About the Composer
Mention the word piano and invariably the first composer to come to mind will be Chopin. No other composer in the history of music focused all his creative energy with such extraordinary refinement and perfection on a single instrument as he did: His work has been described as the distilled essence of the piano. Nearly everything Chopin ever wrote is for solo piano, and the few remaining works all include his instrument of choice (some songs, a cello sonata, and a handful of works for piano and orchestra).
Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45
Aside from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Chopin's Op. 28 set of preludes is surely the most famous group of pieces conceived as an orderly traversal of the 24 major and minor keys. Some listeners are perplexed by the title "prelude" in view of the fact that nothing follows. Reinhard Schulz's cogent explanation clarifies this point: "The purpose of a prelude has always been to establish the mood of something which is to follow, anticipating its basic characteristics. Each of Chopin's preludes may be understood as containing the essence of an entire world of feelings—it is left to the receptive listener to fill in the detailed picture in his mind."
In addition to the 24 Preludes of Op. 28, there also exists a solitary number composed in 1841. The Prelude in C-sharp Minor was published initially as a piece in a "Beethoven Album" assembled by publisher Pietro Mechetti as part of campaign to raise money for a Beethoven monument in Bonn. Two years later, Mechetti published it separately as Chopin's Op. 45. This exquisite mosaic of shifting harmonies sees slowly repeating figurations dissolving from one harmonic area to another, meandering in almost improvisatory fashion.
Ballade in F Major, Op. 38, and Ballade in A-flat Major, Op. 47
Centuries ago, the ballade was a piece of music to accompany dancing. Later, it became music for dancing and singing together, and eventually for singing with instruments. In the 19th century, it became a favored genre among composers of piano music. Like its vocal counterpart, the piano ballade tended to be a freely constructed, substantial narrative in several connected sections relating (or implying) a story of romantic or chivalric import. Abrupt changes of mood, passionate outbursts, violent conflicts, tender lyricism, pregnant silences, and poetic musings—all framed by an introductory passage and a coda—are the essential elements of a Chopin ballade.
According to legend, Chopin is supposed to have told Robert Schumann (the Op. 38 Ballade's dedicatee) that it was inspired by poetry of Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz about an enchanted lake that swallows up a town. While there is no proof of this, there's also no harm in imagining the quiet, barcarolle-like passages of the ballade as portraying the placid waters and the presto con fuoco passages as episodes of danger to the town.
The Ballade in A-flat Major is the most consistently congenial and carefree of Chopin's four ballades. Two principal subjects are presented in turn and expanded at length. Special features of this ballade include numerous silences and the pervasive stressing of the third and sixth beats of the bar, giving much of the music a gently rocking, lilting effect.
Four Mazurkas, Op. 33
What the symphony was to Haydn and the piano sonata to Beethoven, the mazurka was to Chopin—the genre that occupied him throughout his life, the one in which he left the most examples (nearly 60), and the one that serves more than any other to trace his artistic development. A mazurka is a dance in triple meter, usually slower than a waltz, with its strongest accent shifted to the third (or less frequently the second) beat of the measure. In character, mazurkas run the gamut of human emotions, including mournful, plaintive, reflective, dreamy, wistful, cryptic, playful, robust, intoxicating, defiant, robust, and exuberant.
The Op. 33 Mazurkas date from 1838. The first, in the rarely used key of G-sharp minor, is disarmingly simple. The well-known No. 2 was used in the ballet Les Sylphides. No. 3 stands out for its rhythmic peculiarities (the composer Meyerbeer claimed it was in 2/4 meter, not 3/4), while No. 4 contains a lyrical episode that critic Irving Kolodin suggested might be "somebody's declaration of undying love."
Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39
The use of the word scherzo ("joke" in Italian) as the title of a musical composition can be traced as far back as the early–17th century, when Claudio Monteverdi affixed it to the top of a frivolous madrigal in 1607. The original conception of the word has been bent to accommodate artistic license over the years, resulting in the term serving the composer, not the other way around. Chopin inherited Beethoven's freedom of approach, and his four magnificent scherzos display great variety, intensity of emotion, freedom of approach, and power of expression, resulting in music that is far from the lighthearted jests or jokes implied by their titles. In fact, the scherzos represent some of the most virile and dramatically powerful creations in Chopin's output.
The Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor contains passages of restless, even feverish agitation that alternate with chorale-like progressions, each ending in a gentle sprinkle of descending broken chords. Bernard Gavoty has compared the music of Chopin to a Shakespearean world, relating the character of Ariel in The Tempest to this last-mentioned music in the Third Scherzo: "It is Ariel who, with his constantly changing countenance, symbolizes precisely the dialogue between the chorale and 'a spring rain in the sunshine.'"
Preludes, Book I
About the Composer
Debussy's role as one of music history's supreme contributors to the piano repertory is scarcely less lofty than Chopin's. Like Chopin, the piano was his instrument, and his public performances were primarily of his own music, though he also played works by Chopin. For Debussy, Chopin was something of a kindred spirit; he even studied with one of Chopin's pupils, Madame Mauté de Fleurville. Gradations and blends of colors, subtleties of pedaling, and a wide range of articulations were essential elements in Debussy's innovative, non-percussive approach to keyboard writing. It is said that his intent was to make the piano sound not like a piano.
About the Work
Debussy's Preludes, Book I, appeared in 1910 and was followed three years later by a second book of 12. Unlike those of Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Kabalevsky, Scriabin, and others, Debussy's 24 preludes are not arranged in an orderly sequence of major and minor keys (though all have a tonal center, some are not really "in" a given key). He also did not conceive of them as a set to be performed as a unit, which is the common practice today. In the time-honored Gallic tradition of concision, clarity of form, precision, and deftness, Debussy's preludes offer finely etched, crystallized miniatures of landscapes, dances, moments from literature, details from paintings and sculptures, legendary figures, and more. The process may be likened to that of Picasso, who could say so much with just a few strokes of the brush.
A Closer Listen
Where Debussy goes beyond all others is in the descriptive element he incorporates into his preludes. Each has a suggestive title, and though they are noted in the original score at the end of each prelude rather than at the beginning, they are clearly meant to impart a programmatic dimension to the music beyond the purely musical elements of rhythm, color, melody, harmonic adventures, and pianistic techniques. Listeners are free, of course, to experience the preludes as musical pictorialism, as purely abstract sound in motion, or in any combination of these. Book I includes several audience favorites, such as the ethereally elegant "Danseuses de Delphes" ("Delphic Dancers"), supposedly inspired by a Classical sculpture Debussy saw at the Louvre; the forlorn "Des pas sur la neige" ("Footsteps in the Snow"); that masterpiece of quiet restraint and simplicity, "La fille aux cheveux de lin" ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair"); and the mysterious "La cathédrale engloutie" ("The Sunken Cathedral"), with its melodic line inspired by Gregorian chant.