about     news     catalogue     press     our performers
to buy     distibutor's zone

Dmitry Shostakovich. PRELUDES & BALLET SUITE.


Text of the booklet "Dmitry Shostakovich. PRELUDES & BALLET SUITE."

If anyone had told Dmitry Shostakovich in 1935 that he had achieved outstanding success in the world of music, he would probably have been sceptical, to say the least. He would have remembered the tedium of playing the piano for silent films in Petrograd cinemas to support his mother and two sisters after his father died in 1922. These were not happy memories. Nor were his recollections of the first Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in January 1927, on which he had pinned such high hopes. And then there were the simplistic texts he was forced to put to music and the ridiculous librettos offered to him for composing ballets, which were later removed from the repertoire. On the threshold of thirty he had reason to be dissatisfied.

Yet today, seventy years later and viewing the twenties and thirties as the beginning of Shostakovich’s career, we can speak of this period as one of brilliant ascent. His graduation piece, the First Symphony, opened the way for his music to the concert platforms of Europe. Ten years after graduating from the Petrograd Conservatory he had already composed two operas, three ballets, and a great deal of film and stage music. A sign of official recognition was the commission to write a work for the tenth anniversary of the October revolution. And although the ballet librettos were comic, the films primitive and the poems for the Second Symphony ‘To October’ nothing but rhymed slogans, he was in great demand, known and admired; ‘friendly caricatures’ of him even appeared in the newspapers, a sure token of popularity.

Paradoxically enough, during this period the artistic world around Shostakovich was colourful and varied. In the twenties and thirties his music possessed a rare quality of wholeness and fullness of expression that later, with the insistence on a uniform ‘official line’ in art, gave way to the ambivalence, which remained right up to the end of his life. Most of the items on the disk belong to this period, the late twenties and early thirties.

Shostakovich began work on his cycle of 24 Preludes op. 34 at the very end of 1932. It is not surprising that this young avant-garde composer, who had shown himself to be an experimenter in the field of form and orchestration, had the desire not only to turn to chamber piano music, but, like Chopin and Scriabin, to compose consecutively for each key. Was this desire to see everything through to the end, to give maximum embodiment to each idea (taking all twenty-four keys in succession, for example) perhaps inherited from St Petersburg academism? It is true that throughout his life, like his ‘musical grandfather’ Rimsky-Korsakov, teacher of his own teacher Maximilian Steinberg, Shostakovich avoided external disorder and incompleteness. As a result (again like Rimsky-Korsakov) he frequently produced arrangements of other composers, spending time and energy on what might appear to be a thankless task.

Yet the completion of the tonal circle is a gesture with a long history, a purely Baroque gesture (suffice it to recall Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier). Baroque frequently made itself felt in Shostakovich’s music, appearing in different guises. In Op. 34 a strange and grotesque (the literal meaning of the word ‘Baroque’) world is contained within a framework of order imposed from without: the closed circle of fifths. Colourful images are combined with the logical movement of keys, sudden changes of mood with strictly alternating modes and tonics.

For Shostakovich, who loved the piano and had once thought of becoming a professional pianist, the influence of nineteenth-century pianist composers was considerable. Yet the one he felt most affinity with was not the tempestuous Schumann or Liszt, so rich in excesses, but the classically austere Chopin. It was Chopin who, a hundred years earlier, first entered into a dialogue with Bach, creating a cycle of preludes for piano in all twenty-four keys.

Shostakovich’s youthful experience of working as a musical illustrator in cinemas by accompanying silent films on the piano may also have been of assistance in the Preludes, op. 34. He gave up this work as soon as finances permitted, but the ability to portray ‘human passions’ by following the unexpected twists and turns of the plot on the screen came in handy later.

The logic of the silent cinema can be felt in the sudden ‘changes of plan’ of the prelude in G major or the expressive gestures of the one in A flat major. The grotesquely sharpened intonations of applied music penetrate the melancholy clownery of the prelude in F sharp minor. Some pieces (the Prelude in B flat minor) remind one of teaching exercises for piano beginners. All these allusions help to create a kind of lyrical self-portrait, like a patchwork quilt of the ‘colours of the age’.

