In today’s analysis video, we’re going to continue looking at the very famous Chopin preludes.
We talked about the first 12 of these 24 preludes last month, so if you missed that, definitely check it out!
My idea with this is I didn’t want to just pick out one or two preludes, because they make the most sense as a complete unit. So we’re talking through all of them.
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.
Also – just to warn you – this is going to be a long video (like the first part). I wanted to take enough time to actually talk about each prelude, and to actually listen to at least 20-30 seconds of each. So pour yourself a tea or coffee, get cozy, and let’s ster started!
Chopin Preludes: Backstory
We already discussed the backstory of these preludes in the previous video, and I don’t want to be repeat girl. But as a quick refresher, each of the preludes covers each of the keys on piano. That’s why there’s 24 of them.
There are 12 keys on the piano, but since there’s a major/minor version of each key, there’s actually 24 keys in total – hence, 24 preludes.
A couple notes
A couple quick notes before we get going:
We’ll be listening through 10 of the 12 preludes today. I’ll have YouTube links for them all.
The second note is that, though Chopin never gave these preludes titles, and he didn’t endorse them having titles, there are two musicians who gave them working titles anyway. These guys are Alfred Cortot and Hans von Bulow, and I think their pseudotitles give us some deeper information into the preludes, which is why we’ll be talking about them.
Prelude no. 13 in F# major
Cortot’s subtitle: On foreign soil, under a night of stars, thinking of my beloved faraway
Bulow’s subtitle: Loss
Level: Henle level 5/6 (intermediate)
RCM Grade 9
This is one of the longer preludes at around 2:30 minutes long (depending on the performer). The left hand has this consistent flowing quality with a simple and slower right hand melody which is very lovely. About halfway through, we hit the “B” section and the left hand switches to a chordal part – and then we return to the beginning.
It’s also one of the less challenging of the preludes at around a grade 9 level. Yes, grade 9 RCM is a pretty high level, but we’re talking the context of his preludes as a whole. The main point of this one, if you’re learning it or plan to someday, is that it’s a study in playing delicately and beautifully. It’s all too easy to play the left hand too loudly, or in general play “too much”. This piece is a study in subtlety.
This prelude is considered to be a nocturne, which is basically a piece that evokes feelings of nighttime. Prelude 15 is another nocturne, but we’ll talk about that soon.
Let’s take a listen!
Prelude no. 14 in Eb minor
Cortot’s subtitle: Fear
Bulow’s subtitle: Stormy sea
Level: Henle level 6/7 (late intermediate)
Remember the very first prelude from the previous video? It was fast, short and motion-filled, and very lovely. Well, Prelude 14 is like it’s dark twin, in the key of Eb minor.
And remember how in the previous video, we talked about how Schumann wasn’t really a fan of the preludes (though Liszt loved them)? In particular, he referred to this prelude as “strange”.
I like Bulow’s subtitle of “stormy sea”, though I think he could have just stopped at the word “storm”. The music even looks stormy, zigzagging around without any apparent rhyme or reason.
“Fear” is a surprisingly brief subtitle from Cortot, and it’s accurate too – though this feels like the expression of a full-blown panic attack, which you’ll see in a moment when you listen.
Overall, this piece seems to puzzle people. It’s random, it’s unpredictable, and it’s over practically as soon as it begins. And, understandably, it’s quite challenging to play.
Since the whole thing is 25 seconds, we’re going to listen to it start to finish.
Prelude no. 15 in Db major
Cortot’s subtitle: But death is here, in the shadows
Bulow’s subtitle: Raindrop
Level: Henle level 5 (intermediate)
RCM Grade 9
And here we have it, the most famous of Chopin’s preludes. Prelude #15 is famously nicknamed the “Raindrop” prelude, though Chopin didn’t like that comparison. His paramour, George Sand, wrote,
“He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might – and he was right to – against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents by musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds.”
This’ll be obvious to you when we take a listen, but there’s this steady, relentless pattering of notes throughout the entire piece, which is where the popular “raindrop” comes from.
Aside from being the most famous prelude, it’s also quite playable at a grade 9 level (which perhaps owes to its popularity), and is quite lengthy at around 4-5 minutes. Maybe that’s another reason people prefer it – it feels more like a piece, and less like a random 30 second mashing of notes.
This prelude is gorgeous, and oscillates between the pleasant Db major sound, to the darker C# minor sections, which really highlight its nocturne qualities. It’s one of the only preludes that has so much contrast within itself – the other preludes tend to be much shorter and highlight just one emotion or idea. This one is bipolar, swinging from gentle to dark and dramatic, and back again.
But this bipolar nature is what makes it a great piece. The main, gentle Db major tune is nice, but it would have no depth without the dramatic, darker section in the middle. And vice versa – the dark, dramatic section would just be another heavy and depressing prelude, but it’s made more melancholic and interesting since it’s padded between such a wistful major section.
I really like Cortot’s “Death is in the shadows” interpretation, since it’s a really interesting way to look at that repeated “raindrop” note. Instead of the constant sound of rain, it’s like the constant presence of death lurking in the background…or, the shadows. That’s really believable to me, and far more interesting.
