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Awesome Music / Dmitri Shostakovich

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Dmitri Shostakovich, the third titan of Soviet music along with Aram Khachaturian and Sergei Prokofiev, has many, many moments of awesome music.note 


  • The Op. 87 set of 24 Preludes and Fugues for the piano, inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, are full of awesome moments for both composer and performer. The fugues largely follow the same structure - establishing the subject in each voice, then wandering far away from and eventually back to the home key, and finishing with liberal use of stretto (overlapping subject entrances) - but they all have individual touches that make them truly unique.
    • For flash and dash, try the dizzying cascade-dominated prelude and angular fugue of No.2 in A minor, the union of two melodic ideas in the prelude and ebullient fugue of No.3 in G major, the lively fugues of No.9 in E major (the only one to feature two voices and an inverted subject) and No.11 in B major (which makes striking use of augmentation in the third section), and the moto perpetuo prelude and steadily building energy of the fugue from No.21 in B-flat major.
    • If you prefer a more sensitive side, try the easy-going prelude and accidental-free fugue from No.1 in C major, the swaying, arpeggiated chord-led prelude and bouncy fugue from No.5 in D major, the graceful arpeggio-led fugue subject from No.7 in A major, the dignified prelude and ambitious five-voice fugue from No.13 in F-sharp major (the only fugue to use diminution), the restless prelude and playful 5/4 fugue of No.17 in A-flat major (including further use of augmentation), or the lofty prelude and fugue from No.23 in F major.
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    • Or, if you'd like Shostakovich packing emotional punches, listen to the fluid prelude and heartbroken fugue from No.10 in C-sharp minor, the stark tremolos in the prelude of No.14 in E-flat minor, the heavily ornamented fugue with its final measures of sunlight piercing the clouds from No.16 in B-flat minor, the desolate prelude and a fugue with a four-voice stretto from No.18 in F minor (the major resolutions in which feel more like the release of death than victories), the journey toward redemption across both the prelude and fugue from No.20 in C minor (featuring another use of augmentation), or the almost unrelentingly bleak prelude and fugue from No.22 in G minor.
    • Looking for wry humour? Shostakovich has you covered. Try the dotted rhythm leaps from the prelude of No.6 in B minor, the jagged, almost atonal fugue from No.8 in F-sharp minor, the sarcastic prelude and downright chaotic fugue (culminating in another use of augmentation interrupted by the opening measures of the prelude in a failed bid to restore order) from No.15 in D-flat major, or the grotesque march parodies in both the prelude and the 5/4 fugue of No.19 in E-flat major.
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    • And for all of these things at once, try the sombre prelude and two-subject fugue of No.4 in E minor (in the climax, both subjects enter in stretto simultaneously), the weighty passacaglia in the prelude and the flames that initially burn white hot but slowly fade into embers in the 5/4 fugue of No.12 in G-sharp minor, or the journey from tragedy to knowingly garish, hollow triumph across the prelude and two-subject fugue of the massive No.24 in D minor.
  • The 24 Preludes, Op.34 are Shostakovich's tribute to Chopin's Op.28 preludes, and while they are overshadowed by the later Preludes and Fugues, they still represent the apex of his early compositions for piano.
    • If you want Shostakovich at his flashiest, look no further than the whirlwind scales of No.5 in D major, the pure adrenaline of No.9 in E major, the spiky waltz of No.15 in D-flat major,note  the two-voice canon-driven No.18 in F minor, or the violent No.20 in C minor with its concluding charge toward the highest C on the keyboard.
    • On the calmer side, there's the solemn three-voice fugue in 5/4 time of No.4 in E minor, the dreamlike placidity of No.7 in A major, the funereal yet majestic No.14 in E-flat minor (the climax of which doubles as the dramatic apex of the entire set), the barcarolle-like serenity of No.19 in E-flat major, the desolate heartbreak of No.22 in G minor, and the quiet dignity and grandeur of No.23 in F major.
