Moods in Miniature - The Preludes of Chopin

By James Huneker.

The Preludes bear the opus number 28 and are dedicated to J. C. Kessler, a composer of well-known piano studies. It is only the German edition that bears his name, the French and English being inscribed by Chopin “a son ami Pleyel.” As Pleyel advanced the pianist 2,000 francs for the Preludes he had a right to say:

“These are my Preludes.”

Niecks is authority for Chopin’s remark:

“I sold the Preludes to Pleyel because he liked them.”

This was in 1838, when Chopin’s health demanded a change of climate. He wished to go to Majorca with Madame Sand and her children, and had applied for money to the piano maker and publisher, Camille Pleyel. He received but five hundred francs in advance, the balance being paid on delivery of the manuscript.

The Preludes were published in 1839, yet there is internal evidence which proves that most of them had been composed before the trip to the Balearic Islands. This will upset the very pretty legend of music making at the monastery of Valdemosa. Have we not all read with sweet credulity the eloquent pages in George Sand in which the storm is described that overtook the novelist and her son Maurice? After terrible trials, dangers and delays, they reached their home and found Chopin at the piano. Uttering a cry, he arose and stared at the pair. “Ah! I knew well that you were dead.” It was the sixth prelude, the one in B minor, that he played, and dreaming, as Sand writes, that “he saw himself drowned in a lake; heavy, ice cold drops of water fell at regular intervals upon his breast; and when I called his attention to those drops of water which were actually falling upon the roof, he denied having heard them. He was even vexed at what I translated by the term, imitative harmony. He protested with all his might, and he was right, against the puerility of these imitations for the ear. His genius was full of mysterious harmonies of nature.”

Yet this prelude was composed previous to the Majorcan episode.  “The Preludes,” says Niecks, “consist—to a great extent, at least—of pickings from the composer’s portfolios, of pieces, sketches and memoranda written at various times and kept to be utilized when occasion might offer.”

Gutmann, Chopin’s pupil, who nursed him to the last, declared the Preludes to have been composed before he went away with Madame Sand, and to Niecks personally he maintained that he had copied all of them. Niecks does not credit him altogether, for there are letters in which several of the Preludes are mentioned as being sent to Paris, so he reaches the conclusion that “Chopin’s labors at Majorca on the Preludes were confined to selecting, filing and polishing.” This seems to be a sensible solution.

Robert Schumann wrote of these Preludes: “I must signalize them as most remarkable. I will confess I expected something quite different, carried out in the grand style of his studies. It is almost the contrary here; these are sketches, the beginning of studies, or, if you will, ruins, eagles’ feathers, all strangely intermingled. But in every piece we find in his own hand, ‘Frederic Chopin wrote it.’ One recognizes him in his pauses, in his impetuous respiration. He is the boldest, the proudest poet soul of his time. To be sure the book also contains some morbid, feverish, repellant traits; but let everyone look in it for something that will enchant him. Philistines, however, must keep away.”

It was in these Preludes that Ignaz Moscheles first comprehended Chopin and his methods of execution. The German pianist had found his music harsh and dilettantish in modulation, but Chopin’s originality of performance—“he glides lightly over the keys in a fairy-like way with his delicate fingers”—quite reconciled the elder man to this strange music.

To Liszt the Preludes seem modestly named, but “are not the less types of perfection in a mode created by himself, and stamped like all his other works with the high impress of his poetic genius. Written in the commencement of his career, they are characterized by a youthful vigor not to be found in some of his subsequent works, even when more elaborate, finished and richer in combinations; a vigor which is entirely lost in his latest productions, marked by an overexcited sensibility, a morbid irritability, and giving painful intimations of his own state of suffering and exhaustion.”

Liszt, as usual, erred on the sentimental side. Chopin, being essentially a man of moods, like many great men, and not necessarily feminine in this respect, cannot always be pinned down to any particular period. Several of the Preludes are very morbid—I purposely use this word—as is some of his early music, while he seems quite gay just before his death.

