Thursday, December 28, 2017

Chopin - 24 Preludes, Opus 28

The  opus 28 preludes by Chopin were first published in 1839, a date that coincides with the winter of  1838-1839 in which he spent inMajorca with George Sand and her children. This has led some to believe that Chopin wrote the preludes in Majorca over that winter, but while some of theme were no doubt written then, there is evidence that some of the preludes were begun as early as 1831.  Each of the 24 major and minor keys are represented by a prelude. Some of them are quite short, with the longest lasting under 6 minutes.

Contemporary critics and musicians were somewhat baffled by the preludes, as illustrated by the words written by Robert Schumann:
The Preludes are strange pieces. I confess I had imagined them differently, to be designed in a grand style like the Etudes. But almost the opposite is true. They are sketches, beginnings of Etudes, or, so to speak, ruins, eagle wings, a wild motley of pieces. But each piece, written in a fine, pearly hand, shows: 'Frederick Chopin wrote it.' One recognizes him in the pauses by the passionate breathing. He is and remains the boldest and proudest poetic mind of the time. The collection also contains the morbid, the feverish, the repellent. may each search what suits him; only the philistine stay away!
 No. 1  In C Major - Agitato - Chopin studied the set of preludes and fugues The Well -Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach, and the opus 28 set was in some ways inspired by it. But Chopin made his own way artistically in his set. This first prelude shows a vague similarity in that it is in the key of C major and acts as a type of introduction to the set. But from the start, Chopin's set shows a marked difference in mood and approach. This prelude is short and rhythmically complex, and just as the listener's ear begins to discern distinct voices within the music, it is over:

No. 2  In A Minor - Lento - One of the peculiarities of the set was in Chopin's use of the term prelude. The name implies that a prelude comes before something else, as in Bach's prelude and fugue pairs. Chopin's preludes introduce nothing. They are entities unto themselves. When they are played as a set however, each prelude does lead to something; another prelude of varying distinction. The second prelude is brooding, melancholy, and full of dissonances in marked contrast to the opening prelude:
The melody as such is repeated in different pitches and accompaniment until the bleakness of the end.

No. 3  In G Major - Vivace - The mood shifts to brightness with the 3rd prelude. It begins with a widely spaced figure in the left hand that continues in a few differing harmonies, but stays in the home key of G major for the most part:
Chopin also makes his own way in key progression of the preludes. Unlike Bach who progressed chromatically and alternating major with minor, Chopin progresses on the circle of fifths alternating major and minor.

No. 4  In E Minor - Largo - A prelude that looks very simple on paper. A single voice in the right hand has the melody while block chords are played in the left. But simple does not always equate to easy. To bring out the descending bass line while keeping the right hand melody singing its intense song is not an easy task to do:

No. 5  In D Major - Molto allegro - A one-page prelude that has sixteenth notes moving throughout in an accompaniment while an eighth note theme appears within the accompaniment as shown by the notation. A quite rhythmically complex prelude:

No. 6  In B Minor - Lento assai - This sad prelude has the melody in the left hand that is reminiscent of the cello, with a repeating accompaniment in the right:

No. 7  In A Major - Andantino - A wisp of a prelude that is only 16 bars long, this is a miniature mazurka, a dance of Chopin's native Poland. It provides a short period of respite before the onslaught of the next prelude:

No. 8  In F-sharp Minor - Molto agitato - A most challenging prelude, one of the most difficult technically in the set. Scholarship has this as one of the earliest written preludes in 1831, around the same time as the first set of opus 10 etudes:
A dotted rhythm melody in the low part of the right hand plays against eight sixteenth notes in the same hand, while the left hand plays a sixteenth triplet-eighth note accompaniment for the entire piece. The harmonic structure is no less complex as it modulates to remote keys of E-flat minor and others.

No. 9  In E Major - Largo - A very slow prelude with a bass line almost as important as the melody in the right hand. The right hand melody is entrusted mostly to the little finger of that hand and must be more pronounced than the accompaniment in the lower right hand:

No. 10 In C-sharp Minor - Molto allegro - This odd prelude is quite short and consists of  a few runs down the keyboard in the right hand with arpeggiated chords spanning a tenth in the left hand:

No. 11 In B Major - Vivace -  although written in 6/8 time, this prelude drifts into short sections of 3/4 time, which is  hemiola. This gives a hesitant, not quite right rhythmic feeling to this prelude, something which Chopin was fond of:
No. 12 In G-sharp Minor - Presto - The two-note slurs in the right hand along with the tempo make this prelude one of the difficult ones. The impression I get from this prelude is a great struggle, an effect that Chopin might well have had in mind:

No. 13 In F-sharp Major - Lento - This prelude is a mini-nocturne, with a deceptively simple rolling bass in the left hand and melody in the right. There is a section a little over half way through the piece where the accompaniment changes and the melody gets more pensive, but overall the mood remains tender. The dynamic range is marked piano at the beginning, with a sensitive performance keeping the dynamic range within subtle shades of it:

No. 14 In E-flat Minor - Allegro - This prelude is marked to be played pesante (heavy). With the hands playing the same notes an octave apart, it may seem at first like a finger exercise, but the raising and lowering of pitch and volume as well as the unpredictability of what's coming next goes beyond finger work. There is difficulty in determining any definite melody. The mood of the piece is just as indefinite. This isi one of the most enigmatic of the preludes:

No. 15 In D-flat Major - Sustenuto 'Raindrop' - The longest in duration of all the preludes, this one is also the most well known single prelude of the set. The name of 'raindrop' was given to it either by Chopin's lover George Sands, or the pianist/conductor Hans von Bülow. There are a few sets of nicknames by performers for all the preludes, (including von Bülow's) by way of interpreting their individual mood. Chopin himself only put a name to one of his works, that being the slow movement of his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B♭ Minor, Op. 35, the famous Funeral March.

