Pianist Russell Sherman of the New England Conservatory faculty performs a program of works by Chopin, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Scriabin on May 10 (originally scheduled for September 29, 2013). In these notes on the earliest work he has programmed, Sherman finds 24 ways in which the pianist's storytelling art was revolutionized by Chopin.
24 Preludes, Op. 28
I. The cycle begins with a brazen display of the mother key (C major) in the breathless meter of 2/8. No sallow introduction to the ball, but a dithyramb of wild exuberance, frenetic joy—yet suffused with the rich counterpoint of rhythm and line, uncorking the champagne, that only a wise Master can know and reveal.
II. From the lair of Mussorgsky, prophetic omens delivered over stony, wretched basses that progressively disintegrate—into a macabre entropy resolving, fantastically, to a tonic chord deus ex machina. The third and fourth bars of the treble line disclose the not-so-secret primary motive (or rather melodic shape) which threads the cycle.
III. By the brook, Wohin, an innocent rejoinder to the prior tremors. The contradictions are falling into place. No simple sequence of balanced entities will suffice. Equilibrium will be based on the disparate insights only an inspired madness can provide.
IV. A two-note cantilena expires at the hand of a death-inviting bass. The soul glides gratefully, with one gasping rattle in bars 16–18, to its peaceful demise. Thus destined, the sentiment is calm and unashamed.
V. A remarkable “sleight of hand” in that essential melodic fragments are gently dislocated off the pulse, giddy and heedless of the whirling sixteenths. The whole flirtation lasts but a moment—and abruptly cadences with a grand jeté off the stage.
VI. The sadness, the unbridgeable gulf, is sadly (for the pianist) echoed by the impossible task of matching the untethered LH melody with a RH formula that only once (bars 7–9) breaks from its obstinate rhythmic duty. The exotic interval of the seventh on the third beat of bar 22 exquisitely and eerily adumbrates the seventh at the close of the twenty-third Prelude.
VII. Cinderella’s doll is alive and well. Her slippers are yellow, but judging from the original pedaling, they do not touch the floor.
VIII. A grand guignol of passion, yet acutely aware of the supernatural hints and vibrations. The main voice is plunged into the midsection of the instrument, but levitates by grace notes imitating an octave above within the figuration. The harmonic onslaught is ferocious, as though seeking quarter-tones to vent its chromatic wrath.
IX. The great gates of Warsaw, a homeland at once invincible and Herculean in its resistance to foreign invaders.
X. The schematic flutterings of a distraught bird, landing on the branch of a distant mazurka—in a “harp of shadow” (Milosz).
XI. A piece of no consequence—only insofar as tender entreaties of the soul have no effect on the real world. It barely exists, but without it there is no existence.
XII. A sinister, lacerating scherzo of defiance and doom. Premeditated: it takes no prisoners.
XIII. In the eye of the hurricane, a barcarolle. An enveloping languor detoxifies, cleanses—and revels in the disembodied tonality, last of the sharp keys. The middle section is the purest of odes, to a love beyond love.
XIV. The cycle descends into undifferentiated anarchy. The violence, not from anger but of the unknown, is exemplified by a music unparalleled in its Cyclopean gaze: every note of the piece but the last has the same rhythmic duration, and every note of the piece is in the same clef. The two hands play the same pitches, an octave apart, throughout. All that remains is vibration and terror.
XV. Only a mythical Beatrice can lead us back from the underworld. Her raiment is embroidered with Burgundian sixths.
XVI. A tempestuous Etude which brings us back, soberly, to the task of playing the piano. The piano, that complicated box of a labyrinth of a machine—can it also be a spokesman for good and evil? What other human activity affords so much range and immediate impact? Gives so much chance to soar and delineate, instruct and pierce? Pity one has to move one’s fingers too. So much Sisyphus for a touch of heaven.
XVII. Another (pre-Ravel) apotheosis of the waltz, or in this case, the ball. The decor is sumptuous, the harmonies verdant, and Andre Gide remarked that no music could be more joyous than the two middle episodes. Yet despite the grandeur, one always feels the tension between individual soul and the unreachable communion of satisfaction.
In its last statement, the theme becomes indistinct memory, spectral and sotto voce; in the bass the great bell of Time unseduced, reminds.
XVIII. Great spasms of despair, expletives undeleted. Curses, chains, shrieks woven into a compositional tapestry that celebrates the appoggiatura and as well, the Master who can divine sense from agony.
XIX. An essay in delirium, but balletic and serene. Everything tumbles, or spires, to an ozone where harmony meets gladness—courtesy of the eternally benign E flat major tonality now in tremulous heat. How radiant, but cool. How kind, but self-sufficient.
XX. An ode to grave formality, or to the formality of the grave. The king is dead, long live his biographer.
XXI. A melody so beautiful it can’t be repeated, only dissolved into rapturous chant. As though it were possible to have music for solo violin and organ, a universe where intimacy and glory are brethren.
XXII. The rats are leaving the sinking ship. A cry of anguish, of courage, hovers over the wreckage. The plea for redemption is scorned.
XXIII. Pastoral digression. A windmill turns, children are playing, complete amnesia.
Gide is beside himself, and says that the E flat (seventh to the tonic) in the penultimate bar, and subsumed in the final chord, is like the “tip of a camouflaged ear.”
XXIV. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse ride again. Contrary to T. S. Eliot's prediction, the world ends with a bang, not a whimper.