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© Fred Yu is the author of the following analysis of 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

Prelude Op. 28 No. 1 C major (Reunion)

The first prelude of the 24 Preludes Op. 28 is similar in structure to Schumann’s Kinderszenen No. 1. The left and right hands alternate in forming the melody, creating intricate patterns. Technically, the piece is not difficult; this is not a finger workout. However, the piece is quite tricky mentally. Interesting fingerings and overlapping hands combine with an unusual but intriguing rhythm to make the piece quite confusing to play. This difficulty is not diminished when one realizes that the tempo is very brisk – the piece lasts only a minute and a half at the proper tempo! The arabesque style perhaps characterizes this prelude the best – it is vivacious, and, at the same time, ornate and intricately crafted.

The piece’s intended character is somewhat ambiguous until one observes the tempo indication – Agitato. Although one could probably not classify the piece as truly agitated, this stresses that the piece is to be played fervently, and more intensely than some of the gentler preludes. Even so, the melody alone sounds rather ephemeral and ultimately even insignificant. It is meant to be so, as this prelude is nothing without its accompaniment, which lends it subtle qualities not found in observing just the melody itself. It takes the lightest and most masterful touch to blend the melody and accompaniment in this tiny gem of a piece to produce the delicate, beautiful sound appropriate for this delicate, beautiful piece.

Hans von Bülow called this prelude “Reunion”. This title interprets the melody and accompaniment as expressing joy and perhaps a little nostalgia, nervousness, or wistfulness (hence the Agitato). Cortot named this prelude “Attente fiévreuse de l'aimée”, which roughly translates to “Feverish anticipation of loved ones”. This is consistent with Bülow’s interpretation of the piece.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 2 A minor (Presentiment of death)

This somber, morose, dark, and completely unforgettable piece is opened by the left hand alone. A source of controversy and much academic and interpretive interest has been that it starts off-key in E minor rather than the tonic key of A minor. Fortunately for the fingers of the experienced pianist, this prelude is not very difficult at all technically, and can even be sight-read at the proper tempo. The only slightly tricky aspect is in the left hand, due to fingering and rather odd stretches.

As with nearly all of Chopin’s works, however, the technique is only the first step. After comes the problem of the music itself. The Prelude No. 2 is certainly among the most bizarre pieces that Chopin ever wrote. This can be seen in the not very appreciative comments attached to it over the years. The Polish pianist Jan Kleczynski, when playing the set of twenty-four, preferred to just repeat the first prelude and skip over this one! Admittedly, the melody is not quite as forceful as those of some of the other preludes, and the piece as a whole is just completely bleak. Unlike some of Chopin’s other “dark” compositions, this one is simply morbid and macabre. There are no occasional moments of beauty or a wonderfully crafted, flowing melody that sounds like a voice. Yet somehow, despite the jarring, somewhat un-Chopin-esque dissonance generated by the two hands, it still remains an effective (if eccentric) piece and manages to demonstrate the poignancy and expression (if not the harmony) of a Chopin masterwork. Thus, although not a significant technical difficulty, this piece eventually presents a not inconsiderable interpretational challenge.

Hans von Bülow named this prelude “Presentiment of Death”. The forbidding, almost macabre, tone of the piece was likely responsible for this. Cortot named it “Méditation douloureuse; la mer déserte, au loin...” This roughly translates to “A painful meditation; the distant, deserted sea...” and accurately captures the bleak, dismal expression that this piece conveys.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 3 G major (Thou art so like a flower)

In direct contrast musically to the two preludes before it, the Prelude No. 3 opens with a vivacious and exuberant left hand ostinato pattern. This poses the first real technical challenge in the preludes thus far. It is quite easy to play the left hand slowly, but acceleration to the desired tempo takes a bit of effort, and it takes a while before the fingering starts to flow naturally under the hand. The right hand is still technically rather simple, managing to express the melody in single notes and brisk chords.

