The Preludes

Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 28

Within these very small frames, Chopin captures a universe of feeling and mood. There is a prelude for each major and minor key; many of them demand high virtuosity. James Friskin writes, “Perhaps no other collection of piano pieces contains within such a small compass so much that is at the same time musically and technically valuable.” Schumann thought them “eagle’s feathers, all strangely intermingled. But in every piece we find 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.” Finck feels that “if all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin’s Preludes. There are among Chopin’s preludes a few which breathe the spirit of contentment and grace, or of religious grandeur, but most of them are outbreaks of the wildest anguish and heart-rending pathos. If tears could be heard, they would sound like these preludes.”

Prelude No.1 in C major:
An exquisite example of Chopin’s devotion to Bach. Pulsating and agitated, it is over in half a minute,leaving the listener yearning for more.

No.2 in A minor:
Slow, indeed perversely morbid, in its musical makeup, but unforgettable.

No.3 in G major:
The right-hand melody is a puff of air. Ernest Hutcheson wrote, “It takes fairy fingers to compass the sun-kissed ripples of the left hand.” And Robert Collet exclaims of its difficulties that “the Prelude in G major I regard as one of the most dangerous little pieces ever written.”

No.4 in E minor:
A slender melody over a rich, slow-moving chordal accompaniment. Huneker wrote, “Its despair has the antique flavor.” It was fittingly played, with Nos. 6 and 20, by the famous organist Lefebure-Wely, at Chopin’s funeral service at the Madeleine Church in Paris. Mozart’s Requiem was also performed.

No. 5 in D major:
Very short, with cross-rhythms, intricate and iridescent.

No.6 in B minor:
A cello melody in the left hand; very sad and slow. A famous piece.

No.7 in A major:
Three lines, a skeletonized mazurka, used prominently in the ballet Les Syiphides. Even more famous than No.6.

No.8 in F-sharp minor:
The right-hand melody is played by the thumb. Chopin writes the chromatic inner voice in smaller notation. This feverish vision is one of the greatest of the preludes.

No.9 in E major:
A work of only twelve measures but also of infinite grandeur.

No.10 in C-sharp minor:
It’s over in a blink, and needs the lightest fingers.

No.11 in B major:
Concentrated grace and poetry. Huneker says, “Another gleam of the Chopin sunshine.”

No.12 in G-sharp minor:
A powerful and despairing work. Technically treacherous.

No.13 in F-sharp major:
A nocturnelike prelude with a middle section. This is a pearl of lyric serenity.

No.14 in E-flat minor:
A unison study of a moment of gloom.

No.15 in D-flat major:
The so-called Raindrop Prelude is the longest of these pieces, with a dramatic middle section. The work has always been popular.

No. 16 in B-flat minor:
Perilous right-hand fingerwork as the left hand becomes more explosive. A tour de force for the virtuoso.

No.17 in A-flat major:
A richly colored romance concluding with eleven low A-flats reminiscent of a bell. Mendelssohn wrote, “I love it! I cannot tell you how much or why; except perhaps that it is something which I could never at all have written.”

No.18 in F minor:
A difficult prelude in fiery, recitativo style.

No. 19 in E-flat major:
Marked Vivace, a beautiful and difficult piece. To play it through unscathed is an achievement.

No.20 in C minor:
Twelve bars of chords. George Sand had this funereal prelude in mind when she aptly stated that “one prelude of Chopin contains more music than all the trumpetings of Meyerbeer.” Rachmaninoff and Busoni used it as the basis for sets of variations.

No.21 in B-flat major:
A nocturne-type prelude with a double-note accompaniment.

No.22 in G minor:
Short and stormy, with left-hand octaves.

No.23 in F major:
Ending on a dominant seventh chord, this prelude has the bliss of a perfect June day. Huneker rhapsodizes, “This prelude is fashioned out of the most volatile stuff. Aerial, imponderable, and like a sunshot spider-web oscillating in the breeze of summer…”

No.24 in D minor:
It is a discharge of tremendous emotion marked Allegro appassionato. The turbulent left hand never relents. Three solo Ds in the bowels of the piano make for a foreboding conclusion.

  • Twenty-four Preludes:
  • ARGERICH: DG (CD)
  • BOLET: RCA (CD)
  • CORTOT: Music and Arts (CD)
  • ESCHENBACH: DG
  • FELTSMAN: CBS (CD)
  • FLORENTINO: Saga
  • FREIRE: CBS
  • MORAVEC: Supraphon (CD)
  • OLHSSON: Arabesque (CD)
  • PERAHIA: CBS
  • POGORELICH: DG (CD)
  • Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45

A seldom played work of great improvisational beauty. The composition contains far-flung modulations and needs imagination for its presentation. It has nothing in common with the Op. 28 Preludes (although some of the recordings include it).

  • ARGERICH: DC (CD)
  • PERLEMUTER: Nimbus (CD)
  • POGORELICH: DC (CD)