“The Preludes follow out no technical idea, are free creations on a small basis, and exhibit the musician in all his versatility,” says Louis Ehlert. “No work of Chopin’s portrays his inner organization so faithfully and completely. Much is embryonic. It is as though he turned the leaves of his fancy without completely reading any page. Still, one finds in them the thundering power of the Scherzi, the half satirical, half coquettish elegance of the Mazurkas, and the southern, luxuriously fragrant breath of the Nocturnes. Often it is as though they were small falling stars dissolved into tones as they fall.”

Jean Kleczynski, who is credited with understanding Chopin, himself a Pole and a pianist, thinks that “people have gone too far in seeking in the Preludes for traces of that misanthropy, of that weariness of life to which he was prey during his stay in the Island of Majorca...Very few of the Preludes present this character of ennui, and that which is the most marked, the second one, must have been written, according to Count Tarnowski, a long time before he went to Majorca. ... What is there to say concerning the other Preludes, full of good humor and gaiety—No.  18, in E flat; No. 21, in B flat; No. 23, in F, or the last, in D minor? Is it not strong and energetic, concluding, as it does, with three cannon shots?”

Willeby in his “Frederic Francois Chopin” considers at length the Preludes. He agrees in the main with Niecks, that certain of these compositions were written at Valdemosa—Nos. 4, 6, 9, 13, 20 and 21--and that “Chopin, having sketches of others with him, completed the whole there, and published them under one opus number. ... The atmosphere of those I have named is morbid and azotic; to them there clings a faint flavor of disease, a something which is overripe in its lusciousness and febrile in its passion. This in itself inclines me to believe they were written at the time named.”

This is all very well, but Chopin was faint and febrile in his music before he went to Majorca, and the plain facts adduced by Gutmann and Niecks cannot be passed over. Henry James, an old admirer of Madame Sand, admits her utter unreliability, and so we may look upon her evidence as romantic but by no means infallible. The case now stands: Chopin may have written a few of the Preludes at Majorca, filed them, finished them, but the majority of them were in his portfolio in 1837 and 1838. Op. 45, a separate Prelude in C sharp minor, was published in December, 1841. It was composed at Nohant in August of that year. It is dedicated to Mme. la Princesse Elizabeth Czernicheff, whose name, as Chopin confesses in a letter, he knows not how to spell.



Theodore Kullak is curt and pedagogic in his preface to the Preludes. He writes:

Chopin’s genius nowhere reveals itself more charmingly than within narrowly bounded musical forms. The Preludes are, in their aphoristic brevity, masterpieces of the first rank. Some of them appear like briefly sketched mood pictures related to the nocturne style, and offer no technical hindrance even to the less advanced player. I mean Nos. 4, 6, 7, 9, 15 and 20.  More difficult are Nos. 17, 25 and 11, without, however, demanding eminent virtuosity. The other Preludes belong to a species of character-etude. Despite their brevity of outline they are on a par with the great collections op. 10 and op.  25. In so far as it is practicable—special cases of individual endowments not being taken into consideration—I would propose the following order of succession: Begin with Nos. 1, 14, 10, 22, 23, 3 and 18. Very great bravura is demanded by Nos. 12, 8, 16 and 24. The difficulty of the other Preludes, Nos. 2, 5, 13, 19 and 21, lies in the delicate piano and legato technique, which, on account of the extended positions, leaps and double notes, presupposes a high degree of development.

This is eminently a common sense grouping. The first prelude, which, like the first etude, begins in C, has all the characteristics of an impromptu. We know the wonderful Bach Preludes, which grew out of a free improvisation to the collection of dance forms called a suite, and the preludes which precede his fugues. In the latter Bach sometimes exhibits all the objectivity of the study or toccata, and often wears his heart in full view. Chopin’s Preludes—the only preludes to be compared to Bach’s—are largely personal, subjective, and intimate. This first one is not Bach-ian, yet it could have been written by no one but a devout Bach student. The pulsating, passionate, agitated, feverish, hasty qualities of the piece are modern; so is the changeful modulation. It is a beautiful composition, rising to no dramatic heights, but questioning and full of life.  Klindworth writes in triplet groups, Kullak in quintolets.  Breitkopf & Hartel do not. Dr. Hugo Riemann, who has edited a few of the Preludes, phrases the first bars thus:

