycle on Japanese poems. At first things went as planned, and Shostakovich reached the Prelude in G major before the end of the year.

The work begins with a lovely and lyrical Andante melody in a very diatonic G major sung over a simple accompaniment. Although at each return of the melody in the left hand the music moves further from G major, these modulations never disturb the gentle flow of the piece. But, as the Prelude seems to be rocking towards its close, the music abruptly changes: under a forte tremolo in the right hand, the left hand pounds out the rhythm of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the music suddenly collapses into a massive fortississimo C sharp minor chord over a tremolo octave C sharp into the lowest range of the piano. When the lyrical melody returns via a whole tone scale from the abyss of C sharp minor, it is thoroughly transformed from lovely to broken, and the prelude's final cadence is nearly hopeless.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

5.Allegro in D ('Velocity etude')

At some point, the D major Prelude from Shostakovich's 24 Preludes, Op. 34, acquired the nickname "Velocity Etude." It's easy to see why: not only is Shostakovich's prelude a study in speed, but he also clearly modeled the 21-bar piece on both Chopin's G major Prelude, Op. 28, No. 3, and his A minor Etude, Op. 10, No. 2. Like these virtuoso works, Shostakovich's prelude features a running sixteenth-note pattern in common time. As in the Chopin étude, the sixteenth-note pattern is marked legato. As in Chopin's prelude, the melody proceeds in a series of abrupt, accented leaps. Shostakovich's prelude even fuses Chopin's two tempo indications of Allegro in the étude and Vivace in the prelude into Allegro vivace.

Structurally, however, Shostakovich's prelude is far less regular than either of its models. Built on three brief motivic gestures articulated through a wide range of chromatic modulations and expressed with brilliant insouciance, Shostakovich's prelude is almost an ironic modernist parody of its models.

And all this takes little more than half a minute.

© All Music Guide

6.Allegretto in B-

Sarcasm and irony were Shostakovich's favorite modes of expression. This was partly because straight-faced sarcasm was his favorite form of humor, and, partly becuase acid irony enabled him to say things in his music that might otherwise have been proscribed by the cultural commissars of Communist Russia. But it was in his youth that Shostakovich especially liked sarcasm and irony. Even before his brilliantly ironic First Symphony (1927), Shostakovich loved irony, and this love only grew through his music after the symphony in works like the Aphorisms (1927) and especially in his ballets The Age of Gold (1930) and The Bolt (1931). Irony let him get away with composing jazz in The Age of Gold when the genre was forbidden by the Party, because he was using jazz to parody decadent capitalists. And it let him get away with composing big, dumb military music in The Bolt because, although it was big and dumb, it still sounded like a sincere tribute when it struck the tone-deaf ears of Party apparatchiks.

Thus, by the time Shostakovich came to his 24 Preludes, Op. 34, of 1932 - 1933, Shostakovich's sense of irony had been polished to a fine point. In the Sixth Prelude in B minor, Shostakovich's pawky little Allegretto march seems to mock bitterly the conventions of the march itself. With its "wrong-note" melodies, its plethora of major and minor seconds (sounding for all the world like Thelonious Monk), and particularly its bland fanfares reminiscent of the Andante from Beethoven's Fifth at the piece's climax, Shostakovich's B minor Prelude cuts like a knife through the pomposity of the march form.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

8.Allegretto in F#-

Shostakovich's Prelude in F sharp minor, the eighth of his 24 Preludes, Op. 34, of 1932 - 1933, consists of a series of vaguely melancholic moods ambling gracefully toward resignation, a collection of lyrical gestures in search of a structure, a handful of melodic motives looking for a theme, a few modulations with no particular place to go and in no special hurry to get there. Any analysis of the work is beside the point: the F sharp minor Prelude is in a world of its own, that twilight Allegretto world that Shostakovich knew so well, the world between the purposefulness of Allegro and the desultory dreaminess of Andante, the world of dark and dreary afternoons spent in waiting for the wife to get home and noodling around on the piano until she does.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

10.Moderato non troppo in C#-

Hard as this may be to believe, Dmitri Shostakovich was a very romantic man. His courtship of his wife in the late 1920s and early 1930s was extremely romantic and extremely tempestuous: they met, fell in love, broke up, got back together, broke up again, and got back together again for years before finally marrying in the late autumn of 1932. Stimulated by love, Romanticism sprang up full blown in several of his works of this period: in the Six Japanese Romances with its despairing songs with titles like "Love," "Before Suicide," and "Love without Hope," and in the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, whose heroine Shostakovich loved so deeply that he transformed her from a murderess to a profoundly sympathetic character.

