Breaking Down Chopin's 24 Preludes


A bust of Chopin, Wielkopolskie Centrum Chopinowskie, photo: Daniel Pach /Forum

Chopin's 24 Preludes are universally recognized as some of the composer's most characteristic works. Not only are they quintessential of his style, but are also deeply tied with upheavals in Chopin's personal life at the time.

Until 1838, Chopin’s career was developing extraordinarily well. He had become one of Paris’ favourite composers and performing pianists. He had a long queue of prominent students eager to pay large amounts of money for his piano lessons. He had entered the high society of what was, in those days, the world’s cultural capital. The world seemed to be his oyster. In these circumstances, he decided to go to Majorca with his lover George Sand, a celebrated French novelist. A trip initially planned as a romantic journey soon turned out to be a roller-coaster of emotions…

Circumstances of the Creation of 24 Preludes

First of all, Majorca was the place of Chopin’s tuberculosis outbreak. It was diagnosed by one of the local doctors, which resulted in Chopin, George Sand, and her children being unable to rent any kind of accommodation within the city of Palma. The inhabitants of Majorca where so frightened of possible contamination that they refused to give the travellers shelter anywhere near the town. After a few days of wandering, they ended up in the abandoned monastery in Valldemossa. From that point, they were forced to spend their days in this secluded place, far from the vibrant capital of the island. To make matters worse, Chopin’s piano got stuck in customs and he was forced to rent an instrument which he called a ‘wretched replacement’. Moreover, the weather on Majorca during winter is very much varied, from mild 15o C / 59o F days to heavy showers and gusty winds.

All these circumstances made the overwhelmingly sensitive composer go through extreme emotional ups and downs. One day, he was ecstatically delighted with (as he wrote in the letters to his friend Camille Pleyel in Paris) ‘the colours of most wonderful places, not obliterated by human sight’ and had a feeling of ‘everything breathing poetry’. The next, he would write that he ‘lives in a strange place, beyond the sea and rocks’ and his letters would emanate with fear of death and consciousness of his own dashed hopes and the necessity to reformulate his far-reaching plans. These constant fluctuations of emotion are reflected in the preludes and are probably the main factor of them being so varied and sometimes so grave and harmonically uneasy.

24 Preludes Cycle – Basic Q & A

Q: Why there are twenty-four of them?

A: In the theory of European music there are twenty-four musical keys - twelve major and twelve parallel minor keys (the main difference between them is that the major scale usually sounds brighter and happier than the minor scale). It was Johann Sebastian Bach who finally established this division of tonality and wrote a cycle in each. His Das Wohltemperiertes Klavier / The Well-Tempered Clavier consists of twenty-four fugues and is regarded as the onset of what is called the equal temperament – the fundament of present day European tonality. Throughout the years of composing his twenty-four preludes (which included preliminary works in 1831 – 1837 and refining and complementing the cycle on Majorca in 1838) Chopin was obsessed with Bach and especially with Das Wohltemperiertes Klavier / The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Q: Why are they to be regarded as a cycle, not as twenty-four separate pieces?

A: It is not clear whether Chopin wanted 24 Preludes to be performed as a cycle, but they certainly represent a cohesive whole. This coherence comes from them being built around all twenty-four keys, therefore chasing the ideas of fullness and infinity as well as being a clear reference to Bach’s cycle of fugues.

Q: How long is each prelude? How long is the cycle?

A: The preludes are very short. Almost half of them last under a minute; the rest are not much longer. The whole cycle lasts approximately 45 minutes, depending on the interpretation of the pianist.

Q: Did Chopin give titles to each of his preludes?

A: No. It was George Sand who named them on her own but the score with her inscriptions is lost. All titles that are used nowadays are either based on Solange's memories (George Sand’s daughter, who stayed with her mother and Chopin at the monastery in Majorca), or were given much later by Chopin scholars. However the greatest of all Chopin investigators - Mieczysław Tomaszewski - wrote that Chopin was rather reluctant to give his preludes additional titles because at some points he found them too obvious,  or that they gave confusing ideas about his sources of inspiration.

Division of 24 Preludes

The main feature of the cycle is that it is based on contrasts. The preludes are varied in terms of expression (from ecstasy to despair), dynamics (from very quiet to clamorous), tempos (from slow to extremely fast), rhythm (from monotonic to ragged or loose) and colour (from warm to rough). Chopin scholars divide them into 8 groups:

1. Idyllic – No. 1, No.7, No. 11, No. 23.

The idyllic group of preludes is characterised by their serene character. They are all written in major scales, have moderate tempo and gentle dynamics – usually piano. Each of them is monothematic, meaning that they are based upon a single melody  which provides the musical material for the rest of the composition. Another characteristic feature is a frequent repetition of motives (the shortest musical fragments). Prelude B major is a perfect example of this feature.
The opening four-bar motive which appears in bars 1 - 4
The opening four-bar motive of Prelude B Major (op. 28 No. 11)
can be easily heard reoccurring and being transformed throughout the rest of the composition:

 

 

2. Elegiac – No.2, No. 4, No. 6.

Preludes from the elegiac group are dramatic, have extremely slow tempos and almost always end with smorzando (fading away) or slentando (gradually decreasing in tempo).

