Release Date: 1990

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Producers: Hanno Rinke / Karl August Naegler

Recording place: Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg

Total playing time: LP / CD [45:12]

Copyright: © 1990 Deutsche Grammophon



I must admit that I do not wholly understand the title that Chopin chose to give these short pieces. It is easy to sympathize with André Gide’s perplexity. The truth is that the 24 Préludes op. 28 gave a quite new meaning to their genre title. Like the “impromptu” and the “fantasy”, the “prelude” before Chopin had rather specific links with the practice of improvisation, an essential ingredient of salons and benefit concerts in the early 19th century. Chopin used all three titles, but in a rather different spirit. His 24 Préludes, like his four impromptus and two late fantasies, might almost have been devised to banish once and for all any remaining associations with extempore performance. Certainly they transcend such associations. They are musical works of substance and weight, not composed-out improvisations, and their dignity as musical works is enhanced by cyclic cross-references between the constituent pieces of all three genres. The mature Chopin was defiantly a composer, not a pianist-composer.
The Préludes are not then to be compared with those of Clementi, Hummel, Kalkbrenner or Moscheles, all of which retain close links with the traditional inductive functions of an improvisatory prelude — testing the instrument, especially its tuning; giving practice in the key and mood of the piece to follow; preparing the audience for a performance, and so forth. If we seek a helpful context for op. 28, it is to be found rather in the Well-tempered Clavier, and it is no doubt significant that Chopin brought the Bach with him to Majorca, where he put the finishing touches to his own preludes in 1838–39. Like each volume of the “48” Chopin’s pieces form a complete cycle of the major and minor keys, though the pairing is through tonal relatives (C major A minor) rather than Bach’s monotonalitv (C major – C minor). But the affinities reach far beyond the cyclic tonal scheme, which was in anycase fairly common in the early 19th century.

Much of the figuration in the Préludes, for instance, has clear origins in Bach. We might think of the moto perpetuo patterns which characterize the E flat minor (no. 14), the E flat major (no. 19), and the B major (no. 11), the last a kind of three-part invention. There are tempting parallels here with Bach’s fifth prelude from Book 1, or the 21st from Book 2. Chopin also shared with Bach a capacity to construct figuration which generates a clear harmonic flow, while at the same time permitting linear elements to emerge through the pattern. The first and fifth of the Preludes, in C major and D major respectively, are typical, both of them elaborating a two-note “trill” motive which grows out of the intricate pattern. We might compare them with the twelfth prelude from Book 1. Above all, Chopin owed his highly personal contrapuntal technique to his close study of Bach, achieving a counterpoint as perfectly suited to the piano, with its capacity to shade and differentiate voices, as is Bach’s to the uniform touch of the harpsichord or organ. Throughout the Préludes deceptively simple textures often conceal a wealth of contrapuntal infonnation, where fragments of melody or figuration constantly emerge from and recede into the overall musical fabric Even the figure in the first Prelude is a subtle compound of discrete though interactive particles. and there is a comparable “mixture” in the F sharp major (no. 8). Like Bach. moreover, Chopin enjoyed a real polarity of melody and “singing” bass, as in the E major (no. 9 and he devised on occasion a bass which could serse the dual function of harmonic support and polyphonic (melodic) line, as in the B minor (no. 6).
Formally, too, the Preludes have more in common with Baroque practice crystallizing a single Affekt in a single pattern – than with the drives and tensions of Classical formal archetypes. They tend to unfold either within a ternary design, as in no. 15 in D flat major (the so-called “Raindrop” Prelude) and no. 17 in A flat major, or as a simple statement with conflated response, as in no. 3 in G major and no. 12 in G sharp minor. The external patterns are straightforward. then. but lengthy tomes could be written about the subtle and varied means by which Chopin integrates sections across the formal divisions, or about the dynamic. carefully paced intensity curves with which he overlays his simple formal designs. Nothing could be more wrongheaded than the once widely-held belief that Chopin had an undeveloped, even primitive, sense of form.

By returning to Bach and rethinking the preludes of the “48” in the terms of a different medium, Chopin gave his own set a special weight and significance. Yet Gide’s queries are not fully answered by the Bach connection, powerful though it is. “Preludes to what?”, Gide went on to ask. Chopin’s are indeed the first preludes to be presented as a unified cycle of self-contained pieces. He sought and achieved in these pieces something close to perfection of form within the framework of the miniature, expertly gauging the relationship of the musical substance to a restricted time-scale. Each prelude is itself a whole, with its own Affekt (the widest range of moods is encompassed), its own melodic, harmonic and rhythmic profile, and even its own generic character (at various times Chopin evokes the worlds of the nocturne (no. 13), the study (no. 16), the mazurka (no. 7), the funeral march (no. 2) and the elegy (no. 4). At the same time the individual preludes contribute to a single overriding whole, a true “cycle” enriched by the complementary characters of its components and integrated by the special logic of their ordering.

From a purely formal viewpoint, that ordering is determined by the tonal scheme, tracing as it does a circular path through the rich and varied landscape of the individual pieces. But, as Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger has argued in a recent study, there are also motivic links between the preludes, extensive enough to justify describing the work in its entirety as an extended, organically conceived cycle.

Op. 28 remains an utterly unique achievement. At the same time it had a legacy, for later composers were happy to follow Chopin’s lead in broadening, the generic meaning of the “prelude”. After Chopin the title was used frequently to refer to a self-contained miniature which might be published separately (as with Chopin’s Own later Prélude op. 45) or as part of a larger collection. It will be enough to refer to Scriabin’s 24 Preludes op. 11, which followed Chopin’s tonal scheme, to the sets by Fauré and Rachmaninov, and to the Nine Preludes op. 1 by Chopin’s later compatriot Karol Szymanowski.
We might mention also the two books of Preludes written by Debussy, the composer who, more than any other, translated Chopin’s idiomatic achievement into the language of 20th century pianism. None of these cycles would have taken the form they did without the example of Chopin.

© Jim Samson / Deutsche Grammophon