24 Preludes, Op. 28
MIDI recording by Michael Angelkovich
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Chopin wrote them between 1835 and 1839, partly at Valldemossa, Majorca, where he spent the winter of 1838–39 and where he had fled with George Sand and her children to escape the damp Paris weather. In Majorca, Chopin had a copy of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, and as in each of Bach's two sets of preludes and fugues, his Op. 28 set comprises a complete cycle of the major and minor keys, albeit with a different ordering.
The autograph manuscript, which Chopin carefully prepared for publication, carries a dedication to the German pianist and composer Joseph Christoph Kessler. The French edition was dedicated to the piano-maker and publisher Camille Pleyel, who had commissioned the work for 2,000 francs (equivalent to nearly $30,000 in present day). The German edition[which?] was dedicated to Kessler, who ten years earlier had dedicated his own set of 24 Preludes, Op. 31, to Chopin.
Whereas the term "prelude" had hitherto been used to describe an introductory piece, Chopin's pieces stand as self-contained units, each conveying a specific idea or emotion. He thus imparted new meaning to a genre title which at the time was often associated with improvisatory "preluding".[n 1] In publishing the 24 preludes together as a single opus, comprising miniatures that could either be used to introduce other music or as self-standing works, Chopin challenged contemporary attitudes regarding the worth of small musical forms.
Whereas Bach had arranged his collection of 48 preludes and fugues according to keys separated by rising semitones, Chopin chosen key sequence is a circle of fifths, with each major key being followed by its relative minor, and so on (i.e. C major, A minor, G major, etc). Since this sequence of related keys is much closer to common harmonic practice it is thought that Chopin might have conceived the cycle as a single performance entity for continuous recital. An opposing view is that the set was never intended for continuous performance, and that the individual preludes were indeed conceived as possible introductions for other works.
Chopin himself never played more than four of the preludes at any single public performance. Nowadays, the complete set of Op. 28 preludes has become repertory fare, and many concert pianists have recorded the entire set, beginning with Alfred Cortot in 1926.
As with his other works, Chopin did not himself attach names or descriptions to any of the Op. 28 preludes, in contrast to many of Schumann's and Liszt's pieces.
The brevity and apparent lack of formal structure in the Op. 28 preludes caused some consternation among critics at the time of their publication.[verification needed] No prelude is longer than 90 bars (No. 17), and the shortest, No. 9, is a mere 12 bars. Robert Schumann said: "They are sketches, beginnings of études, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions." Franz Liszt's opinion, however, was more positive: "Chopin's Preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart... they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams..."
More recently, the preludes have been the subject of more positive criticism. Musicologist Henry Finck said that "if all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin's Preludes." Biographer Jeremy Nicholas writes that "Even on their own, the 24 Preludes would have ensured Chopin’s claim to immortality."
Despite the lack of formal thematic structure, motives do appear in more than one prelude. Scholar Jeffrey Kresky has argued that Op. 28 is more than the sum of its parts:
Individually they seem like pieces in their own right ... But each works best along with the others, and in the intended order ... The Chopin preludes seem to be at once twenty-four small pieces and one large one. As we note or sense at the start of each piece the various connections to and changes from the previous one, we then feel free to involve ourselves – as listeners, as players, as commentators – only with the new pleasure at hand.—Jeffrey Kresky in A Reader's Guide to the Chopin Preludes
|No.||Tempo marking||Key||Description||Notes||Nicknames/epithets[n 2]|
|1||Agitato||C major||This brief opening prelude is unified by a triplet-semi-quaver figuration as the hands run over the keys.||Cortot: Feverish anticipation of loved ones
|2||Lento||A minor||The second prelude sets up an immediate contrast, with a slow melody over a fixed accompaniment of four-note chords played two eighth notes at a time.||Cortot: Painful meditation; the distant, deserted sea...
Bülow: Presentiment of death
|3||Vivace||G major||Has a running semiquaver bass part throughout.||Cortot: The singing of the stream
Bülow: Thou Art So Like a Flower
|4||Largo||E minor||This piece was played at the composer's funeral. It consists of a slow melody in the right hand, that masterfully prolongs tonic resolution, and repeated block chords in the left hand, that descend chromatically.||Cortot: Above a grave
|5||Molto allegro||D major||Contains exuberant ostinati.||Cortot: Tree full of songs
|6||Lento assai||B minor||This prelude was also played at Chopin's funeral; its melancholy melody is primarily given to the left hand.||Cortot: Homesickness
Bülow: Tolling bells
|7||Andantino||A major||Written in the style of a mazurka, in 3/4 time.||Used by Federico Mompou for his Variations on a Theme of Chopin.||Cortot: Sensational memories float like perfume through my mind...