Since this prelude has such important contrasts, I’m going to show you two clips – one from the gentle beginning, and one from the dark middle – and notice that repeated “death” note in both parts.
Prelude no. 16 in Bb minor
Tempo: Presto con fuoco
Cortot’s subtitle: Descent into the abyss
Bulow’s subtitle: Hades
Level: Henle level 8 (advanced)
This is one of the most challenging of the preludes, and also one that Ivan doesn’t have a recording of, so I’ll refer you to a YouTube video. The Chopin scholar Jeremy Nicholas apparently calls this piece “terrifyingly difficult”.
The right hand runs are wild and fly all over the place, so you’d think that’s the most difficult part. But the left hand is probably just as challenging, even though it’s not as flashy. When you check out the video – because I’m demanding you do – notice the huge leaps and octave progressions. The left hand isn’t moving as fast as the right, but it’s covering a huge span of the piano as it goes.
It’s truly a thrill to listen to, like a rollercoaster for your ears. Cortot and Bulow seem to agree with each other on interpretation (“Hades” and “descent into the abyss”), and I’m not about to disagree.
Out of all the preludes, this is perhaps the one that motivates me the most to get to the piano and practice. Definitely check it out here:
Prelude no. 17 in Ab major
Cortot’s subtitle: She told me, “I love you”
Bulow’s subtitle: Scene on the Place de Notre-Dame de Paris
Level: Henle level 6/7 (late intermediate)
RCM Grade 10
…And now, for something entirely different.
Prelude #17 was loved by both Clara Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn had this to say about the prelude:
“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.”
I dig what he’s saying there – the art I tend to dig most is that which is way beyond my own imaginings.
It seems strange to call this a simpler prelude, but compared to #16 it is. The main challenge this one is bringing out and shaping the lovely melody, which can be impeded by the left hand overlapping the right hand.
This is one of the lengthier preludes at about 2 minutes long, and it’s written in cantabile style, which means “singing”. You hear this melody as though it’s being sung.
Cortot and Bulow’s interpretations are quite different, but both seem valid. “She told me ‘I love you’” works because of this piece’s warmth, lightness, and undertone of excitement. It’s got this in the moment feel to it, as in, you’re living in the moment. So “A scene on the Place de Notre-Dame de Paris” also makes sense to me, since that conveys an image of a moment, perhaps a pleasant, sunny one.
Scene 12 prelude 18
Prelude no. 18 in F minor
Tempo: Molto allegro
Cortot’s subtitle: Divine curses
Bulow’s subtitle: Suicide
Level: Henle level 7 (early advanced)
And, just like that, we’re back to divine curses and suicide. This piece could be at home in a strange art film horror movie.
There are several preludes in the group that are a little hard to listen to because they’re so jarring and deliberately unpleasant, and this is one of them (another being prelude #2 from the first video). Adding to the jarring nature of this piece is the false ending – you hear this dramatic run and think, “Good, it’s over.” But it’s not actually over, the torment continues for a couple more chords. I’ll show you that part when we listen to it.
Even though it’s hard to listen to, it’s cool in the context of all the preludes. If all these preludes are Chopin’s life snapshots, this is the snapshot that says that life isn’t hunky-dory all the time, and sometimes you just feel like you’re under the effect of divine curses. Sometimes everything is completely grim.
Prelude no. 19 in Eb major
Cortot’s subtitle: Wings, wings, that I may flee to you, o my beloved!
Bulow’s subtitle: Heartfelt happiness
Level: Henle level 7 (early advanced)
It’s quite challenging – maybe not quite as tough as the inspiring #16, but still up there in its etude-like qualities. And, just like #16, the left hand is making gigantic leaps and stretches at a rapid tempo. Despite these huge stretches, they still need to somehow be played smoothly, since this is a very melodic etude despite its speed.
This one kind of reminds me of the Legend of Zelda, when you’re at the great fairy’s fountain. It’s got all these harp-like runs and this dreamy character.
Cortot’s title is very dramatic – “wings, wings” – and Bulow’s is very boring, so I’m going to stick to my contemporary interpretation. Check out the video linked on the screen to take a listen!
Prelude no. 20 in C minor
Cortot’s subtitle: Funerals
Bulow’s subtitle: Funeral March
Level: Henle level 3/4 (early intermediate)
RCM grade 6
At a grade 6 level, Prelude 20 is one of the first, easiest Chopin pieces a student can learn, and it’s pretty well-known because of that. It’s also very short and very slow, adding to its ease.
This prelude is entirely built out of big chords – there are more than a few 5-note chords in there. It’s slow and dramatic, giving a march-like effect that is so clear that Bulow and Cortot are unanimous in their “funeral” interpretation.
Since the harmonies in this piece are pretty straight forward, it appeals to more people compared to some of the strange and obscure preludes we’ve talked about today. Rachmaninoff even wrote a (really difficult) set of Variations based on this prelude.
