A farewell to Preludes from the Square d’Orleans – Chopin, and his neighbour, Alkan

Two further Preludes by Chopin end this year’s series of posts; but before writing about them,  I couldn’t say farewell to 2017’s  topic, The Ubiquitous Prelude, without a mention of the Preludes by Alkan, who lived near Chopin for a while in Paris. The two composers were firm friends. During the 1830s, Alkan moved into the fashionable Square d’Orléans, where, in 1842, both Chopin and George Sand became his neighbours in two separate apartments. (And looking back to my previous post about preludes, on 23 April 1837 Alkan took part in Liszt’s farewell concert in Paris, together with the 14-year-old César Franck.)

In all the major and minor keys, Alkan wrote 25 Préludes, dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs, Op. 31  for Piano or Organ; they appeared in 1847. His Preludes  are in three volumes. They begin in C major, then go to the subdominant minor – f minor – (up a fourth); then we have D flat major, (down a third), followed by its subdominant minor – f sharp minor (up a fourth) etc. The cycle ends with a second prelude in C major. Most of the preludes have titles. One of the most remarkable is La chanson de la folle au bord de la merThe song of the mad woman on the sea-shore, where a groundswell of deep chords accompanies the high-pitched, eerie wailing of this tormented soul. And here is one of my inspirational teachers and a champion of Alkan’s music, Ronald Smith, to play it –

A good selection of five of the most approachable preludes appears in Alkan in Miniature  , including La Chanson de la folle, the  gentle Placiditas, and J’etais  endormie mais mon coeur veillait. which was Busoni’s favourite. Here is Ronald Smith’s recording, together with the score:


On one CD, Olli Mustonen has recorded Shostakovich’s Preludes as well as Alkan’s; an interesting coupling, which won a Gramophone Award in 1992.

Here is Mustonen –

And so to Chopin, and two ‘stand-alone’ preludes, which don’t belong to the Op 28 set of twenty-four, but which have associations with their copyists.

In  a letter to Julian Fontana from Majorca in 1839, Chopin wrote: ‘ … I send you the Preludes. Copy them, you and Wolff …’ So who were these two gentlemen, entrusted to make an accurate, hand-written copy of Chopin’s Preludes Op 28 to be given to the German publisher, while Chopin’s manuscript was destined for the French publisher, Pleyel?

Fontana was a close friend, a pianist and composer, a personal assistant, project manager, an amanuensis, general factotum and dogsbody to whom Chopin entrusted negotiations, arrangements and all sorts of tasks and errands. Letters to Fontana are full of directions to do this and that. In 1841 Chopin was composing the Prelude Op 45 in C sharp minor, and wrote to him from Nohant concerning the dedicatee’s name:

‘ I don’t know how Mme Czerniszew  spells her name; perhaps in the thing under the vase, or somewhere in the drawer of the little table, near that bronze ornament, you can find a card from her, or from the governess, or the daughter. If not I should be glad (if you don’t mind) if you would go to her — they already know you as my friend — at the Hôtel de Londres, Place Vendôme, if they are still in Paris, and ask, from me, that the young princess should give you her name in writing. You can say why: is it Tscher, or Tcher? Or, still better: ask Mlle Krauze, the governess. Say that I want to give a surprise to the young princess, and ask Mlle Krauze (who is very pretty) to write to you whether it is Elisabeth, and whether Tschernischef or ff: how they usually write it. Say that she can tell the princess (the mother), but not the daughter, as I don’t want her to know till I send it from here. If you would rather not do it, don’t mind saying so to me ; just let me know, and I will find out elsewhere.  But tell Schlesinger not to print the title yet; tell him I don’t know the spelling. But I hope that you will find a card in the house with the name…’ *

It’s a piece with a myriad of modulations and a sighing melody, while the accompaniment ebbs and flows. It pauses on a chromatic chord, and then a nebulous web of chromaticism falls and rises before the final few bars.

Pierre Wolff was a pianist friend who was a Professor of Piano at the Geneva Conservatory. In July 1834 Chopin composed  a quicksilver prelude for him as a gift, dated and signed on the second page –  ‘A mon ami, P Wolff. It was not published until August 1918.  

Here are both preludes, played by Murray Perahia. And, just for the record – the dedicatee of Prelude  Op 45 was Elisabeth Czernicheff. That’s Elisabeth with an ‘s’, Czernicheff with two ‘f’s. And a very Happy New Year to you all. Thanks for reading.

*From Chopin’s Letters, Collected by HENRYK OPIENSKI Translated from the original Polish and French with a Preface and Editorial notes by E. L. VOYNICH

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