Desperate and exasperating to the nerves is the second prelude in A minor. It is an asymmetric tune. Chopin seldom wrote ugly music, but is this not ugly, forlorn, despairing, almost grotesque, and discordant? It indicates the deepest depression in its sluggish, snake-like progression. Willeby finds a resemblance to the theme of the first nocturne. And such a theme! The tonality is vague, beginning in E minor. Chopin’s method of thematic parallelism is here very clear. A small figure is repeated in descending keys until hopeless gloom and depraved melancholy are reached in the closing chords. Chopin now is morbid, here are all his most antipathetic qualities. There is aversion to life—in this music he is a true lycanthrope. A self-induced hypnosis, a mental, an emotional atrophy are all present.

Kullak divides the accompaniment, difficult for small hands, between the two. Riemann detaches the eighth notes of the bass figures, as is his wont, for greater clearness. Like Klindworth, he accents heavily the final chords. He marks his metronome 50 to the half note. All the editions are lento with alla breve.

That the Preludes are a sheaf of moods, loosely held together by the rather vague title, is demonstrated by the third, in the key of G. The rippling, rain-like figure for the left hand is in the nature of a study. The melody is delicate in sentiment, Gallic in its esprit. A true salon piece, this prelude has no hint of artificiality. It is a precise antithesis to the mood of the previous one. Graceful and gay, the G major prelude is a fair reflex of Chopin’s sensitive and naturally buoyant nature. It requires a light hand and nimble fingers. The melodic idea requires no special comment. Kullak phrases it differently from Riemann and Klindworth. The latter is the preferable. Klindworth gives 72 to the half note as his metronomic marking, Riemann only 60--which is too slow—while Klindworth contents himself by marking a simple Vivace. Regarding the fingering one may say that all tastes are pleased in these three editions. Klindworth’s is the easiest. Riemann breaks up the phrase in the bass figure, but I cannot see the gain on the musical side.

Niecks truthfully calls the fourth prelude in E minor “a little poem, the exquisitely sweet, languid pensiveness of which defies description. The composer seems to be absorbed in the narrow sphere of his ego, from which the wide, noisy world is for the time shut out.” Willeby finds this prelude to be “one of the most beautiful of these spontaneous sketches; for they are no more than sketches. The melody seems literally to wail, and reaches its greatest pitch of intensity at the stretto.” For Karasowski it is a “real gem, and alone would immortalize the name of Chopin as a poet.” It must have been this number that impelled Rubinstein to assert that the Preludes were the pearls of his works. In the Klindworth edition, fifth bar from the last, the editor has filled in the harmonies to the first six notes of the left hand, added thirds, which is not reprehensible, although uncalled for. Kullak makes some new dynamic markings and several enharmonic changes. He also gives as metronome 69 to the quarter.  This tiny prelude contains wonderful music. The grave reiteration of the theme may have suggested to Peter Cornelius his song “Ein Ton.” Chopin expands a melodic unit, and one singularly pathetic.  The whole is like some canvas by Rembrandt, Rembrandt who first dramatized the shadow in which a single motif is powerfully handled; some sombre effect of echoing light in the profound of a Dutch interior. For background Chopin has substituted his soul; no one in art, except Bach or Rembrandt, could paint as Chopin did in this composition. Its despair has the antique flavor, and there is a breadth, nobility and proud submission quite free from the tortured, whimpering complaint of the second prelude. The picture is small, but the subject looms large in meanings.

The fifth prelude in D is Chopin at his happiest. Its arabesque pattern conveys a most charming content; and there is a dewy freshness, a joy in life, that puts to flight much of the morbid tittle-tattle about Chopin’s sickly soul. The few bars of this prelude, so seldom heard in public, reveal musicianship of the highest order. The harmonic scheme is intricate; Klindworth phrases the first four bars so as to bring out the alternate B and B flat. It is Chopin spinning his finest, his most iridescent web.

The next prelude, the sixth, in B minor, is doleful, pessimistic.  As George Sand says: “It precipitates the soul into frightful depression.” It is the most frequently played—and oh! how meaninglessly—prelude of the set; this and the one in D flat.  Classical is its repression of feeling, its pure contour. The echo effect is skilfully managed, monotony being artfully avoided. Klindworth rightfully slurs the duple group of eighths;

Kullak tries for the same effect by different means. The duality of the voices should be clearly expressed. The tempo, marked in both editions, lento assai, is fast. To be precise, Klindworth gives 66 to the quarter.

