There is some evidence that Chopin may occasionally have used his own preludes as introductions to his larger compositions, but this was not his normal practice. Mainly he performed them as self-contained works, individually or in small groups, and for this reason we can reasonably claim that he re-defined the generic term. The Op 28 cycle consists of a succession of miniatures of great emotional power and unrivalled artistic quality. They retain an outward similarity to traditional collections of preludes, in their tonal sequence, epigrammatic dimensions, monothematicism and openness of form, but they actually initiate a quite separate tradition of concert preludes that would be further developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unlike their predecessors, Chopin’s preludes demand to be treated as ‘works’ of weight and significance rather than as written-out improvisations, and they achieve something close to perfection of form within the framework of the miniature, the relationship of substance to scale expertly gauged. Contemporaries were confused by this departure from tradition, and not only contemporaries: ‘I must admit that I do not wholly understand the title that Chopin chose to give these short pieces’, was André Gide’s comment. ‘Preludes to what?’, he went on to ask.
As far as we can tell, most of the Op 28 preludes were composed in Paris during 1838, and the cycle was completed during the ill-fated winter of 1838–9 that Chopin spent on Majorca with the novelist George Sand. A piano had been sent to the island expressly for the purpose, and on 22 January 1839 Chopin was able to write to Camille Pleyel: ‘I am sending you my Préludes. I finished them on your little piano, which arrived in the best possible condition in spite of the sea, the bad weather and the Palma customs.’ It is no doubt significant that Chopin took the Well-Tempered Clavier with him to Majorca, for that great work provides the most helpful context for his own cycle. Much of the figuration in Chopin’s preludes has origins in JS Bach. There are moto perpetuo patterns, as in Nos 11 (a kind of three-part invention), 14 and 19; subtly constructed figurations that allow linear elements to emerge through the pattern, as in the ‘trill’ motives of Nos 1 and 5; characteristic contrapuntal figures made up of discrete though interactive particles, as in Nos 1 and 8; and bolder contrapuntal polarities, as in the dialogue of melody and ‘singing’ bass in No 9, or the dual function of the bass as harmonic support and melodic (polyphonic) line in No 6. All this is part of a larger debt to Bach the contrapuntalist. But formally, too, the preludes evoke Baroque practice: by crystallizing a single Affekt in a single pattern and unfolding either in a ternary design (Nos 15 and 17) or as a simple statement with conflated response (Nos 3 and 12).
Each prelude of Op 28 is itself a whole, with its own Affekt, its own melodic, harmonic and rhythmic profile, and even its own generic character: thus at various times Chopin invokes the nocturne (No 13), étude (No 16), mazurka (No 7), funeral march (No 2) and elegy (No 4). Yet at the same time, the individual preludes make up a single over-arching whole, a real cycle that is 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 above all by the tonal scheme. But arguments have been ventured for a deeper unity based on motivic links between the preludes, extensive enough to justify describing the work in its entirety as an extended, organically conceived cycle. Whatever the truth of that, Op 28 remains an utterly unique achievement, albeit one with a legacy. Later composers were happy to follow Chopin’s lead in broadening the generic meaning of the prelude, as in the sets by Scriabin, Fauré, Rachmaninov and Szymanowski. Of special significance are the two books of preludes by Debussy, the composer who, more than any other, translated Chopin’s achievement into the language of twentieth-century pianism, just as Chopin himself had translated Bach’s equal-voiced counterpoint into what Carl Schachter once aptly called a ‘free, idiomatically pianistic counterpoint’.
from notes by Jim Samson © 2014
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