Sophia Gorlin

24 Preludes op. 34 for Piano by Shostakovich—
the ABCs of Shostakovich’s Compositional Style

This article is dedicated to Nina Schevchenko, my conservatory teacher. The idea to write about the 24 Preludes op. 34 by Shostakovich (The Preludes) was conceived in October of 2007, when I traveled to Odessa, Ukraine, my native city.  During my visit, I met with my favorite conservatory piano teacher, Nina Alexandrovna Schevchenko, for the first time after almost 25 years. Being a conservatory student, I was inspired by Mrs. Schevchenko to perform the entire cycle of 24 preludes op. 34.  It was her love and admiration of Shostakovich's music that I inherited from her and became a Shostakovich aficionado for many years to come. During our meeting in Odessa, my teacher showed me her own article about The Preludes (which was written after my graduation, and I did not know it existed).  My own memories and my teacher’s paper about The Preludes (with concentration on genre origin and interpretation) inspired me to write about this cyclic piece which holds a very special place in Shostakovich’s life and works.

I. Introduction

Terms and Definitions, History of the Genre

The 24 Preludes op. 34 for piano written by 26-year-old Shostakovich in 1932-1933 (hereinafter referred to as The Preludes) is a cycle of the 24 piano miniatures that holds a very special place in the history of the genre of instrumental preludes and in the development and maturing of Shostakovich’s compositional style. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate in which ways The Preludes absorbed the stylistic features of the earlier music of the genre, what was the input of Shostakovich to the genre of preludes and in which ways The Preludes influenced the later music of Shostakovich.

In my analysis of The Preludes, I use several ‘core’ terms that are necessary for explanation and better understanding of the essence of each of these piano miniatures and of the entire prelude cycle.

Genre and style definitions are fundamental, essential parts of music studies, which, besides particular elements of musical language (melody, harmony, rhythm and the like), also include social and ideological characteristics – important cultural considerations through different historical eras. In this regard, the clear and distinctive definitions of both style and genre categories are necessary.

The American Heritage Dictionary offers the following definition of ‘genre’: “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content” (emphasis by the author of this article – S.G.) A musical genre could be additionally defined by techniques (in music – instrumentation) and geographical origin (though a single geographical category will normally include a wide variety of sub-genres). The content category is emphasized above due to its essential role in making the genre definition distinctive from other similar definitions (form, style, etc.)

The definition ofstyle’ in the same dictionary appears similar until we get to the final words (– my italics – S.G.): “The combination of distinctive features of literary or artistic expression, execution, or performance characterizing a particular person, group, school, or era.” The italicised portion is essential for making distinction between the two categories – unlike genre, style is a LEVELIZED category. It includes FOUR different levels. If we extrapolate the above definition specifically to music, we obtain the following levels (listed from widest to narrowest): 1) the historical (trans-national) style (era); 2) the national style (school or group); 3) the individual style (the person – composer in music); 4) the style of the concrete musical composition. When we narrow the style level, the degree of uniqueness increases accordingly; therefore the most unique style level will be that of concrete musical work.

The aesthetic category of style in music is commonly understood as a music language (“a combination of distinctive features”, e.g. stylistic components like melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, etc.) Whenever we refer to the meaning (or content) of these components taken together, then we switch to the aesthetic category of genre. In music, this category is commonly presented as consisting of two sub-categories: the ‘primary’ and the ‘secondary’ genres.

A ‘primary’ music genre (the term of Sochor, the soviet musicologist) refers to ‘pure’ genres such as song, dance or march, as they originally exist in folk music.1 A ‘primary’ genre is easily recognizable through its unique set of stylistic features (e.g., its musical language). Thus, the categories of genre and style are a dialectic pair, which is analogous to philosophical categories of content (meaning) and form (musical language).

The problematic issues arise when there is a need to analyze a professional musical composition that does not literally refer to a certain genre but assimilates certain ’primary’ genre elements. This kind of a musical composition is defined as the ‘secondary’ genre. The instrumental genre of a prelude is a typical ’secondary’ genre absorbing the ‘primary’ genre characteristics.