The plaintive little mazurka of two lines, the seventh prelude, is a mere silhouette of the national dance. Yet in its measures is compressed all Mazovia. Klindworth makes a variant in the fourth bar from the last, a G sharp instead of an F sharp. It is a more piquant climax, perhaps not admissible to the Chopin purist. In the F sharp minor prelude No. 7, Chopin gives us a taste of his grand manner. For Niecks the piece is jerky and agitated, and doubtless suggests a mental condition bordering on anxiety; but if frenzy there is, it is kept well in check by the exemplary taste of the composer. The sadness is rather elegiac, remote, and less poignant than in the E minor prelude. Harmonic heights are reached on the second page—surely Wagner knew these bars when he wrote “Tristan and Isolde”—while the ingenuity of the figure and avoidance of a rhythmical monotone are evidences of Chopin’s feeling for the decorative. It is a masterly prelude.  Klindworth accents the first of the bass triplets, and makes an unnecessary enharmonic change at the sixth and seventh lines.

There is a measure of grave content in the ninth prelude in E. It is rather gnomic, and contains hints of both Brahms and Beethoven. It has an ethical quality, but that may be because of its churchly rhythm and color.

The C sharp minor prelude, No. 10, must be the “eagle wings” of Schumann’s critique. There is a flash of steel gray, deepening into black, and then the vision vanishes as though some huge bird aloft had plunged down through blazing sunlight, leaving a color-echo in the void as it passed to its quarry. Or, to be less figurative, this prelude is a study in arpeggio, with double notes interspersed, and is too short to make more than a vivid impression.

No. II in B is all too brief. It is vivacious, dolce indeed, and most cleverly constructed. Klindworth gives a more binding character to the first double notes. Another gleam of the Chopin sunshine.

Storm clouds gather in the G sharp minor, the twelfth prelude, so unwittingly imitated by Grieg in his Menuetto of the same key, and in its driving presto we feel the passionate clench of Chopin’s hand. It is convulsed with woe, but the intellectual grip, the self-command are never lost in these two pages of perfect writing. The figure is suggestive, and there is a well defined technical problem, as well as a psychical character.  Disputed territory is here: the editors do not agree about the twelfth and eleventh bars from the last. According to Breitkopf & Hartel the bass octaves are E both times. Mikuli gives G sharp the first time instead of E; Klindworth, G sharp the second time;

Riemann, E, and also Kullak. The G sharp seems more various.

In the thirteenth prelude, F sharp major, here is lovely atmosphere, pure and peaceful. The composer has found mental rest. Exquisitely poised are his pinions for flight, and in the piu lento he wheels significantly and majestically about in the blue. The return to earth is the signal for some strange modulatory tactics. It is an impressive close. Then, almost without pause, the blood begins to boil in this fragile man’s veins. His pulse beat increases, and with stifled rage he rushes into the battle. It is the fourteenth prelude in the sinister key of E flat minor, and its heavy, sullen-arched triplets recalls for Niecks the last movement of the B flat minor Sonata; but there is less interrogation in the prelude, less sophistication, and the heat of conflict over it all. There is not a break in the clouds until the beginning of the fifteenth, the familiar prelude in D flat.

This must be George Sand’s: “Some of them create such vivid impressions that the shades of dead monks seem to rise and pass before the hearer in solemn and gloomy funereal pomp.” The work needs no programme. Its serene beginning, lugubrious interlude, with the dominant pedal never ceasing, a basso ostinato, gives color to Kleczynski’s contention that the prelude in B minor is a mere sketch of the idea fully elaborated in No. 15. “The foundation of the picture is the drops of rain falling at regular intervals”—the echo principle again—“which by their continual patter bring the mind to a state of sadness; a melody full of tears is heard through the rush of the rain; then passing to the key of C sharp minor, it rises from the depths of the bass to a prodigious crescendo, indicative of the terror which nature in its deathly aspect excites in the heart of man. Here again the form does not allow the ideas to become too sombre; notwithstanding the melancholy which seizes you, a feeling of tranquil grandeur revives you.” To Niecks, the C sharp minor portion affects one as in an oppressive dream: “The re-entrance of the opening D flat, which dispels the dreadful nightmare, comes upon one with the smiling freshness of dear, familiar nature.”