The first work Shostakovich undertook after his marriage was the set of 24 Preludes, Op. 34, begun two weeks after the completion of Lady Macbeth. Although the preludes cover an enormous gamut of emotions, the tenth in C sharp minor is clearly about romantic love. With a melody that recalls Katerina's desolate aria from Act III of Lady Macbeth and the despairing song "For the First and Last Time" from the Japanese Romances, the meaning by association is apparent. But even without these clues, the C sharp minor Prelude's tenderly yearning melody—especially embellished by delicate trills like a caress at its return—makes the meaning of the song obvious. And the final bars with their last cadential C sharps separated by the enormous distance of six octaves, make the prelude's ineffable and unassuageable longing—in a word, its romantic love—perfectly clear.

© All Music Guide

11.Allegretto in B

Harmonically, Shostakovich liked nothing better than to slide into and out of a key by semitones. The harmonic move permeates his music from his First Symphony though to his Viola Sonata. With it, Shostakovich could seemingly expresss any emotion. And as a tempo indication Shostakovich liked nothing better than Allegretto. This tempo indication turns up in nearly every other work he wrote, from the first movement of his First Symphony through Immortality, the last song of his final song cycle.

When the two came together, as they did in the B major Prelude from his Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 34, from 1932 - 1933, you can be sure that Shostakovich was enjoying himself. A delightfully nonchalant work in rocking Allegretto 6/8 time, the B major Prelude has a melody is built from semitones, and its accompaniment is built of whole tone and semitone semi-trills. Without ever quite repeating itself, the melody moves through modulations by semitone right through to the coda. Remarkably, the coda is marked with one of Shostakovich's rare uses of the expression amoroso as the music moves both harmonically and melodically up a semitone to the tonic. Yet even in the final chord of the final bar, Shostakovich sustains the semitone a half step below the tonic to give the music a deep sense of sweet tenderness.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

12.Allegretto non troppo in G#-

Needless to say, the word prelude does more than just imply that something should follow. And yet, like Chopin's preludes, Shostakovich's 24 Preludes, Op. 34, of 1932 - 1933, are just preludes with nothing following them except more preludes. But in a sense that's enough. In the case of the 12th prelude in G sharp minor—the prelude that falls at exactly the halfway point in the set of 24, the preludes that precede it are predominately quicker and the preludes that follow it are substantially slower. And the 12th prelude is ideally suited for its position: although it is marked Allegro non troppo throughout, Shostakovich manipulates the tempo so that it seems to change in the coda.

Starting with a rushing sixteenth-note accompaniment figure in the left hand below a pounding staccato melody in the right hand, the G sharp minor prelude moves very quickly through its 33 bars. But the piece pauses in the 33rd bar, catches its breath, and then concludes with six bars of chords with much larger note values. The piece seems to both conclude the faster first half of the set and then prepare the listener for the slower second half, with the last six bars functioning as a sort of prelude to the second half.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

13.Moderato in F#

The 13th of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932 - 1933), marks the beginning of the second half of the cycle. Given the tonal scheme Shostakovich is following—a scheme modeled on that of Chopin's 24 Preludes, Op. 28—the 13th prelude is in F sharp major. It is, in fact, emphatically in F sharp major: 33 of its 42 bars consist harmonically of nothing more than the F sharp major triad played in a Moderato march rhythm. It is also the most classically formed prelude of the set, clearly in binary form with a recapitulation and a coda. From listening to the prelude one gets the sense that Shostakovich is being deliberately regular and conventional, even perhaps conformist, in his harmonic structure.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

14.Adagio in Eb ('Zoya Prelude')

