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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. 17 Ab major (A scene on the place de Nôtre Dame de Paris)

Opening gracefully and warmly enough on a repeated C, the very beginning of the piece establishes a certain calm and atmosphere of amity that persists throughout this delightful, charming prelude. True to the calm nature, there is no virtuosic difficulty in execution, although considerable skill is required to respectably carry out the melody. This is because the right and left hands consistently overlap, with the left hand literally covering the right hand, which plays the melody.

This is one of Chopin’s most gentle and melodic pieces. The delicate and beautiful gem is said to have been a favorite of many composers; Mendelssohn wrote of it, “I love it! I cannot tell you how much or why; except perhaps that it is something which I could never at all have written.” The piece, taken as a whole, conveys a sensation of floating, release, almost bliss. Yet even this bliss is open to interpretation. By the hands of Rubinstein, the piece feels slightly hesitant; one wishes to savor the moment of this happiness and does not wish to let it go. Contrast this with the hands of Arrau, who makes the piece sound a little pressured and nervous despite the serenity that is present.

This is, at 90 measures long, the longest of the twenty-four preludes. Chopin does not disappoint here; every one of these bars is put to good use. The main theme is repeated three times. The first is the initial statement and introduces the gentle, airy melody and immediately establishes the tone for the whole piece. The first repetition, an elaboration, gains in strength and intensity and further penetrates the listener. The second repetition is a sort of conclusion, and features most prominently the eleven booming bell-like A-flats in the left hand. The piece is then irrevocably concluded and finished.

In perhaps the most verbose programmatic title in all of Romantic music, Hans von Bülow decided to name this prelude, “A Scene on the Place de Notre-Dame de Paris”. Such a name evokes quite well the image of a calm summer breeze. Cortot, however, once again has a different interpretation. His French nickname is, “Elle m’a dit, ‘Je t’aime’”, which translates to, “She told me, ‘I love you…’” With this nickname, Cortot accurately captures the warm and loving nature present in the piece. However, in this interpretation it is not clear whether the piece is told from the viewpoint of “She” or “me”; the listener must make that decision if he or she accepts this interpretation!

Prelude Op. 28 No. 18 F minor (Suicide)

Quietly chilling tones open the first few measures of this prelude. This melody soon develops into rapid runs that cascade up and down the piano, before several tumultuous crashes down and a dramatic ending on two ominous chords. Technically, the piece is not too bad. Once the runs are sufficiently learned, the technical difficulty is all but dealt with.

The piece itself is decidedly tormented. This is one of the slightly more jarring, if not exactly dissonant, preludes. The beginning is a slightly hesitant question. It is responded to, but not answered, by some of the cascading runs in both hands. The theme introduced then becomes runs. They tumble up and down the keyboard, tormented by unseen demons. Eventually, they become impassioned chords, and then an arpeggio run, leading down to a powerful A flat. Then, two unexpected chords shock the listener and conclude the piece. Yet it is not a real ending; the question posed in the beginning has not really been answered.

Bülow named this prelude “Suicide”. Cortot called it “Imprécations”, which translates to “Imprecations”. Of course, since the average reader is not likely to be familiar with what an imprecation is, it is better translated as “Divine curses”. Both titles capture the impassioned, struggling darkness present in the piece.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 19 Eb major (Heartfelt happiness)

The Prelude No. 19 rivals the No. 16 for technical difficulty, though in a completely different way. This one is also one of those that could be etudes; several of its difficulties are astounding. The left hand has stretches that are enormous. Just in the first measure, there is a stretch of a fourteenth between two notes! The prelude’s progressions are made through increasingly large stretches in each measure. These must be executed at a flying tempo. Here, rather than breathtaking runs, we have breathtaking jumps that must be breathtakingly smooth. The structure is similar to that of the Prelude No. 14, but far more harmonic, beautiful, and rapid.

As in the etudes and the other difficult preludes, the technical difficulty is compounded by the poetical quality of the music. As a whole, the piece must be soft and smooth, with no defects or aberrations in its pulsing rhythm. This is despite enormous jumps of up to a sixteenth in both hands, occurring up to four times per measure! Thus, the pianist’s technique must be enormous, but he must also be extremely musically capable. The poeticism in the prelude is astounding. It is one of the brightest of the set, floating on wings of airy ebullience. The progressions are bold and bright in their nature, and they remain so until the very end.

