Twenty-four Preludes for Piano
Leningrad Philharmonic Bolshoi Hall; Dmitri Shostakovich (Nos. 1-8)
Moscow, Muzgiz, 1934
The Glinka All-Russia Museum Association of Musical Culture, rec. gr. 32, f. 40 (piano score), 102 (sketches); RSALA, rec. gr. 2048, inv. 2, f. 17 (sketches)
Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes for Piano
The cycle of 24 Preludes was written five years after Dmitri Shostakovich’s previous composition for piano, Aphorisms, Op. 13 (1927). After having participated in the Chopin competition (January 1927, Warsaw), Shostakovich did not return to the piano for a long time. According to the composer’s mother Sofya Vasilyevna, contrary to the expectation ‘that Mitya, along with being a composer, would also be a pianist … the result of the competition turned everything upside down’. Shostakovich rarely approached the piano. ‘Only on the days of his public performances would he sit down at the piano for half-an-hour and place the fingers of both hands on the keys…, lifting each finger in turn; this exercise was repeated 5 or 7 times, and he considered this ‘workout’ quite sufficient. Perhaps this kind of workout really was sufficient for him, for he possessed a splendid inborn and dexterous faculty, as well as an excellent memory.’ By the end of the 1920s-beginning of the 1930s, the composer’s main efforts were directed towards orchestral, theatre and film music. There were no new piano compositions: the only new piece was the arrangement of the Polka from the ballet The Golden Age (1930).
His return to piano composition was prompted by a change in his life circumstances—the beginning of family life and the need to make the extra money that concert performances provided.
Two weeks before he began working on the preludes, the composer had finished Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which he had been writing (with interruptions) from October 1930 to 17 December 1932. The emotional tension that accompanied work on the opera needed some release. This possibly explains the choice of genre for the new composition—a cycle of piano miniatures.
The cycle of 24 preludes was written between 30 December 1932 and 2 March 1933. The composer, as he told Atovmian in his letter, worked on the preludes regularly, often every day. This is shown by the dates at the end of each prelude in the fair author’s manuscript from the Russian National Museum of Music (RNMM).
The dates are also placed after each prelude in the first edition of 1934. In both the author’s manuscript and this edition, the place the piece was written is given next to the date: in all cases, this is Leningrad, only one prelude—No. 8 (F sharp minor)—was written in Moscow.
The first performance of the preludes (No. 1 through No. 8) was announced in a concert programme to be held in the Grand Hall of the Leningrad State Conservatory on 17 January 1933—when work on the cycle had not yet been completed. Other works by Shostakovich were also to be performed in this same concert, conducted by Aleksandr Gauk—the First Symphony, the Suite from the ballet The Bolt (the Leningrad premiere), the Suite from the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, designated as ‘Four Excerpts from the Opera’ (world premiere), and a piano transcription from the music for the film The Golden Mountains, performed by the author.
The first performance of Shostakovich’s cycle of 24 preludes in full—on 24 April 1933—was chronicled in Sergei Prokofiev’s diary: ‘[Moscow]. Twenty-fourth [of April] chamber concert, in which Shostakovich played 24 Preludes, again an imitation of all styles and nothing of his own. In general, entertaining and welldelivered, which makes it all the more vexing that itwas essentially such rubbish. A prominent Soviet composer is writing typical decadent music of the ‘rotten West’.’ The review by Matias Grinberg mentioned above was similar in tone and largely negative; its main idea was expressed in the title—‘Undefeatable Temptations’. According to Grinberg, the young composer’s ‘undefeatable temptations’ were his striving to be engaging and accessible to a wide range of people and replacing high lyricism with ‘music of the old bourgeois mode’. More favourable (although similar to the previous critical comments) was a statement in the Diary of Professor of the Moscow Conservatory Sergei Yevseyev about the concert on 21 March: ‘Of course, he [Shostakovich] is essentially unparalleled as an orchestral composer in terms of his capabilities, everything sounds good and everything, even something new, is an utter and guaranteed success. His talent as a composer is also brilliant, although still somewhat one-sided; and it stands to reason that no one can compete with him in terms of humour, scoffing, and grotesque and parodical images—this is all
extremely convincing and witty. But is it worth only keeping to this original style and trend, while ignoring everything else that may be more valuable for music as such?’.
So while recognising Shostakovich’s technical skill, the reviewers primarily noted a lack of discretion in the choice of music and unacceptable elements of thegrotesque and parody in Shostakovich’s new compositions. The choice of genre—cycle of 24 preludes for piano— provoked these harsh assessments because it could not help but generate comparisons with his great predecessors. The similarities in choice of genre and structure of the cycle were obvious. Just like similar cycles by Chopin (Op. 28) and Skryabin (Op. 11), Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes were arranged according to the circle of fifths with one prelude in each major and minor key. The aphoristic brevity of certain pieces, the length of which fluctuates on the whole from 30-40 seconds to two minutes, is close to the romantic prototypes. The idea of the cycle as aminiature encyclopaedia of the composer’s characteristic types of music is also similar to his predecessor’s cycles. Dance pieces in the spirit of his ballets prevail in Shostakovich’s cycle, which contrast with several preludes of a different type—the funeral march in E flat minor with an unusual time of 3/4 (reminiscent of the Funeral March from Aphorisms, Op. 13) and the fughetta in E minor (the prototype of the fugue in the same key from Op. 87).
Against the background of the works of his predecessors, Shostakovich’s preludes sounded provocative, especially because the elements of popular (most often dance) music was reproduced in them in deliberately exaggerated, grotesque forms. The ironically accentuated delivery of march and dance themes (galop, polka, waltz and tarantella) irritated the academically tuned ear used to the preludes of the romantic composers, where elements of functional music were reproduced in a dignified way, being part of a complicated genre synthesis.
