Most of the 24 Chopin Preludes were sketched out between 1837 and 1838. They are the ultimate miniatures. In an age when the symphony and sonata still held sway, these Preludes were revolutionary.
The term “prelude” usually refers to a relatively brief, improvised (or improvised-sounding) piece that introduces the following work. Such a piece typically establishes the mood, as well setting up the tonal area of what follows.
However, Chopin’s preludes are meant to stand on their own, both as entities separate from one another and from any other works.
Chopin’s major influence was Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, in which the Baroque master created a paired prelude and fugue in each major and minor key. Chopin does something similar, except that instead of moving by step (C, C-sharp, D, D-sharp, etc.), he pairs each major key with its relative minor and proceeds up by a perfect fifth. Thus, he begins with C major and A minor, next gets to G major and E minor, and ends with F major and D minor. Such an approach is called the “circle of fifths.” Also, Chopin creates a single item for each key, instead of Bach’s two-part combination.
The preludes range widely in style and emotion, which is somewhat indicated by the main marking for each piece. These include: “Agitated,” “Slowly,” “Lively,” “Very slowly,” “Quite quickly,” “Very fast,” “Sustained” (i.e., in the “Raindrop Prelude”), “Very fast, with fire,” “In a singing style,” “Moderately,” and “Quickly, with passion”.
The pieces are highly-focused and concise. All except two contain a single musical idea, each boiled down to its essence. Ten are under a minute in length; nine last just over a minute. Only the celebrated No. 15, the so-called “Raindrop Prelude,” attains the length characteristic of a small piece, usually coming in at about 4½ minutes.
The music critic Henry Finck (1854-1926) once wrote that “if all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin’s Preludes”. This short statement succinctly captures the genius in these twenty-four gems, and anyone who is familiar with the preludes is left to wonder why they are not heard more often in concert halls. A similar mindset is shared by a Chopin scholar, Jeremy Nicholas, when he writes that “Even on their own, the 24 Preludes would have ensured Chopin’s claim to immortality”. In spite of their brevity – and, sometimes, technical ease – they are by no means simple pieces. From the sight-readable to the transcendental, all impart a significant musical idea and take a true virtuoso to render well.
Perhaps, however, the best single word to describe Chopin’s preludes is “enigmatic”. They have earned mixed reception from Chopin’s contemporaries and most ardent followers. Robert Schumann, who uttered the now-famous “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius!” gave the following criticism on the preludes: “I would term the preludes strange. They are sketches, beginnings of etudes, or, so to speak, ruins – individual eagle wings of all disorder and wild confusions.” As for more positive criticism, Liszt said that these same pieces “are compositions of an order entirely apart… they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams and elevates it to the regions of the ideal.”