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© Fred Yu is the author of the following analysis of 24 Preludes Op.28. This text is for reference purpose only and may not be used in any way or modified without permission or citation.

PRELUDES : Intro  |  Op.28 No.1-8  |  Op.28 No.9-16  |  Op.28 No.17-24  |  Op.45 & posth

Preludes Op. 28, 1838-1839: [No. 1-24]

The music critic Henry Finck (1854-1926) once wrote that “if all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin's Preludes”. This short statement succinctly captures the genius in these twenty-four gems, and anyone who is familiar with the preludes is left to wonder why they are not heard more often in concert halls. A similar mindset is shared by a Chopin scholar, Jeremy Nicholas, when he writes that “Even on their own, the 24 Preludes would have ensured Chopin’s claim to immortality”. In spite of their brevity – and, sometimes, technical ease – they are by no means simple pieces. From the sight-readable to the transcendental, all impart a significant musical idea and take a true virtuoso to render well.

Perhaps, however, the best single word to describe Chopin’s preludes is “enigmatic”. They have earned mixed reception from Chopin’s contemporaries and most ardent followers. Robert Schumann, who uttered the now-famous “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius!” gave the following criticism on the preludes: “I would term the preludes strange. They are sketches, beginnings of etudes, or, so to speak, ruins – individual eagle wings of all disorder and wild confusions.” As for more positive criticism, Liszt said that these same pieces “are compositions of an order entirely apart... they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams and elevates it to the regions of the ideal.” And like the poems of a “great contemporary poet”, the preludes engage the listener wholly in not a picture or a mental image, but a complete experience; each presents a distinct, discrete musical idea. It is truly a measure of Chopin’s genius that this can be accomplished.

Certainly, one must admit without any reservations that the preludes are strange pieces. Nowhere else can one find such a diverse collection of music so strange and yet so at once entrancing.

As such, they are also wonderfully fascinating and exceptionally hard to master. They are a set of extremely diverse pieces which, taken as a whole, encompasses nearly all of Chopin’s stylistic quirks. Thus, to play the whole set demands an intimate familiarity with Chopin’s style. To master one is, relatively speaking, simple. To master the entire set is to have captured the spirit of the master’s music, and is exceedingly difficult.

The differences of the preludes aside, many bear similarities that are too immediately apparent to be accidental. Take, as an example, the entire Preludes No. 2, 3, and 24. Even though the musical ideas of these three pieces are completely different, their structures are remarkably similar. Each of these three features an incessant left hand ostinato pattern that continues throughout the whole piece. These patterns, though intended to act as accompaniments, also perform the not insubstantial task of underscoring the tone of the entire piece. How do they do this? The pattern, be it chillingly morose, lively and jaunty, or fatally impassioned (Preludes No. 2, 3, and 24 respectively), begins several bars before the melody is introduced. This is but one example of how the preludes are at once so similar and strikingly different.

The claim is not infrequently made that the preludes were inspired by those of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. There may well be some truth to this statement. Chopin is known to have admired this masterpiece for its perfection of form and harmony, and is rumored to have pored over it in the months before his first prelude was composed. However, even if this is the case, there are crucial differences present that emphasize that Chopin was no mere derivative or acolyte of Bach. Firstly, most importantly, the precise mathematically calculated perfection of form and harmony in Bach’s preludes is broken here. It is instead replaced by more Chopin-esque harmonies and an abundance of whatever it is that makes Chopin’s music so special and timeless. Secondly, the arrangement of the preludes is different. In the WTC, the preludes are arranged chromatically – No. 1 is in C major, No. 2 in C minor, No. 3 in C-sharp major, No. 4 in C-sharp minor, and so on. Chopin’s preludes are instead arranged based on the circle of fifths – No. 1 is in C major, No. 2 in A minor, No. 3 in G major, No. 4 in E minor, and so on.

The last major difference is the very intent of the preludes themselves. In the Well-Tempered Clavier, the preludes are intended as introductions to the fugues. They are not intended to stand alone – they are nothing without the fugues to complement them. Chopin’s intentions with his preludes, in contrast, were vague at best. They certainly were not intended as an introduction to anything, and are perfectly capable of existing as twenty-four individual pieces. However, there is evidence that they should be regarded as one collective entity instead of twenty-four discrete ones. As examined above, there are common themes tying all the preludes together. So perhaps it could be said that the preludes are intended as introductions to each other? The last is a fitting conclusion, no doubt. But one certainly cannot provide an etched-in-stone opinion of Chopin’s intent; the interpreter must decide what the preludes as a whole mean.

When considering these preludes, it is of the utmost importance to note that Chopin was strictly opposed to programmatic music. When Robert Schumann crafted elaborate stories about each part of Chopin’s Op. 2 – a set of variations on a passage from Mozart’s Don Giovanni – Chopin derisively commented, “I could die laughing at this German’s imagination.” Programmatic music was simply not part of Chopin’s musical ideology; it had never occurred to him that music could represent images. Such was not his intent; his music represented abstract ideas and feelings, transcending visual, earthly images. Despite this, however, two eminent musicians have sought to give programmatic titles to the preludes. Hans von Bülow nicknamed them in English, while Alfred Cortot nicknamed them in French. As shall soon be seen, these two artists sometimes differed greatly in their notions about these pieces, and embraced completely different ideals when nicknaming the pieces. It is worth noting that Cortot’s original nicknames are in French, and have been translated here for English readers; as a mere student, I am afraid that my French skills simply fall short of doing complete justice to Cortot’s poeticism!

As a final point to note, Chopin did not write technical difficulties for the sake of writing technical difficulties. Unlike Liszt, who notoriously sought to make a great portion of his compositions incredibly difficult, Chopin did not consciously do this. If the piece is difficult, it is because it could not possibly have been written in any other way. There was no intent to make the piece hard just for the sake of its being hard; the mechanical difficulties of Chopin are as much a part of the music as the musical qualities themselves are. Chopin used only as much technical difficulty as was needed to express his ideas, and none beyond that. This is why his preludes vary so greatly in their technical demands (among other things).

After reading through the analyses (or even before), the reader is encouraged to develop his or her own understanding of the piece and what it is supposed to convey. This analyst holds it as self-evident and essential that an analyst be guiding and not overly didactic. The purpose of music – especially Chopin’s music – is to allow one to develop one’s own feelings about it, and the analyst should not prevent this in any way. I do not seek to interpret for the readers, but merely to offer my own opinions on the matter so that they will be in a better position to make their own.

It is strongly recommended that one either be familiar with the preludes or have them playing while perusing the analyses. Words alone cannot possibly describe adequately these wonderful jewels.

Preludes Intro  |  Op.28 No.1-8  |  Op.28 No.9-16  |  Op.28 No.17-24  |  Op.45 & posth

Prelude C sharp minor, Op. 45, 1841 [No. 25]

Prelude A flat major (Presto con leggerezza / Pierre Wolf), 1834 [No. 26]

Prelude E flat minor (Devil's trills) [No. 27: recently discovered]

References: Click here for a full list of books and articles used to build this website

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