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Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975), Prelude and Fugue in A major for piano solo
From Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues presents the sixth in a series of analyses covering the set A level extracts.


The Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues (1950-51) were written at a time in Shostakovich’s life when his musical output was severely limited by state control. This almost amounted to persecution and was much more severe in the years following the Second World War than during its duration; for example, from 1945 to 1953 (the death of Joseph Stalin) Shostakovich did not produce any symphonies.

Shostakovich’s motivation in composing these pieces may have been to keep himself sane whilst much of his main career was on hold. The cycle takes as its model Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which Shostakovich heard the previous year at an international conference for the Bach bicentenary in Leipzig. These are not mere pastiches of Bach: Shostakovich’s personal style had developed by this time to include individual stylistic traits, such as rhetorical images. The cycle’s key scheme is organised in a different way to that of Bach, descending C-A-G-E-D-B etc. rather than ascending C – C-sharp – D – D-sharp.

Of particular interest in the Prelude in A is the alternation of chromatic and diatonic material. Bars 21-22 include a motif that behaves like a parenthesis: the contrapuntal, linear interest is stilled by thud of homophony in this ‘prayer motif’; you can also find this in string quartets 1, 4, 5, 9 and 11, so it forms a kind of personal signature.

The fugue is very awkward to play on the piano and would be easier if scored for string trio. There is a problem in writing a fugue (in the normal sense of the word) on such a static subject, based exclusively on triad tones. However this does allow consistent real answers, rather like serial music, and enables Shostakovich to modulate to extreme keys easily. There is another example of a ‘problem fugue’, an exercise Shostakovich set himself, in Fugue no. 1, which is formed exclusively from the white notes.

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