A musical journey of the Chopin Preludes, op. 28, no. 1-12

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In today’s analysis video, we’re going to be looking at something that’s been heavily requested: the Chopin preludes.

But I didn’t want to just talk about one or two Chopin preludes, because I think the preludes make the most sense as a complete unit. So instead of picking out the most famous ones, I wanted to look at all 24 preludes.

Obviously that’s a lot of music, so we’re going to divide it in half. Today we’ll look at the first 12 preludes, and next month we’ll finish the remaining half.

We’ll listen through clips of all the preludes and discuss their character, difficulty, and key takeaways. This is intended to give you an idea of the preludes as a whole, and to enhance your listening or playing of them in the future.

Chopin Preludes: Backstory

First we have to discuss the preludes as a whole. There are 24 of them – one prelude for every major and minor key on the piano. This style of writing – a prelude in every key – is a call-back to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, with a prelude/fugue in every key, and a collection that Chopin was known to love.

Aside from obvious style differences, a big difference between Chopin and Bach’s preludes is that Bach’s move chromatically through the keys, like so:

Prelude/Fugue 1: C major
Prelude/Fugue 2: C minor
Prelude/Fugue 3: D major

And so on.

Chopin’s preludes instead go from the major key to relative minor, then up the circle of 5ths, like so:

Prelude 1: C major
Prelude 2: A minor
Prelude 3: G major
Prelude 4: E minor

And so on.

More about the Chopin Preludes

These preludes were first published in 1839, and are incredibly diverse. Preludes are generally opening numbers, kind of like an introduction. But here, Chopin takes the prelude and makes them self-contained units.

They’re all very short (which is typical of preludes in general) – the longest one is 90 measures (no 17), and the shortest is no. 9 at 12 bars, which we’ll be looking at today.

Size-wise they’re diverse, but they’re also stylistically and emotionally diverse. In the preludes, Chopin covers the full gamut of emotions and moods.

These preludes are very polarising. Some people love them – like Liszt. Liszt had this to say about Chopin’s op. 28 preludes:

“Chopin’s Preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart… they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams…”

Whereas Schumann was highly critical of them, saying,

“They are sketches, beginnings of études, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions.”

Whether you love them or hate them, mastering them all is a huge, monstrous challenge that requires an intimate knowledge of Chopin’s style. Even if some of these individually are quite simple, in this case I think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

A couple quick notes: I want to make before we get into these is that there are actually 3 more preludes, but since they’re not a part of op. 28, we’re not going to be talking about them in this analysis.

Nicknames for the Preludes

A final note is that Chopin himself didn’t give the preludes nicknames. Some of you might have heard of the “raindrop prelude” or other titles, but those nicknames were given by other people. Chopin himself wasn’t fond of expressive titles – he kept the titles unexpressive (like Prelude no. 2), to leave the rest up to your imagination.

Still, we’ll be looking at title suggestions by Alfred Cortot and Hans von Bulow today. These musicians were both huge fans of Chopin and have plenty of insight to offer on the preludes.

Prelude 1, op. 28

Prelude no. 1 in C major
Tempo: Agitato
Cortot’s subtitle: Feverish anticipation of loved ones
Bulow’s subtitle: Reunion
Level: Henle level 6 (late intermediate)

The first prelude opens with a bang – a very quick bang. The playtime of this one is less than a minute, and it’s written in the style of an arabesque. Arabesques are very quick, lively and bold.

Musically, it’s quite challenging – moreso for the brain than for the hands. The hands and rhythms do a lot of overlapping and leaping, and it’s written in four parts: SATB.

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You can see the top, soprano voice, which is heard above all the other voices, playing a repetitive 2-note pattern over and over.

The alto voice is filling in the harmonies, and because of that it’s the softest voice. Interwoven in there is the tenor voice, which imitates the same notes as the soprano, but in a different rhythm.

Finally, we have the bass notes, which are the harmonic glue of the entire piece.

I really like the subtitles for this one – the rapid notes, though pretty, feel very uneasy, like being excited but super nervous – much like you would be at a reunion of, say, old friends.

Prelude 2, op. 28

Prelude no. 2 in A minor
Tempo: Lento
Cortot’s subtitle: Painful meditation; the distant, deserted sea…
Bulow’s subtitle: Presentiment of death
Level: Henle level 5 (intermediate)

This prelude is very dark and very dissonant, and is generally one of the least favorites of the bunch. It’s deceptively challenging with the wide-leaping left hand that must be kept smooth.

