Chopin’s Preludes: Musical Windows on Human Feeling

BY Kenneth LaFave TIMEJanuary 24, 2022 PRINT

Certain musical works speak of their time in a timeless fashion. Think of the heady Romanticism of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” or the naive musical picture-making of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concertos. Then there are compositions that seem to translate human feeling directly into musical language, works in which time itself falls away. Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28, belong to the latter category.

Frédéric François Chopin arrived on the Western art music scene at precisely the right time for an artist of his gifts and temperament. The piano was only a century old when he was born in 1810 in Poland to a French father and a Polish mother, and the instrument’s expressive potential was only beginning to be comprehended. His parents arranged for piano lessons early, and by age 8, young Frédéric was giving concerts and composing his own pieces. He learned no other instrument and needed no other musical outlet. Alone among major composers, everything Chopin composed would include the piano in its scoring, from two piano concertos to a cello-piano sonata to 17 songs for voice and piano, and of course, dozens and dozens of solo piano pieces, among them mazurkas, waltzes, polonaises, études, nocturnes, ballades—and preludes.

Chopin at 25, by his fiancée Maria Wodzinska, in 1835. (Public Domain)

The Elusive Prelude

As a musical form, the prelude is nearly indefinable. It began, logically enough, as the first piece in a set of two or more, as in Prelude and Fugue. While earlier composers, notably Muzio Clementi, had penned stand-alone preludes, it was Chopin’s collection of 24 preludes in all the keys that gave the greenlight to future composers (Debussy, Scriabin, Gershwin, among other) to write short piano pieces with an improvisatory feeling and call them preludes. Beyond this description, it is impossible to pin down the prelude as a form.

Chopin’s two dozen include pieces that resemble études (the rhythmic ostinato of No. 8 in F-sharp minor), mazurkas (tiny, effusive No. 7 in A major), nocturnes (the light and dark of No. 15 in D-flat major), and even the woeful tread of the funeral march (No. 20 in C minor). Technically, too, nothing unites Chopin’s preludes. Some, such as No. 4 in E minor and No. 6 in B minor, lie well within the abilities of an intermediate student, while others (No. 12 in G-sharp minor, No. 16 in B-flat minor) demand steely technical command.

Chopin composed the pieces that came to be Op. 28 in the mid-1830s, finishing and assembling the set while on the island of Majorca, Spain, in the fall of 1838. He had left Poland in 1831, following the failure of an uprising there to stave off the country’s absorption into the Russian Empire, and settled in Paris, where he became a celebrated figure among the intelligentsia. Sickly from childhood, Chopin developed tuberculosis as a young adult. The Majorca trip in the fall of 1838, in the company of consort Aurore Dupin (novelist under the pseudonym George Sand) and her children, was intended to assuage his persistent congestion, but the usual sunny clime of the island was replaced by incessant rain. Chopin nonetheless used the time away from Parisian social life to write the final preludes and collect them into a connected, if not precisely united, set. It was published in 1839 to great acclaim.

Without Limits

It takes one hour to play both sets of Chopin’s études, and two to play all 19 of his nocturnes. But Op. 28 requires only some 40 minutes at tempo. Within this small confine, 24 distinct musical experiences—averaging less than two minutes each—bloom in wild array. General terms only begin to suggest the emotional range: sorrow, delight, confusion, passion, rage, serenity, playfulness, resistance, surrender, simple joy, profound despair. Chopin’s Op. 28 validates the ability of the Western system of interlocking major and minor keys to suggest an infinity of expression.

For his 1966 book, “The Infinite Variety of Music,” Leonard Bernstein commissioned a mathematician to calculate the number of possible melodies conceivable within the Western tonal system. The answer: infinite, confirming what Chopin had demonstrated 130 years before.

But this answer insists on anther question: How does this expression arise from mere musical notes? A brief consideration of the most accessible Chopin prelude gives insight.

A Journey in E Minor

Prelude No. 4 is in E minor, yet most of its 25 measures are spent evading the finality of that key. It starts with a simple right-hand melody above a left-hand harmony of E minor’s tonic triad (E, G, B), but in “first inversion,” with the G as bass rather than E. The next 12 measures move slowly but firmly away from E minor, until the melody naturally returns to its beginning at measure 13. It all begins again, but this time the move away from E minor is faster, becoming desperate for three climactic measures that briefly whisk us away from the main melody. When the melody returns, the left hand does everything it can to avoid landing on a final E minor triad, twice supplying “deceptive cadences”—harmonization of the note “E” with a chord other than E minor. Then, a poignant, silent measure and at last a reluctant, sepulchral pronouncement of E minor in all its tragic finality. It was the one piece that Chopin requested be played at his funeral.

Multiply the power of this single expression by 24 and you will have some idea of the artistry of Chopin’s preludes. The composer died at age 39 knowing that his music had found a place of distinction among his colleagues. While Chopin’s enduring fame rests upon his expansive catalog, the preludes are ranked near, if not at, the top. His friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt said of them:

“The Préludes of Chopin are compositions which stand quite apart, in an order of their own. … There is about them that freedom and grandeur which are the characteristics of works of genius.”

Former music critic for the Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, Kenneth LaFave recently earned a doctorate in philosophy, art, and critical thought from the European Graduate School. He's the author of three books, including “Experiencing Film Music” (2017, Rowman & Littlefield).
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