Preludes

Valldemossa Monastery The preludes are for several reasons very much related to the études of Op. 10 and Op. 25. While composing them, Chopin had a conception similar to Bach with the Well Tempered Clavier: like his predecessor, Chopin put all preludes into an order of tonalities, however with a difference; in the Well Tempered Clavier all tonalities rise chromatically, while Chopin put his preludes into an order that follows the circle of tonalities. It is known that Chopin studied thoroughly the works of Bach before writing his preludes. He admired a lot the perfection of form and harmony in Bach’s music. In spite of this example, however, Chopin created something completely new. Originally the french word “prélude” means nothing more than “introduction,” but in this form Chopin let the 24 preludes develop into independent pieces of music.

So much for the preludes. They are very beautiful and are worthy of the closest study and pains, not with a view of perfecting any stereotyped manner of playing each one, but of discovering the various methods which may be employed to bring out their beauty. Half the attraction of a beautiful woman lies in the various dresses she wears. She may be in blue to-day, in grey to-morrow, and in pink the day after, and with every change she appears more beautiful. So it is with the preludes. Each has a large wardrobe of different dresses. Do not, then, always dress them in the same colours.
- Vladimir de Pachmann

Chopin’s preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart. They are not only, as the title might make one think, pieces destined to be played in the guise of introductions to other pieces; they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams, and elevates it to the regions of the ideal.
- Franz Liszt (1841)

I would term the preludes strange. They are sketches, beginnings of études, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions.
- Robert Schumann

Prelude in C Major, Op. 28 No. 1 — Agitato

This is an arabesque of the finest colours. Vladimir de Pachmann: “The first one is in a style that reminds one very forcibly of Schumann.” Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Reunion. It was composed in Majorca in January 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel and Johann Kessler.

Prelude in A Minor, Op. 28 No. 2 — Lento

Some say this prelude was composed in Stuttgart. The Polish pianist Jan Kleczynski (1837-1895) preferred to play the first prelude two times, and then skip this prelude, because he felt this prelude was too bizarre to play. Vladimir de Pachmann: “The second is, I think, somewhat poor and I remember that Liszt himself once told me that he thought it a little weak.” It was composed in Majorca, Nov/Dec of 1838 and published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Presentiment of Death.

Prelude in G Major, Op. 28 No. 3 — Vivace

This work was composed between 1836 and 1839; it was finally published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Vladimir de Pachmann: “The third, though it has not a very high meaning, is a delightful little prelude. The melody is so smooth that it reminds me of oil floating on water, while a sort of zither accompaniment is running.” Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Thou Art So Like a Flower.

Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4 — Largo

Walter Gieseking recommends pedalling during the opening of this prelude: “The right-hand upbeat is very important. Pedal first on the second note and hold the same pedal into the first measure.” This prelude was played by organ at Chopin’s funeral. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Suffocation. It was composed in Majorca, in November and December 1838 and published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in D Major, Op. 28 No. 5 — Allegro molto

Hans von Bulow called this prelude Uncertainty. It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839. It is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in B Minor, Op. 28 No. 6 — Lento assai

Hans von Bulow called this prelude Tolling Bells. It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and finally published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in A Major, Op. 28 No. 7 — Andantino

Dencausse Federico Mompou (1893-1987) composed a Variaciones sobre un tema di Chopin based on this prelude. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Polish Dancer. It was composed in 1836, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28 No. 8 — Molto agitato

Some say this one was composed in Majorca during a thunderstorm. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Desperation. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in E Major, Op. 28 No. 9 — Largo

This prelude uses 48 different chords! Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Vision. It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 28 No. 10 — Allegro molto

This work was composed in Majorca in November and December of 1838. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. It is a little cappricio. Vladimir de Pachmann: “In the tenth Chopin seems to me to point at and imitate his master, Hummel.” Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Night Moth:

A night moth is flying around the room there! It has suddenly hidden itself (the sustained G Sharp); only its wings twitch a little. In a moment it takes flight anew and again settles down in darkness — its wings flutter (trill in the left hand). This happens several times, but at the last, just as the wings begin to quiver again, the busybody who lives in the room aims a stroke at the poor insect. It twitches once... and dies.

Prelude in B Major, Op. 28 No. 11 — Vivace

Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Dragon Fly. It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839. It is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 28 No. 12 — Presto

This one could have been an etude as well. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Duel. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in F-sharp Major, Op. 28 No. 13 — Lento

Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Loss. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in E-flat Minor, Op. 28 No. 14 — Allegro

Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Fear. Composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839, it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

This is a torturous, frustrated piece. It wants to go in a certain direction, starting as if to go forwards. Then it falters and falls back. It is a very chromatic work, alternating between minor and major. At the end you fall on the tonic without a preceding dominant. You are here but have no solution. This is the atmosphere I find; therefore I don’t play it quickly because I would lose this torturous, frustrated, faltering, contradictory quality.
- Tamas Vasary

Prelude in D-flat Major, Op. 28 No. 15 — Sostenuto

This work was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Raindrop.

