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One of Shostakovich’s greatest and most powerful works of the late Stalinist period is his huge cycle of twenty-four preludes and fugues for piano. He began writing it in the autumn of 1950 after a visit to Leipzig as a judge in the Bach competition held on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of Bach.
Shostakovich was a contrapuntist of vast skill and a life-long Bach-lover. He was also a Bach player. Many of his works, especially the symphonies and quartets, have contrapuntal passages which betray his deep knowledge of and admiration of Bach. And on the many occasions on which his music becomes neo-classical, from his First Symphony op.10 through to his Fifteenth op.141, we can hear his distinctly 20th century view of Bach filtered through the imagination and example of another great composer whom he profoundly admired, Stravinsky.
These Preludes and Fugues are not, in that Stravinskian sense, neo-classicism. Written in the late Stalinist period at a time of continuing gloom and doubts about the survival of his powers as a composer in the face of the barbarian onslaught and the all-pervasive and dominating ideology of socialist-realism, they represent something rather different, a determined attempt on Shostakovich’s part to return to the pure well-spring of western music, to bring himself as close as he can to Bach’s uniquely inspiring example and find a way, hopeless though such an undertaking might be, of reconciling his language and his position as a 20th century Russian composer with the example of one of the greatest musicians who has ever lived. In essence, these twenty-four preludes and fugues are a love-letter and an act of homage to Bach. Shostakovich was a lifelong ironist, but here there is no irony. Only a long and penetrating gaze on the face of Bach and on himself, on his own masterly technique but also on his despair.
When these works first appeared they were naturally ignored or demeaned by certain critics inside the Soviet Union for their lack of ‘socialist content’. In the West they were also mostly ignored as a strange piece of half-pastiche, a return to the past at a time when to make such a return was already old-hat and not worth doing any more. But as the years have passed, these endlessly varied pieces have now begun to find their place in the modern repertory, for their dark beauty, their wisdom and learning, and their astonishing single-mindedness.
The Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues were written with the young pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva in mind. She had been a competitor at the Leipzig competition where Shostakovich was a judge, and it was her relentless championing of the whole cycle in her later years that did much to persaude others to take the pieces so seriously.
Note by Gerard McBurney