Despite agreeing on the “funeral” label, this prelude is actually more commonly known as the “chord” prelude, for obvious reasons. The whole thing is so straightforward, and because of that it’s extremely effective.
Prelude no. 21 in Bb major
Cortot’s subtitle: Solitary return, to the place of confession
Bulow’s subtitle: Sunday
Level: Henle level 5/6 (intermediate)
This prelude is directly marked as “cantabile”, which, if you remember from before, means “in a singing style”. When we listen to the example, pay attention to the right hand melody – you can practically hear it be sung.
The left hand is the main challenge of this piece, with its 2-note intervals that are constantly changing shape, expanding and contracting.
This prelude is a weird one to analyze because, completely unlike the previous prelude, it’s much more emotionally ambiguous. It’s happy, but it’s not just happy. It’s wistful, but it’s not sad. It’s pleasant, but also a little dissonant.
It’s interesting to note that both Cortot and Bulow came up with religious interpretations for this. I think the editor, Logan, would appreciate the “Sunday” title. He has described Sunday as being a day of feeling weird – almost squished. Even if the Sunday is perfect, it still has this vague strangeness and uncertainty behind it, which you can hear in this piece.
(Hopefully I’m not just putting words in his mouth!)
Prelude no. 22 in G minor
Tempo: Molto agitato
Cortot’s subtitle: Rebellion
Bulow’s subtitle: Impatience
Level: Henle level 7 (early advanced)
This isn’t a very Chopin-y Chopin piece – it’s full of these heavy octaves and chords that give it a harsh quality. But that’s a cool thing about Chopin – he had his own characteristic sound, but was still perfectly happy to go outside the box.
This is one of the more difficult preludes, partially due to the quick speed, and partly because of the control required to play strongly, but not blast out the fortes too aggressively. Loud, but not too loud.
Just like Preludes #16 and #18, this one has the same restless energy. But it feels less like a storm, and more like a battle (which I think is where Cortot was headed when he subtitled it “Rebellion”).
By comparison, Bulow’s “impatience” seems like an underwhelming keyword for the energy of this piece. It’s like if someone were to scream and you thought, “they’re probably a little nervous”.
Prelude no. 23 in F major
Cortot’s subtitle: Playing water faeries
Bulow’s subtitle: A pleasure boat
Level: Henle level 6 (late intermediate)
We’re almost there, guys – the second last prelude! Let’s take a moment to enjoy Bulow’s “a pleasure boat” interpretation. “Playing water faeries” is pretty good too. From the titles alone, you can already imagine two things about this prelude:
-it has a watery feeling
-it’s a little silly
And you’d be right. This piece is really gentle and laid-back, and has these funny little left hand bubble parts – at least, it sounds like bubbles to me, and it sounds a little silly – but in a pleasant way. This piece doesn’t feel angsty, rushed, or urgent. It’s very smooth and relaxed.
This one also gives me a Legend of Zelda feel like #19. Maybe it’s even more appropriate since it has the water associations (ie the fairy fountain).
I also like to think about this prelude as the calm in between the storm. #22 is intense, and #24 is intense, but #23 is pure relaxation.
Prelude no. 24 in D minor
Tempo: Allegro appassionato
Cortot’s subtitle: Of blood, of earthly pleasure, of death
Bulow’s subtitle: the storm
Level: Henle level 9 (very advanced)
And here we have it, the crème de la crème, the magnum opus of Chopin’s preludes. It’s a remarkable piece for so many reasons, but the first thing we need to talk about is its extreme difficulty. For starters, you have this dramatic left hand pattern which carries through the whole piece, and it spans a 12th. To put it in perspective, an octave, which most people can reach fairly comfortably, is an 8th.
It’s all well and good once you master that – until you start attempting to tackle all the improvisational-sounding right hand runs and trills. And to make it even more difficult, they’re written as polyrhythms – the rhythm of the right hand doesn’t always align with the left hand rhythm.
Overall, the effect of this prelude is that of passion. And unlike some of the other more passionate preludes, this one feels much more refined and carefully controlled. Some of Chopin’s other passionate preludes have this “out of control” quality, and almost sound like a mess of notes (though he surely crafted that mess carefully).
This passion is refined, and feels more mastered. It’s direct and straightforward. It’s of the earth – it feels like Chopin is really here, with his feet on the ground, making a bold statement – his head isn’t off in the clouds this time. It really feels like Chopin at his best, and is a great piece to end on.
Interestingly, the key of D minor is traditionally considered the “key of death”, which lends some insight into Cortot’s interpretation. In a way, this piece can feel like taking a stand against death, which is why I like Cortot’s subtitle better. Another example of a famous death piece in D minor is Mozart’s requiem.
Anyway, let’s have a listen – you won’t be disappointed!
If you enjoyed this 2-part Chopin analysis video, be sure to check out some of our other Chopin videos:
Performer PagesIvan Ilić (Piano)Publisher Info.Paris: Ivan IlićCopyright
Recorded by Judith Carpentier-Dupont in Paris, October 2005