24 Preludes and Fugues–Shostakovich

By Andrew Fort

A few weeks ago my teenage son came to me, clearly agitated about tonight’s election, enumerating all of the negative things which have been repeated in the press about the candidates and outlining his disappointment with our current political climate. At the time I didn’t really have any answers for him, other than: It doesn’t matter that there are no great choices. You have to choose one. Not the sort of thing a fifteen-year-old wants to hear.

I wrote this post before the results of the election, when everything was still up for grabs. I did that on purpose, because no matter who wins, it’s inevitable that there will be one side which is bitterly disappointed, and another side which is grudgingly triumphant at having won a race that was more like a Soviet death march than an Olympic marathon.

Somehow, every election year, many of us manage to convince ourselves that politics is the most important thing in our lives.

And yet, it’s not. I don’t mean to say that politics or the political climate don’t affect us; they do. What I mean to say instead is that who we elect is a representation of our values as a nation, but not the only one.

There are other things which are capable of representing our values. Culture, for example. Which is one of the many reasons this piece of music–the 24 Preludes and Fugues by Dmitri Shostakovich–is so meaningful to me. It contains an entire world, and it is completely outside of politics, though it came into being in a deeply political climate.

shostakovich-2At the time Shostakovich composed these pieces, he was simultaneously a tool of Stalinist Russia and its whipping boy. He was clearly a key player on the musical world stage, so the government sent him out into the world to represent Russia, even if he didn’t always represent his country in the way its leaders wanted it to be represented. You can’t tell a genius not to think for himself.

What Shostakovich did with these pieces was to retreat from some of the more political themes he had dealt with in the past into the realm of “pure music”–music which has no explicit meaning other than to be listened to.

But of course, it does have meaning: by taking Bach’s Preludes and Fugues as his model, Shostakovich was adopting a musical family rather than a nationalistic one. And though these pieces are supposed to be “pure” music, one in particular takes me through a number of emotions which can be applied to this most recent political cycle—a kind of five stages of grief: depression, confusion, disbelief, agitation, and finally, clarity. And when I listen to it now, I am not really thinking about Stalinist Russia. I’m not thinking about the political climate—his or mine—I’m just thinking about the brilliant music.

The pianist Olli Mustonen said “[Bach and Shostakovich] would seem to be very different composers, an 18th-century German and a 20th-century Russian. But even more interesting than their differences are the things that unite them. This is kind of like speaking of two mountaintops. Whether you are in the Andes or the Himalayas, when you are at seven kilometers, the scenery is quite similar. When you rise to this level of genius, there is surprisingly much in common, despite everything that may be happening at sea level.”

What I mean to say is that in our current democracy politics rarely rises above sea level. In fact, it often sinks below, to the point where we feel as if we’re drowning. But I don’t have to sink down there with it.

Even though I don’t belong up there at the top of the mountain with Bach and Shostakovich, I’m going to try to stay up there for a while. It’s a much better view than down in the mud.

24 Preludes and Fugues–Shostakovich

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