The Adagio E flat minor Prelude is one of the two longest of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932 - 1933). More importantly, it is the most dramatic, the most tragic, and the most public. With its imitation tympani rolls, its rising fanfare-like figure, and its insistent drum beats, it seems to be striving for a symphonic stature, and it is no wonder that the conductor Leopold Stokowski rushed to orchestrate the piece. However, in its original form, the relentless despair and deep sorrow is much more real: one feels the music straining against the limitations of the keyboard, and this becomes an integral part of the expression and the meaning of the music. This is one of the very great preludes from the Opus 34 set and a piece worthy to stand beside the last act of Shostakovich's contemporaneous opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

© All Music Guide

15.Allegretto in Db

"Capricious" is not a word one would often use to describe a work by Shostakovich. When it comes to humor in music, Shostakovich tended much more toward bitter irony and biting sarcasm than toward the whimsical and witty. And yet, in his first maturity as a composer, before life and the Communist Party had strangled every lighthearted impulse in him, Shostakovich was capable of capriciousness.

The D flat major Prelude from his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932 - 1933), is capricious down to its fingertips. Set in a swaying Allegretto tempo in triple time, the D flat Prelude has a melody that meanders over the keyboard, darting into keys a semitone above and a semitone below the tonic and refusing to fall into conventional four- and eight-bar phrases. Even the coda is capricious: the melody's note values increase as it meanders up the staff over a final Neapolitan cadence that holds back from the tonic until the next-to-last bar. This is one of the most delightful preludes of the set—and, amazingly enough, the model for Elvis Costello's "I Almost Had a Weakness" from his song sequence with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters.

© All Music Guide

16.Andantino in Bb-

After the deep tragedy of the E flat minor Prelude and the capricious whimsy of the D flat major Prelude, Shostakovich offers the slightly silly, slightly sinister B flat minor Prelude as the next in his cycle of 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932 - 1933). With its deliberate parody of military marches and its wayward melody, with its brutally off-key harmonies and its rudely wrong-note modulations, the B flat minor Prelude seems to represent Shostakovich in one of his patented half-moods. Like few other composers, Shostakovich was able to express in music moods that are half happy and half sad, as in the Allegretto of the First Symphony, half ecstatic and half despairing, as in the love-sex music in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and, in the case of the B flat minor Prelude, half funny and half frightening. Indeed, had Shostakovich done nothing else, his ability to fuse contrasting and even contradictory emotional states in music that contains them both would have been enough to gain him immortality.

© All Music Guide

17.Largo in Ab

Despite having deliberately modeled the key scheme of his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932 - 1933), on Chopin's 24 Preludes, Op. 28, there is very little else about Shostakovich's cycle that recalls Chopin either in manner or temperament. The A flat major Prelude, however, seems to have been consciously modeled on Chopin. The simple left-hand accompaniment to a chromatic and highly embellished melody, the rhythm that sways sensually between a slow waltz and a gentle caress, the Largo tempo that tends toward amoroso: these are the hallmarks of Chopin's manner and temperament in his salon pieces. But one does not get the sense that Shostakovich is aping Chopin's manner nor parodying his temperament: Shostakovich's prelude seems genuinely affectionately inclined towards Chopin. A lovely little prelude.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

18.Allegretto in F-

The F minor Prelude from Shostakovich's 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932-1933), sounds like a lark and a laugh, but it is also one of the most formally complicated of the preludes. Within 49 bars that last less than a minute in performance, the prelude moves through several two-part canons, invertible counterpoint, and a thematic structure worthy of a piece ten times its length. The prelude starts with a two-part canon, jumps abruptly to a pair of cadential patterns, takes a breath and then slides into a greasy melody accompanied by an Alberti bass, leaps into an inversion of the opening canon and then fuses the inversion with the first cadential pattern, cadences on the dominant minor and turns the whole opening two-part canon upside down, slips softly down into a recapitulation of the canon melody which congeals into the first cadential pattern, and then offers the greasy melody, this time without the Alberti bass, as a coda. It takes longer to read about than it does to listen to and is much easier to grasp. It's also really funny. A lark and a laugh and a work of genius.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