    • And it wouldn't be Shostakovich without moments of sardonic humour; try the sudden interruptions at the climaxes of No.3 in G major and No.10 in C-sharp minor, the "wrong note" dissonances that keep knocking the listener off balance in No.6 in B minor and No.16 in B-flat minor, the parody of romantic ballads in No.17 in A-flat major with constant shifts in tempo and metre (as though the balladeer Cannot Spit It Out), and the wryly understated final gesture of No.24 in D minor.
  • Among major 20th-century composers, Shostakovich was one of the more prolific composers of symphonies, with fifteen to his name, and there are some real winners among them.
    • Symphony No.1 in F minor was Shostakovich's conservatory graduation piece, and really put the 19-year-old composer on the map. Though less dense than his later symphonies, it still boasts all the hallmarks of his style, including bold harmonies, sardonic humour, toying with the listener's perception of rhythm and metre, and a dark edge to the expected triumphant conclusion.
    • Audiences had to wait 25 years for the first performance of Symphony No.4 in C minor after Shostakovich was obliged to cancel the premiere in 1936, then had to wait for a more favourable political climate to try again. It was worth the wait; though the work poses challenges for both performersnote  and listeners, it is an emotional rollercoaster that is never less than captivating, from the woodwind shriek that opens the first movement, the four-part interval canon in the woodwinds in the second movement scherzo as well as the percussion figure for snare drum and castanets in its coda, to the melancholy celesta solo over sustained notes in the strings that closes the finale.
    • The finale of Symphony No.5 in D minor is brilliant and exciting, always climbing up by semitones and pushing the tension up further with each step, along with judicious use of Dramatic Timpani.
    • Symphony No.6 in B minornote  condenses the typical four-movement symphony into three movements by opening with a vast and introspective slow movement; the energy builds across a typically sarcastic Shostakovich scherzo and a Presto finale inspired by Gioachino Rossini's William Tell overture that gallops toward a "victorious" major resolution in which the thunder of timpani threatens to overwhelm the rest of the orchestra.
    • Symphony No.7 in C major (Leningrad) went a long way toward sustaining the morale of the Soviet people during the Nazi invasion (its first performance was broadcast on loudspeakers outside the city so that the German army could hear that Leningrad's spirit had not been broken). The grandeur of the opening theme and the sheer menace of the "invading army" theme that starts about five minutes into the first movement and, through the Boléro Effect, grows ever more imposing until the snare drums sound as though they're hammering straight through the skin of their instruments are some of Shostakovich's most powerful musical moments.note 
    • The third movement of Symphony No.8 in C minor opens with a violent perpetual motion theme in the violas, and remains one of the composer's most fascinating yet terrifying orchestral movements.
    • Symphony No.9 in E-flat major, written at the behest of Josef Stalin who commissioned it as a celebration of victory in World War II, completely mocks the idea of a grandiose celebratory symphony in favour of a more "folksy" style. Far from being the bombastic victory ode Stalin expected, it sounds like Shostakovich's own answer to the question posed by Prokofiev's Classical symphony: what sort of music would Joseph Haydn write if he were alive in the 20th century?
    • Popular rumour holds that the downright frightening second movement scherzo from Symphony No.10 in E minor is a musical portrait of Stalin (who was dead by the time the symphony was composed - had there been a whiff of the movement being "dedicated" to the dictator while he was alive, Shostakovich would have been in front of a firing squad within hours). Whether or not this is true, it is four minutes of unrelenting musical horror, worlds away from the eventual major key triumph in the coda of the finale.
    • Symphony No.15 in A major includes a plethora of references to his earlier works that makes it a fitting capstone to his symphonic output. Standout moments include the wry direct quotes from the William Tell overture in the first movement and the "Fate" Leitmotif from The Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner; Shostakovich himself admitted to his friend Isaak Glikman, "I don't myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them."
  • For the lighter (yet still awesome) side of Shostakovich, there's Waltz No.2 from the Suite for Variety Orchestra, along with his Festive Overture, which gets bonus points for possibly being a celebration of the death of Joseph Stalin the previous year.
  • Tahiti Trot, if you know the backstory: a conductor friend played a recording of 'Tea for Two' to the 22-year-old Shostakovich, and bet him 100 roubles that he could not do a complete orchestration from memory in 1 hour. He did it in 45 minutes.
