About this work
After the brilliant debut of his lyrical and tragic First Symphony in May of 1926, and the astounding premiere of his brutal and modernist First Piano Sonata in December of the same year, Shostakovich took his music into an entirely different direction with the Aphorisms written between February and April 1927. Shostakovich intended to publish twelve pieces, but only ten appeared as Op. 13.
The ten works were each given a subtitle: "Recitative," "Serenade," "Nocturne," "Elegy," "Marche Funebre," "Etude," "Dance of Death," "Canon," "Legend," and "Lullaby." In virtually all cases, the titles are deeply ironic; only the "Lullaby" seems heart-felt. Indeed, the works themselves seem deeply ironic: the "Dance of Death" takes Rachmaninov's favorite tune, the Dies Irae, and flagellates it; the "Nocturne" cuts savage capers across the keyboard; the "Marche Funebre" sounds more like a funeral march for a marionette than a heroic march in the tradition of Beethoven and Wagner.
Despite their brevity, the Aphorisms are extremely difficult to play -- (Shostakovich was a virtuoso pianist who had taken honorable mention in the 1927 Chopin Competition). And they are all unremittingly modernist: the "Nocturne" is nearly atonal and has no bar lines, the "Canon" is completely irregular and written on three staves; the "Elegy" is only eight very spare bars long. But within their short spans (the whole cycle takes less than a quarter hour to perform), Shostakovich takes his musical modernism a step further than his aggressive First Piano Sonata.