Stylistically, the genre of the prelude can be defined as follows: “The prelude is an instrumental composition intended to introduce a larger composition or a set of compositions” (the Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary, my italics – S.G.). According to information in Wikipedia, “the prelude generally features a single rhythmic and melodic motive used in every bar throughout the piece”.

The genre of the prelude is deeply rooted in the Baroque era when it was extensively developed by such prominent composers as Johann Pachelbel who was one of the first to pair preludes (or toccatas) – and fugues in the same key, and Johann Sebastian Bach who composed the Well Tempered Clavier, two volumes of 24 Preludes and Fugues each in 24 major and minor keys that proceed upwards in the chromatic scale (i.e. No. 1 C major, No. 2 C minor, No. 3 C# major, etc). Bach’s work largely influenced later generations of composers – especially in Romantic and Impressionistic eras.

In the mid-19th century, Frédéric Chopin created his 24 Preludes, op. 28 as independent concert pieces. He was the first composer who liberated the genre of prelude from its original introductory purpose (as in the Well Tempered Clavier). They are also written in the 24 major and minor keys but proceed through the circle of fifths (i.e. No. 1 C major, No. 2 A minor, No. 3 G major, etc.). At the end of the 19th century (1896), the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin in his 24 Preludes op. 11 followed the same tradition. Shostakovich was the next composer who followed the same pattern – in his Preludes op. 34.

There was another tradition Shostakovich intended to follow. In the 20th century, Claude Debussy composed his two books (12 pieces in each) of impressionistic piano preludes, which influenced many later composers (including Shostakovich). Debussy, unlike previous composers of preludes, announced the titles for each prelude at the end of the piece (while a Roman numeral serves as the heading), thus considering his preludes to be programmatic musical compositions. (According to the music dictionary, “programme music is instrumental music that is meant to depict or suggest a mood or emotion, or a scene, story, or actual event.”) A couple of decades later, Shostakovich wrote The Preludes - pieces that do not have programme titles, but, as the analysis will show, definitely bear the features of a programmatic composition.

In many instances, the preludes clearly absorb the stylistic features of the ‘primary’ genre (e.g. song, dance or march music). The term ‘genre origin’ is used where the ‘primary’ genre or the specific, easily identifiable ‘genre-source’ for the certain prelude is determined. For example, among Chopin’s 24 Preludes, op. 28, there is mazurka (Prelude No. 7 in A Major, 3/4 time), march (Prelude No. 20 in C minor, 4/4 time), and song (Prelude No. 15 in Db Major, an immediate reminder of his nocturnes – night songs). Among Rachmaninov’s preludes (a combination of op. 3, 23, and 32 make a total of 24 preludes), there are many instances of ‘primary’ genre identification too. The best examples would be the march-like Prelude No. 6 in G minor (Alla Marcia); a couple of beautiful songs that could be easily imagined as themes to Rachmaninov’s own romances (for instance, Prelude No. 5 in D Major, Andante Cantabile, Prelude No. 16 in G Major, Moderato dolce, and Prelude No. 23 in G# minor); there are also dance-like Preludes No. 22 (B Major) and No. 13 (Bb minor). In this regard, we can state that these pieces, while being untitled, are still ‘programmed’ by being clearly identified through their ‘primary’ genre origin.

In a large majority of works composed by professional musicians, there is more than single ‘primary’ genre identification. That is – the ‘secondary’ genre (like many of the preludes) is actually the synthesis of several different or similar genre categories. The term ‘genre modulation’ used in this article reflects the process of interaction between different genres that is especially important in contemporary music reflecting the poly-genre and poly-stylistic synthetic nature of the modern musical language.

» Next: Grouping by Genre/Style Identification


1 A. Sochor. “The Music Genre and its Aesthetic Meaning”; Moscow, “Musika”, 1968.

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