Chopin: Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4

Chopin demonstrates his unique contrapuntal gift in this prelude. This is unquestionably a prelude of great melodic beauty, and yet if we play the right hand by itself the line feels static, almost dull. Chopin gives the line life by creating great interest in the LH chords, and in so doing invests the accompaniment with a counter-melodic strength. With each successive chord change, one (or occasionally two) of the chordal notes descends a whole, or more commonly, a half step. The descent occurs in no particular pattern and in no discernible order, resulting in many chords that do not function according to traditional harmonic practice, and herein lies their fascination. For example, in a work in E minor, we would expect the left-hand D7 chord in m. 7 to resolve to the relative-major key of G if it were functioning normally. In this prelude’s tonal world, this chord functions entirely differently, but with no less convincing a musical logic. The static right-hand melodic line “borrows,” as it were, the compelling allure of the throbbing left-hand chords. The melodic line comes into its own more vivid beauty around m. 8, precisely when the chords below return to traditional tonal function, no longer needed for their nonfunctional fascination. This is an entirely different counterpoint from that of Chopin’s first love, Bach, the contrapuntal master nonpareil, and yet it is clearly informed and inspired by it.

The word largo means “broad” in Italian. The three preludes marked largo (the E major, C minor, and this one) suggest that for Chopin (at least in the Preludes) largo indicates a striding tempo with a broad “gait.” In general, Chopin’s lento would seem to indicate a somewhat slower tempo. Keep in mind that this prelude is to be felt broadly in two, not in four, as it is marked “cut time.”

Compare the accompaniment of this prelude to that of the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4, composed a few years before the Preludes. That mazurka may have been a kind of creative seed for this prelude. Identifying similar passages or principles in different works is one of the keys to entering the mental processes of the composer.

MM.8, 12: No better illustrations exist for my adage, “A Chopin accent is always more than an accent,” than the two accents in these measures. Can you find something novel about these accented notes, something which may have inspired Chopin to accent them, beyond the call, simply, for greater volume? This novelty is the key to interpreting the accent convincingly. Consider m. 12: Notice that the accented C is the first note since the chords were introduced in m. 1 to be played without accompaniment. Awareness of this might encourage the performer to play this lonely note more soulfully and more searchingly, perhaps even more painfully, than the surrounding notes, and not merely more loudly. Can you see what is novel about the G-sharp of m. 8?

Alternatively, it is possible to interpret the accents in these measures as diminuendo “hairpins,” rather than accents. Often the two are indistinguishable in Chopin’s manuscripts, and one must use context and instinct to determine his intent. Different interpretations are valid. For example, both the Henle edition and that of Chopin’s pupil Carl Mikuli interpret the mark in m. 8 as a diminuendo, and both editions consider the mark in m. 12 an accent. Ekier gives the marks in both measures as accents, as does Paderewski, but in Ekier’s edition they are slightly larger than normal size.

M. 12: What makes this measure so poignantly beautiful? I believe it has something to do with the close juxtaposition of the raised 7th degree of the scale and the lowered 7th, in this case the D-sharp and the D natural. This is a favorite expressive device of Chopin’s. Can you find other instances of this juxtaposition in the Preludes? An instance quite similar to this one occurs in Prelude No. 16, m. 17, just before the return to the opening material. Look for a very different, but no less exquisite occurrence, in Prelude No. 6, mm. 21-22.

M. 14: Consider that there are often slight differences between otherwise similar phrases. For example, compare m. 14 to m. 2 and note the expressive difference. Sometimes, listening deeply and responding consciously to the difference between varied points in similar phrases is all that is necessary to project that difference beautifully and convincingly. To focus on these subtle differences, juxtapose them, playing them immediately after one another. For example, here play m. 2, and then immediately play m. 14. As you play, be conscious of the difference between the two phrases, and your listener will be as well.

M. 24: This is the first instance of the dynamic pianissimo in the Preludes. Be sure to highlight it.

Pedaling Possibilities

It seems odd that Chopin indicates only two instances of pedal in this prelude. The two instances share something in common: They involve the only departures from repeated chords in the accompaniment. In both cases, the LH descends for a deeper bass-anchor that Chopin wants sustained. However, I believe this prelude offers evidence that Chopin sometimes considers use of the pedal to be so obvious that its explicit indication is unnecessary. Note the slurs over the LH chords, suggesting a legato articulation. This legato would be impossible with repeated chords if no pedal were used at all. Experiment with light legato pedal, changing it fractionally on every 8th note, or changing less frequently (for a richer sound) to taste. The final chords can use a deeper pedal for legato and resonance.

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Margaret Otwell