Shostakovich, 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87

November 4, 2004

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1906-1975

24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, (for piano), 1951 "24 Jewels"
Here is a simple list of famous composers featured on earsense: Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Most of you from a Western European derived civilization will at least know these names as you would know Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Darwin, Freud and Einstein. earsense is devoted to encouraging you to know their music as you would the Beatles or Duke Ellington.

Do you know the name Shostakovich?

Dmitri Shostakovich was a purely 20th century Soviet Russian composer of towering significance. He can be unequivocally added to the possible Mount Rushmore of the first sentence: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Shostakovich. There are large mountain ranges of composers from Palestrina to Gorecki; they are all worthy of profound attention. But Shostakovich is crucial.

Shostakovich is a modern composer of awesome stature for many reasons, but three suffice here: his compositional genius from a technical standpoint, the nearly immediate emotional and aesthetic impact of his music, and the stamp of his vivid personality and originality on nearly all of his music. Oh, and his prodigious outpouring of masterpieces ranks easily with his mountain dwelling companions: 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, Operas, Ballets, film music, chamber music and piano music, etc.).

If Bach and the others are fascinating as aspects of their historical context as well as and because of their artistic representations, so is Shostakovich. His life was inextricably embedded in a political and social culture of a uniquely 20th century sort: The Soviet Union. Shostakovich's life, his public and private actions, his philosophy, his personal history and his extraordinary musical expression all combine to color his as a remarkable, controversial and complex phenomenon. But his music itself : it is a beautiful and vast universe, eternal for us to savor.

In 1951, Shostakovich finished composing a set of 24 preludes and fugues comprising about 169 pages of music. They were inspired directly by Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier: Shostakovich was deeply affected by a particular performance of it and endeavored to compose his own encyclopedic universe of keyboard counterpoint which was published as Op. 87. Within the complexity of Shostakovich's life and personality, like a mere breath of creativity within the massive density of his life long work, a small ember in a crucible of political, cultural and personal conflict lay, an absolutely mountainous masterpiece of Western Music. Just like the Well-Tempered Clavier, it has the following characteristics: a pair of preludes and fugues in each and every key around the circle of 5ths, a catalog of ingenious counterpoint in the classic as well as modern style, a set of exquisite piano preludes alone, and all together, a musical experience with a vast range of emotions, character, profundity and artistry.

Shostakovich's Op. 87 provides a wonderful opportunity for learning about counterpoint, fugue and texture. As a modern example of the art, it is refreshing, contemporary and testament to the enduring validity of this ancient tradition as vital musical expression. In a sense which is almost conservative, Op. 87 provides ample illustration of all the classic techniques and procedures for which Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier is traditionally used. On the other hand, Op. 87 is stamped throughout by features of 20th century music as well as the vivid and unique personality of Shostakovich. There are novel and innovative features throughout Op. 87, making it at once a tribute to Bach as well as an evolution beyond Bach. As a well-informed and utterly creative modern success within the long tradition of Western polyphony, Op. 87 is an awesome masterpiece.

Shostakovich's Op. 87 is a unified collection of jewels, shimmering, rare and precious, a whole dynamic multitude of captivating facets, aspects, opportunities for musical ecstasy and reflection. 24 Jewels is a multi-faceted, comprehensive presentation of these 24 preludes and Fugues, structured like its companion, 48 Jewels. It represents a 20th century and most powerfully modern example of the same specific art which Bach wielded in his 18th century Baroque masterpiece. It has the same grace and depth. It provides an awesome comparison and contrast for the Well-Tempered Clavier: to the subject of Bach, Shostakovich is a marvelous countersubject. Perhaps, together, they form a double fugue. In the end, it is a dialog spanning centuries, cultures, connecting the mind, heart and spirit of one master to another. It is for you to cultivate and further enjoy your own earsense.

More Shostakovich:

String Quartet No. 8 in c minor, Op. 110 String quartet No. 7 in f-sharp minor, Op. 108 String Quartet No. 3, F major, Op. 73

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.