Bülow: The Polish dancer
|8||Molto agitato||F-sharp minor||Considered one of the most difficult in the set, featuring continuous thirty-second note figuration in the right hand, with semiquaver triplets (alternating with quavers) in the left hand. The entire piece employs a ceaseless figuration of polyrhythms.||Cortot: The snow falls, the wind screams, and the storm rages; yet in my sad heart, the tempest is the worst to behold
|9||Largo||E major||A harmonically dense piece with a low "plodding" bass line; with just 12 bars, it is the shortest in the collection.||Cortot: Prophetic voices
|10||Molto allegro||C-sharp minor||Short and light, with alternating triplet and non-triplet semiquavers in the right hand, over arpeggiato chords in the left.||Cortot: Rockets that fall back down to earth
Bülow: The night moth
|11||Vivace||B major||In 6/8 time, another brisk piece with continuous quavers.||Cortot: Desire of a young girl
Bülow: The dragonfly
|12||Presto||G-sharp minor||Presents a technical challenge with its rapid hold-and-release of quavers against crotchets in the right hand, involving much chromatic movement.||Cortot: Night ride
Bülow: The duel
|13||Lento||F-sharp major||One of the longest preludes and features an A B A structure with continuous single-note quaver movement in the left hand and chords and melody in the right.||Cortot: On foreign soil, under a night of stars, thinking of my beloved faraway
|14||Allegro||E-flat minor||Recalls No. 1 in its brevity and textural uniformity. Lasting under 30 seconds, it is the shortest of the set.||Cortot: Fear
Bülow: Stormy sea
|15||Sostenuto||D-flat major||The longest and perhaps the most famous of the twenty-four. The main melody is repeated three times; the melody in the middle, however, is much more dark and dramatic. The key signature switches between D-flat major and C-sharp minor.||Cortot: But Death is here, in the shadows
|16||Presto con fuoco||B-flat minor||Starts with six heavily accented chords before progressing to an impromptu-like passage in the right hand. The left hand mainly supports the right hand and repeats the same melody repeatedly. This piece is widely considered the most difficult of the set.||Cortot: Descent into the abyss
|17||Allegretto||A-flat major||One of the longest preludes, it was the favourite of Clara Schumann.||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."||Cortot: She told me, "I love you"
Bülow: Scene on the Place de Notre-Dame de Paris
|18||Molto allegro||F minor||Suggestive of a mortal struggle. The technical challenges lie chiefly in the irregular timing of the three runs, each faster than its predecessor, played simultaneously by each hand one octave apart. A fortissimo five-octave arpeggio echoes downward into the depths of the bass registers, where the final struggle takes place and culminates with the double-fortissimo chord finale.||Cortot: Divine curses
|19||Vivace||E-flat major||Consists of widely spaced, continuous triplet-quaver movement in both hands, which some pianists consider to rival the difficulty of No. 8 and No. 16.||Cortot: Wings, wings, that I may flee to you, o my beloved!
Bülow: Heartfelt happiness
|20||Largo||C minor||Brief, with slow majestic crotchet chords in the right hand predominating, against crotchet octaves in the left. It is often called the "Chord" prelude. It was originally written in two sections of four measures, although Chopin later added a repeat of the last four measures at a softer level, with an expressive swell before the final cadence.||Used as a theme for variations by Ferruccio Busoni, and later, without the repeated bars, by Sergei Rachmaninoff in his Variations on a Theme of Chopin, a set of 22 variations in a wide range of keys, tempos and lengths.||Cortot: Funerals
Bülow: Funeral march
|21||Cantabile||B-flat major||While the right hand sings a simple melody, the left plays continuous doubled quavers characterized by chromatic movement, including chromatic nonharmonic tones, taken up by the right hand also in the latter half of the piece.||Cortot: Solitary return, to the place of confession
|22||Molto agitato||G minor||In 6/8 time, it begins with a characteristic dotted rhythm (quaver, dotted quaver, semiquaver) that Scriabin was later to adopt in his early Chopinesque preludes.||Cortot: Rebellion
|23||Moderato||F major||Spacious and melodic in the left hand, with running semiquavers throughout in the right.||Cortot: Playing water faeries
Bülow: A pleasure boat
|24||Allegro appassionato||D minor||Opens with a thundering five-note pattern in the left hand. Throughout the piece, the left hand continues this pattern as the right hand plays a powerful melody punctuated by trills, scales (including a rapid descending chromatic scale in thirds), and arpeggios. The piece closes with three booming unaccompanied notes – the lowest D on the piano.||Cortot: of blood, of earthly pleasure, of death
Bülow: the storm
Chopin's Op. 28 preludes have been compared to Johann Sebastian Bach's preludes in The Well-Tempered Clavier. However, each of Bach's preludes leads to a fugue in the same key, and Bach's pieces are arranged, in each of the work's two volumes, in ascending chromatic order (with major preceding parallel minor), while Chopin's are arranged in a circle of fifths (with major preceding relative minor). Chopin is known to have studied Bach's music, although he is not known to have performed it in public.
