Monday, October 16, 2017

Alkan - 25 Preludes, Opus 31

As the word implies, the musical prelude began as a extemporized piece that acted as an introduction to another work, most of them for keyboard or lute. This was done to check the tuning of the instrument as well as to limber up the fingers of the player. They set the key and tempo of the piece to come as well. They became a part of set music practice in the 16th century into the middle of the 18th century.

Johann Sebastian Bach's preludes for organ and the set of 48 preludes and fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier became the model for other composers, and as the fugue grew out of fashion, the prelude came into its own. They retained the name, but no longer were an introduction to a fugue or other piece, but a work by themselves.

Writing a set of preludes in all the major and minor keys became a tradition that many composers followed. While Chopin's opus 28 set of preludes published in 1839 were not the first set of preludes without fugues, the quality and variety contained within the set rapidly made them the standard.

The opus 31 set by Charles Alkan was published in 1847 and contain an additional 25th prelude that serves as an ending. Alkan's preludes have similarities as well as differences with Chopin's set. Both sets are a collection of short pieces that are not complex in form. Some of Chopin's preludes are more harmonically adventurous, while Alkan opts for descriptive titles for some of his, something which Chopin never did.

Alkan's preludes are separated into three books:

Book I
1. Lentement (Slowly), C major - The first prelude is not complex and is but one page long. The melody moves between octaves played in the right hand. Performer indications are few, and the preformer needs to bring out the inner melody and follow what indications there are and bring feeling to what can be a mundane piece.

2. Assez lentement (quite slowly), F minor - The first section is in 6/8 time and plays out in the key of F minor. The music is marked cantabile with short statements for the right hand while the left hand plays a one chord accompaniment. The next section shifts the music to cut time, the key to F major, while the tempo increases. The music moves back and forth between these two sections until it ends in F major.

3. Dans le genre ancien (In the ancient genre), D-flat major - The ancient genre being the late Baroque era of Bach, the printed music shows how these preludes can be played on the organ or pedal piano as well as the regular piano. Alkan was a virtuoso of the pedal piano, which had a keyboard at the bottom of the piano like an organ pedal board.

4. Prière du soir (Evening prayer) , F-sharp minor - Alkan was Jewish, and this prelude brings some of the feeling of his Jewishness to the set. A prelude simple in form, marked to be played con devozione (with devotion).

5. Psaume 150me (Psalm 150), D major - Written in 3 staves, one of them being a part for pedal board. Inspired by Psalm 150:
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!
6. Ancienne mélodie de la synagogue (Ancient melody of the synagogue), G minor - Another piece reflecting Alkan's Jewishness, the voice of the cantor of the synagogue. The tempo indication is Andante flebile (moderately and mournfully).

7. Librement mais sans secousses (Freely but without bumps), E-flat major - Light in mood and in execution 'without bumps'.

8. Le chanson de la folle au bord de la mer (The song of the insane woman by the sea), A-flat minor - While there are few recordings of the complete preludes, this one turns up as an addition to recordings of other works. It is a strange work, an early example of French music impressionism. It begins with the depiction of waves with large chords at the lower end of the keyboard. The song enters at the other extreme high up on the keyboard. The middle section has the tempo and volume increase as the waves get more pronounced and the song more frantic until a climax is reached. The music retreats back to the nearly catatonic as the song becomes quiet and more fragmented until the end is reached.

9. Placiditas (Gently), E major - Marked Tranquillo in tempo molto independente (tranquil with a much independent tempo) this is the emotional opposite to the previous prelude and brings the first book to a close.

Book II
10. Dans le style fugué (In the fugue style), A minor - A two-page fugue played molto presto. 

11. Un petit rien (A little nothing), F major - As the name implies, a simple prelude to be played rather fast but gently.

12. Le temps qui n'est plus (Times that are no more), B-flat minor - A melancholy prelude, lamenting the loss of treasured times of the past.

13. J'étais endormie, mais mon cœur veillait (I was asleep, but my heart was awake), G-flat major - Written throughout in cut time (equivilent to 2/2 time) each half note beat is subdivided into 5 eighth note quintuplets, essentially making this a prelude in 10/8 time, a novelty for the era. The title refers to a passage from the Old Testament book Song Of Solomon. Alkan was a scholar of the Old Testament.

14. Rapidement (Quickly), B minor - To be played rapidly. It has a contrasting middle section.

15. Dans le genre gothique (In the gothic genre), G major - I do not know what Alkan meant by 'gothic', but this gentle prelude represents the key of G major well.

16 Assez lentement (Very slowly), C minor - A prelude that begins sadly, with each voice entering in counterpoint. The middle section has a few moments when light enters into the music, but it mostly stays in a melancholy mood until a Picardy third ends the piece in C major.

17. Rêve d'amour (Dream of love), A-flat major - The prelude begins in A-flat major, with a middle section that shifts to A major. Another section shifts the key to E minor, and a impassioned chromatic section leads back to the ending section marked palpitant in A-flat major.

Book III

18. Sans trop de mouvement (Without too much movement), C-sharp minor - The indication at the beginning of the prelude refers to only the 4-bar introduction. The actual prelude is a romance that shifts between C-sharp minor and C-sharp major. It ends in C-sharp major.

19. Prière du matin (Morning prayer), A major - Another spiritual prelude that looks simple on the page, but needs the proper feeling and attention to the melody.

20. Modérement vite et bien caracterise (Moderately fast and with spirit), D minor - Octaves and thick, heavily accented chords bring out the aggressive nature of this prelude.

21. Doucement (Gently), B-flat major - The alternating B-flat notes are all that are heard in the left hand and lend a simple, bell-like accompaniment to the shifting chords in the right.

22. Anniversaire (Anniversary), E-flat minor - The music plods along in the home key with deep bass notes giving the accompaniment. The music lightens in the final section as the key shifts to E-flat major.

23. Assez vite (Quite fast), B major - A prelude of grace, to be played fast.

24. Étude de velocite (Velocity study), E minor - The only prelude with the overt attention to technique, rapid finger technique to be precise. This prelude resembles the style of Chopin in his Etudes.

25. Prière (Prayer) , C major - The longest in performance length, this prelude moves at a very slow tempo in mostly block chords. It is a hymn of harmonic richness, reverence, and ends the set as it had began, in the key of C major.


  1. Just found your blog and it already seems to be very rich and full of interesting information. Be sure that i will read a lot of it as a relatively new classical music listener.


  2. Wonderful! Thank you for posting this!