The prelude has a nocturnal character. It has become slightly banal from frequent repetition, likewise the C sharp minor study in opus 25. But of its beauty, balance and exceeding chastity there can be no doubt. The architecture is at once Greek and Gothic.

The sixteenth prelude in the relative key of B flat minor is the boldest of the set. Its scale figures, seldom employed by Chopin, boil and glitter, the thematic thread of the idea never being quite submerged. Fascinating, full of perilous acclivities and sudden treacherous descents, this most brilliant of preludes is Chopin in riotous spirits. He plays with the keyboard: it is an avalanche, anon a cascade, then a swift stream, which finally, after mounting to the skies, descends to an abyss. Full of imaginative lift, caprice and stormy dynamics, this prelude is the darling of the virtuoso. Its pregnant introduction is like a madly jutting rock from which the eagle spirit of the composer precipitates itself.

In the twenty-third bar there is curious editorial discrepancy.  Klindworth uses an A natural in the first of the four groups of sixteenths, Kullak a B natural; Riemann follows Kullak. Nor is this all. Kullak in the second group, right hand, has an E flat, Klindworth a D natural. Which is correct? Klindworth’s texture is more closely chromatic and it sounds better, the chromatic parallelism being more carefully preserved. Yet I fancy that Kullak has tradition on his side.

The seventeenth prelude Niecks finds Mendelssohn-ian. I do not.  It is suave, sweet, well developed, yet Chopin to the core, and its harmonic life surprisingly rich and novel. The mood is one of tranquillity. The soul loses itself in early autumnal revery while there is yet splendor on earth and in the skies. Full of tonal contrasts, this highly finished composition is grateful to the touch. The eleven booming A flats on the last page are historical. Klindworth uses a B flat instead of a G at the beginning of the melody. It is logical, but is it Chopin?

The fiery recitatives of No. 18 in F minor are a glimpse of Chopin, muscular and not hectic. In these editions you will find three different groupings of the cadenzas. It is Riemann’s opportunity for pedagogic editing, and he does not miss it. In the first long breathed group of twenty-two sixteenth notes he phrases as shown on the following page.

It may be noticed that Riemann even changes the arrangement of the bars. This prelude is dramatic almost to an operatic degree.  Sonorous, rather grandiloquent, it is a study in declamation, the declamation of the slow movement in the F minor concerto.  Schumann may have had the first phrase in his mind when he wrote his Aufschwung.

What piano music is the nineteenth prelude in E flat! Its widely dispersed harmonies, its murmuring grace and June-like beauty, are they not Chopin, the Chopin we best love? He is ever the necromancer, ever invoking phantoms, but with its whirring melody and furtive caprice this particular shape is an alluring one. And difficult it is to interpret with all its plangent lyric freedom.

No. 20 in C minor contains in its thirteen bars the sorrows of a nation. It is without doubt a sketch for a funeral march, and of it George Sand must have been thinking when she wrote that one prelude of Chopin contained more music than all the trumpetings of Meyerbeer.

Of exceeding loveliness is the B flat major prelude, No. 21. It is superior in content and execution to most of the nocturnes. In feeling it belongs to that form. The melody is enchanting. The accompaniment figure shows inventive genius. Klindworth employs a short appoggiatura, Kullak the long, in the second bar. Judge of what is true editorial sciolism when I tell you that Riemann—who evidently believes in a rigid melodic structure—has inserted an E flat at the end of bar four, thus maiming the tender, elusive quality of Chopin’s theme. This is cruelly pedantic. The prelude arrests one in ecstasy; the fixed period of contemplation of the saint or the hypnotized sets in, and the awakening is almost painful. Chopin, adopting the relative minor key as a pendant to the picture in B flat, thrills the nerves by a bold dissonance in the next prelude, No. 22. Again, concise paragraphs filled with the smoke of revolt and conflict The impetuosity of this largely moulded piece in G minor, its daring harmonics,--read the seventeenth and eighteenth bars,--and dramatic note make it an admirable companion to the Prelude in F minor. Technically it serves as an octave study for the left hand.