Bülow chose the bland name of “Heartfelt Happiness” for this etude. While an accurate programmatic title, it is perhaps too obvious. Cortot took advantage of the prelude’s fervent, persistent nature, and named it “Des ailes, des ailes, pour m'enfuir vers vous, o ma bien-aimée!” – “Wings, wings, that I may flee to you, o my beloved!”

Prelude Op. 28 No. 20 C minor (Funeral march)

Certainly one of the most famous and well-recognized preludes, the Prelude No. 20 is in fact by no means technically dazzling. Composed mainly of large solid chords, the prelude rings a somber and grave melody. As the piece is fairly slow and none of the chords possess any significant amount of dissonance, this is one of the technically easiest etudes, sight-readable at proper tempo by any reasonably-skilled pianist.

For several reasons, this prelude is one of Chopin’s most masterful compositions. Chopin’s primary accomplishment here is in the masterful use of chords. From a music theory perspective, the piece is harmonically quite simple, composed of two melodies made of chord progressions. Despite this, the actual musical perspective is far less straightforward, and the implications of it underscore Chopin’s genius in this piece. The chords, although powerful and majestic, are the best possible way to represent the solemnity and sorrow present in the piece. A lighter composition structured around a right hand melody and runs would not have conveyed the musical idea here as well. The chords are a necessity in order to make this piece what it is. Like the tolling of a large bell, they strike their tones directly into the listener’s heart.

This prelude has not only held appeal to the general public, but also has inspired composers. Of particular note, Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his beautiful and incredibly demanding Variations on a Theme of Chopin based on this prelude.

Bülow and Cortot had similar ideas for this one. Bülow named it “Funeral March”, and Cortot named it “Funerailles”, which translates to “Funerals”. From the slow, steady, solemn, and tragic tones of it, it is not difficult to imagine where these nicknames came from.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 21 Bb major (Sunday)

This is one of the more difficult of Chopin’s preludes. A fairly simple right hand is made much harder by a left hand in double-notes of varying intervals. Other than this, there is no chief technical difficulty present. One must, however, actually play it well.

The nature of this prelude is ambiguous. On the one hand, it is not the embodiment of freedom, like the Preludes No. 5 and 19. However, certainly, there is an element of joy in it that cannot be ignored. The piece is an interesting blend of the nostalgic, the wistful, the melancholy, and the joyful; the mood of the piece is certainly somewhat ambiguous. The nature of the double note progressions are uncertain; they will be harmonic, then very dissonant, then almost illogical in their progression. Chopin definitely did not intend for this to be a piece with a solid, definitive meaning, so exactly what the meaning and expression this piece is supposed to convey is is left as an exercise for the listener!

Oddly enough, both programmatic titles have religious connotations. Bülow’s is “Sunday”, which has an obvious religious connotation. Cortot’s title “Retour solitaire à l'endroit des aveux” translates to “Solitary return, to the place of confession”. There is nothing to suggest that this is any more than coincidence; nevertheless, it is interesting and worthy of note.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 22 G minor (Impatience)

Almost Rachmaninoff-ian in nature, this prelude is composed entirely of powerful octaves and chords. The main challenges are the left hand octaves and some degree of jumping in both hands. The intervals are small, but since the piece is quite fast even these small intervals become somewhat formidable. Getting this piece up to tempo undoubtedly takes a considerable amount of effort. The only other challenge is making sure that the harshness and loudness of the chords does not dominate the music, as Chopin played even the loudest passages with a great deal of restraint, and wrote with this in mind. Making the piano sing here, however, is far easier said than done.

This prelude is one of those that is slightly ambiguous in what it conveys. There is certainly a struggle of some sort present. Someone, somewhere, is fighting for something, striking down his or her opposition. There are brief moments of seeming success and glory, but the return to the main theme afterwards strikes down the interpretation of happiness. The piece ends with a dramatic crash, which is also ambiguous in its nature. Poetically, it is one of the most difficult to play, as it is very hard to make such a jumpy, combative prelude breathe and flow.

Bülow named this prelude “Impatience”; Cortot titled it “Révolte”, or “Rebellion”. Both these titles are highly programmatic but describe the piece well; when one is impatient, one eagerly anticipates something, always believing that it will come. In a rebellion, one is always hoping that the fight will be successful. The ultimate fate, though, is to be determined by the listener, as no one else has the power to make that judgment for you!