  • Shostakovich's concerti for various soloists and orchestra include some of his most accessible and awesome works.
    • The two piano concerti see Shostakovich at his most genuinely light-hearted, with little of the dark irony that usually suffuses his supposedly "upbeat" works.
      • Piano Concerto No.1 began as a concerto for trumpet and strings, and even following its "hijacking" by the piano, the trumpet remains prominent. The return of the slow movement's primary theme for muted trumpet represents the concerto's emotional heart, and while the finale tests the pianist's agility with multi-octave leaps in both hands and a brief cadenza which wryly quotes Beethoven's Rage Over a Lost Penny rondo, the trumpet dials things back with a genial melody (despite a loud interruption from the piano) and effectively leads the charge through the triumphant coda.
      • Shostakovich composed his Piano Concerto No.2 as a 19th birthday gift for his son Maxim, so its technical demands are modest, but it makes up for this with a real sense of fun. The airy first movement sees the soloist and the orchestra wind melodies around each other, and even the loud outbursts in the development are full of good humour. The slow movement, one of Shosty's most celebrated, alternates between a haunting minor key theme and a nostalgic major key theme and leads straight into a finale that affectionately parodies the studies of Charles-Louis Hanon on which Maxim had cut his pianistic teeth, all building up to something extremely rare in the composer's output: a truly joyful conclusion.
    • By contrast, the string concerti are later works in which even the more boisterous movements are full of the composer's trademark sarcastic wit and a sense of forced levity.
      • Violin Concerto No.1 was composed in the late 1940s for Shostakovich's friend David Oistrakh, but audiences had to wait until 1955 to hear it. Things get off to a sinister start with the opening Nocturne, then turn downright "demoniac" (to use Oistrakh's word) with a Scherzo with a Jewish-influenced trio and a dizzying fugato passage on the scherzo theme that sees the violinist and various sections of the orchestra throw the subject and two countersubjects back and forth with abandon before exploding into a major key version of the trio theme. The weighty, gloomy Passacaglia likewise passes countermelodies back and forth (with one repetition of the ground bass given to the soloist) before leading into a technically vicious solo cadenza that brings back themes from the Nocturne and Scherzo. The boisterous yet sardonic concluding Burlesque evokes images of a Russian festival and brings things full circle with reminiscences of the previous movements throughout.
      • Like Prokofiev before him, Shostakovich befriended the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and composed his Cello Concerto No.1 in 1959 especially for Slava. The opening four notes played by the soloist set the grim tone for the first movement, with a supporting role played by a solo horn that makes several attempts (some unsuccessful) to re-assert the opening theme. The eerie, sparsely-scored slow movement sees the orchestra and the soloist each presenting their own thematic material, all building to a spectacular full orchestral climax three-quarters of the way into the movement before the soloist, accompanied by a celesta, brings us back to earth. The ensuing five-minute solo cadenza throws the previous two movements into a blender, then hurtles without pausing for breath into a finale that includes a gleeful parody of one of Stalin's favourite songs, "Suliko", before returning the concerto to the four-note motif with which it began.
  • Shostakovich ranks just behind Ravel and Bartók when it comes to 20th century composers of string quartets. Though most of his fifteen quartets function as a musical personal diary (especially the most frequently performed of them all, No.8 in C minor, which is dominated by his "musical monogram" of "D E-flat C B"note  and includes quotes from multiple previous compositions of his), describing thoughts and exploring musical ideas that Stalin's government would never have allowed to be made public, there's some awesome mixed in with the intensely emotional journeys, particularly in the early quartets.
    • It took just six weeks for Shostakovich to compose Quartet No.1 in C major, and the innocent lyricism, described by the composer as "spring-like", makes it truly unique among the largely dark and introspective collection of his string quartets. The solemn slow movement and eerie scherzo are very much in his signature style, but the easy-going opening movement and effervescent finale are both breaths of fresh air, worlds away from the unhappiness that inspired so much of his other chamber works.
