Beyond Words

Do you have a recording of Chopin’s Preludes? I listened to them today for the first time in quite a while. They are an odd collection, not preludes to anything really, despite the name, but each a unique meditation. About them, Liszt said:

“Chopin’s Preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart. They are not only, as the title might make one think, pieces destined to be played in the guise of introductions to other pieces; 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.”

and Schumann:

“I would term the Preludes strange. They are sketches, beginnings of Etudes, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions.”

There are twenty-four, one for each major and minor key. Composed in the late 1830s, they were later each given names by the pianist and conductor Hans von Bulow. Some are lighthearted and frolicsome, others sad and contemplative, some several minutes long, others as brief as a passing thought. But there is one that stands apart from all the others, that has such a powerfully disturbing emotional effect that I have at times actually been afraid to listen to it. It is the twenty-three-bar-long Prelude no. 2 in A Minor, and I am not the only one to have been affected this way by it. The title given to it by von Bulow is Presentiment of Death.

Edward Rothstein, a trained mathematician and the chief music critic for the New York Times, discusses this piece at length in his excellent book Emblems of Mind: the Inner Life of Music and Mathematics. He mentions that Andre Gide refers to the prelude’s “inexhaustible emotion” and “almost physical terror”, and Rothstein himself describes it as “beautiful in a disturbing and disturbed fashion”, and says that it “confounds us even as it nourishes us”.

The piece defies all conventions of style, rhythm, symmetry and harmony. It has, for me, a terrifying edge of madness. As it begins, following on the romantic and uplifting Reunion, it is as if one has stepped quite suddenly out of the sunshine into an ancient and tenebrous forest, where a nameless dread lurks in the gloom.

My favorite recording of the Preludes is from a 1965 session by the gifted Czech pianist Ivan Moravec. I bought a copy (VAIA 1039) just a few years ago, but it seems to be rather hard to find now.

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