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One of the harmonic techniques Chopin uses to make this feel really unstable and uneasy is his avoidance of the tonic. This prelude is in A minor; yet we seldom if ever get the relief of hearing an A minor chord sound. Instead, we start at an E minor chord and work our way down the scale in an off-putting chromatic pattern.

But I’ve got to give Chopin the benefit of the doubt here. He’s clearly telling us a story (a very somber story), and is making the statement that not every piece, like life, has to have pretty moments.

Chopin Prelude 3, op. 28

Prelude no. 3 in G major
Tempo: Vivace
Cortot’s subtitle: The singing of the stream
Bulow’s subtitle: Thou Art So Like a Flower
Level: Henle level 6/7 (late intermediate)

This is the most challenging prelude so far, due to the very fast, unrelenting left hand pattern.

It’s also the complete tonal opposite of the second prelude. That one is all doom and gloom and despair; this one is sunny and warm and open.

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I find it interesting that the character of these preludes are so different, yet they have some major structural similarities; for example, they both feature a busy left hand with a sparse right hand.

Prelude 4, op. 28

Prelude no. 4 in E minor
Tempo: Largo
Cortot’s subtitle: Above a grave
Bulow’s subtitle: Suffocation
Level: Henle level 4 (early intermediate)
RCM grade 7

This is by far one of the most well-known preludes – and it’s also one of the simplest to play (not that it’s simple – stay away, beginners!).

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Prelude no. 4 calls back to the dismal 2nd prelude – they are both slow, and both involve weighty blocked chord patterns. But where that one is completely devoid of goodness, this one is more of a sad feeling, and is very musically beautiful.

Musically, there’s this really cool descending sound (hence the subtitles), that make you feel like you’re stepping into a grave or something. Notice the bass line of the chords slowly drop, little by little.

Chopin Prelude 5, op. 28

Prelude no. 5 in D major
Tempo: Molto allegro
Cortot’s subtitle: Tree full of songs
Bulow’s subtitle: Uncertainty
Level: Henle level 7 (advanced)

To me, this one calls back to the first prelude with a delicate interlacing of many notes. You have the challenge of getting the unusual melody to sing out while keeping the inner harmonies soft. And then you’ve got to accomplish the huge LH stretches lightly. Because of this, it’s one of the more difficult preludes.

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As for the mood, it’s perhaps best described as ambiguous – is it happy, is it sad? Is it light, is it dark? It ends up blending all of these shades together, simultaneous capturing none of them, and all of them.

Pay attention to Chopin’s sneaky semitone motive as well – you can see this little accented tune in the right hand repeat throughout the piece.

Chopin Prelude 6, op. 28

Prelude no. 6 in B minor
Tempo: Lento assai
Cortot’s subtitle: Homesickness
Bulow’s subtitle: Tolling bells
Level: Henle level 3/4 (early intermediate)
RCM grade 8

This is another of the simpler preludes, and one of the most famous. Chopin requested that it be played during his funeral.

Chopin’s lover, George Sand, wrote that this prelude “… precipitates the soul into frightful depression”, a sentiment that I think sums it up quite nicely.

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You’ve got this repeated, insistent top right hand voice in a steady quarter note pattern, which reminds me of a steady pattering of rain. Then you’ve got the middle notes filling in the harmonies, and finally the beautiful left hand melody, which gives us the warm, rich feeling of a cello.

Chopin Prelude 7, op. 28

Prelude no. 7 in A major
Tempo: Andantino
Cortot’s subtitle: Sensational memories float like perfume through my mind…
Bulow’s subtitle: The Polish dancer
Level: Henle level 3/4 (early intermediate)

Prelude no. 7 is incredibly short at 16 bars, and is probably the calmest of the collection.

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Even though it’s note-simple, like prelude 4 or 6, it does require refined playing to capture its beauty. This is one of the main reasons I never teach Chopin to children – there’s just too much emotional complexity and subtle shading required.

I like that this prelude never hits a big forte or climactic moment, even with the crescendo and the huge chord in bar 12.

This is written in the style of a mazurka, and you can see this rhythmic pattern in the right hand repeating itself in that Polish dance style.