The prelude begins with a bitter sweet melody in D-flat Major. Many times the major mode in music denotes a certain mood, but with Chopin the mood between major and minor could be blurred. An A-flat 'rainsrop' repeats and is the reason for the nickname.:
In the contrasting middle section in C-sharp Minor (the enharmonic equivalent of D-flat Minor was used to make the music easier to read) the 'rainsdrop has enharmonically changed to G-sharp as the left hand brings forth chords in a steady progression in volume until the eruption of a climax with the left hand in octaves with the raindrops also in octaves plus inner voices. This section is repeated, and after a section of transition the opening of the prelude returns with some minor changes.  The A-flat continues right up to the quiet ending of one of Chopin's most demanding and well-known works.

No. 16 In B-flat Minor - Presto con fuoco - The prelude begins with six startling chords that bring the listener to attention for what follows. And what follows is music of immense difficulty. The right hand plays runs that are not conventional scales or arpeggios, but unconventional configurations of intervals, accidentals and snatches of scales while the left hand part is no less difficult due to the leaps required from octaves to chords. All of it to be played at an incredibly fast tempo that can seem like chaos ensues.  But that is an illusion of this very difficult prelude. Chopin was no proponent of chaos in music:

No. 17 A-flat Major - Allegretto - A very melodic prelude not given to any overt virtuoso display. When the main section is repeated, there are recurring low notes in the bass that are reminiscent of a bell that accompany the music to the end:

No. 18 In F Minor - Molto allegro - This prelude may be thought of as a spiritual brother in mood to the 14th prelude as this one snarls and snaps its way through less than a minute of dissonance, runs and sections where the hands play in unison an octave apart.  Four bars from the end, each hand plays a trill that is followed by sixteenth note staccato triplets that are spit out with great vehemence before the final chords:
No. 19 In E-flat Major - Vivace - This prelude is designated to be played semper legato, an incredibly difficult thing to do considering the leaping triplets (up to 2 octaves) both hands must make throughout. And this is to be done at a low dynamic and rapid tempo as well. Very poetic music in the guise of great difficulty:

No. 20 In C Minor - Largo - Thick chords give the impression of a funeral march to this shortest by number of bars (only nine) of all the preludes. Not a particularly difficult one technically, it does require richness of tone, especially in the fortissimo sections as well as an ability to balance chords so the melody is heard:

No. 21 In B-flat Major - Cantabile - A simple melody begins this prelude with a steady two-part accompaniment:
After the opening there is a section that gives the impression of G-flat major that creates a marked contrast. The mood of the piece, as with many of the preludes, has more than one possibility. This has lead to many different interpretations by pianists, and has helped to keep the opus 28 preludes in the repertoire for so many years.

No. 22 In G Minor - Molto agitato - A fiery, tempestuous prelude that has the melody in octaves in the left hand with the right hand answering in chords. Rapid in tempo, it is all too easy to pound the music out of the piano. Struggling in mood and impatient by nature, there is little if any resolution within the ending:

No. 23 In F Major - Moderato - As previously stated, there is no evidence that Chopin intended opus 28 to be played as a set at one sitting. But this prelude does shows how he composed preludes of contrast that followed one another. This 23rd prelude sits between two passionate preludes and avoids drama with a benign melody that plays out in the bass as the right hand passes up and down the keyboard. The addition of an E-flat to the arpeggiated F major chord in the next to the last measure is kind of a mystery. it implies a modulation to B-flat major, but there is no modulation. The note is accented and is clearly intended to be there. To what specific purpose has been open to conjecture:

No. 24 In D Minor - Allegro appassionato - The final prelude of the set is a wild, impassioned virtuosic piece that has a widely spaced accompaniment in the left hand while the right hand plays arpeggios up and down the keyboard, chromatic triplet thirds, and a buildup of near chaos that at the end descends from the top of the keyboard to three low D's hammered out in the left hand:



2 comments:

  1. Once again, much thanks for your elucidations.

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  2. Your piece on Chopin's Preludes prompted me to go back and review your excellent commentary on Debussy's. I learned a lot from your essay. Indeed, your blog overall has proven immeasurably helpful to me in my appreciation of music I love and music you introduced me to. I sure hope I am not alone in reading what you have to say and in my gratitude for it. I would love to see your thoughts on Charles Ives' Concord Sonata--a work of preeminent importance to me. As far as I can tell, you have only written on his "America" Variations.

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