performed by Rafał Blechacz
It’s about darn time to get Chopin’s music back on the blog, and so we’ll revisit him by discussing a work that so simply, so powerfully expresses the entire gamut of human emotion in an irresistible, captivatingly magical way.
Wikipedia cites Brittanica and a dictionary when it gives the definition of ‘prelude’ as “is a short piece of music, the form of which may vary from piece to piece.” That’s not terribly helpful.
If we look up the word not in reference to music, we get definitions like the below, from Merriam-Webster:
an introductory performance, action, or event preceding and preparing for the principal or a more important matter
This word is used occasionally to refer to some nonmusical thing that precedes another perhaps more important thing, the primary thing., but it still conjures up musical ideas.
The prelude as a musical idea started as early as the fifteenth century, with organ pieces that were played before church music, but perhaps the most famous examples are Bach’s preludes that come before his 48 fugues of the two books that make up the Well-Tempered Clavier. There is a prelude, followed by a fugue in three or four or five voices, but this pair is presented in the specific key of that work, in Bach’s case, chromatically: C major, C minor, C# major, C# minor, D major, etc.
There’s discussion about the content and relationship between the prelude and the fugue in each of the keys, and if they share motivic material or ideas, but this isn’t an article on Bach, although we’re getting there.
There are a few differences we’ll note with Chopin’s set of 24 preludes after we talk a bit about the background of the work.
Chopin began work on the set of 24 preludes as early as 1835, but Wikipedia makes note that at least some of the set was written in 1838-9 when the composer went with George Sand and her children to Majorca for the winter to get out of Paris. On that vacation, he is said to have had a copy of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier with him. The manuscript of the work was dedicated to a German pianist and composer, one Joseph Christoph Kessler, but the French edition was dedicated to Camille Pleyel, the piano maker and publisher, who I recall Chopin having a good working relationship with.
Only after discussing the work’s composition does Wiki mention that Pleyel had commissioned the piece, which seems odd considering the work’s dedication to Kessler, who composed his own set of preludes a decade earlier and dedicated them to Chopin.
The pieces, as discussed, are in all 24 keys, major and minor, but organized differently than Bach’s case. Where Bach worked chromatically (C, C#, D, etc.), Chopin worked along the circle of fifths (C major, A minor, G major, E minor, etc.). Also, Chopin obviously doesn’t have fugues after his preludes. They’re just preludes, not an introduction to anything, then, just standalone pieces.
But how standalone?
None of the works is longer than 90 bars, and in my recording by Blechacz, the longest prelude is no. 15, the famous ‘raindrop,’ much longer than the others, at 4:55. The shortest, no. 10, is a mere 33 seconds long. The one before it, no. 9, is a mere 12 bars long. So they’re independent character pieces, sketches. Wikipedia says:
Whereas the term “prelude” had hitherto been used to describe an introductory piece, Chopin’s pieces stand as self-contained units, each conveying a specific idea or emotion. He thus imparted new meaning to a genre title that at the time was often associated with improvisatory “preluding”.
Chopin certainly wasn’t the first to compose a set of preludes, but neither was Kessler. In any case, he seems to have become the most famous of them.
There’s also some debate about how these should be performed. They’re a set of works, 24 individual pieces, but Wiki tells us, citing Marilyn Meier, that “Chopin himself never played more than four of the preludes at any single public performance.” Well, we’re going to discuss them all now, in kind of a sweeping, very quick overview of sorts, in list form, and then below that we’ll discuss it a bit more as an overall piece.
Actually, Wikipedia has a nice little chart in the Descriptions section of the article, which I won’t reproduce here, but which you should definitely go reference. Now my part:
- C major, so it’s bright and welcoming, a breath of fresh air, perhaps like what Chopin had in Majorca, away from the damp Paris air, but I’m not sure he even wrote this one there. It’s one of the shortest, a warm, inviting flourish to begin the set.
- A minor, melancholy at most, pensive, not tragic. It’ll get darker. The melody of this prelude reminds me of something like what we might hear in a nocturne, but the almost funereal plodding of the left hand tells us otherwise, and it only stops for a brief moment. Does it sound to you like a Dies Irae quote?
- G major, busy left hand, a fluttering, undulating sound below the chimes in the right hand, this one has the sound of an etude. All of Chopin’s melodies, even in this simple, straightforward form, are charming and inspired, and this one has a bright, refreshing air to it.
- E minor, one of my favorites, due in part to a superb TED talk given by Benjamin Zander using this piece as an example of how easy and fulfilling it is to listen to classical music. I’m including it below. He speaks of the journey, here only a two minute one, to get ‘home’ to the satisfying, final resolve of the E minor chord which Chopin delays, and even as a minor chord, with its sorrow, there’s such a clear sense of resolve at ‘arriving.’
- D major, another very brief one, also marked by a sense of freedom and expressiveness, spontaneity, yet another little perfect morsel that needs nothing else.
- B minor, played at Chopin’s funeral. It’s not as desperately mournful as the funeral march passage of his second sonata, but like the central passage of that movement, contains some rays of sunshine, no matter how thin, that shine through the dark clouds, giving us at least an inkling of hope.
- A major, in the style of a mazurka, but at least by Bechacz, not played so rhythmically or lively, so there’s a more elegant softness, another single idea, like a snapshot of a fond memory.
- F# minor, virtuosic and shimmery, a bit stormy, the Wiki chart mentioning Cortot’s reference to snow falling and a storm raging. There’s longing and passion in this expressive piece, one of the longer of the set.
