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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

On the miniature extreme, no composer ever exceeded Chopin's mastery of the romantic fragment, the most suggestively romantic statement of all. No one ever thematized the idea as vividly as did Chopin when he invented a new genre, the freestanding prelude, to embody it. A prelude, after all, is by definition incomplete. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music defines it as “a composition establishing the pitch or key of a following piece.”8 So far we have encountered the prelude only as the first item in a keyboard suite, or as paired with a fugue. Before Chopin, several pianist composers had provided books of preludes for practical concert use, mere modulatory transitions between recital items for pianists who were incapable of improvising their own. Collections of this kind had been published by the Italian-born London-based Muzio Clementi, not only a virtuoso but a piano manufacturer (1787); by the Slovakian-born Johann Nepomuk Hummel (24 Präludien, op. 67, 1814); and by Ignaz Moscheles (1794–1870), a Bohemian-born pianist based in London, whose celebrated book of didactic models for improvisations, 50 Präludien, op. 73 (1827), Chopin probably knew and took (along with the Well-Tempered Clavier) for a model.

But Chopin's preludes were not didactic. They were vividly if enigmatically expressive performance pieces, albeit in an “improvisatory” style; and their novelty, instantly perceived, proved influential. The evocative genre Chopin thus created, a prelude to everything and nothing (or, if one insists on being tiresomely literalistic, to the next prelude), was widely imitated by later romantics and post-romantics such as the Russians Alexander Scriabin, Sergey Rachmaninoff, and Dmitriy Shostakovich; the Frenchmen Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen; the American George Gershwin, and the Argentine Alberto Ginastera, the date of whose “American Preludes” of 1944 illustrates the impressive chronological reach of Chopin's hold on the imaginations of later pianist composers.

The Chopinesque MiniatureThe Chopinesque Miniature

ex. 7-1 Frédéric Chopin, Prelude, Op. 28, no. 1

Like the preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier or the didactic sets by Clementi et al., Chopin's covered all the major and minor keys, which is why the set contained precisely twenty-four. His ordering was different from his predecessors, who put the keys through a rising sequence of semitones, with each major key followed by its parallel minor. Chopin's ordering already suggests that his set was not a mere compendium but a performance entity, for the sequence of keys is much closer to the sequences of actual harmonic practice: a circle of fifths, with each major key followed by its relative minor (C major, A minor, G major, E minor, etc.).

The first, in C major (Ex. 7-1), perfectly exemplifies the paradoxical, imagination-captivating nature of the genre, being at once fragmentary and whole, complete and yet not complete, sufficient yet insufficient. (Compare Oscar Wilde on the “perfect pleasure” of a cigarette: “it is exquisite, yet it leaves one unsatisfied.”)9 The opening, with its suggestion of a parallel period (compare mm. 1–8 with 9–12) is a feint. The second phrase, which promises to balance the first, instead soars aloft into a chromatic ascent that thrillingly overshoots its goal in m. 21 by means of an appoggiatura and only subsides harmonically in m. 25, having grown to exactly twice its expected length. Melodic satisfaction does not come until m. 29, with the sounding of the soprano C so calculatedly withheld at m. 25, where instead the harmonically equivalent m. 1 had been reprised.

But when melodic satisfaction is granted, harmonic stability is withdrawn by suspending the subdominant in the right hand over the root-fifth pedal in the left (a quintessentially Chopinesque touch!). Full subsidence is not achieved until the final arpeggio in m. 33, so that the forthright initial eight-bar phrase has been answered by an elusively asymmetrical twenty-five-bar continuation. The skillful prolongation of the melodic-harmonic resolution makes for a very satisfying conclusion on one level; and yet the piece has not been rounded off. It is a paradoxically single (“aphoristic”) statement of the sort of idea that usually demands contrast and repetition: complete yet incomplete, fully formed yet inchoate. It is at once a highly unconventional, sui generis shape and a fastidiously, consummately planned one. The music sounds at once spontaneous and very finely wrought (especially in texture).

