Author’s note: I wrote this short article in mid-1990s, as an illustration for the method of interpreting instrumental classical music. Chopin’s 24th Prelude is perfect for introducing to students the idea that even highly subjective, non-vocal musical works can be regarded philosophically, which is mandatory for proper interpretation of these works by a performer; that not only great works of literature or drama, but even those of such highly abstracted form of art as instrumental music, don’t just convey “feelings”, but can and do say something so specific, that it can be understood and explained verbally – and ultimately expressed through performance. Re-reading the article now, a decade and a half after it was written, I realize that my own understanding of the method has somewhat improved since then, and I see my former interpretation of the prelude as certainly naïve – and yet, I want to present the article to the reader in its original form, because I still think that it does the job of explaining the method rather well. I’m adding a few clarifying notes after the article.
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The first two bars of the prelude introduce the existential conditions in the world of this musical piece: the chord figurations in the low register (a romantic form of “Alberti bass”) press up, and may be said to symbolize the dark, aggressive, faceless collective force that ferociously and continuously attacks the world of spirituality; the army of demons, snapping their fangs, trying to grab anything or anyone even slightly above them.
“Re” of great octave, the first tone of the prelude, signifies the lowest hell, a sort of “home base”, from which the forces of evil direct all their attacks. The tone “la” of the same octave is also emphasized (it’s sustained longer than the others), and in the context of the prelude may be interpreted as the coveted prize they are fighting to conquer. The figurations continue ostinato throughout the entire prelude, unceasingly, exactly the way it occurs in life (one of the features of devil’s strategy is his relentless, self-perpetuating aggression; certain destructive events tend to recur over and over, with insignificant variations; someone who has evaded a certain trap, may eventually be caught in it). Based on the above-said, the popular interpretation of the left hand figurations in this prelude as “inspired romantic accompaniment”, to be played rubato and mezzo-forte, much less audible than the melody played by the right hand – should be considered erroneous. On the contrary, it may be argued that this prelude demands not only forceful performance of the left hand, but also the continuous power struggle between the bas-harmony figurations and the melody. Furthermore, from time to time, and more prominently toward the end of the prelude, the left hand may even acoustically overlap, deafen the melody in the right hand – in this case, such misbalance isn’t only permitted, but may even emphasize the dramatic conflict. Obviously, this has to be done (if at all) in the artistic, subtle, and tasteful way.
The exposition of the main melody begins in the third bar, at “la” of the first octave. That tone is a “home base”, too, only it belongs to the hero; that’s the place where he starts his exploits from, and where he returns to, again and again, so that he can regain his strength. Thus, the conflict is established between the tonic “re”, expressing within the given musical piece the state of stability, finality, naturalness (that is, stagnation, sloth, inertia, materialism) – and the dominant, “la”, symbolizing action, dynamism, pursuit (and therefore, spirituality, as it’s understood by the Romantics). The musical theme is a kind of declaration of the hero’s personal controlling idea – that’s why, in its declamation-like rhythmic and melodic structure, it resembles a fervent speech, made by an orator from a tribune. Through that speech, the hero is presented to the audience as a spiritually gifted individual who, aware of his superiority, considers himself invincible, and is prone to being reckless. The meaning of his declaration is expressed through music with such precision, that it can be fully translated into words:
“From the height of my spiritual position (“la” of the first octave) I will confront the devil face-to-face –
– and shall escape his claws, having returned to my firmly established spiritual position.
I am prepared to defy the devil repeatedly, and as many times as necessary –
– and shall triumph again.
The battle shall enable me to reach new heights.
– and find myself dangerously close to my enemy –
– that shall only provide me with more momentum, making me soar toward the new, unthought-of, incredible spiritual vertex (“fa” of the fourth octave, the highest note of the prelude).
Moreover, even if on my path of trial and error, as a result of another failure –
– I slide into the abyss –
– my inevitable ascent shall only be made stronger and faster, and it shall confirm and support my initial spirituality (the tone “la”), on the entirely new, higher level, accompanied by conquering the new, expanded spiritual range (modulation into the dominant tonality of “la”).
The collective diabolic forces, however, continue their stubborn attacks, and, in the heat of the battle, the hero involuntarily allows them to access his own spiritual sphere, “la”, which the diabolic forces immediately make their own: now “la” has become the “home base” of the forces of evil, imperceptibly overtaken from the hero.
It may seem that the demonic forces have retreated to a deeper hell (as they begin their attacks from “la” of contra octave) – but by doing so, they lure the hero to follow them, forcing him to “make camp” around “mi” of the first octave.
