Three Fugues For Piano
Sans Op. (1934)
Contrary to his customary practice, Shostakovich was not inspired to write the fugues of 1934, rather he wrote them as a way to fill a creative vacuum. The composer talks about his new compositions in letters to Yelena Konstantinovskaya and Ivan Sollertinsky, calling them ‘tediously boring’. ‘I have written two fugues. One is four-part and the other is three-part. I played them today on the piano. They are not very good and lack in emotion. However, I will write a third, a fourth, etc. I cannot live without composing anything. In terms of technique, the fugues are average, even below average. They could well be considered pure formalism. I am writing to keep my hands busy, instead of doing piano or trombone exercises.’ ‘I cannot compose anything. But since I can’t not do anything either, I have begun composing one fugue a day. I have already written three pieces. They turned out very badly.’
Each of the finished fugues has but one subject, but the pieces are very dissimilar. They bear witness to the composer’s changing attitude towards the fugue, whereby over a span of several days at the end of July 1934.
Shostakovich wrote his first essays in the genre of fugue at the conservatory in 1922-1923. These educational fugues are distinguished by their tidy and light writing. At the same time, some of their properties indicate that the young author was to some extent left to his own devices when composing them. This is shown in particular by the lack of attention Shostakovich paid to the structure of the exposition—in all the four-part fugues, that is, in six fugues out of eight, he uses the same scheme, which is inconvenient for a student and untypical for classical examples of the genre. This applies to the order of the parts, in which the last statement of the subject is ‘sandwiched’ between top and bottom: alto-soprano-bass-tenor. When he got as far as the statement in the tenor part, Shostakovich always excluded the alto, thus violating one of the school rules forbidding to curtail parts before the end of the exposition.
At first Shostakovich composed his fugues enthusiastically, which is shown, for example, by the following statement from a letter to Tatyana Glivenko: ‘I am now sitting in class and working away on a fugue. It is an interesting theme. I think it will turn out ‘not too bad at all’.’ However, soon the fugue became associated with ‘musical servitude’, as young Shostakovich described the role of his professors in his ironical ‘monologue of a grateful student’ in a letter to Boris Yavorsky of 16 April 1925: ‘Thank you, Maximilian Oseyevich, for teaching me to be afraid of parallel octaves and avoiding them. Thank you, Nikolay Aleksandrovich, for teaching me to combine two subjects and for teaching me to write bad fugues. …And thank you, Aleksandr Konstantinovich, for keeping a watchful eye over all of this. And now give me freedom. …Do not make me pour content into correct four-cornered forms, but allow me to choose any form for the content. Let it be a square, or a triangle, or something like this [here he drew a squiggly figure].’
A month later, in another letter to Yavorsky, Shostakovich again mentioned fugues as well as the contrapuntal technique, which undoubtedly interested him during his study and prompted him to perform Sokolov’s tasks inventively: ‘I will not write fugues. It is not my business to be engaged in tricks. I will write them from time to time if I feel myself a little backward in polyphony.’
It stands to reason that by the summer of 1934, Shostakovich, the author of the pointillist canon from the Aphorisms cycle, Op. 13, the octet of janitors from the opera The Nose, and the polyphonic structures of the Second Symphony, did not consider himself to be ‘backward in polyphony’. The prelude in E minor from Op. 34—an anticipation of fugues from Op. 87 in terms of mode and intonation—is of particular interest with respect to his attitude towards polyphony and fugues until 1934. However, this was still a piece in the form of a fugue rather than a fugue proper. Shostakovich’s first “true” example of the genre composed after the conservatory years was the four-part Fugue No. 1 in C major of 1934.
The general outline of the form is also similar to educational fugues. As for ‘tricks’, in the fugue in C major they are represented by a single one-bar stretta, which is customary for Shostakovich, and a counter-subject sustained in an unusual way. In the exposition, it, according to the academic rules, is stated following the subject in each of entering parts. However, Shostakovich goes on to use a technique of motif combinatorics, transferring the same segments of the counter-subject in relation to the subject.
In his first fugue of 1934, Shostakovich composed the accompanying parts to each statement beyond the exposition anew, intertwining, always in a new way, reiterating melodic segments in them. The composer rejected this laborious technique not only in the fugues of Op. 87, but also in the other fugues he wrote in 1934.
Fugue No. 2 in A minor (three-part) was written in an entirely different manner. This time, Shostakovich followed not the educational model, but Bach’s example, and composed a witty subject reminiscent of the fugue in C minor from Vol. 1 of Well-Tempered Clavier. A skilful light part-writing corresponds to the nature of the subject, as does the treatment of dissonances that appear as vibrant, accented and isolated sounding events unlike the same sevenths and ninths in the first of the 1934 fugues. There are also differences in the interpretation of form. In the fugue in A minor, as later in the fugues of Op. 87, Shostakovich demonstrates a tendency towards self-limitation—he repeats everything that only can be repeated along with the subject, placing the emphasis not on renewing the material of free parts, as was the case in the fugue in C major, but on working with a small number of melodic units.
Fugue No. 3 in G major (four-part). Many of its features, beginning with the subject, anticipate the fugues of Op. 87, especially the fugue in the same key, in whose subject major sevenths are highlighted and there is an abrupt rise from g1 to f sharp2 followed by a fall.
The voice-leading, which at times turns the polyphonic fabric into a succession of tones of major triad is also reminiscent of the fugues of Op. 87: the voiceleading in the fugue in A major is a pure example of this kind.
There are also some notable differences. They are primarily associated with the most vibrant detail of the fugue in G major—the contrasting material of the episodes in the form of a melodic move directed towards a chord sequence. This is one of the textural formulas of Op. 87 found, however, not in the fugues, but in the preludes to them.
Fugue No. 4 in E minor (two-part) is not finished. Only a 22-bar fragment is extant. The subject, with the tone repeated four times at the beginning, anticipates the ‘knocking’ motif of the fugue in D major from Op. 87.
The choice of number of parts can be explained by the presence of Bach’s example—a fugue in the same key from Vol. 1 of Well-Tempered Clavier. It is possible, however, that the number of parts (as the number of bars written) shows the author’s waning interest in composing fugues.
Three different approaches were used in the three finished fugues of 1934:
Identifying the fugue with a class assignment, that is, a form that was impossible for a mature composer, Associating with the true—Bach—strict fugue, and
Turning to a less strict version of the genre with insertions of freely developed vibrant material.
The second of these three approaches turned out to be the closest to Shostakovich’s optimal model of fugue as it is presented in the polyphonic cycle of Op. 87.