There is one that came to him through an evening of dismal rain—it casts the soul into a terrible dejection. Maurice and I had left him in good health one morning to go shopping in Palma for things we needed at our “encampment.” The rain came in overflowing torrents. We made three leagues in six hours, only to return in the middle of a flood. We got back in absolute dark, shoeless, having been abandoned by our driver to cross unheard of perils. We hurried, knowing how our sick one would worry. Indeed he had, but now was as though congealed in a kind of quiet desperation, and, weeping, he was playing his wonderful prelude. Seeing us come in, he got up with a cry, then said with a bewildered air and a strange tone, “Ah, I was sure that you were dead.” When he recovered his spirits and saw the state we were in, he was ill, picturing the dangers we had been through, but he confessed to me that while waiting for us he had seen it all in a dream, and no longer distinguishing the dream from reality, he became calm and drowsy. While playing the piano, persuaded that he was dead himself, he saw himself drown in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might—and he was right to—against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds. His composition of that night was surely filled with raindrops, resounding clearly on the tiles of the Charterhouse, but it had been transformed in his imagination and in his song into tears falling upon his heart from the sky.
- George Sand

Sand does not specify the key or number of the prelude written on this occasion, and, although the D-flat major prelude is usually given the informal title, Raindrop, the story could in fact apply to any of the melancholy preludes with a repetitive figure (A minor, E minor, B minor, as well as D-flat major).

Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 28 No. 16 — Presto con fuoco

If one plays this prelude in the desired whirlwind tempo, presto con fuoco, one will find that the prime difficulty of this prelude is not the obvious difficulty of the right-hand 16th notes, but the follow-through motion required to play the three-note left-hand groups all in one sweep.

The sixteenth is my great favorite! It is la plus grande tour de force in Chopin. It is the most difficult of all the preludes technically, possibly excepting the nineteenth. In this case, presto is not enough. It should be played prestissimo, or, better still, vivacissimo.
- Vladimir De Pachmann

Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Hades. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in A-flat Major, Op. 28 No. 17 — Allegretto

This piece is a little romance, in which Chopin introduces some harmonies not previously found in other compositions. This one was the favorite of Clara Schumann and Anton Rubinstein. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, A Scene on the Place de Notre-Dame de Paris. It was composed in 1836, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in F Minor, Op. 28 No. 18 — Allegro molto

Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Suicide. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in E-flat Major, Op. 28 No. 19 — Vivace

Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Heartfelt Happiness. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in C Minor, Op. 28 No. 20 — Largo

Composed between 1836-1839, published in 1839, dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Chopin originally ended this piece at bar 9. Based on this prelude, Rachmanninov composed his Variations on a Theme of Chopin. These variations scare off even the best of pianists—they last more than a half of an hour and they are both technically and musically demanding. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Funeral March.

Prelude in B-flat Major, Op. 28 No. 21 — Cantabile

This work was composed in Majorca, in November and December of 1838. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Hans von Bulow called it, Sunday.

Prelude in G Minor, Op. 28 No. 22 — Molto agitato

Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Impatience. It was composed between 1836 and 1839. It was published in 1839, dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Vladimir de Pachmann: “In the twenty-second Prelude, Chopin created energetic modern octave play. It was the first prelude of its kind in the world.”

Prelude in F Major, Op. 28 No. 23 — Moderato

Hans von Bulow called this prelude, A Pleasure Boat. Vladimir de Pachmann: “In the twenty-third Prelude pretty well all the editions indicate short legato passages. Chopin never played such passages. He sometimes introduced a long legato passage, but never short ones of a few notes only.” It was composed between 1836 and 1839. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in D Minor, Op. 28 No. 24 — Allegro appassionato

Vladimir de Pachmann: “In the twenty-fourth the amateur would do well to remember that the whole beauty of this prelude is generally spoilt by the left-hand notes being banged. These should be masked the whole time and should never be allowed to drown the right hand.” Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Storm. It was composed between 1836 and 1839. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.

Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45

Op. 45 is the twenty-fifth prelude with widely extending basses and shifting harmonic hues. It is a bit dark and elegiac but pinpricked with more hopeful excerpts, though still ultimately sorrowful.

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This page was last updated on 6 May 2013