The hero repeats his initial passionate declaration word by word (or rather, note by note, only a perfect fourth lower), but now his oratorical eloquence is tinted with darker timbre, as if a menacing shadow have been cast over his optimistic impulse. Additionally (and this, too, is expressed through the general descent to the lower range, that is, to the acoustic zone that requires somewhat lower tension of the human voice), the hero appears to have fatigued himself by his “public speaking”.
It’s time to take action, but the hero is drained, lacking in power. So when he finally moves on from exposition (verbal declarations of his intentions and abilities) to development (actual work), and has his notions put to a test, the hero is not as keen as he used to be only a few bars ago. Quite on the contrary, he is overly cautious –
– uncertain, he can’t remain on the higher tone he has captured, and steps down –
– he trembles violently –
– he is fearful (the melody is played piano) –
– he freezes, losing momentum, and even though he returns to his initial “home base” (“la” of the first octave), he finds himself a stranger there:
In the meantime, the continuously attacking diabolic figurations have stolen from the heroic theme its most important weapon: its dynamic nature. All this time the figurations have been running busily through “flat” tonalities, not staying in any of them, undermining the hero’s balance, and imperceptibly weaving spider webs all around him.
The hero – the melody – having regained some of his strength in his favorite “la” of the first octave, dashes into a new battle with double enthusiasm –
– and, having put everything at stake, takes a “leap of faith” to the highest note of the piece, to the spiritual vertex he had declared before (the fourth octave “fa”).
But the hero can’t hold the captured altitude, and what follows is the most catastrophic collapse –
That’s “passus duriusculus” – “hard passage” – the rhetoric trop Chopin had inherited from medieval composers. The trop symbolizes the descent into hell. (I’ve met many pianists who loathed that passage passionately, even though for a different reason.)
The hero doesn’t care anymore about confronting the devil. Aware of the extent of his misfortune, he is desperate to save his skin, and tries to escape the claws of his enemy, relying on his former support in the spiritual – tone “la” –
– the hero “wriggles”, trying to free himself from the nets that are tightening around him –
– but his willpower, and his ability for spiritual and physical resistance to evil have been broken –
– so finally the hero sets foot in what unmistakably is the hell of “re” –
The escape is impossible: any attempt to reach the former heights, any impulse for freedom, no matter how courageous or powerful, lacking the support of “la”, can only lead to a new collapse to the pit of “re”, and roots the hero in “re” more and more firmly.
Harmonized shreds of the downward chromatic “passus durisuculus” painfully drive, stomp the hero down into hell, and even his favorite “la” is taken away, and from now on belongs to the devil.
The tone “re” – the symbol of the material world – is finally imposed and enforced even in the highest octave, and therefore the entire world, the very existence of the hero is fully under devil’s control:
The hero is hurled into the chasm of unimaginable depth – “re” of contra octave, the deepest “re” on the keyboard, the whole octave lower than the initial “home base” of the diabolic force, the lowest tone of the prelude (repeated thrice, like black magic incantation), and the deepest hell.
Music ends on the long fermata pause, on non-being, on the quote of Hamlet’s last words.
The hero, having started out in this musical piece as undoubtedly a spiritual individual of high promise, as a result of his arrogant flirting with devil, overestimating his abilities and wasting his energy on empty, superficial self-aggrandizement, has not only died as a spiritual being, but had also joined the diabolic forces he had been battling against. A mind of extreme spiritual potential is the sweetest conquest for the devil, and ironically, it’s the hero’s awareness of his spirituality that has made him arrogant and complacent, and has led to his ruin. A Romantic tragedy, if there ever was one. The overall dramatic progression, and the theme and idea of the piece, make it thematically related to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, to Matthew Gregory Lewis’ novel “The Monk”, and to the uniquely superb work of television, “Twin Peaks” series, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost.
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P.S. Thinking about Chopin’s 24th prelude now, I can see where I had deviated from the objective view while writing the article. I’m sure that the composer didn’t intend his ideas to be understood only by piano players, or by listeners fortunate enough to possess the perfect pitch. So I have come to believe that in the article I’ve been driving home the point about the significance of “re” and “la” in a way-to-didactic manner. I still think it’s remarkable that the melody always seems to seek energy in a certain recurrent tone, and that another recurrent tone wins the fight in the end, but ultimately, I believe, the absolute values are unimportant, compared to the overall relationships between higher and lower tones, accessible even to listeners without any knowledge of musical theory. The objectivity of the (somewhat schizophrenic) notion of the conflict between the left and right hand of a pianist may also be questioned, even though I confess I do enjoy imagining it as the metaphor for the inner battle between the “dexterous” and “sinister” aspects of composer’s (and performer’s) mind. One way or another, nobody would deny that the hero of the prelude ended up in a lot warmer place than where he expected to find himself, and that the overall message of this musical work is pessimistic.
Friday, June 24 2010, 12:25 AM, New York