The structural form of a piece of music as we know it today, was almost immaterial to the listeners of Chopin’s era. In Chopin’s day, the form of a piece was its genre, which was and is defined by particular characteristics that, through tradition or habit, have become associated with it. By labeling the pieces of his Op. 28, “preludes”, Chopin indicated this particular genre but, in some ways, neglected to follow the traditional pattern of the prelude that distinguished it from other genres. The preludes preceding his time were intended to be a short, improvisatory pieces of music that introduced a particular key and mood suited to the following piece. Many of Chopin’s preludes are short and improvisatory to modern standards but were more substantial compared to the standards of his time. To both past and current listeners the pieces are rather capricious about establishing a key, and none of them prelude anything. All these discrepancies leave the performer and listener wondering how to treat them.
Chopin, however, was not the first to write a set of preludes with no explicitly written purpose. In 1815 Johann Nepomuk Hummel composed a cycle of 24 preludes in the order of keys that Chopin would later borrow. Hummel’s preludes range from four to thirteen measures in length with the majority coming in at seven measures. They are all trite, little more than decorated scales running up and down the keyboard followed a cadence. Most of the preludes clearly leave the listener hanging with some odd note or chord after the cadence that seems to be a pickup into some other work. In addition to Hummel, Joseph Christoph Kessler wrote a set of 24 preludes in the same key cycle in 1827. His are of equal length to Hummel’s, and about as meaningful, which is to say, not at all. These are preludes clearly not substantial enough to be played alone and also do not connect to each other as a whole. They truly live up to their names.
For Chopin’s preludes, written twenty-four years after Hummel’s and twelve years after Kessler’s, there is the option of playing them as preludes to other unspecified pieces, playing Op. 28 as a whole, or using each prelude as a stand-alone concert work. Playing any single prelude as a stand-alone concert work is difficult because his preludes are all so short compared to most other standard concert fare. But compared to the length of Hummel’s and Kessler’s preludes, Chopin’s are very weighty. Playing them as a whole is also questionable, because there is no indication that Chopin ever performed them that way himself, and the preludes of Hummel and Kessler were almost certainly were not played as a whole. It is also unclear whether he intended them as preludes for any other piece. Unlike Kessler’s and Hummel’s preludes, Chopin’s have much more finality in their last few measures, especially his 2nd prelude.
Chopin’s prelude in A minor, Op. 28 No. 2, is infamous for its evasive key center. Out of its entire twenty-three measures, the tonic harmony is present in only two. The dynamic peak is the very first measure, which leaves the rest of the piece nothing to do but gradually die away. The left hand spends the majority of the piece creeping chromatically in ever-shifting monotony until it becomes so imbedded in the listener’s ear that its sudden absence near the end is thoroughly startling. The melody in the right hand is very sparse, both in variety and texture. Only two, short, monophonic phrases respond back and forth three times, altered slightly each time. On the last iteration, the answer phrase is twice in a row without the question phrase. But it still feels wanting, so Chopin adds a few cadential chords. After the restlessness of the first twenty measures, the steady finality of the last three measures is undeniable.
This particular prelude is one of the shortest Chopin wrote, yet it’s still much more consequential than even the longest Hummel prelude. It cycles through so many different keys, that when the ending finally arrives, it is almost a relief, contrary to Hummel’s which stay in the same tonality for their brief entirety and leave the listener still waiting for something of any significance to happen. Structurally, the prelude is almost like a compacted ternary. Crowded with feeling, the A minor prelude has the strength to stand on its own. Even if it did not, it would be difficult to pair it up with any other work of the time considering its anachronistic dissonances, including non-functional tritones in nearly every measure. This piece clearly is capable of functioning by itself.
The A minor prelude could arguably be applied as a prelude to another work. The sudden change in texture at the end could foreshadow some chorale or similar work. Although longer than many preludes of Chopin’s time, it is still short enough that it wouldn’t be terribly out of place to use it for the function its name implies. Also, Chopin clearly wrote his preludes with his friend Kessler’s preludes in mind, because he imitated the overall key order and dedicated them to him in response to Kessler first dedicating his preludes to Chopin. Kessler’s preludes are so insubstantial that they practically require some following work to give them purpose. Thus, if Chopin wrote his preludes in imitation of Kessler, then it’s not too far of a stretch to argue that his preludes were intended as preludes to other works just like Kessler’s were.
The strongest defense of playing all the Preludes of Op. 28 as a whole is Chopin’s choice of key order. Each prelude moves smoothly into the next closely related key. Hundreds of performers, including great pianists, have played the set in its entirety without facing debate or criticism from shocked listeners. They clearly are not uncomfortable to listen to one after the other. On the other hand, the A minor prelude has nothing in common with the prelude proceeding it and the prelude following it. Both are light, cheerful works, with an airy texture. But then, both No. 1 and No. 3 are major, whereas No. 2 is minor, and major and minor keys are happy and sad respectively according to popular stereotype. Investigating this argument for its evidence, one will notice that the preludes alternate major and minor through the opus, and many of the major preludes are gay and airy, with many of the minor preludes contrasting strongly against their fluffier neighbors. By and large this pattern is consistent throughout the whole opus with occasional preludes walking the line and creating a gray area. The argument that Op. 28 should not be played as a whole because the neighboring preludes such as Nos. 1, 2, and 3 contrast so blatantly is not valid considering that the contrast is part of the pattern of Op. 28 as a whole.
Since Chopin did not indicate clearly how his preludes were supposed to be played, the performer must depend on other information to reach his conclusion. Personally I believe they work satisfactorily in any of the three previously discussed situations, but appear to their best advantage as stand-alone concert fare due to the richness of their content as individual pieces.
Kallberg, Jeffrey “Small ‘forms’: in defence of the prelude.” In The Cambridge Companion to Chopin, Jim Samson, 124-142. Cambridge University Press, 1994.