Shostakovich in a number of disguises

Earlier, I discussed how Haydn, in his only four-movement keyboard sonata, harked back to Scarlatti’s style. This week, I will look at another instance of a composer reaching far beyond his own sphere, but instead in an early-modernist context. Shostakovich composed his cycle of 24 preludes in 1933, exactly at the time of his masterly and tragically fated opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The operatic style is often heard in the preludes, so much so that a slight connection can be found with the C-sharp minor prelude (no. 11) and the Farewell, Katerina scene in the opera (also in C-sharp minor). But the connection I am interested in exploring is not between different works of the same composer, but rather between the composer and different styles of writing, both past and contemporaneous. For that, I look at two consecutive preludes, in B-flat major and in its relative minor key, G minor, nos. 21 and 22. 

The B-flat major prelude is reminiscent of quite a lot of works by Shostakovich—by its caustic and yet elegant humor. But the way in which the piano is used brings the listener back, even if unknowingly, to a period long before the modern concert grand. This could be argued, but I’d say that Scarlatti once again comes to the fore, in the slightly provocative nature of the prelude. Why provocative? Although by 1933, our ears had long become used to harmonic disorder. However, rhythmic instability still inevitably jars us in one way or another. Hence, we cannot help but feel comically unsettled by the 5/4 time signature of this prelude. The way in which we feel unsettled isn’t dissimilar to what we feel when we hear Scarlatti’s out-of-place harmonies. This is why I make the connection to him rather than to any other baroque or early classical composer. (Perhaps, had Scarlatti been alive in the 20th century, he would have chosen more provocative rhythms over cluster-like harmonies.) 

The following prelude is in stark contrast to the one before. Its minor-ness is reflected in its elegiac nature and its long legato lines, but it distinguishes itself from a typical nocturne or romance in one crucial aspect: it lacks metrical phrases. Therefore, as a phrase begins, we have no indication as to when it will end. Unlike the 5/4 time signature that merely “throws the listener off guard,” the lack of metrical phrase structure disorientates us. Although this technique has its roots in 19th century music (most notably Wagner and composers influenced by him), it became widely used by 20th century composers. Yet, the composers who used this technique were generally from the Central European musical scene—those of the Second Viennese School and occasionally Bartók. In Debussy and Ravel, by contrast, this technique would be quite hard to find. Most of the aforementioned composers, and in some ways all of them, wrote in more adventurous ways than Shostakovich did. This makes the G minor prelude an example of a couple of subtle allusions the composer made to his contemporaries. The finest of similar allusions may be in the 14th symphony, written 36 years later, where he uncharacteristically experiments with twelve-tone rows. But in a number of works preceding the later period we can subtly sense these moments when the music “doesn’t quite sound” like Shostakovich.  The combination of these two allusions, one to the past and one to the present, makes the dramatic progression of the cycle self-sufficient and organic, which in my view is a hallmark of greatness. 

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