This is a copy of Chopin’s Autograph of the first page of his Prelude 15. Note how he scratches out several measures of the score at the point where the Prelude changes from Db Major to C# Minor.
Frédéric Chopin wrote a number of preludes for piano solo, most famously his 24 Preludes, Op. 28.
Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28, are a set of short pieces for the piano, one in each of the twenty-four keys, originally published in 1839 and dedicated to Joseph Christoph Kessler, a composer of piano studies during Chopin’s time. Ten years earlier, Kessler had dedicated his own set of 24 Preludes, Op. 31, to Chopin. Although the term prelude is generally used to describe an introductory piece, Chopin’s stand as self-contained units, each conveying a specific idea or emotion.
The Op. 28 preludes were commissioned by the piano-maker and publisher Camille Pleyel for 2,000 francs. 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.
Due to their brevity and apparent lack of formal structure, the Op. 28 preludes caused some consternation among critics at the time of their publication. No prelude is longer than 90 measures (No. 17), and the shortest, No. 9, is a mere 12 measures. 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.
Description and analysis
Epithets are as given by Hans von Bülow. They are not official, and certainly not named by Chopin, but are cited in various sources as mnemonics. Only No. 15 “Raindrop” is universally used, but No. 20 is often referred to as the “Chord” prelude.
- Prelude No. 1 “Reunion”, marked agitato, is short and uniform with its triplet-semi-quaver figuration.
- Prelude No. 2 “Presentiment of Death” is an immediate contrast, with a slow melody over a fixed accompaniment of four-note chords played two eighth notes at a time.
- Prelude No. 3 “Thou Art So Like a Flower” is marked vivace, and has a running semiquaver bass part throughout.
- Prelude No. 4 “Suffocation” is one of the most famous pieces Chopin wrote; it was played at his 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. It is incorporated in conductor Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk on music and passion. Main article: Prelude, Op. 28, No. 4 (Chopin)
- Prelude No. 5 “Uncertainty” contains exuberant ostinati.
- Prelude No. 6 “Tolling Bells” (also played at Chopin’s funeral) features its melancholy melody primarily in the left hand.
- Prelude No. 7 “The Polish Dancer” is written in the style of a mazurka, in 3/4 time. It is the basis of Federico Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin.
- Prelude No. 8 “Desperation”, molto agitato, is 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.
- Prelude No. 9 “Vision” is a harmonically dense piece with a low “plodding” bass line.
- Prelude No. 10 “The Night Moth”, molto allegro, is short and light, with alternating triplet and non-triplet semiquavers in the right hand, over arpeggiato chords in the left.
- Prelude No. 11 “The Dragonfly” is in 6/8 time and is similarly brisk, with continuous quavers.
- Prelude No. 12 “The Duel” presents a technical challenge with its rapid hold-and-release of quavers against crotchets in the right hand, involving much chromatic movement.
- Prelude No. 13 “Loss”, lento, is 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.
- Prelude No. 14 “Fear” recalls Prelude No. 1 in its shortness and textural uniformity.
- Prelude No. 15 “Raindrop” is the longest 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 (its enharmonic (parallel) minor). Main article: Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15 (Chopin)
- Prelude No. 16 “Hades” 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 considered by many to be the most difficult of the set. Main article: Prelude, Op. 28, No. 16 (Chopin)
- Prelude No. 17 “A Scene on the Place de Notre-Dame de Paris” is one of the longest and the favourite of many musicians, including 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.”
- Prelude No. 18 “Suicide” is 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.
- Prelude No. 19 “Heartfelt Happiness”, vivace, 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.
- Prelude No. 20 “Funeral March” is short but quite popular, 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. It has been 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. Main article: Prelude, Op. 28, No. 20 (Chopin)
- Prelude No. 21 “Sunday” is marked cantabile, and features an easy melody in the right hand; the left has 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.
- Prelude No. 22 “Impatience”, molto agitato, is in 6/8 time; it begins with a characteristic dotted rhythm (quaver, dotted quaver, semiquaver) that Scriabin was later to make his own, in his early preludes that are perhaps the most important to emulate this genre of Chopin’s.
- Prelude No. 23 “A Pleasure Boat” is spacious and melodic in the left hand, with running semiquavers throughout in the right.
- Prelude No. 24 “The Storm”, 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.