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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. 9 E major (Vision)

The bold 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.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 10 C# minor (The night moth)

This 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 dismal wreck.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 11 B major (Dragonfly)

This 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.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 12 G# minor (Duel)

This 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.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 13 F# major (Loss)

A 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 than project.

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.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 14 Eb minor (Fear)

Perhaps 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.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 15 Db major (Raindrop)

It is 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.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 16 Bb minor (Hades)

Chopin 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.

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

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