The Chopinesque Miniature

ex. 7-2 Frédéric Chopin, Prelude, Op. 28, no. 2

The cryptic second prelude (Ex. 7-2) is one of the most written-about pieces in the whole much-written-about romantic repertoire. It is an out-and-out grotesque (from grottesca, originally referring to wall decorations in ancient excavated cave dwellings or grottos): a deliberately, fancifully ugly or absurd utterance. Fancifully ugly is the dissonant left-hand accompaniment, with its chromatic middle-voice neighbors that so frequently interfere with and distort the effect of the harmony-tones, as for example in mm. 5 and 10, with their crabby diminished octaves formed by the friction of chromatic neighbors against diatonic suspensions.

Fancifully absurd is the harmonic vagary. The piece begins, straightforwardly enough, as if in E minor, but the first melodic phrase effects a detour to G, the ostensible relative major. The movement to B minor at m. 9 sets up the false expectation that the whole maneuver will be symmetrically repeated in the dominant; but when the moment of truth comes, in m. 11, the anticipated D is distorted to D♯, obfuscating the tonal orientation and making for some more willful clashes in the part writing. The next phrase is famous for the functional undecideability of the harmony. Where it's leading is anyone's guess. When cadence is finally made on A minor, it seems arbitrarily tacked on—almost mockingly so, given the incongruous little chorale (marked sostenuto) that introduces it. If we take the three cadential points G, D (anticipated if never actually realized), and A as marking the prelude's trajectory, we have an instance of willful harmonic movement swimming directly against the current of the circle of fifths.

Thus (to quote the musical deconstructionist Rose Rosengard Subotnik) the A-minor cadence, “rather than constituting the only conceivable and thus logically necessary end to the piece” as longstanding harmonic practice would require, merely intrudes upon it as “a forcible and contingent end, more rhetorical than harmonically logical in its persuasiveness.”10 Subotnik links this radical arbitrariness to the general rejection of “Enlightened” premises in post-Napoleonic Europe, and the potentially sinister romantic exaltation of “personal” over universal truth.

In any case, this is no end-accented progression like the one in the opening movement of Schumann's Phantasie (Ex. 6-4). There is no thwarted inevitability about the harmonic trajectory, although (and this should be taken as a caution) analysis can always be employed in hindsight to suggest the opposite. As Subotnik points out, “every pitch in this piece has harmonic aspects that can, in retrospect, be related in some fashion to the tonal identity of the final cadence,” and is thus “susceptible to an ex post facto, empirical explanation of what actually (or historically) happened.”11 But such an analysis will not provide what tonal analysis, when truly pertinent, ought to provide—namely, an account of “the necessary realization of a logical premise.” (Justification of willful behavior ex post facto, which analysis is designed to accomplish in the name of genius, is just what thinkers like Edmund Burke viewed as the potentially sinister or corrupting side effect of romanticism on reason.)

Yet while Chopin's prelude is “on purpose,” a put-on thing from beginning to end, the part writing, however arbitrary the effect, is contrapuntally pristine, rendering the piece at once academically impeccable and poetically fractious. Those primarily committed to academic respectability must respect it, even as they wonder at the grotesquerie (and possibly try to explain it away). Those primarily committed to poetic fractiousness will wonder at the cool “aristocratic” control of the facture (the “making,” the technical handling or management of materials) which with Chopin was such an indispensable point of honor. There is, in short, something in this piece to bewilder everyone, and something for everyone to admire. It was when both of these elements were present and impossible to disengage from one another that romantics were most apt to speak, as Schumann did, of genius.

Such genius was often linked with the demonic, as we have seen, or with madness or physical illness (and there were many in the nineteenth century who deduced from this the false converse that madness or physical infirmity were signs of genius). Thus Chopin's lifelong sickliness and his death from consumption became in the minds of many the virtual content and message of his art, turning his compositions into what the contemporary French poet Charles Baudelaire called Fleurs du mal (“flowers of illness,” or “poisoned flowers”) and greatly increasing the fascination they wielded over suggestible imaginations.