The preludes were submitted to the Moscow State Music Publishers on 10 November 1933 and signed to press on 13 May 1934. Six weeks later, the composer gave his wife the sheet music of their first edition with the inscription, ‘For my dearly beloved Ninka in memory of your ardently loving husband D Shostakovich 2/VII 1934 Moscow’. The publication was edited by Nikolay Zhilyaev, an outstanding musician, whom Shostakovich considered to be ‘one of his teachers’. In addition to the first circulation of 1,500 copies in 1935, a second edition of 1,000 copies was printed. Subsequently, the preludes were reprinted several times.
By the time the preludes came out, Shostakovich was rarely playing them at concerts. The preludes were superseded by the First Piano Concerto, Op. 35 (1933), which immediately followed them and which Shostakovich, as a performer, evidently took more interest in. It is possible that the critics’ more gracious reaction to the first performances of the concerto played a role in this. Nevertheless, the preludes occasionally appeared in the programmes of Shostakovich’s recitals. For example, they were performed at the same concert as the First Concerto on 25 March 1935 at the Moscow Art Master Club. This performance by Shostakovich was a kind of rehearsal for his overseas tour of Turkey in April-May 1935, the programme of which included both the preludes and the concerto. After the performance in Leningrad in September 1935, the preludes long disappeared from Shostakovich’s concert repertoire. He did not return to them until five years later, performing them several times in Moscow and Leningrad in 1940-1942. The author’s performance of the preludes was recorded later. In 1944, preludes Nos. 8 and 22 were recorded; on 26 May 1947, Nos. 14-19 and 24; and in July 1950, Nos. 8 and 22 (again), as well as 23.
The publication of the preludes in 1934 aroused the interest of performers. Maria Grinberg was the first to perform the preludes after the author, on 1 February 1935 in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. On 8 July 1935, during a reception at Maksim Gorky’s summer residence hosted in honour of Romain Rolland, who had arrived in the USSR, some of Shostakovich’s preludes were performed by Heinrich Neuhaus. On 6 January 1936, several preludes were performed during Vladimir Sofronitsky’s concert at the Moscow State University Club (at 3 Herzen Street). Thepreludes became popular among Soviet pianists. Thewave of criticism of Shostakovich’s works provoked by the publications of the articles ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ and ‘Ballet Falsity’ did not interfere with this. Inthe second half of the 1930s and in the 1940s, inaddition to Sofronitsky, some of the preludes were also performed by Neuhaus, Lev Oborin, Igor Aptekarev and Pavel Serebryakov.
Immediately following its publication, thesheet music for Shostakovich’s preludes ended up abroad. This made it possible to organise awhole series of their performances between October 1934 and December 1935 in Belgium, Great Britain, the USA, and Spain (in most cases only a few preludes were performed and not the entire cycle). On 9 November 1935, thirteen of Shostakovich’s preludes were performed in London by Arthur Rubinstein. On 11 December 1944, American pianist William Kapell did a gramophone recording of three preludes.
The appearance of numerous arrangements testified to the popularity of the cycle. The arrangement of preludes for violin and piano done in 1935 by violinist Dmitri Tsyganov was almost as popular as the original piano cycle. It included preludes Nos.10,15,16 and 24. Shostakovich liked thearrangement. After its publication (in 1937) and numerous republications, Tsyganov did two more series of arrangements of the preludes—Nos. 1,3,5,8,10,11,15,16 and 24 (MCA Music, NY, 1956; Muzgiz, 1963) and Nos. 2,6,12-13,17-22 (Mugiz, 1961). They were put out together in 1969 by Muzyka Publishers.
From the time they were published until today, Shostakovich’s preludes have been some of the most demanded of his works, a universal opus with respect to ‘targeted audience’—ranging from pupils of children’s music schools to performers of the highest rank.
- (No. 14 orchestrated by Stokowski). Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski. 1935 // Victor 7888
- (Nos. 22, 8, 14, and 15) Dmitri Shostakovich. 1944 // USSR 11992-3 (10")
- (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 11, 13, 14, 16, 18, 19, 22, and 23) Heinrich Neuhaus. 1957 // Melodiya M10 48767 000, 1990
- (Nos. 17, 10, 13, 14, and 15) Gleb Akhelrod. 1964 // Melodiya D013383-4
- Menahem Pressler. 1953 // MCM E 3070, 1955
- Robert Cornman. 1955 // Decca FST 153515
- Yevgeny Liberman. 1966 // Melodiya D17527-30
- Albert Colombo. 1969 // Fratelli Fabbri Editori mm-1092
- Inger Wikstrom. 1973 // Swedish Society Discofil SLT 33221
- Vera Gornostayeva. 1973 // Melodiya CM04263-4, 1974
- Dagmar Baloghova. 1974 // Panton 11 0488 F
- Vladimir Viardo. 1984 // Melodiya C10 28379 002, 1990
- Anait Nersesyan. 1985 // Melodiya C10 23079 003, 1986
- Elena Varvarova. 1989 // Le Chant du Monde LDC 278 1011
- Olli Mustonen. 1990 // Decca 433 055-2DH, 1991
- Tatyana Nikolayeva. 1992 // Hyperion CDA 66620, 1992
- Caroline Weichert. 1993 // Accord 20281-2, 1994
- Colin Stone. 1995 // Olympia OCD 574, 1996
- Mikhail Markov. 1998 // Suoni e Colori SC 53009
- Elisso Wirssaladze. 2001 // Live Classics LCL 306
- Konstantin Scherbakov. 2001 // Naxos 8.555781, 2003
- Boris Petrushansky. 2003 // Stradivarius STR 33727, 2006
- Plamena Mangova. 2006 // Fuga Libera FUG 517