and sonorous tones of this prelude call to mind the tolling of a great
bell. It is of moderate technical difficulty; the right hand is thick
with chords, while the left hand is not too difficult. Here, however,
technical difficulty is the least of the pianist’s worries. The piece
itself must present the listener with the most splendid grandeur.
What is truly unique about this piece in the twenty-four preludes is its
tone. No other prelude has one similar to it. The chords in the right
hand are not only there to convey a melody. The left hand is not simply
an accompaniment. Together, both hands work to create a reverberating
and bell-like effect. The dynamics and intensity in the right hand fit
this perfectly. The tonic note of B-flat is the main bell-like tone, and
the entire piece is based off of this one note.
Occasional left hand trills are interesting to explore since they
seemingly do not fit with the imagery of the bell. This is yet another
example of how Chopin’s music is not intended to be programmatic – one
can attempt to make images fit with the music, but more often than not
it will not work perfectly. Most frequently, the images only capture
some limited portion of the music, and this case is no exception. The
image of the bell simply cannot explain the trills in the left hand. The
trills do, however, contribute greatly to the musical ambience of the
piece, and add stability to the (already stable) melody.
Cortot and Bülow had similar ideas here. Bülow called it “Visions”, and
Cortot named it “Voix prophétiques”, prophetic voices. However, although
the ideas are similar, the programmatic aspect is not. “Visions” is a
very vague and general term. The prophetic voices, on the other hand,
are manifested well in the deep booming sounds of the prelude, calling
forth a prophecy that is at once awesome, desirable, and grand.
28 No. 10 C# minor (The night moth)
piece is one of the oddest of Chopin’s compositions. Upon first glance,
the entire piece – both hands – is seemingly detached, choppy, and just
completely bizarre. However, at a closer examination, it all turns into
order. The piece is not choppy – merely hesitant. The right hand
arpeggio technique required is similar to that of the Presto con
fuoco in the Ballade No. 2, but far less advanced. The left hand is
not overly difficult, and neither is the right, when the proper hand
motion is mastered. Still, this is by no means an easy prelude.
Musically, this prelude is defined by its hesitant nature and the
tumbling right hand “cascades”. Its hesitant nature is created by many
brief but very well-timed fermatas and rests. It is not exactly clear
what this calls to mind. However, as shall be seen, this is one of the
unusual cases that programmatic titles actually work to describe Chopin!
Hans von Bülow named this prelude, “The Night Moth”. To quote his own
interpretation, “A night moth is flying around the room there! It has
suddenly hidden itself (the sustained G Sharp); only its wings twitch a
little. In a moment it takes flight anew and again settles down in
darkness — its wings flutter (trill in the left hand). This happens
several times, but at the last, just as the wings begin to quiver again,
the busybody who lives in the room aims a stroke at the poor insect. It
twitches once... and dies.” Cortot had very different (and somewhat more
modern) ideas in mind: his nickname is “Fusées qui retombent” – “Rockets
that fall back down”. Presumably, the hesitancy is the rocket’s
uncertain course, but the cascading is the rocket falling down, and
ultimately, as the piece quietly ends, the rocket reaches the ground – a
28 No. 11 B major (Dragonfly)
prelude is a bright little gem, sailing smoothly up and down the
keyboard in both hands. It is of modest technical difficulty, though the
skill required to play it is still considerable. The main technical
points here are stretches in both hands that must be handled
dexterously, the tempo (marked Vivace, but quite rapid), the
dynamics of the piece – which must be soft but still exhibit necessary
contrast, and the rhythm, discussed next.
The prelude’s rhythm is small point, but significant note. The time
signature is 6/8. The portions of the piece that observe this time
signature are rhythmically somewhat uncertain and unstable; the notes
and melody are smooth, but something about it just does not fit and is a
little awkward. At certain points, a hemiola is established and the time
signature becomes more reminiscent of a 3/4 piece. This contributes more
to this uncertainty. This was doubtlessly intentional, as Chopin would
not overlook something like this. The 6/8 rhythm, and any deviations
from it, must be observed when playing the piece.
