After all of my interest last month in the Opus 34 set of 24 preludes for piano that Dmitri Shostakovich completed in 1933, which had been arranged as a duet for cello and piano by Lera Auerbach and performed by cellist Alisa Weilerstein with Auerbach on piano, I found myself thinking again of Shostakovich's much later (Opus 87) collection of 24 prelude/fugue couplings. Presumably, the Opus 34 preludes could be taken as a reflection on the Opus 28 set of 24 preludes by Frédéric Chopin; but one of the points that emerged from the comments that Auerbach offered prior to performance involved her interest in seeking out structure in a collection based on a straightforward traversal of the circle of fifths through major and minor keys. Whether or not Shostakovich had intended such a structure, the Auerbach/Weilerstein performance gave at least a suggestion of a narrative arc that carried the listener from one prelude to the next, thus transcending "Winston Churchill's one-thing-after-another characterization of history" that tends to bring down too many pianists who wish to perform the Chopin preludes as an integrated set.
By the time Shostakovich began work on Opus 87, he had endured a series of devastating life experiences that would probably be beyond the comprehension of any listener today. Most important is that in 1933 he had not yet come to the attention of Joseph Stalin. Between 1933 and 1950, when he began work on Opus 87, he had been denounced twice by the Soviet bureaucracy, both times for "formalism" and, on the first occasion, the vulgar depiction of sexual congress in his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District opera. (Leave it to the Soviets to attack an artist for being both too abstract and too concrete at the same time!) If that were not enough for any individual to sustain, this period also included the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, including the siege of Leningrad, which had inspired two of his most gut-wrenching compositions, the Opus 65 eighth symphony in C minor and the Opus 67 piano trio in E minor.
By 1950, however, his reputation had been at least partially restored; and, as its Wikipedia entry explains, Opus 87 was an unexpected consequence of a listening experience resulting from "official business:"
After the Second World War, Dmitri Shostakovich was Russia's most prominent composer. Although out of favour with the Soviet Communist Party, he was still sent abroad as a cultural ambassador. One such trip was to Leipzig in 1950 for a music festival marking the bicentennial of J. S. Bach's death.
As part of the festival, Shostakovich was asked to sit on the judging panel for the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition. One of the entrants in the competition was the 26-year-old Tatiana Nikolayeva from Moscow. Though not required by competition regulations, she had come prepared to play any of the 48 preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier on request. She won the gold medal.
Inspired by the competition and impressed by Nikolayeva's playing, Shostakovich returned to Moscow and started composing his own cycle of 24 preludes and fugues. Shostakovich worked fairly quickly, taking only three days on average to write each piece. As each was completed he would ask Nikolayeva to come and visit him in his Moscow apartment where he would play her the latest piece.
The complete work was written between 10 October 1950 and 25 February 1951. Once finished, Shostakovich dedicated the work to Nikolayeva, who undertook the public premiere in Leningrad on 23 December 1952.
From a musical point of view, what I find most interesting its that Shostakovich's attention had shifted from Chopin to Bach, whose own attention was more pedagogic than virtuosic. Thus, one is less likely to find an overall structure to the collection; nor is there any reason to assume that Shostakovich had intended one. Nevertheless, the Opus 34 preludes clearly reflect Shostakovich's base of experiences and influences in 1933; and I continue to believe that Opus 87 is even more explicitly autobiographical, even if that autobiography is highly encrypted. We know from, for example, accounts of his pupil Sofia Gubaidulina, that, while Bach could confine pedagogy to matters of execution and invention, Shostakovich realized that pupils needed to be informed of certain harsh "social realities," even if it meant concealing that information in a coded language.
Ironically, while Opus 87 is therefore a fascinating collection, I find that I have had few contacts with it. Indeed, my only contact has been with a performance of the final prelude and fugue in the set (in D minor) given at a recital a little over a year ago. On the other hand, as a result of that experience, I managed to discover a set of free downloads of the complete set of preludes and fugues, recorded from a recital given by Denis Plutalov at Watson Hall of the North Carolina School of the Arts on May 23, 2005; and I continue to relish having this collection at my disposal. At some time in the future, I may even work up the courage to try playing some of these works for myself, assuming that I have the will to do so after my current encounter with Alexander Scriabin's Opus 11 collection of 24 (Chopin-inspired) preludes!