Recorded on 03/01/1996, uploaded on 01/06/2010
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Chopin’s 24 preludes, one in each of the major and minor key, were composed over a five year period between 1835 and 1839. They were published shortly thereafter by Camille Pleyel, son of the famous piano manufacturer Ignaz Pleyel. However, opinions of the preludes were mixed among Chopin’s contemporaries. Robert Schumann thought them to be “sketches, beginnings of etudes, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions.” Franz Liszt, on the other hand, was exceedingly more favorable in his critique, stating they were “compositions of an order entirely apart” and “poetic preludes.” Today, however, they have long become a fixture in the standard repertoire of the pianist and perhaps are only second to Johann Sebastian Bach’s own sets of preludes.
Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier no doubt exerted its influence over Chopin’s own preludes. He was known to have studied Bach’s music, which at the time was only slowly becoming available in printed editions thanks to Mendelssohn’s successful performance of the St. Matthew Passion, though never performed it in public. There are, however, difference, if only trivial ones, between the two collections. Bach’s collection, as is well-known, is ordered ascending chromatically from C, whereas Chopin’s proceeds around the circle of fifths in relative major and minor pairs. Perhaps this difference could be attributed to the furthering of tonal harmonic thought between Bach’s time and Chopin’s. However, a more likely explanation could be related to the second difference between the two. Each prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier is paired with a fugue, establishing each prelude-fugue set as a distinct, individual piece in its own right. Chopin’s preludes, on the other hand, have no such accompanying piece making them either dependent on another piece, chosen by the performer, or on the following prelude, in which case the progression from one key to its relative minor, or even possibly to its dominant if every other prelude is performed, being a much stronger and convincing key relationship than if they were ordered by the chromatic scale.
Among the 24 preludes, a handful has achieved a reputation for themselves apart from the collection as a whole. First among these is the Prelude in E minor, well-known (and a favorite for theoretical analysis) for its extensive chromatic harmony. Another is the Prelude in D-flat major, universally known by the epithet “Raindrop” given to it by Hans von Bülow. One of the longer pieces of the collection, the prelude embodies a full-fledged ternary design with a repeated A-flat that persists through much of the piece. The outer sections are peaceful but the middle section shifts to a stormy C-sharp minor. Lastly, the Prelude in C minor is perhaps the most famous of all the preludes. A mere thirteen measures in length, it was dubbed the “Funeral March” prelude by Bülow because of its weighty and slow progression. Joseph DuBose
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