George Sand made specific allusion to the A-minor prelude in two different memoirs of her life with Chopin. In one, she depicted him composing it while actually coughing blood, becoming an object of “horror and fright to the population”12 and leading to the couple's eviction from their Majorcan retreat. In the other, she attempts through biography to account for the prelude's strange effect on listeners. It came to him, she writes,

through an evening of dismal rain—it casts the soul into a terrible dejection. [My son] Maurice and I had left him in good health one morning to go shopping in Palma for things we needed at our “encampment.” The rain came in overflowing torrents. We made three leagues in six hours, only to return in the middle of a flood. We got back in absolute dark, shoeless, having been abandoned by our driver to cross unheard of perils. We hurried, knowing how our sick one would worry. Indeed he had, but now was as though congealed in a kind of quiet desperation, and, weeping, he was playing his wonderful Prelude. Seeing us come in, he got up with a cry, then said with a bewildered air and a strange tone, “Ah, I was sure that you were dead.”13

On the basis of these biographical embroideries, it became fashionable to maintain that Chopin's music, in the words of the mid-century French critic Hippolyte Barbedette (and the Preludes particularly by virtue of their great “artistic value”), exerted a dangerous influence on ordinary mortals. “Chopin,” he opined,

was a sick man who enjoyed suffering, and did not want to be cured. He poured out his pain in adorable accents—his sweet melancholy language which he invented to express his sadness. One feels it irresistibly and is suddenly willess before its charm; since music is above all a vague and inexplicit language, he who plays Chopin's music, for the little he is under the spell of such melancholy thought, will inevitably end by imagining that it is his own thought he expresses. He will really believe in suffering, along with him who knew so well how to weep. Conclusion: Chopin's music is essentially unhealthy. That is its allure and also its danger.14

This one-sided but culturally significant view of Chopin is of course contradicted by many of his best-known pieces, including the very next prelude, a light, outdoorsy, altogether unproblematic vivace in G major. The pianistically undemanding E-minor largo that follows it (Ex. 7-3) has become hackneyed over the years by naively emotive, amateurish performances (like the one given—in a satirized attempt at seduction—by the Jack Nicholson character in the movie Five Easy Pieces). What can make such performances seem naive is the fact that for all its espressivo melancholy and harmonic subtlety this is actually one of the more mannerly preludes. It is a formally straightforward binary design in which two parallel periods of equal duration proceed without feint or detour first (mm. 1–12) to a dominant half-close, and then (mm. 13–25), more emphatically, to a full stop on the tonic.

The Chopinesque Miniature

ex. 7-3 Frédéric Chopin, Prelude, Op. 28, no. 4

It is the highly chromatic (or “chromatized”) harmony that has made this prelude popular. But its chromaticism, far from enigmatic or confusing like that of the second prelude, consists rather of a lucid, regular, and very intelligible application of chromatic passing tones to all three voices in a contrapuntally pristine though rhythmically wayward series of 7–6 suspensions. (In the first period, for example, the sevenths are sounded at m. 2, m. 4, the middle of m. 6, m. 9, and m. 10; their respective resolutions come at the middle of m. 3, the third quarter of m. 4, the middle of m. 8, and the second quarter of m. 9.) Harmony based on a suspension chain rather than a root progression by fifths was the very opposite of a novel device. Its origins lay in the ground-basses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it was already a deliberate archaicism when Mozart briefly revived it, for example in his C-minor Fantasy, K. 475. Its very old-fashionedness made it esoteric and exotic, and therefore striking, when Chopin used it. It testifies nevertheless to his unusually thorough and conservative grounding in counterpoint, partly the result of his having been trained in a remote and “backward” corner of Eastern Europe rather than in one of the musical capitals of the continent. In its paradoxical way it was a token of his Polishness.


(8) Don M. Randel, ed., The New Harvard Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 653.

(9) Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chap. 6.

(10) Rose R. Subotnik, “Romantic Music as Post-Kantian Critique,” in Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 134.

(11) Ibid., p. 130, 134.

(12) George Sand, Un hiver à Majorque (rpt., Palma, 1968), p. 60; trans. Thomas Higgins in Chopin, Preludes, Op. 28 (New York: Norton, 1973), p. 5.

(13) George Sand, Histoire de ma vie, Vol. IV (Paris, 1902–04), p. 439; trans. Higgins, Ibid., p. 94.

(14) Hippolyte Barbedette, Chopin: Essai de critique musicale (Paris, 1861), p. 65; trans. Higgins, Ibid., p. 92.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 May. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Self and Other. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007005.xml