Despite their brevity, the Preludes loom large musically
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), whose 200th anniversary it is this year, is the overwhelming favorite composer for the piano. He possessed the most subtle intuitions and fathomed the mysteries of the world. Oscar Wilde once said of him, “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”
Most of the 24 Chopin Preludes were sketched out between 1837 and 1838. They are the ultimate miniatures. In an age when the symphony and sonata still held sway, writing these aphoristic Preludes was revolutionary. All except two contain a single musical idea, each boiled down to its essence. Never had brevity been so brief. Ten are under a minute in length; nine last just over a minute. Only the celebrated No. 15, the so-called “Raindrop Prelude,” attains the length characteristic of a small piece, clocking in at 4½ minutes.
Fourteen of the Preludes are full of light, gaiety, serenity and a kind of happiness. Seven contain anguish, rage and fury. Three are simply sorrowful. No matter how tiny, the Preludes loom large musically. Each one is a masterpiece of compressed emotion blended with an unequaled pianistic ingenuity and originality. Many of them are horribly difficult to play. When Robert Schumann read them, he proclaimed Chopin to be the “proudest poet soul of the age.”
What was the inspiration? As a child in Warsaw, Chopin was nourished on the then practically unknown preludes and fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach, composed in each of the major and minor keys and collectively known as “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Chopin was one of the rare pianists of his time who played most of them, and Bach remained his ideal. During the creation of the Preludes he was particularly obsessed with Bach, and took “The Well-Tempered Clavier” with him on a vacation to Majorca in November 1838, where the Preludes were refined and polished.
Bach’s preludes, some of considerable length, need their fugues, but Romantic composers did not often use this musical form. Each of Chopin’s Preludes is self-sufficient, but they were composed, like Bach’s, with one for each major and minor key. Since nothing follows them, one may ask what these works are a prelude to—certainly to another Prelude or, poetically speaking, perhaps a prelude to the infinite. We don’t know if Chopin intended them to be played as a cycle, although today’s pianists usually perform them that way in recital.
The completion of the Preludes formed one of the most harrowing episodes in the composer’s short life. When Chopin and his companion, the novelist George Sand, first got to Majorca he was ecstatic. But he soon became nervous, as the piano his friend Camille Pleyel, the music publisher and piano builder, had promised to send him had not yet arrived. By early December Chopin had become gravely ill and the Majorcans, terrified of what was known as consumption (tuberculosis today), made life very unpleasant for the group. To make matters worse, the piano was stuck at customs for weeks, forcing Chopin to rent a wretched replacement. Pleyel’s piano was finally delivered in early January, and the Preludes were finished late that month.
In these tiny microcosms Chopin established the hegemony of the Romantic miniature. His Preludes would find progeny later in the preludes of Scriabin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and others.
Space does not permit a detailed analysis of all 24, but mention of a few may give a sense of their character:
• No. 1 in C major : An exquisite example of Chopin’s devotion to Bach. Pulsating and agitated, it is over in half a minute, leaving the listener yearning for more.
•No. 2 in A minor: A lugubrious melody seems to hang in the air. Ingmar Bergman made impressive use of the piece in his film “Autumn Sonata.”
•No. 4 in E minor: A slender melody over rich, slow-moving chordal harmonies with the left hand. It, along with the B Minor (No. 6) and C Minor (No. 20) Preludes, was played on the organ at Chopin’s funeral at the Church of La Madeleine in Paris on Oct. 30, 1849.
•No. 7 in A major: Sixteen bars of pure grace.
• No. 8 in F-sharp minor : A highly textured polyrhythmic piece, the melody of this feverish, throbbing vision is played entirely with the right thumb. One of the greatest of the Preludes.
•No. 19 in E-flat major: Pure azure contentment in triplets for both hands, marked “Vivace.” To play it through unscathed is an achievement.
• No. 24 in D minor : Marked “Allegro appassionato,” a tremendous discharge of despairing passion, concluding with three foreboding D’s from the bowels of the piano.
Probably more people have come to great music through Chopin than from any other composer. In my case, growing up in Cleveland, I used to listen to a radio show whose theme music entranced me at first hearing but was never identified by the host. Although the show aired much past my usual bedtime, I would occasionally sneak down the stairs, turn the radio on at low volume and drink in the strains of this music, over so quickly that I listened with all my might. It was not until somewhat later, when I was taking piano lessons, that I found out that it was No. 7, the Prelude in A Major. Not too long after that I could play it myself, which was bliss! Only later did I find out that there were 23 more Preludes that I would love equally, and in later years would come to study and teach.
Mr. Dubal is a professor of piano performance at the Julliard School and the author of “The Art of the Piano” and “The Essential Canon of Classical Music.” His radio program, “The Piano Matters,” can be heard world-wide on www,wwfm.org.
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