I’m sure many of my readers are wondering what happened to Shotakovich! (Well, he died in, like, 1975.) AND as far as my year-long project through his twenty-four preludes in every major and minor key, they ended much like the last piece itself: with a quiet, little “plop, plop” of alka seltzer tablets. The piano was sold in mid-June and my sheet music consigned to boxes soon thereafter. Notwithstanding here are a few words about the last two preludes:
Prelude No. 23 in F Major; The Floating Castle
This piece is sonorous and broad, using all the registers of the keyboard in their turn. It’s like rotating planets, pillars of structure. The fragmented and short-lived theme with its thrice-repeated Cs and imitation remind me of a Gabrieli canzona for the organ. But the soprano voice. What is it doing? What do we call that? As what do we hear that? Its tentative stepping takes as many steps backwards as forwards. It’s like the famous hesitancy of Chopin’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major. Shostakovich takes it further with chromatic anomalies that push brusquely into different keys. The whole structure of the piece has such pent-up power and slow-motion drive. It comes as something of a tragedy when the ultimate climax is reached at measure 24, a naked, “triumphant” B-flat major chord. This kind of heroism is not a satisfactory end to such a piece. Rather it must slink away into a morendo. Does it loose steam, or just decide to give up, or hibernate for that time when heroic subdominant chords mean what they used to? Beautiful and haunting.
Prelude No. 24 in d minor; The Gymnastic Buffoon
When I was young we had a vinyl record narrated by the Australian deepness that is Cyril Ritchard, which had us dancing to the Rondo alla Turca from Mozart’s A Major Sonata. During the minor section we were to act as a troupe of gallivanting clowns zipping about a circus stage, kicking our heels in fantastic antics around the red, faux-leather ottoman. For the stately, chordal, major section, Cyril implored us to “March, march, march!” Perhaps we were elephants or soldiers.
There is a point, or there was, connecting this formative memory to the final prelude of Shostakovich. The same dichotomy starkly wags its fingers at me as I play it. The majority of the piece is a skipping clown, pulling every type of gag from his silent film stock he can think of. (Reminds me that Shostakovich supported his family by doing just that.) The jester suggests some eleven keys as his tonic home and switches from major to minor or visa versa just to annoy. Then the jolting change, not exactly a call to “March!” More like a call to drop and do push-ups at a blindingly fast rate. The texture has suddenly gone from the grimy, silent movie cinema to the stuff that makes the etudes of Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum. It is perhaps the focused drilling of a pianist reaching for conservatorial greatness: study for left hand (with a supple wrist and great flexibility of fingers, of course). Yet the clown influence cannot escape. The etude cannot decide D major or d minor, falls into Shosy’s favorite minor Neapolitan, and eventually tries to escape to A-flat (a tritone) away (Neapolitan of V?). The buffoon has the last laugh and ends like it began. No ado. No thunderous knocks of Fate like Chopin. No empty ecstasy like Kabalevsky or menacing grinding of gears like Zaderatsky. Just a fizzle.
God, I love these pieces. More and more time yields more and more treasures. Play through them yourself. Play them in different orders. Listen to them in a sitting, feeling the shifts and halts, understanding them “not word for word, but in a flash” as L’Engle’s Mrs. Who says. Read his chilling memoir “Testimony”. Learn some Russian. Eat a pirogi. Live honestly with twenty-four wrestling thoughts and hopes and fears and desires. Raise a glass to Opus 34!
PS I had originally planned on moving right on to Zaderatsky’s set. However it looks like gradschool has other, wonderful plans.