Prelude Op. 28 No. 23 F major (A pleasure boat)

This somewhat bubbly piece is one of the epitomes of contrast in the preludes. It contrasts markedly with both the prelude before it and the prelude after it, having a completely different spirit. The technical difficulty is not virtuosic here (another area of contrast with the two neighboring preludes). Facility with large stretches in the right hand and fluent trills in the left are the most important here. The sixteenth notes progress fairly slowly and speed is not at all a problem once all the notes are learned and the stretches are comfortable.

Between the heaviness of its neighboring preludes, the levity of the piece is appropriate, almost welcome. The melody is serene, gently flowing and rippling without much sense of urgency. Interesting features are left hand rolls and trills. The right hand by itself is thin, almost inadequate; it is composed of ephemeral gossamer strands. However, with the left hand trills and rolls, more substance is added to the piece. The left hand gently rocks with the right hand, lending an even more graceful and relaxed nature to the piece. The ending is surprising; one expects instead an elaboration or more of a recapitulation where it is located.

Bülow named this piece “A Pleasure Boat”. This captures the gentle “rocking” nature of the piece, as the right hand oscillates up and down the keyboard. Cortot’s name, “Naiades jouant”, “Playing water fairies”, is an interesting interpretation, and no doubt stems from the “light” nature of the piece. However, in my opinion, the piece does not move enough for the fairies to be “playing”; one hears ripples and occasional disturbances of the water (the left hand trills and rolls), but no real splashes. Nevertheless, both are worthy nicknames.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 24 D minor (The storm)

To use a cliché, is perhaps appropriate to say that the Preludes Op. 28 end with a bang. Immediately, the captivating final prelude opens with a striking left hand five-note ostinato pattern. Its structure again recalls the structure of the Prelude No. 2, though this one is much more difficult! The five-note ostinato spans a twelfth, making it unreachable without jumping to all but the largest hands. (Rachmaninoff could reach a thirteenth, and was probably one of the only people who ever lived that could do so!) The technique for this pattern is not difficult once one is accustomed to it, but to learn it and be familiar with it is quite tricky. The really tricky thing is that one must pair it with the right hand, which is initially a simple one-note melody but progresses into trills, runs, scales, and even a descending chromatic scale in thirds! This is tricky because the left hand establishes a polyrhythm with the right hand. Imagine playing a chromatic third scale in the right hand in a polyrhythm with a constantly stretching and jumping left hand!

Technical difficulties aside, this is also one of the most musically intense and impassioned etudes. The tempo marking is Allegro appassionato, and fz and fff markings are abundant throughout the score. From the very first note, the prelude is striking and dramatic, burning its rhythm right into the listener’s heart. It is extremely interesting to observe the effects the different left hand ostinato patterns have in different preludes. For example, in the Prelude No. 2, the ostinato establishes a mood of bleakness and dismalness. One could hardly say that the mood is of passion; perhaps of longing or some long-repressed emotion. In the Prelude No. 3, the left hand established the prelude as a lively, vivacious piece – springy and full of life. Finally, in this prelude, the ostinato immediately establishes an impassioned and tumultuous mood.

When the right hand is introduced, this mood is reinforced even further. The melody, which is initially a dramatic single-note melody, is rapidly developed. It quickly becomes far more elaborate, encompassing multiple modulations, complicated polyrhythms, and very rapid scales. This inevitably causes some degree of ordered chaos; the piece itself, of course, possesses a great amount of order, but the intricate intertwining of the melody, accompaniment, and rapid runs conveys an image of pure passion and turbulent chaos. It seems at some points that this final prelude is Chopin, unrestrained, pouring the depths of his soul into the music. It encompasses passion, delight, struggle, and eventually, tragedy. It is indisputably one of the best written of the preludes, and is definitely a worthy conclusion to a set of twenty-four amazing pieces.

Hans von Bülow named this prelude “The Storm”. This is presumably due to its impassioned, turbulent nature. Taking a rather different perspective, Cortot aptly nicknamed it “Du sang, de la volupté, de la mort” – “Of blood, of earthly pleasure, of death”. “Blood” and “earthly pleasure” are easily discernable elements; the ostinato pattern, upwards scales, and trills lend credence to those two descriptions. “Death” is perhaps most clearly seen in the final few measures, with the scales down and tragic, even morbid, conclusion. For this particular prelude, I would say that Cortot captures the general spirit more accurately.

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

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