Chopin’s Prelude Op 28 No 4 is barely a page in length, but a wealth of emotion is crammed into its short span. Above a throbbing, chordal accompaniment which changes harmony agonisingly slowly, inch by inch, note by note, sits a melody which hardly moves at all, either rhythmically or melodically. At first it lingers on the interval of a falling semitone again and again, until it reluctantly moves a tone lower and repeats the process, wearily. With an effort the melody repeatedly tries to break free, until against a LH octave B – Chopin notates the pedal carefully here – it almost escapes with an impassioned bid for freedom. It sinks back hopelessly to its former pattern however, having eventually landed on the tonic. A pause over a chromatic chord, and silence; then three chords of despairing finality.
Along with the E minor Prelude, the B Minor Prelude Op 28 No 6 was played on the organ at Chopin’s funeral. That tells us something about its mood and character.
I once overheard some lively, musical teenagers discussing their piano repertoire. One of them insisted that she was going to learn the B minor prelude to play in a competition in seven days’ time. I remember thinking that the notes could well be learnt in a week, but giving a meaningful performance might take a little longer.
Again, Chopin uses a throbbing accompaniment, but in this prelude it is more of a heartbeat, heard above a LH melody which yearns and soars like a cello – thoughts of Etude Op 25 No 7 come to mind, and indeed Chopin’s Cello Sonata, written for Chopin’s great cellist friend, Franchomme. Towards the end of the prelude, the heartbeat gets weaker, and fainter, until it ceases.
Prelude No 15 (above) is the so-called ‘Raindrop Prelude’, so-called because Hans von Bülow gave it the title, and it has stuck. Chopin would probably have objected to the name.
This time, Chopin’s throbbing accompaniment is a single note, innocuous at first below a genial soprano melody in D flat major which flows easily, stopping to admire itself on notes of longer value. The manuscript is revealing – we witness Chopin’s care over the RH phrasing alteration before the modulation to C#minor, the LH then carefully phrased as well as the RH in that dark middle section.
‘…But how strange the change from major to minor…‘ as the song* says. The repeated note becomes ominous and threatening above low LH chords, which now carry the melody, moving inexorably on each beat towards the cadence. The melodic material gradually encompasses a wider range as tension and volume build, the endlessly repeated note turning into an octave, and then found pulsating within RH chords. At last we return to the warmth of the major key. The darkness is dispelled.
Here is the inimitable Cortot:
* Lyrics from ‘Ev’ry time we say goodbye‘ by Cole Porter.