19.Andantino in Eb

After offering formal intricacies in the F minor Prelude, Shostakovich writes one of his most lyrical melodies and easiest structures for the following E flat major Prelude. Set in a gently rocking 6/8 Andantino, the E flat major Prelude glides gracefully through its 44 bars. This does not mean, of course, that the prelude is just simple: Shostakovich's long-limbed melody lightly moves through an intricate modulatory scheme so skillfully disguised that it is hardly apparent to the ear. And yet it is the modulations that give the work its special charm and make it more than merely a lyric interlude near the close of the cycle.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

20.Allegretto furioso in C-

Allegretto furioso in C minor: it sounds like a recipe for Chopinesque Romanticism, the kind of tempo indication the Polish composer would use for his most ardent outpourings, and the kind of key signature he used for his most passionate soul-searching. Yet when Shostakovich marks his 20th prelude, in the key of C minor, with the tempo indication of Allegretto furioso, he is clearly modifying the model for his own ends. Shostakovich's piece uses his very personal Allegretto, a tempo not as fast as Allegro, to undercut the ardent outpouring. And Shostakovich only modulates once in the prelude's 33 bars, and then only for the central section's darker-than-black E flat minor (nearly all of Shostakovich's other preludes in the Opus 34 set modulate at least melodically every few bars). The result is a tongue-in-cheek outpouring and a slightly sarcastic soul-searching.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

21.Allegretto poco moderato in Bb

Shostakovich's use of 5/4 time in his B flat major Prelude from his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932 - 1933), is wholly his own. While he relentlessly sticks to the downbeat in the left hand for virtually every one of the piece's 34 bars, the right hand's melody refuses to be tied down to the bar line and continually skips and slides over and through the steady pulse of the left hand. Similarly, while the accompaniment rarely leaves the key of B flat, the melody is perfectly willing to modulate without the accompaniment's agreement or consent.

While neither the most heartrending nor the most clever of the 24 Preludes, the B flat major is one of the most immediately appealing.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

22.Adagio in G-

In his notes to Vladimir Viardo's magnificent recording of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932 - 1933), the composer's son Maxim remarks that "the shared tonality of one of the most important preludes, the G minor, and of Lensky's second-act aria from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin suggests the composer's emotional state." Lensky, the gentle poet, sings his suicidal second-act aria just before the duel in which he is killed by his best friend, Onegin, the Byronic anti-hero. The aria is one of the most moving in the opera, an aria in which doomed Lensky sings of all he will be losing when he loses his life.

Shostakovich's G minor Prelude is perhaps the most affecting of the whole the Opus 34 cycle. With its dark modulations through flat minor keys, with its delicately nuanced dynamic range, with its melancholy melody that rises only to fall, witha relentlessly sinking scale as its most persistent motivic figure, with its fatalistic final modulation to a dominant spelled with flats, Shostakovich's G minor Prelude is a worthy successor to Lensky's suicidal aria.

© James Leonard, All Music Guide

24.Allegretto in D-

Shostakovich deliberately modeled the key structure of his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932 - 1933), on that of Chopin's 24 Preludes, Op. 28. But if the listeners expect to find anything else in Shostakovich's preludes that is deliberately modeled on Chopin's, they will be quite disappointed. Only two preludes seems to be composed in the manner of Chopin: the D major, which has more to do with the Gradus ad Parnassum manner of the Etudes than the Romantic manner of the Preludes, and the A flat major, which has more to do with the salon manner of the Nocturnes than the Romantic manner of the Preludes.

Finally, however, in the last prelude, Shostakovich does include a deliberate allusion to Chopin's parallel prelude. Needless to say, both are in D minor, but there the resemblance seems to end: Chopin's prelude is in a tempestuous Allegro appassionato, with a cascading melody over a rushing accompaniment, while Shostakovich's prelude is in his most characteristic Allegretto, with a grotesque march melody over a gauche military band accompaniment. And yet, just before the end of his prelude, Shostakovich's manner changes. The accompaniment mimics the rushing accompaniment of Chopin's Allegro appassionato; the melody is transformed into a wide-ranging series of thirds; and suddenly the Romantic grand manner of Chopin peeks out from between the bars of Shostakovich's prelude. But the vision quickly vanishes, and Shostakovich closes the prelude and the cycle of preludes with a return to the grotesqueries of its opening.

© All Music Guide
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