In the concluding bar, but one, Chopin has in the F major Prelude attempted a most audacious feat in harmony. An E flat in the bass of the third group of sixteenths leaves the whole composition floating enigmatically in thin air. It deliciously colors the close, leaving a sense of suspense, of anticipation which is not tonally realized, for the succeeding number is in a widely divorced key. But it must have pressed hard the philistines. And this prelude, the twenty-third, is fashioned out of the most volatile stuff. Aerial, imponderable, and like a sun-shot spider web oscillating in the breeze of summer, its hues change at every puff. It is in extended harmonics and must be delivered with spirituality. The horny hand of the toilsome pianist would shatter the delicate, swinging fantasy of the poet. Kullak points out a variant in the fourteenth bar, G instead of B natural being used by Riemann. Klindworth prefers the latter.

We have reached the last prelude of op. 28. In D minor, it is sonorously tragic, troubled by fevers and visions, and capricious, irregular and massive in design. It may be placed among Chopin’s greater works: the two Etudes in C minor, the A minor, and the F sharp minor Prelude. The bass requires an unusual span, and the suggestion by Kullak, that the thumb of the right hand may eke out the weakness of the left is only for the timid and the small of fist. But I do not counsel following his two variants in the fifth and twenty-third bars. Chopin’s text is more telling. Like the vast reverberation of monstrous waves on the implacable coast of a remote world is this prelude. Despite its fatalistic ring, its note of despair is not dispiriting. Its issues are larger, more impersonal, more elemental than the other preludes. It is a veritable Appassionata, but its theatre is cosmic and no longer behind the closed doors of the cabinet of Chopin’s soul. The Seelenschrei of Stanislaw Przybyszewski is here, explosions of wrath and revolt; not Chopin suffers, but his countrymen. Kleczynski speaks of the three tones at the close.  They are the final clangor of oppressed, almost overthrown, reason. After the subject reappears in C minor there is a shift to D flat, and for a moment a point of repose is gained, but this elusive rest is brief. The theme reappears in the tonic and in octaves, and the tension becomes too great; the accumulated passion discharges and dissolves in a fierce gust of double chromatic thirds and octaves. Powerful, repellant, this prelude is almost infernal in its pride and scorn. But in it I discern no vestige of uncontrolled hysteria. It is well-nigh as strong, rank and human as Beethoven. The various editorial phraseology is not of much moment. Riemann uses thirty-second notes for the cadenzas, Kullak eighths and Klindworth sixteenths.

Niecks writes of the Prelude in C sharp minor, op. 45, that it “deserves its name better than almost any one of the twenty-four; still I would rather call it improvisata. It seems unpremeditated, a heedless outpouring, when sitting at the piano in a lonely, dreary hour, perhaps in the twilight. The quaver figure rises aspiringly, and the sustained parts swell out proudly. The piquant cadenza forestalls in the progression of diminished chords favorite effects of some of our more modern composers. The modulation from C sharp minor to D major and back again—after the cadenza—is very striking and equally beautiful.”

Elsewhere I have called attention to the Brahmsian coloring of this prelude. Its mood is fugitive and hard to hold after capture. Recondite it is and not music for the multitude.

Niecks does not think Chopin created a new type in the Preludes.  “They are too unlike each other in form and character.” Yet notwithstanding the fleeting, evanescent moods of the Preludes, there is designedly a certain unity of feeling and contrasted tonalities, all being grouped in approved Bach-ian manner. This may be demonstrated by playing them through at a sitting, which Arthur Friedheim, the Russian virtuoso, did in a concert with excellent effect. As if wishing to exhibit his genius in perspective, Chopin carved these cameos with exceeding fineness, exceeding care. In a few of them the idea overbalances the form, but the greater number are exquisite examples of a just proportion of manner and matter, a true blending of voice and vision. Even in the more microscopic ones the tracery, echoing like the spirals in strange seashells, is marvellously measured.  Much in miniature are these sculptured Preludes of the Polish poet.



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