The Art of Prelude and Fugue

Jan 3, 2018


The Art of Prelude and Fugue, Concert 4, Conclusion:
Monday, May 20, 2019
Facebook Event

In the 2018-19 season, Peabody Institute of Music hosted and presented The Art of Prelude and Fugue, a cycle of 4 concerts with lectures preceding each and a panel discussion before the final. Lura Johnson has performed a first-of-its-kind performance of Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier with the complete Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues interwoven.

Griswold Hall, Peabody Institute

Panel discussion at 6:30
With Lura Johnson
WYPR’s Tom Hall
Professor Mark Janello
PostClassical Ensemble’s Executive Director, Joseph Horowitz
Moderated by Dean of Peabody Institute, Fred Bronstein

Concert 7:30 pm

Program Note

The Art of Prelude and Fugue began as a spark of an idea almost two years ago. It has grown into an epic journey that has inspired, challenged, and and changed me. The music of these two composers is highly complicated and deeply contemplative, scientific, and rigorously structured. And yet, Bach and Shostakovich transcend those boundaries – they transport us to a realm of the most spiritual kind. By challenging our cerebral cortex to comprehend the incredible complexity of this music, they take us to a place of stillness, serenity, and deep spiritual reflection. This music is not just beautiful. It is significant. It is a contribution to our cultural fabric and our humanity.

In 1722, celebrated Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a set of contrapuntal exercises called Preludes and Fugues, one in each major and minor key of the twelve-step chromatic scale. This systematic series of intellectual and technical keyboard exercises was intended “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.” Some 20 years later Bach composed a second book of the same kind, which became known as The Well-Tempered Clavier, Part Two. Together the books represent some of the most important pieces of music literature in the Western musical tradition. The 19th century conductor Hans von Bülow called it “the Old Testament” of piano music; Robert Schumann described it as “daily bread.”

Two centuries later, Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich traveled to Germany to jury for the first Bach competition. There he met pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, who was only required to present 1 prelude and fugue of Bach as a competition requirement, and when it came time for her to play it, she informed the jury that she had learned and was prepared to play any one of the set of 48 prelude and fugues. Dumbfounded, they selected one, she played it, won the competition, and began a lifelong friendship with Shostakovich. Shortly upon his return to Saint Petersburg, Shostakovich embarked on the writing of his own set of preludes and fugues, inspired by the great Baroque master. Tatiana Nikolayeva became the champion of this work, performing it and recording it multiple times throughout her life.

Many pianists have performed and/or recorded the complete Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach. There are also a handful of pianists who have performed and/or recorded the entire opus of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues. There are even a few pianists who have built concerts using excerpts from both works. But to the best of my knowledge, there has never been a pianist who performed the entire set of both. With these four concerts I become the first to perform both monumental cycles in their entirety.

One of the most remarkable aspects of J.S. Bach’s keyboard music is the dearth of extramusical instruction. Bach offers no suggestions as to tempo, dynamics, or articulations. Rather than being prescriptive, Bach gave us a blank canvas. The performer is an interpreter responsible for huge amounts of the musical decision making. This is why performances of Bach are so personal and individual. And the music emerges from any interpretation unassaulted and unblemished – it transcends any one performer’s voice.

Though Shostakovich provides significantly more instruction than Bach does, he too, leaves much to the performer. His music finds a similar potency through complexity masked as simplicity. Both of these composers rely almost entirely on counterpoint to carry the weight of their message.

Presenting these two composers on the same series of programs is both shockingly unorthodox and a most natural partnership.

The Bach Preludes and Fugues are presented in order; Book I is performed over the course of the first two concerts, and Book II unfolds in Concerts 3 and 4. The Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues are placed throughout, in places which reveal obvious examples of homage. I felt compelled on multiple occasions to separate a Bach Prelude from its Fugue partner, because those homages are so striking. This happens right away at the beginning of Concert 1; the opening of the famous Bach C Major Prelude is a treble voiced C Major arpeggio. The Shostakovich C Major Prelude begins with the exact same notes, identical in register and voicing, played as a simultaneity in a rhythm which evokes the Baroque dance, Sarabande. In another instance, the C Minor Prelude and Fugue of Shostakovich, which both use the same motive, have their roots in the Fugue subject of Bach’s C Sharp Minor five voice Fugue. This creates an awkward key relationship between the works, but again, Shostakovich’s inspiration is clear. I found many more such connections, which produced sometimes surprising pairings.

I have found, having performed segments of this project all across the eastern US in recent months, that the program asks much of the listener. Counterpoint can be unrelenting in its horizontal progress towards cadence. I encourage listeners to give themselves permission to drift in and out of an intellectual approach of intense and active listening for individual voices and structures, and a more passive engagement with the material, allowing it to simply wash over and envelop you.

This is an important moment in my career and in my life. Thank you for being with me.

-Lura Johnson 

Documentary filmmakers Scott Meyers and Ali Walton produced a video portrait dedicated to my work as an artist and to this project in particular.

TRAILER: Lura Johnson – The Art of Prelude and Fuguefrom Scott Meyers on Vimeo.


Lura Johnson