Bülow called this one “Dragonfly”. The dragonfly fits well with the
somewhat exuberant feeling the piece conveys, as well as the feeling of
freedom. Cortot had completely different ideas, titling this one, “Désir
de jeune fille”, “Desire of a young girl”. One can also see how this
title is suitable to the piece.
28 No. 12 G# minor (Duel)
struggling piece is one of the more difficult preludes in the set. It
could have been an etude due to several of its features. Firstly, the
left hand jumps are numerous and get quite difficult at times. Both
hands exhibit a marked desire for slurs and phrasing, which – especially
the first – are hard to do at tempo (the piece is marked Presto).
There are also many repeated notes, which, when on the black keys,
require considerable skill to play properly. Finally, certain sections
demand skill with double notes.
But of course, the preludes are not etudes. These preludes are
essentially different from etudes, even the etudes of Chopin himself
that require as much technical skill as musical ability. The purpose of
these preludes was purely to express feeling, and the technique is
merely a tool used to do so. The notes are in groups of two, and the
slurs are intended to be played very broken. This establishes a feeling
of tearing or breaking. It is indeed a struggle; at times, the hands
even seem to struggle with each other. The right hand, however, clearly
establishes dominance, as near the end of the piece the left hand is
quiet, then fades out altogether for several measures. The struggle
seems to die down momentarily, but the listener is surprised by the two
powerful chords that serve as the conclusion.
Hans von Bülow’s nickname, “Duel”, embodies this interpretation of a
“struggle”. Cortot’s nickname is quite different: his “Chevauchée dans
la nuit” translates to “A ride in the night”. This is presumably on a
horse, as the heavily broken phrasing combined with the left hand is
highly reminiscent of a gallop. The atmosphere of “night” is established
by the dark nature of the piece itself.
28 No. 13 F# major (Loss)
wistful, tender, and somewhat melancholy piece, this is one of the
longer and more melodic preludes. Technically, only the left hand poses
a challenge at all, and this challenge is more in the way of learning
the notes than in playing them correctly, as the latter is not too
difficult once the notes are actually learned.
I have mentioned, however, that some of the preludes could be etudes.
But this etude sounds so gentle, so slow, and so calm that this
observation applied here is counterintuitive. No matter how
counterintuitive, it is still true. This is not a test of great
technical feats. Rather, it is an exercise in touch. No matter
how correct the notes are, this prelude will sound vapid and
uninteresting without a certain quality of touch. There is both a
practical and musical purpose to this. Without the proper touch, the
left hand – which carries the entire inner melody – will overpower the
right hand, and the piece falls apart. Furthermore, even if this does
not happen, a delicate touch is required to prevent the piece from
becoming excessively loud. This prelude should gently resonate rather
Bülow nicknamed this prelude “Loss”. This is an interesting name for the
gentle – though, granted, melancholy – piece. Cortot has a much longer
name: “Sur le sol étranger, par une nuit étoilée, et en pensant à la
bien-aimée lointaine”. Translating to, “On the foreign soil, under a
night of stars, and thinking of my beloved faraway”, this title captures
more effectively the piece’s calmer and gentle nature.
28 No. 14 Eb minor (Fear)
Schumann’s comment, “I would term the preludes strange” applies to this
one in particular. In both structure and style, it is reminiscent of the
last movement of the Piano Sonata No. 2, a movement that, although
lasting only one and a half minutes, has thoroughly perplexed fans. That
movement is most distinctly un-Chopin-esque; it features triplets
running incessantly throughout the entire piece with no accompaniment –
the right and left hands play the same things separated by an octave –
and a rather vague melody. This prelude is just as difficult and bizarre
as that movement, even though only half the length.
Although they are not the same piece, the prelude and the last movement
are similar in several ways. Firstly, they both use the same triplet
pattern of notes, with only some notes in the group of three emphasized.
