preludes, etudes, and mazurkas (oh my!)


So why ARE they called Preludes? They’re short pieces, one in each key, major and minor. Okay, like the Well-Tempered Clavier. But Preludes to what? To the next Opus? To each other? To the next thought? They’re just little character pieces, covering the spectrum of emotions – light and airy, dark and brooding, exuberant, lazy, everything. Preludes? My best guess is that it’s a nod to Bach. The counterpoint is such that only a study of Bach could teach, as is the rhythmic play – it just happens to be in the style of the times. This might be Chopin’s way of saying, “these pieces are like Bach’s Preludes of the WTC. Varying in character and in techniques, small little pieces, each a little gem on its own. And counterpoint is the highest art, really.” I can hear the precursor to the Shostakovitch Preludes in here, again little character pieces, but those with homage to Bach in a different sense – more in character than in style.


Oh, the etudes. As much as I don’t think I’m in love with Chopin’s music, I think I’m just telling myself that because I find it the most difficult thing in the world to play. And frankly I’m terrified of the Etudes. I love them – I love the characters, the brilliance, the sounds, the washes of line, color, everything. But when I heard Rubinstein never recorded the Etudes because he never felt like he could play them, that sealed the deal. Why should I, a lowly mortal, even try? Oh, to have the chops to play Chopin well!

I just hit PLAY on the recordings I have on hand: Ashkenazy and Murray Perahia. Just on the first etude: Ashkenazy has crystal clarity on every. single. note. It’s incredible. And Perahia has the wave effect going on – washes up and down the keyboard, still with incredibly clarity, but not to the effect that you are forced to notice every note – your ear is more drawn toward the line. Continuing on, I’m not sure whose I like better. Ashkenazy seems more interesting, sometimes even quirky, but Perahia appears more coherent. Is the a “definitive recording” of these etudes? You know, sometimes there’s that ONE recording that everyone talks about. If there’s ONE of the Etudes, I don’t recall.


Listening to the Mazurkas (and considering the Preludes and Etudes), I’ve concluded that Chopin should officially have the title, “the master of the character piece” alongside Schumann. Just because they’re in a specific form or idiom doesn’t mean they aren’t some of the best character pieces ever written. The expression, the compositional style, everything. Each one is a consideration of a mood, or a thought, or an image, or a feeling – so eloquent, poetic.


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