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Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric Chopin's 24 Preludes were published in mid-1839, immediately after the composer's wintertime stay with writer George Sand on the island of Majorca. Chopin had been paid 2,000 francs for the copyright by Parisian publisher Camille Pleyel, son of the more famous Ignaz Pleyel. Evidence, some of it in the composer's own correspondence, seems to indicate that the majority of these works were composed in 1837 and 1838. For many of these pieces, the title Prelude can be a misleading one. The practice of "preluding" was very much alive during this period, and Chopin's preluding abilities are well-documented. During a live performance, preluding was a way of preparing the atmosphere of the major work by means of a brief, usually improvised, introductory piece that often made a modulation from the key of the preceding work to the key of the next. 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 also be a nod in the direction of J.S. Bach, whose own Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys, better known as the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, exerted a heavy influence on Chopin.

The gamut of emotions contained within the collection of 24 preludes is impressive. None of them is particularly long, and some of them, like the very first, are of almost disconcerting brevity. The truncated formal structures and abbreviated phrase patterns that result from this general miniaturization, far from diminishing the works' expressive power, actually serve to focus each of the pieces in an extraordinarily effective way. On a large scale, the 24 Preludes are organized by key group: C major, its relative minor A minor, G major, its relative minor E major, and so on, moving up the circle of fifths until the final Prelude in D minor.

-- Blair Johnston, All Music Guide