28 No. 17 Ab major (A scene on the place de Nôtre Dame de Paris)
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!
28 No. 18 F minor (Suicide)
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.
28 No. 19 Eb major (Heartfelt happiness)
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!”
28 No. 20 C minor (Funeral march)
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.
28 No. 21 Bb major (Sunday)
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.
28 No. 22 G minor (Impatience)
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
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!
28 No. 23 F major (A pleasure boat)
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
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.
28 No. 24 D minor (The storm)
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
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