The unpredictability, sarcasm and paradoxical play of genres had another source. At the time when the Preludes, op. 34 appeared Shostakovich was writing a great deal for the theatre. It was during these years that he produced three ballets, The Golden Age [Zolotoy vek], The Bolt [Bolt] and The Limpid Stream [Svetly ruchey]. The Ballet Suite on this disk includes selections from all three works.

The Golden Age was finished in 1929. The suite includes two pieces from this ballet: the Soviet Dance, a dance of footballers, its subject intended to provide a contrast with the languid adagio of the Western dancer Diva, the unfortunate Queen of Shemakha (from Pushkin’s The Golden Cockerel and Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera) on Soviet agitprop posters, and the Dance of the Negro, a boxer wrongfully penalised by a corrupt referee.

The Bolt was staged in 1931 and almost immediately taken off. In a letter to a close friend the composer described the subject of the future ballet in ironical terms: ‘There is this machine. And it breaks down […] Then they repair it […], and buy a new one. Then they all dance round the new machine. Apotheosis.’ Shostakovich did not exaggerate the absurdity of this ‘ballet on an industrial theme’, a collection of miniature caricatures alternating with agitprop pantomimes. Yet today the aesthetic result seems unexpectedly justified – if one regards it as a divertissement, a musical spectacle, in which the audience is entertained not so much by the development of the subject, as by the alternation of easily recognised comic stereotypes: the slacker, the bureaucrat, the drunk and the saboteur.

The disk contains four pieces from this ballet. Kozelkov’s Pantomime is a comic waltz that Shostakovich also used in The Limpid Stream ballet and thirty years later in the Doll Dances piano suite for children. The Dance of the Drayman, the Bureaucrat’s Polka and the Saboteurs’ Intermezzo are part of the divertissement: the dances of the agitprop brigades and the amateur concerts are the traditional ‘frameworks’ of these caricature-like posters.

Shostakovich’s last ballet, The Limpid Stream, was written in 1934–35. In spite of the topicality of the subject, in which we find collective farm workers, dacha owners, and even a rather frivolous agronomist, it is based on the traditional ingredients of the ‘comedy of situation’: an amorous entanglement, dressing up in disguise, non-recognition, then the final reconciliation as the lovers are paired off in the right couples.

The unpromising libretto gave the young Shostakovich a chance to write some pure dance music, reducing the pantomime to a minimum. In many of the numbers one recognises the stamp of the classical St Petersburg ‘grand ballet’ developed in the works of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov. The everyday aspect of the story enabled the composer to demonstrate his skill at writing in the applied genre.

The Suite includes the following items.

Jealous Zina (Duet). The collective farm girl Zina weeps because her husband is attracted by a beautiful dancer; the dancer comforts her.

Lubok. The music of Lubok (Russian popular print, a brightly coloured woodcut or engraving) was not included in the stage version of the ballet.

Adagio. According to the plot this is a dance of married couple. It is night. The hero does not recognise his own wife dressed up as the beautiful dancer, a motif perhaps unwittingly taken from another night scene, in Count Almaviva’s garden. This piece, modelled on the great ballet adagio with the participation of a solo instrument (in this case the cello), is remarkable for the frank predictability of the melodic line unusual for Shostakovich. There is something delightfully reassuring about this predictability, however, which lacks any trace of parody in spite of the obvious absurdity of the subject, the readiness to accept all the rules dictated by ‘ballet writing’ of St Petesburg masters, and, finally, the ambivalence of the stage situation. It is melodic and simple, but after all Mozart also did not put irony into Susanna’s mouth when she dressed up as the countess and summoned her lover at night.

Pizzicato, a Dancer variation from the last act: the truth is out, the reconciliation has taken place and the characters dance in turn and together.

