Last week we talked about Bach’s monumental set of Preludes and Fugues, and this week we’ll consider Chopin’s answer, a set of Preludes that also covers every possible key.
Hopefully you remember that in The Well-Tempered Clavier the Preludes served to establish the key and create a mood for the Fugue that followed. They were somewhat loose in format and varied widely in content. By liberating the Prelude from dependence on any following work Chopin created a space that could be filled with just about any fantastical idea. Many of them are quite modest, like No. 7 in A major, which fits on one page and lasts about a minute.
Some are a little more ambitious. None, however, wear out their welcome.
In particular I want to focus on the the most popular in the series, No. 15 in D-flat major. This work is nicknamed the “Raindrop” Prelude, and comes with a bit of biographical lore: A sickly Chopin is working in a monastery on Majorca, composing during a torrential rainstorm. He is said to have had a vision of drowning in a lake. (This might account for the dark and mysterious middle section, which is indeed very dramatic.) The repeated A-flats that start at the outset and never stop are often thought to represent the drip drip drip of a leaky roof. However, when this last bit was pointed out to Chopin he reportedly found the suggestion to be offensive, as such a direct imitation would be beneath his artistry. (You can read George Sands’ original account of this conversation in a wikipedia entry.)
Here’s a youtube of Maurizio Pollini playing the “Raindrop” Prelude.
I have this recording and highly recommend it. Of course, as with The Well-Tempered Clavier I think you owe it to yourself to acquire the entire cycle – it’s all fantastic.