    • Quartet No.2 in A major goes from a brash opening Overture to a nuanced Recitative and Romance (the first violin gets extended time in the spotlight in the recitatives bracketing the romance) to a spooky Waltz in which the four instruments play with mutes throughout - in spite of which the music manages to build to a hellish fortissimo climax in the middle - to a grim Theme and Variations in which the energy of each variation is turned up further and further to a furious release in the form of a re-iteration of the movement's introduction, another appearance of which closes out the quartet in A minor instead of A major.
    • Though Shostakovich never really stood by the "horrors of war"-inspired "programme" he officially published for the five movements of Quartet No.3 in F major, the shift from an opening movement of outward calm with tension just below the surface (with an especially clever fugato passage on its main theme in the development) to two scherzi, the first tense and the second pure, unrelenting fury, followed by a sombre slow movement and a finale that seems to be trying to pick up the pieces certainly puts one in mind of a terrifying cataclysm and its aftermath.
    • No.7 in F-sharp minor is the shortest of Shostakovich's quartets, but it stands out for the frenzied fugal passage that opens the finale, culminating in a dissonant, distorted rendition of the main theme of the first movement to herald a coda that brings the quartet full circle by combining the fugue subject with the first movement theme, with the latter ultimately getting the last word.
    • Like No.8 before it, Quartet No.9 in E-flat major is composed in five movements played without break. In each of the first four movements, Shostakovich ingeniously creates more seamless transitions by putting together the next movement before the previous movement has finished, and the sense of musical unity is reinforced by the use of a theme from the first movement in the middle of the scherzo and the coda of the finale, and by the appearance of the main theme from the fourth movement after the climax of the dizzying fugato passage in the finale.
  • As a pianist with many friends who played stringed instruments, Shostakovich was quite at home writing chamber music for piano and strings.
    • The Cello Sonata is one of the 20th century's best examples of the form, boasting a sonata allegro that goes to the far side of the circle of fifths for the exposition and then dials the tempo down to Largo for the recapitulation, a tense scherzo featuring triple octaves and judicious use of harmonics, a haunting Largo that takes cues from Impressionism to paint a musical picture of bleak Russian landscapes, and a sardonic rondo that features a virtuosic piano passage in one episode and an abrupt final gesture.
    • The Beethoven String Quartet premiered nearly all of Shostakovich's string quartets, but his first composition specifically for them was the Piano Quintet, another masterpiece of its form. The first two movements are a stark Prelude and a Fugue that strays from its minimalist subject in the centre section but eventually returns in stretto in a contrapuntal masterstroke. There follows a Scherzo that tumbles acrobatically through chords and parallel octaves, and a solemn Intermezzo that leads straight into the joyful, major key Finale.
    • Shostakovich composed his Piano Trio No.2 in memory of his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, and while "awesome" doesn't quite fit the sombre atmosphere that pervades most of the piece, it still stands out for its prolific use of artificial harmonics in the cello at the beginning of the first movement,note  a relentless second movement scherzo that boasts the composer's signature sardonic humour, and a stark passacaglia that leads straight into a finale with a secondary theme heavily influenced by Jewish folk music, first stated in the piano over percussive pizzicato chords in the violin and cello. And just as the movement builds to a climax, it immediately comes apart in a piano whirlwind over which the violin and cello try to restore order by taking the music back to the beginning of the first movement.
    • The Violin Sonata was written for David Oistrakh as a 60th birthday present.note  The slow opening movement takes cues from Prokofiev's first violin sonata, and, in one of Shostakovich's many experiments with twelve-tone writing, much of the music grows out of the tone-row that opens the piece. After a harsh scherzo in his inimitable style, Shostakovich concludes with an expansive passacaglia that culminates in a passage for unaccompanied violin, followed by a coda that brings back material from the first movement, including the final ponticello double fourth tremolos in the violin.
    • The last piece Shostakovich completed before his death from heart failure in 1975 was the Viola Sonata, and though undeniably downbeat, it still finds time for humour and playfulness, most notably in the operatic second movement scherzo.note  The concluding Adagio was intended as a tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven, with frequent invocations of the rhythm from the melody and the rising triplet accompaniment from the first movement of the Moonlight sonata, but it also represents Shostakovich at his most intensely personal as it weaves in many quotes from his own works, including all fifteen symphonies.