The prelude is somewhat more free-form, in that there is no fixed
pattern to what notes are emphasized when. The important difference here
is that this was written manner was most effective and made it work,
with no concern for traditional structure. As for another similarity,
the moods of the two are quite close. Both are morose, somewhat bitter,
even edging on sarcastic. It is perhaps reminiscent of a brief but
dramatic rainstorm. However, nearly all of Chopin’s music defies such
simplistic interpretations. The author cannot get into a complete
discussion of the piece without taking up much more room than is already
being used, since it is as big an enigma and quite as puzzling as the
last movement of the sonata.
Bülow’s apt nickname for this piece is “Fear”. This is one possible
interpretation of what the piece might represent, though there are
definite arguments against it, such as the tone which verges on
sarcastic and biting; someone fearful is not generally sarcastic at the
same time. Cortot’s nickname “Mer orageuse” translates to “The stormy
sea”. This is a very programmatic interpretation of the piece. The sheet
music literally resembles a stormy sea, as the notes in the triplets
fluctuate up and down unpredictably. Hearing the piece itself could
definitely also evoke images of a stormy sea, as the piece is every bit
as unpredictable as the sheet music makes it look.
28 No. 15 Db major (Raindrop)
indisputable that this, the Raindrop prelude, is certainly the most
well-recognized prelude of the set; many who have never heard of Chopin
nevertheless recognize the melody. It is also perhaps the epitome of
contrast in the set of preludes. The other twenty-three do not have (m)any
internal contrasts; they contrast with other preludes of the set to
create interesting musical effects. However, this prelude exhibits an
enormous internal contrast. The main theme in D-flat major is soft,
gentle, and almost ephemeral; however, the middle section in C-sharp
minor has a dark, heavy, and dramatic theme that climaxes twice and
proceeds to dramatic harmonies. This enormous contrast distinguishes it
musically from the other preludes. The prelude is only of modest
technical difficulty; the main problem is the repeated A-flat (G-sharp
in the middle section) note that demands special attention. It must be
played convincingly, but at the same time, it must not be allowed to
overpower the melody.
The musical difficulty of this piece, however, is profound – and
magnified by the fact that this is an extremely famous piece! The main
theme is pensive and poetic. It is perhaps reminiscent of one of
Chopin’s gentler nocturnes. It is not a “happy” piece because it is
written in a major key. The melody could be best described as nostalgic,
thoughtful, and wistful; as such, it is not truly sad either – a
beautifully bittersweet Chopin-esque theme. (Besides, it is not useful
in any way to use such simple words as “happy” or “sad” to describe
Chopin’s music!) It slowly becomes both darker and more ornamented as
modulation progresses to the C-sharp minor middle section of the work.
While the first section of the piece is indeed quite beautiful, it
cannot quite be described as dramatic. All the darkness and drama absent
from the main theme can be found in the heavy middle section.
Ostensibly, at first glance, it may appear that this section and the
rest of the piece have nothing in common. This is quite untrue. Two
aspects of this piece make the middle section a perfect match and
complement to the soft touching main theme. Firstly, the two sections
are vitally linked by the same repeated note. This is enormous! In the
D-flat major section, the note is A-flat, and in the C-sharp minor
section, the note is G-sharp. However, they are the same note and serve
the same purpose! In both sections, that one repeating note is used to
establish an “undercurrent” throughout the piece. When the right hand
has the melody, the note is repeated in the left hand, not as an
accompaniment, but something more substantial and important. This is
again repeated for when the left hand has the melody. This single
A-flat/G-sharp binds the two sections together.
The middle section also serves to complement the main theme, and it does
so wonderfully that this cannot be discounted as chance. Chopin’s main
theme is wonderfully beautiful and exciting, but completely lacking in a
quality similar to bitterness or darkness. The presence of the middle
section, in a way, “completes” the piece. The two components are two
parts of a whole.
