PRELUDES & FUGUES – J S Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich


J S Bach (1685-1750) compiled two books of 24 Preludes and Fugues for keyboard under the title ‘The Well-tempered Clavier’. They were written at different times – the first, in Cöthen, was finished by 1722, the second, while in Leipzig, by 1744 (or possibly earlier). Bach recycled some of the preludes and fugues from earlier sources: the 1720 ‘Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’ (one of his sons) contains versions of eleven of the preludes of the first book of ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.

The prelude and fugue (a contrapuntal technique based on melodic imitation) had been a popular pairing well before the time of Bach, but in the hands of this master reached new heights of complexity and expression. Bach’s 48 has influenced generations of composers ever since, resulting in the fugue becoming one of the most durable forms in Western musical history.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote a single cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, although it is sometimes published in two books. They were inspired by the Bach playing of pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva at the first Bach competition in Leipzig, to mark Bach’s bi-centenary. He had not intended to write a cycle but he was bitten by the bug, as it were, and they were written over the space of about five months in 1950/51 and published the following year. Nikolayeva gave the first performance in Leningrad on 23rd December 1952.

The two works are closely related as Shostakovich composed his cycle using Bach’s 48 as his model. In a number of instances he uses some of Bach’s motifs, patterns and rhythms in order to create his own original pieces: this, in fact, constitutes a musical umbilical cord to the earlier work, while also paying homage to it.

The Bach work contains a Prelude and Fugue for each of the 24 major and minor keys, twice over, starting from C, in a major-minor order. The Shostakovich comprises one Prelude and Fugue for each key in a major-relative minor sequence via the circle of fifths.

Each of the five recitals will contain works from both cycles, always starting with Bach, but following the composers’ individual schemes.

Gusztáv Fenyő writes:

“The late 1940s seem to have been the beginning of the process in which classical music audiences, for the first time in history, stopped listening to the music of their own time. Possibly it was an increasingly difficult listening-experience, and the music had become far too complex for amateurs to play through at home, as they had for centuries.

It is well-known that a study of Bach’s music influenced many important composers thereafter, from Mozart and Beethoven, through Chopin and Brahms, to Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartók, and it continues to exert an influence on composers of today across many genres. Therefore, greater familiarity with Bach’s 48 Preludes & Fugues may help audiences in their understanding and appreciation of later music. It is largely through the efforts of great performers, firstly harpsichordists such as Wanda Landowska, and then pianists ranging from Edwin Fischer to Glenn Gould and András Schiff, that this music has become widely known and appreciated.

Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues are not only directly related to the Bach work, but they also show many of the complexities to be found in twentieth-century music and are, I strongly believe, an essential preparation for it. The programmes will present, side-by-side, works written over 200 years apart, during which time most development of musical styles took place.

One of the reasons, therefore, for coupling the Shostakovich with the Bach is to try to persuade audiences that this music is not difficult as such. In my opinion, there can hardly be a better starting point for those who find it difficult to understand or relate to much of the music beyond 1900 than these two cycles juxtaposed in this way.”