Thursday, November 6, 2014

24 X 2

I did an interesting listening project the other day: I listened to the 24 preludes and fugues from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach and then I listened to the 24 preludes and fugues--no, not from Book 2, but the ones by Shostakovich. Actually I mixed them up. Each recording is on two CDs so I listened to the first CD of Bach and then the first CD of Shostakovich and then the second of each. Interesting. Both the differences and the similarities. Let's look at a couple of pieces. Here is the G major prelude from Bach:

And here is a performance (it is of both prelude and fugue):

A typical Bach prelude: brilliant, tightly-written (meaning it is based on one motif) and harmonically delightful. One thing about this prelude in particular is that it is in the time signature of 24/16 (on top and "common" time on the bottom). Sure, that is just 4/4 with sextuplets. But I cannot think of a single other example of a composer who just had to use the 24/16 time signature! Now let's look at an example from Shostakovich that is vaguely similar. Here is the A major prelude:

And a performance, again, with the fugue as well:

Very charming prelude, also tightly-written and with delightful harmony. Shostakovich also has a compound time signature, but the much simpler one of 12/8.

Let's look at the last fugues in each opus. Bach organizes his pieces by simply moving up the chromatic scale: beginning with C major and minor he progresses to C# major and minor and so on until the final prelude and fugue are in B minor. Here is the beginning of the fugue in B minor:

One thing to notice about that really snakey subject is that it is dodecaphonic! Yes, it includes all twelve tones of the chromatic scale (mind you, some are repeated).

Here is a performance of the prelude and fugue. The fugue begins around the 7:48 mark:

I picked the Richter performance because I like this one slow. I have Friedrich Gulda and he takes sixteen minutes!

Shostakovich organizes his pieces through the circle of fifths. C major is followed by A minor and then by G major and E minor. This means that his last prelude and fugue are in D minor. Here is the beginning of the fugue:

Far simpler theme, almost bare with all those fourths. Here is a performance, by Shostakovich himself, of both prelude and fugue. The fugue starts around the 4:16 mark:

After a long section just using that simple subject, there is an accelerando into a PiĆ¹ mosso with a new subject in running eight-notes. Then the two subjects are combined, making this a double fugue. On the last page there is a stretto using the first subject, accompanied by the second subject.

Some things to notice: the pieces by Bach are actually more complex in some ways than those by Shostakovich. There is a wistful, archaic quality to the Shostakovich. In the D minor fugue he resorts to some rather dramatic devices. Bach, on the other hand, just works out an incredible variety of contrapuntal possibilities with that tricky subject--it is really a tour de force.

If Shostakovich does not quite manage to out-do Bach at preludes and fugues in all the keys, he certainly writes some wonderful music. Beethoven answered Bach's Goldberg Variations with his Diabelli Variations to great success, but bear in mind that Shostakovich is the only one, in three hundred years, to fully take up the challenge of the Well-Tempered Clavier!


Rickard Dahl said...

This is indeed a good idea for a listening/"score" reading project. I'm starting it today. The only problem is that I don't have the sheet music for Shostakovich's preludes and fugues and IMSLP doesn't have it (it's still copyrighted as with probably most if not all of Shostakovich's music).

Actually, while searching for "shostakovich preludes and fugues imslp" I came across a set of preludes and fugues by a living composer Gary Bachlund (suiting last name) who I've never heard of:,_Book_1_%28Bachlund,_Gary%29

I have no idea about the aesthetic quality of those preludes and fugues but looks like someone else did an attempt at least. Anyways, I think the main reason why no major composer except Shostakovich attempted the whole deal with 24 preludes and fugues is probably due to the difficulty of writing good fugues and that it generally wasn't an important thing to master. At least Chopin and Debussy did the prelude part.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you might find some scores for the preludes and fugues here:

I purchased the DSCH edition from Amazon.

The idea of writing a set of preludes and fugues in all the keys in Soviet Russia in 1951 was probably fairly ridiculous, but at least Shostakovich couldn't get into trouble for being too Western and "formalist".

Rickard Dahl said...

After listening to both WTC books and the preludes and fugues by Shostakovich I think I prefer Shostakovich. This may partially be due to the harpsichord vs piano sound. I prefer the piano sound and find the harpsichord sound somewhat tiring to listen to for extended periods of time. Maybe my impression would be better if I would listen to the WTC books played on piano. Obviously the piano has expanded capabilities such as larger range of keys to play, a much better dynamic range and pedals. However, I also found the preludes and fugues by Shostakovich to be more varied in characteristics which is probably due to less contrapuntal action and more reliance on other ways of forming harmonies. I also found them to be more delightful.

Anyways, it got me thinking: Wouldn't it be possible to create harpsichord-like instrument which have pretty much the same timbral characteristics but expanded range of keys to play and much better dynamic range? Maybe even pedals? Speaking of innovations for instruments: There is an instrument called Liuto Forte (see and there's also a so called Harmonic Pedal for Pianos (see Finally there's also a 102 key piano (see

Bryan Townsend said...

I must confess that I usually listen to the Well-Tempered Clavier on piano--the two versions I have are by Glenn Gould and Friedrich Gulda. Harpsichord can sometimes sound rather harsh, though it can also have an amazingly great sound. Listen to some Scott Ross recordings. But, as a matter of fact, I haven't listened to a lot of the Well-Tempered on harpsichord. Who were you listening to?

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, listened to the version on gerubach's channel since it's scrolling sheet music and it's easier to follow, see Kenneth Gilbert is the performer.