Harold C. Schonberg, in The Great Pianists, writes: "It also is hard to escape the notion that Chopin was very familiar with Hummel's now-forgotten Op. 67, composed in 1815 – a set of twenty-four preludes in all major and minor keys, starting with C major." As Schonberg says: "the openings of the Hummel A minor and Chopin E minor concertos are too close to be coincidental." The dedicatee of Chopin's set, Joseph Christoph Kessler, also used the circle of fifths in his 24 Études, Op. 20, which were dedicated to Hummel.
Chopin's other preludes
Chopin wrote three further preludes.
Prelude No. 25
The Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45 (sometimes listed as Prelude No. 25), was composed in 1841. It was dedicated to Princess E. Czernicheff (Elisaweta Tschernyschewa), and contains widely extending basses and highly expressive and effective chromatic modulations over a rather uniform thematic basis.
Prelude No. 26
The untitled Presto con leggierezza in A-flat major was composed in 1834 as a gift for Pierre Wolff and published in Geneva in 1918. Known as Prelude No. 26, the piece is very short and generally bright in tone.
"Devil's Trill" Prelude (No. 27)
A further prelude exists. It is in E-flat minor and has been subtitled "Devil's Trill" by Jeffrey Kallberg, a professor of music history at the University of Pennsylvania. Kallberg gave it this nickname for its similarities to Giuseppe Tartini's violin sonata known as The Devil's Trill, Tartini being a likely influence on Chopin. The original signature was hastily scrawled (more so than usual of Chopin's original manuscripts). Chopin left this piece uncompleted and seems to have discarded it; while he worked on it during his stay on Majorca, the E-flat minor prelude that ultimately formed part of the Op. 28 set is a completely unrelated piece. Kallberg's realisation of the prelude from Chopin's almost illegible sketches goes no further than where Chopin left off. The piece had its first public performance in July 2002 at the Newport Music Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, with the pianist Alain Jacquon.
Notes and references
- Pianist-composers who had previously published collections of preludes for the benefit of pianists unskilled at improvisation include Muzio Clementi, Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Ignaz Moscheles; according to Richard Taruskin, Chopin probably knew Moscheles's Preludes op. 73 (1827) and used them as a model, alongside Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.
- Sets of epithets and nicknames were attached to the pieces after the composer's death by Hans von Bülow and Alfred Cortot, based on the personal impressions of these two pianists. One nickname that has survived is "Raindrop prelude" for No. 15 (and No. 20 is sometimes referred to as the "Chord" prelude).
- Brown, Maurice J. E. (1957). "The Chronology of Chopin's Preludes". The Musical Times 98: 423–4. doi:10.2307/937215. ISSN 0027-4666. JSTOR 937215.
- Michałowski, Kornel; Samson, Jim. "Chopin, Fryderyk Franciszek". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved 19 January 2014. (subscription required)
- Biret, Idil (2007). Willard A Palmer, ed. Chopin: Preludes for the Piano. Alfred Music Publishing. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-7390-4754-5.
- Huneker, James. Introduction. Chopin Preludes For the Piano. Edited, Revised, and Fingered by Rafael Joseffy. G. Schirmer Inc.
- Meier, Marilyn (1993). Chopin twenty-four preludes opus 28 (Doctor of Creative Arts thesis). University of Wollongong. Retrieved 21 January 2014.
- Taruskin, p. 333
- Kallberg, p. 143
- Higgins, Thomas. "Music and Letter". oxfordjournals.org.
- Preludes, Chopin Music
- Fred Yu (March 2010). "Complete Music Analysis – Preludes". Retrieved 28 June 2010.
- Nicholas, Jeremy (2007). Chopin: His Life and Music. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks MediaFusion. p. 268. ISBN 1-4022-0757-3.
- Kresky, Jeffrey (1994) A Reader's Guide to the Chopin Preludes, Greenwood Press. p. xviii.
- Vancouver Chopin Society: The Preludes.
- Benward & Saker (2009). Music in Theory and Practice, Vol. II, pp. 217–18. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
- Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists, p. 110
- "Memory of Poland Chopin Worklist Entry for Opus 45". Retrieved 19 July 2007.
- "Piano Society Chopin's Works Page". Retrieved 19 July 2007.
- Herrup, Katharine. (30 May 2002) Chopin's "Devil's Trill" reconstructed by Prof., The Daily Pennsylvanian. Retrieved on 20 December 2011.
- "Professor reconstructs unfinished Chopin prelude from artist’s notes" by Catherine Lucey, Berkeley Daily Planet (11 June 2002). Retrieved on 20 December 2011.
- Kallberg, Jeffrey (1994). "Small 'forms': in defence of the prelude". In Samson, Jim. The Cambridge Companion to Chopin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 124–144. ISBN 978-0-521-47752-9.
- Taruskin, Richard (24 June 2009). "The Chopinesque Miniature". The Oxford History of Western Music: Music in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 333–338. ISBN 978-0-19-979602-1.
- Leontsky, Jan: Interpreting Chopin. 24 Preludes, Op. 28. Analysis, comments and interpretive choices. Tarnhelm editions.
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