Waltz of the Dancer (Act 1); the librettists make the ballerina dance this elegant waltz, subsequently known as the ‘Lyrical Waltz’ from the Doll Dances, among stacks of wheat on the Limpid Stream collective farm.

Galop. A coda in the big scene with the duped hero and gene-

ral commotion.

Adagio. Not included in the stage version, like the Lubok.


The appearance of the Elegy together with other miniatures by Shostakovich at this time is unexpected. The lyricism is so open, the cantilena so emotional, and the rocking texture of the accompaniment so simple. The frankly vocal melody, which reminds one of the romance genre, is not deceptive, in fact this piece is a reworking of Katerina’s arioso from the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.

The two preludes and fugues on the disk belong to a completely different period. This music was written not by a brilliant youth, an ironical, fun-loving conservatory graduate, theatre-goer and troublemaker, the darling of Soviet art in its infancy, but the celebrated Dmitry Shostakovich, author of nine symphonies, the Empire’s composer number one, thrice recipient of the Stalin Prize and twice publicly condemned with the blessing of the man in whose honour the prize was named, member of the Soviet Peace Committee and a professor removed from teaching in two conservatories.

In 1950, the bicentenary of Bach’s death, Shostakovich, who had inclined towards professional self-discipline from an early age, wrote preludes and fugues in all 24 keys modelled on Das wohltemperierte Klavier. The immediate impetus for creating his most large-scale piano work were the Bach anniversary celebrations in Leipzig, which Shostakovich attended as a member of the Soviet delegation. The central event was the International Piano Competition, first prize for which went to Tatiana Nikolayeva (the jury were greatly impressed when she suggested playing any prelude and fugue from Das wohltemperierte Klavier). And she was the pianist who first performed Shostakovich’s new work.

But was it only the Bach anniversary that prompted Shostakovich to produce a ‘third volume’ of Das wohltemperierte Klavier, or something subtler? He had long felt a kinship with German music. And following the notorious Zhdanov decree in 1948 against ‘formalism’ and ‘anti-people art’ and the consequent campaign against ‘cosmopolitanism’ one can understand Shostakovich’s desire for spiritual conversation. In the Soviet period the traditional Petersburg ‘nostalgia for world culture’ turned into the desire to place one’s private world in the great tradition, withdrawing from Soviet pseudo-art, and to enjoy the sensation of artistic continuity. It is also possible that in creating his preludes and fugues the Russian composer had in mind Glinka, who dreamed of ‘uniting the Western fugue to our songs with the bonds of holy matrimony’. Many of Shostakovich’s pieces are based on Russian-style themes, such as the Prelude and Fugue in C minor on this disk.

Shostakovich was not inspired by the music of Hindemith, who in his polyphonic cycle Ludus tonalis (1942), joined the fugues with interludes and used 12 tonal centres instead of 24 keys. Shostakovich wrote in major and minor, preserving the typical Bach’s structure of a detailed prelude followed by a fugue. Unlike Bach, however, he arranged the keys not on the chromatic scale, but in a circle of fifths, in the same order that he had used in his Preludes, op. 34 and inherited from the Romantic cycles of the 19th century. Moreover, brought up on symphonic musical culture with its demand for motif transformation, Shostakovich invested his preludes and fugues with a barely discernible melodic similarity. In the C-minor cycle the austere ‘dark’, Mussorgskian-like first intonation in the prelude, reminiscent of Znamenniy raspev (chant), becomes the theme of the fugue. And in the B-major cycle the flickering at the end of the prelude is transformed into bold leaps in the fugue. The same intonation is also found at the very beginning of the prelude, setting the tone for the whole piece. The similarity between the preludes and fugues is not limited to single motifs, however. A spirit of sombre asceticism pervades the whole C-minor cycle, whereas the B-major has some rather rough passages in places and graceful, lilting ones in others.


Elena Dvoskina,

translated by Kate Cook

Text of the booklet "Dmitry Shostakovich. PRELUDES & BALLET SUITE."


Home page