I may be making this prelude sound too much like the one preceding it; they are structurally similar, with a left hand that is relatively complicated compared to the right. Although this is true, the pieces themselves are completely different! While the Prelude No. 2 is a forbidding and dark landscape, this one is a run through a sunny, grassy meadow. The left hand ostinati here are everything that the ones of the previous prelude are not – swift, lively, almost joyful. The right hand melody only serves to fortify the claim that the two preludes are completely different, for all their structural similarity. The entire piece manages to convey an expression of unrefined, carefree happiness. It is not overly elegant or graceful, but exceptionally beautiful. The modulations convey an expression of openness and improvisation, making the piece flow even more.

Both nicknames of this prelude convey its openness and exuberance. Hans von Bülow named it “Thou Art So Like a Flower”. The “Flower” quite literally conveys the open nature of the piece, and the rest of the name manages to get across the joyful nature of the piece. Cortot’s nickname is different, yet evocative of a similar idea:“Le chant du ruisseau” translates to “The singing of the stream”. This captures the smooth, flowing ostinato patterns of the left hand with remarkable accuracy, and a singing stream also has the connotation of being bright and lively. The two nicknames, though very different, are both appropriate in their own way.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 4 E minor (Suffocation)

This prelude is at once both the same as and markedly different from the Prelude No. 2. The structure is somewhat similar; the right hand is slightly more elaborate here and the left hand chords are less dissonant, but the general structures are quite alike. Technically, the piece is very easy and not at all a challenge for a decently experienced pianist. Once again, nearly all the difficulty is in the music itself.

As seemingly simple as it is, this prelude has endured as one of Chopin’s moist famous works. Despite the straightforward melody, it overflows with emotion. Sadness is perhaps an appropriate word, but the simplicity of the word itself fundamentally understates the delicate beauty and subtle nuances in the piece. It also misses the tones of oppression and even restrained despair that are subtle but nevertheless make their presence felt. Chopin requested that this piece be played at his funeral, and this may give the listener (or the music analyst!) insight into what Chopin intended as he wrote this piece.

Hans von Bülow’s nickname for this prelude is “Suffocation”. The expressions of oppression and torment are likely what lead to this title. Cortot’s title “Sur une tombe”, is perhaps more grounded in real life, as it translates to “Above a grave”; Chopin had this piece played at his funeral.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 5 D major (Uncertainty)

One of Chopin’s fresher and somewhat enigmatic compositions, the Prelude No. 5 utilizes an interesting effect to present a melody that is somewhat ambiguous in feeling. The technical aspects of this prelude are not inconsiderable, with often enormous left hand stretches and a rather eccentric melody with notes in between. The main technical difficulty is in getting the piece to “sing” – that is, getting the melody to be heard above the inner voices without making it too loud or disrupting the delicate balance Chopin has sought to create.

Technical difficulty aside, the prelude’s really interesting feature is what the melody is intended to convey. One certainly cannot call it unambiguously happy. However, the delicate, ephemeral, and almost bubbling nature of this piece denies the classification of darkness and despair. Perhaps Hans von Bülow expressed it most concisely in his programmatic title – “Uncertainty”. There is a certain touch to the piece that makes it swinging, rocking back and forth, that makes this title appropriate. Cortot’s nickname is also fitting: “L'arbre plein de chants” translates to “The tree full of songs”. The very ambiguity of the title reflects the very ambiguity of the piece, as who knows what sorts of songs a tree would sing, if it could?

Prelude Op. 28 No. 6 B minor (Tolling bells)

This is one of the most famous and celebrated of not only the preludes, but of all of Chopin’s works. The left hand here carries the melody, and is evocative of the full tones of a cello. This metaphor may be more effective than one realizes. Chopin was known to have admired the cello for its rich and full tones. When he played reductions for the piano, he always preferred the deep and sonorous bass parts. This must be applied to this prelude: the left hand must be reminiscent of a cello, deep, rich, and full. In the background, the right hand plays an accompaniment, including a single repeated note. Speaking of technical skill alone, neither hand is too difficult.