Bülow’s nickname is, of course, the ubiquitously used “Raindrop”. This
nickname may have some credence to it, as it is said that Chopin
composed the piece after a rainstorm, and the repeated A-flat represents
raindrops. Cortot’s nickname, however, is much more intriguing: “Mais la
Morte est là, dans l'ombre” translates to “But Death is here, in the
shadows”. This idea is completely different! At first, it may also seem
a strange and irrational nickname for this piece. However, some careful
thought reveals that it is far more appropriate than Bülow’s rather
simplistic “Raindrop”. Two particular facets of the piece make the
nickname work. The first and most prominent is the long middle section
that has been extensively discussed above. Upon listening to it, one
might immediately see why it characterizes death. However, it is unlike
a great musician like Cortot to judge a piece based on only a contained
portion of it, so why this name?
The catch to the above interpretation is that if one is to only look at
the middle section, Cortot’s nickname does not at all seem appropriate.
Death is “in the shadows”. But what are the shadows in that particular
section? The description “in the shadows” also implies that Death is
concealed, or at least partially hidden. The haunting tones of death are
prominent in that section. So to what does Cortot refer? The name is a
reference to the repeated A-flat. The main theme is not what one
imagines as an image of Death. Refer, again, to Cortot’s “shadows”. If
one plays the main melody but omits the repeated A-flat, the effect of
the piece is critically different. That simple A-flat makes the piece
far deeper, subtler, and inserts interesting undertones into the piece.
In short, it inserts shadows, which could be said to contain Death.
28 No. 16 Bb minor (Hades)
scholar Jeremy Nicholas refers to this piece as “terrifyingly difficult,
despite its brevity”. It is indeed so – this short prelude is, according
to many, the most difficult of the set. (Perhaps vying with it for this
title are the Preludes No. 8, 19, and 24.) After six bold chords as a
sort of introduction, it rapidly progresses to a piece of dazzling
technical difficulty. The right hand runs are treacherously difficult;
they soar up and down the keyboard with all sorts of additions and
intervals. Gone are the straightforward runs of Mozart’s time; Chopin’s
are infinitely greater in complexity, difficulty, and musical
expression. Soaring up and down the keyboard, the poetry and melody
present in what seems like complete chaos is astounding.
The real difficulty in this prelude, however, that often goes unnoticed,
is the thundering left hand. In all the difficulty, passion, and
intricacy of the right hand, one tends to forget about the left. This is
ridiculously unfortunate. Most of the technical difficulty of the
prelude is, in fact, in the left hand. Given the exceedingly hard nature
of the right hand, this may seem like overstatement. It is not. The left
hand is characterized by two things: a thundering three-note pattern and
enormous leaps which require equally enormous technical ability. What
begins as two single notes progressing up to a chord soon turns into two
large octaves progressing up to a chord. A typical such progression
spans three octaves. Now, this is quite easy given a slow tempo. Here,
however, the tempo is anything but slow!
And the difficulty doesn’t stop there, of course. The piece itself is a
sort of explosion. The six impassioned chords burst forth from the piano
– daring, defiant, a challenge of sorts. This challenge hangs in the
air, until an explosion of a wholly different sort. This new explosion
is created with the leaping runs of the right hand and the dark
thundering booms of the left. As far as Liszt’s analogy to poems goes,
this prelude is less a poem than an impassioned and masterfully written
oration. One can hear the fierce outbursts of the master with every
tormented note. The musical challenge is, as always, truly significant.
In a way, this prelude is the ultimate litmus test of a performer: a
stunning combination of the technically intense and the musically
impassioned. A mediocre pianist, or even a virtuoso lacking
understanding of Chopin, could not possibly hope to pull this off.
The nicknames of the prelude reflect its chaotic nature. Bülow named it
“Hades”, while Cortot named it “La course à l'abîme” – “A descent into
the abyss”. These nicknames convey similar ideas and both capture the
general spirit of chaos and passion in the piece.