Updated: Nov 9
"All life is figure and ground."
"But a wandering to find home."
This immortal exchange takes place in Beckett's Murphy, where it neatly captures the black and white of the chess game, the figure of Murphy's mind against the ground of his body, the ideal against the real. The terms are musical, too: a figure is the melody, and the ground is the bass. Taking Debussy's figures in his first book of Preludes as the summation of the affirmative way (the way of positive expression, where an attachment to people and to things and to self leads to an appreciation of beauty and the possibility of transcendence), the Preludes of Shostakovich are the negative way (where an attachment to people and to things and to self is impossible, and spiritual awakening reached only via the dark night of the soul). If one is birth, the other is death. The appearance of Debussy's Preludes in 1910 marks the high point of modern impressionist music; the appearance of the Shostakovich Preludes of 1950 marks its demise. All life is figure and ground.
Shostakovich wrote his Preludes under the most crushing aesthetic conditions to exist before the age of Zoom teaching and Microsoft Teams. The Union of Soviet Composers (not to be confused with the Soviet Union, but certainly a part of it) decreed in 1948 that formalism in music was a perversion, and that dissonance and discord were anti-democratic. The works of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, in particular, were held up as pernicious and incomprehensible to the people. Shostakovich quickly recanted, and wrote choral pieces like "The Sun Shines on Our Motherland." If the new works were perhaps a little too on point, nobody would imagine that Dmitri Shostakovich was taking the piss. Only when you look at his first twelve Preludes and Fugues (1950) do you realize that he has extended a giant middle finger to the Union of Soviet Composers. You don't get much more formalist than a book of Preludes and Fugues. And in the immortal words of Daniel Day-Lewis, there will be dissonance.
In April and May, I recorded the Preludes from Debussy's Book 1. This summer, I've decided to match the Debussy Preludes of 1910 with the Shostakovich Preludes from 40 years later. I'm calling the whole thing Paris-Moscow, because my friend Adam gave me the title and I like it. I'm using a Parisienne on the cover because she was the model for the heroine for the book set in Finland that no agent currently is interested in reading but is STILL VERY GOOD SO THERE. Shostakovich is more obviously associated with Leningrad, but by 1940 he's in Moscow and that's where he wrote these pieces so that's all right. (In 1942, a microform of the Leningrad Symphony was smuggled to Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra for a radio audience of millions, becoming a symbol of resistance against the Nazis. Don't bother writing a novel based on this because I got there first.)
In the first half of Paris-Moscow, I've been happily matching Debussy's pieces with companion images from the period, as if the Preludes were taking part in an art exhibition. But where Debussy practically insists that you think impressionistically, finding a pictorial match for a Shostakovich prelude is a near-impossibility. So for each of the Preludes I give you a square cut out from the cover of the Sikorski edition of the first book of the 24 Preludes and Fugues. Stalin would disapprove:
First row: Preludes #1-4. Second row: Preludes #5-8. Third row: Preludes #9-12.
In the cut-up version of that cover, each square represents a different prelude in the first set (there are 12 in Volume 1). Shostakovich arranges his Preludes & Fugues differently from Bach - where Bach went in chromatic order from C to B, Shostakovich wheels around the circle of fifths, adding a sharp with each new set of major and minor preludes. So the second Prelude is in A Minor, the relative minor of C Major, because it also has no flats or sharps. And the third Prelude is in G major, with one sharp, and the fourth is in E minor, the relative minor of G major, and so on. You can see why the Union of Soviet Composers might not see eye to eye with this. Besides being deliciously formalist, it makes the sequence of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues much more of a cycle than Bach's Preludes.
Shostakovich completes the cycle in Book 2, but I'm only recording Book 1, as I only recorded Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Klavier, and only Book 1 of Debussy's Preludes. I have agents to query, and Scrabble words to learn. To make things slightly more complicated, I've decided to follow every fourth Prelude with its corresponding Fugue (#4 in E Minor, #8 in F# Minor, and #12 in G# Minor). These three fugues are next to impossible, and all are very long, but they will stand for all the others that I'm not playing. The idea is that each set of 4 Preludes makes a coherent musical statement, which is then answered by the final Fugue in the set of 4. I think it works, but it will be up to you to decide.
First row: Fugue #4. Second row: Fugue #8. Third row: Fugue #12.
In any case, these pieces act as the ground to Debussy's figure, the black to Debussy's white. Where Debussy is all parasols and cathedrals, Shostakovich is simplicity and anguish. There are moments of heart-stopping beauty in the Shostakovich Preludes (#1 and #5 particularly), and that beauty can be lost when it is smothered with a wickedly difficult fugue. Though the 4th, 8th, and 12th Fugues are by no means easy, they have a lyrical quality that matches the Preludes in the set. With the 12 Preludes and 3 Fugues by Shostakovich, I hope to bring the 12 pieces of Debussy's first book of Preludes into a new and sharper focus. With the 12 Preludes from Paris and the 12 Preludes from Moscow, this will make a 20th century statement to mirror Bach's first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, which also has 24 Preludes, and was recorded on this site in the early days of the pandemic. But that's enough math: listen to the music.
Update: All the music has been recorded. The complete set of Debussy/Shostakovich Preludes will be available on CD in December 2021. To hear them now, go to the Debussy Prelude site and the Shostakovich Recording site.