Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Frédéric Chopin

For many of Chopin's 24 Preludes, the title prelude can be a misleading one -- while keyboard improvisation of one piece as a prelude to another was very much alive during the 1830s, and while it is on record that Chopin did in fact employ some of the preludes in this way, it seems indisputable that the real intent was for the preludes to stand on their own, preferably in a complete performance. The selection of title may be as much a nod in the direction of J. S. Bach, whose own Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys (the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier) exerted a heavy influence on Chopin.

The gamut of emotions contained within the collection is impressive. None of the preludes is particularly long, and some of them, like the very first, are of almost disconcerting brevity. One of the few preludes that expresses true sadness (in the proper sense of the word), the Prelude No. 4 in E minor (Largo), was performed at the composer's own funeral service (also on the program were the sixth and twentieth preludes and the Mozart Requiem). The languid, chordal accompaniment provides effective support for the prelude's tormented melody. Rarely has so much grief been poured to such powerful effect into so tiny a mold.

If the emotional tenor of this E minor Prelude can be tied to events in the composer's life, those events must have been devastating to have created such a despondent mood. That said, this famous prelude is a beautiful expression of such an abject sadness. The piece was one of 24 in the Op. 28 set that Chopin began in the aftermath of his breakup with Countess Delphine Potocka. He would begin an affair with writer George Sand (Aurore Dupin Dudevant) in 1838, however. If this work is related to his love life, it must have been written during its lowest nadir.

This prelude begins with a melody which might strike the uninitiated ear as merely gloomy descending chords, so long-breathed and obsessive it is in its slow-paced downward tread. The music seems to be weeping and growing more listless as its end nears. The gloomy harmony, enacted by the left hand in a repetitive funereal gait, imparts a sense of doom, as if expressing fateful tolling bells. This two-minute piece ends quietly, somberly, and resigned to its message of sadness. For all its sorrows, this is one of the most popular preludes in the set.