George Sand wrote that this prelude “... precipitates the soul into frightful depression.” It is difficult to create with a more accurate description. Chopin scholar James Huneker writes, in Chopin: The Man and His Music: “[This prelude] is the most frequently played – and oh! how meaninglessly – prelude of the set... Classical is its representation of feeling, its pure contour. The echo effect [in the right hand] is skillfully managed, monotony being artfully avoided.... The duality of voices should be clearly expressed.” The two commentaries of this piece do a wonderful job of capturing the spirit with which the piece should be played. One feature of vital note (no pun intended) is the right hand accompaniment; of particular importance are its repeated upper notes, which should be given the attention they deserve. These notes are integral parts of the piece.

Bülow’s nickname, “Tolling Bells”, probably stems from the fact that the piece was played at Chopin’s funeral. Cortot’s name, “Le mal du pays” – “Homesickness”, comes from the piece’s nostalgic, wistful, and simply sad quality.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 7 A major (The Polish dance)

This beautiful prelude, written in the style of a mazurka, is perhaps the calmest, quietest, and most soothing of the set. Only sixteen bars long, it contains the refinement and grace that many of the preludes, even the major-key preludes, lack. (This is another reason the preludes can function as a whole, instead of twenty-four separate parts.) It is, along with the Preludes No. 4 and 6, and perhaps unfortunately, among the technically easiest preludes. I say “unfortunately” because its lack of difficulty frequently causes it to be botched by children and unknowledgeable amateurs, who gloss over the notes without appreciating the subtle beauty of the piece.

Even though it is only sixteen bars, this is a prelude of infinite beauty and grace. The brief, slow, almost lazy melody eventually forms a climax that is recognized more by its subtle musical nuances than a dramatic dynamic change. For in the Prelude No. 7, the pianist must be extraordinarily gentle. In fact, this prelude could be seen as the epitome of Chopin’s unique touch. It is said that his piano (soft playing) was so exquisite, so intricate, and so well controlled that he did not at all require any forte to produce desired contrasts. And so it is with this prelude. If one has a masterful enough touch, there is no need for a forte to express the contrast. It can all be done with subtle variations of careful piano playing.

Bülow aptly named it “The Polish Dancer”. In this case, it is a slow dance. It is a loving dance, full of tenderness and joy. Cortot captures an equally peaceful and placid idea with his title, “Des souvenirs délicieux flottent comme un parfum à travers la mémoire...”. This translates to, “Sensational memories float like perfume through my mind…”

Prelude Op. 28 No. 8 F# minor (Desperation)

One of the most challenging etudes both technically and musically, the Prelude No. 8 is a relentless whirlwind comprising of a melodic line and an incredible accompaniment of grace notes. Structurally, it is a bit like the Etude Op.25 No. 1: there is a melody played on a tonic note and an accompaniment in broken chords off of that tonic note. Although rather shorter, the prelude is also far faster, and, in fact, rivals the etude for technical difficulty! In both pieces, the challenge is to carry out clearly the melodic line while giving the accompaniment the sound it deserves – but not enough as to overpower the melody. Here, however, speed makes this very difficult. Another difficulty here, not present in the etude, is the polyrhythm. The left hand plays triplets against the right hand’s groups of four grace notes. While this is simple in a slow piece, the tempo of the right hand here exceeds the tempo of the right hand in the Fantaisie-Impromptu, making this polyrhythm extremely tricky.

This technical difficulty also makes musical interpretation difficult. Like all of Chopin’s technical pieces, the focus is not on the technique, but the music. And while the technique serves to make the musical ideas possible, this does not always mean that it makes them simple to express! This prelude is one of the most impassioned of the set. It screams and weeps, taking the listener to the depths of a haunted and tormented soul. The expression is far more complicated and inexpressible than simply this, though, and like all Chopin, it is up to the listener to make what he or she will out of the piece.

Hans von Bülow nicknamed this prelude “Desperation”. This is certainly accurate; the racing grace notes convey a sense of pressure and urgency. Cortot’s French title, “La neige tombe, le vent hurle, la tempête fait rage; mais en mon triste coeur, l'orage est plus terrible encore”, is quite different and roughly translates to “The snow falls, the wind screams, and the storm rages; yet in my sad heart, the tempest is the worst to behold.” This captures the passion and the raw, powerful emotion Chopin wrote into the piece.

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

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