- E major- The shortest of the set, with only 12 bars. Despite the major key, there’s something melancholy in the heaviness of the bass line, almost march-like about it, but also majestic and strong, with the resounding bass. Beautiful.
- C# minor- Bülow’s comment of this as “the night moth.” Perhaps you can hear the flutter of wings here, but there’s not much more than that, a few twinkles, or maybe the flash of a flickering fire, before it’s over.
- B major- In 6/8 a bright, romantic-sounding piece, almost like salon music, waltz-like, but it too is nothing more than a snapshot, a glimpse of an idea.
- G# minor- One of the more full-bodied pieces, with driving rhythm and chromatic runs, like the wind in your face on the back of a horse or something, very spirited.
- F sharp major- Another of the longer pieces in the set, a piece with a sense of nostalgia to it, not quite melancholy, but close, even in a major key. There’s a clear A-B-A structure to this one, finally a work we can settle into for a moment. We’re more than halfway through the set numerically, and I feel like we’re starting to get glimpses of connections that unite the work as a whole, not in the traditional sense of motivic relations or development, but as in related emotions or expressions, like different photos of the same event, earlier or later in the evening, different people, outside on the balcony, or during dinner, or dancing, all related to the same overall event or memory.
- E flat minor- Does this sound anything like the kind of metered, regular churning we heard in the first piece? We’re now in a minor key, but some of the gestures sound similar, and equally brief.
- D flat major- Certainly one of the most famous of the set, the ‘raindrop’ prelude, as named by Bülow. It too has a very clear A-B-A structure, with the outer passages being slightly melancholic and typically Chopin, but the central passage absolutely breathtaking in its power and drama, I’d even say epic, especially in relation to the brevity of the works that surround it. The central passage rolls in like black clouds, with that incessant repeated note driving through the work like the prow of a ship in a violent sea, an absolutely astounding piece of beauty that returns to the now very peaceful-sounding opening material.
- B flat minor- Much more impromptu-like in nature, with six heavy chords that lead to virtuosic runs and flourishes that one associates with a typical Chopin sound, frightful virtuosity with a tinge of salon music.
- A flat major- Clara Schumann’s favorite, one that even Mendelssohn admired and said “that it is something which I could never at all have written.” It’s elegant, more subdued, quintessentially Romantic, like a fairytale night in a European city with the object of your affections, a single rose given, a kiss at the end of the evening, and the excitement of your next meeting.
- F minor- Another etude-like work, with technical challenges in increasingly fast runs, a piece which Cortot and Bülow referred to respectively as ‘divine curses’ and ‘suicide.’ It’s dark and fiery, maybe, but not that dark. Is it?
- E flat major- Another lovely, elegant work, lush and Romantic, perfumed and full of love. Maybe it calls to mind the romance from no. 17. It’s unnecessary to say because all of these pieces exude the composer’s unique style, but this is one of the works in the set where I feel we can truly relish the pure poetry of Chopin’s writing.
- C minor- One of my favorites, and one that Rachmaninoff seemed also to like, as it was the basis for his op. 22 variations on this theme. The almost gothic, thundering sounds of the bass are something we may associate with Rachmaninoff’s work, but he heard something he loved in this specific piece.
- B flat major- I sometimes don’t really see any relation to the thoughts or subtitles given by Cortot or Bülow, here “solitary return, to the place of confession” or “Sunday,” respectively. I think there’s a simple beauty to this piece, like a quiet moment in the morning as you listen to your coffee brew and think about what lies ahead for the day.
- G minor- ‘Rebellion’ or ‘Impatience’, according to Cortot and Bülow, this individual work may call to mind the sound of yet another composer who greatly admired Chopin’s work, Alexander Scriabin. It seems these small works had a disproportionally large impact on some other great composers much further on down the road. Can you hear the precursor to Scriabin’s own passionate works?
- F major- Yet another brief, even evanescent work of shimmering beauty, a wisp of something elegant, ethereal, heavenly, lighter than air, capable of existing for a mere moment, but a beautiful moment.
- D minor- And as we should have known, the set ends on a minor-key piece. Cortot’s notes include ‘of blood’; Bülow called it ‘the storm’. There’s the same sense of churning, building energy in the bass, over a much lighter, even quite sunny melody in the right hand. The piece ends with three lone low Ds, as if the final hammer strikes on the coffin of this work. It’s a passionate, spirited piece, one that doesn’t seem to want to end violently, but perhaps encompasses the overall emotion and intensity of the entire set.
So then, what do we have once the entire piece has been enjoyed? What’s the overall takeaway? Well, there’s an outstanding, almost overwhelming sense of beauty and passion and emotion in the work, either bright, delicate elegance and simplicity, or fiery, dark intensity, but I feel that overall, there’s such a strong sense that they’re all united in spirit, different snapshots of the same thing, be it, say, facets of the same person, or different glimpses of the same evening, or vacation, or event.
Chopin didn’t give us any symphonies, obviously. We have two piano concertos, which I’m not ashamed to say I have yet to appreciate the way many others do, but his solo music stands alone in its genius. While this work, in Blechacz’s recording, is only 39 minutes, there’s an epic sense of grandness to these 24 snapshots we are given, but its an epicness that’s more in the ground covered, in the scope of the work rather than duration. Some of these individual pieces last only 30-40 seconds, but we get the feeling they are full, complete, moving ideas unto themselves. They are everything.
We start something new next week, so stay tuned and thank you for reading.