They mostly consist of a tender melody exposed on the base of a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in equal rhythmic values (ostinato):
Upper line: melody. Lower line: ostinato accompaniment.
Prelude E minor (op. 28 No.4)

Unarguably Prelude No. 4 in E minor is the most celebrated of this group. According to Solange, her mother named it Quelles larmes au fond du cloître humide? (What Tears [are shed] from the Depths of the Damp Monastery?). This prelude became a part of pop culture by being quoted in Serge Gainsbourg‘s song (Jane B), Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Insensatez and serving as a strong source of inspiration for Radiohead during their works on Exit Music (For a Film), which was written for the Baz Luhrman film Romeo + Juliet.

 

Daniil Trifonov performs Chopin Prelude No. 4 in E minor from his album "The Carnegie Recital".

3. Etude – No. 3, No. 5, No. 19

This group is the liveliest. Up tempos, complicated passages, cascades of bright sounds, slight signs of ludic melodies… Each of them is extremely hard to play.

 

 

4. Cantabile (Singable) – No. 17, No. 21

Cantabile in Italian means ‘singable’ or song-like, and that serves as a perfect label for these two preludes. They are very calm and quite long compared to the rest of the cycle. Simple and recognizable melodies are opposed by surprising occurrences in the harmony. Mendelssohn wrote of Prelude No. 17:

I love it! I cannot tell you how much or why; except perhaps that it is something which I could never at all have written.

 

 

5. Scherzoidal – No. 8, No. 10, No. 14

Scherzo usually refers to a fast-moving humorous composition which may be part of a larger work. The word Scherzo in Italian means ‘a joke‘. Scherzoidal preludes are kept in fast tempos and combine excitement and agitation as well as bleakness and otherworldliness. Prelude No. 8 is regarded as the most difficult to play because of its ridiculously fast tempo, thirty-second note figuration in the right hand and continuous overlaying of two contradictory (paired and unpaired) rhythms at one time – polyrhythm.

 

Highest register: thirty-second notes figuration (paired division of whole note), medium register: 2nd rhythm - a group dotted eight note and a quarter note (paired division of a whole note), lower line: 3rd simultaneous rhythm – a triplet (impaired division of the whole note) opposed to paired division above.

 

 

6. Marching / Hymnic – No. 9, No. 20.

These preludes are the most solemn and lofty ones. They are locked entirely in a low register, rhythmically referring to Chopin’s Funeral March. The shortest of all is Prelude No. 9 – only twelve bars long.

The highly contrasted and dramatic Prelude No. 20 is one of the best-known and recognizable preludes thanks to its very characteristic chord progression in the beginning, commonly known as Chord Prelude.
Block chords which open Prelude No. 20 in C minor. All notes which fall in a vertical line are to be played at once and by this means they form  block chord.

 

 

7. Ballad – No. 12, No. 16, No. 18, No. 22.

The Ballad preludes are very dynamic, explosive and ‘out of breath’. Every time they appear in a cycle,  they bring a lot of agitation and fierceness. They are said to represent Chopin’s mortal struggles with his illness.

 

 

8. Nocturnal – No. 13, No. 15.

A nocturne is a musical composition that is reflective or evocative of the night. Chopin’s nocturnal preludes are a bit similar to cantabile works but much longer, much more developed and mellow. Prelude No. 15 stands out among the rest as the longest and probably the most famous of his twenty-four. It is commonly known as Raindrop Prelude but Chopin didn’t like this name at all. George Sand wrote of it in her Histoire de ma vie:

He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might – and he was right to – against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents by musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds.

 

Rafal Blechacz during his recording of the Chopin Preludes (July 2007 Hamburg), released by Deutsche Grammophon. Prelude D flat Major (op. 28 No. 15) starts at 0:45 sec.

The last Prelude No. 24

Prelude No. 24 is the firm closing gesture of the cycle. Its thunderous, stormy character, solemn ambience and explosiveness is interpreted in two ways. Some investigators believe that it was written in 1831, soon after the Russian Tsarist army took Warsaw. Others link it to Mozart’s Requiem (it is written in D minor which is traditionally regarded as the key of death) and analyse it as his rebellion, a heroic protest against his upcoming death.

 

The Legacy of 24 Preludes

Chopin’s 24 Preludes are not only significant as a cycle of beautiful piano compositions. Their originality and the composer's innovative approach has changed the shape of preludes as a genre forever. Before Chopin wrote his cycle, the word ‘prelude’ referred to two musical constructions. In Baroque, it mostly defined an introduction to the fugue, as represented by Bach in his Das Wohltemperiertes Klavier / The Well-Tempered Clavier cycle. Later, the tradition of ‘preluding’ was born. It consisted in introducing the listeners into the key and character of a composition by playing a short, improvised introduction. That means that preludes were almost never played alone, their role remained subordinated to longer compositions. Chopin’s preludes, however deeply rooted in both traditions, opened a brand new chapter in the prelude’s history, raising them to the level of artistically and formally independent compositions.

Preludes seem to represent the most characteristic features of Chopin's music. There is a lot of his lyricism, his anxiety, virtuosity, visionary intellect and struggles with mortal illness. There is overwhelming erudition and purest genius as well – a quintessence of his style and character in less than 45 minutes.

 

Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, May 27th 2014.

Source: Mieczysław Tomaszewski 'Chopin', chopin.com, interview with Urszula Oleksiak.

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