Chopin Prelude 8, op. 28

Prelude no. 8 in F# minor
Tempo: Molto agitato
Cortot’s subtitle: The snow falls, the wind screams, and the storm rages; yet in my sad heart, the tempest is the worst to behold
Bulow’s subtitle: Depseration
Level: Henle level 7/8 (advanced)

Prelude no. 8 is one of the most challenging of the bunch, for a number of reasons. First of all, you have the dotted melody in the middle, surrounded by a whole ton of very rapid grace notes.

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The whole thing is very fast, and not only that – you’ve got to deal with polyrhythm. The left hand rhythm doesn’t neatly align with the right hand, which is a major challenge to play both smoothly.

And then you’ve got the overall character of the piece, which is very tormented and impassioned.

Chopin Prelude 9, op. 28

Prelude no. 9 in E major
Tempo: Largo
Cortot’s subtitle: Prophetic voices
Bulow’s subtitle: Vision
Level: Henle level 5 (intermediate)

The mood of this piece is very grand, and almost feels like a spiritual prophecy to me. It’s not too technically difficult – there’s lots of right hand chording, but it’s balanced by a simpler left hand part.

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There are these really interesting left hand trills which add an unexpected ambience, and are one of my favorite parts of this piece.

It moves at a march-like, not-too-fast pace – anything faster would shatter the grandeur of it all. Musically, you can see the melody in the upper voice, with the stems going up – and this is the part you’ll be able to hear the most clearly. Typical to some of these other preludes, it’s surrounded by triplet chording in the middle, and a strong melodic bass.

Chopin Prelude 10, op. 28

Prelude no. 10 in C# minor
Tempo: Molto allegro
Cortot’s subtitle: Rockets that fall back down to earth
Bulow’s subtitle: The night moth
Level: Henle level 6/7 (late intermediate)

I know I’m a broken record when I say this, but this is a unique prelude in the group. They’re all, for the most part, unique. I hope you’re starting to see the diverse range of characters contained within these tiny pieces!

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What sets this one apart is its hesitating, abrupt feel, marked by a few fermatas. This short piece has a fast, intense arabesque feel like the first prelude.

Even though it’s morbid, I really like Bulow’s interpretation of this one (the night moth). To quote him, he describes the piece like this:

“A night moth is flying around the room there! It has suddenly hidden itself (the sustained G Sharp); only its wings twitch a little. In a moment it takes flight anew and again settles down in darkness — its wings flutter (trill in the left hand). This happens several times, but at the last, just as the wings begin to quiver again, the busybody who lives in the room aims a stroke at the poor insect. It twitches once… and dies.”

Chopin Prelude 11, op. 28

Prelude no. 11 in B major
Tempo: Vivace
Cortot’s subtitle: Desire of a young girl
Bulow’s subtitle: The Dragonfly
Level: Henle level 6/7 (late intermediate)

This is another fairly difficult prelude with big hand stretches, a fast tempo, and noticeable dynamics that must never be “too much”.

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I love this prelude’s charming and light character – again, favoring Bulow’s description of “The Dragonfly”, which is what it feels like to me when I listen to it. There’s this constant, steady outpouring of notes which makes it feel very open and freeing, like some kind of winged creature quickly flying along.

Chopin Prelude 12, op. 28

Prelude no. 12 in G# minor
Tempo: Presto
Cortot’s subtitle: Night Ride
Bulow’s subtitle: The duel
Level: Henle level 7/8 (advanced)

We’ve finally reached the halfway point of the preludes, and the last one of this video. It is one of the most difficult in the entire set.

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It’s a fight song! According to Bulow, it’s the sound of a duel, which you can hear with these stunted two-note phrases that give the whole piece this struggling sound. However, I also like Cortot’s “Night Ride” subtitle, where the stunted phrases give you a feeling of horse hooves.

The right hand ascends in tiny steps while the left hand does these great big leaps, which creates an interesting contrast and adds to the overall tense feel.

Conclusion

For further details and analyses, check out this bit on the preludes, and this page too.

If you’d like to learn more about Chopin, check out our Brief History of Chopin video, as well as some selected pieces of his that I really enjoy.

xo,
Allysia

Credits:

The recordings used for the video were accessed here, on imslp.org.

The performer and publisher is Ivan Ilic

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Other notes: Recorded by Judith Carpentier-Dupont in Paris, October 2005

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.