03152016 Chopin Prelude Paper Midterm FINAL COPY (PDF)

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Chopin Preludes Op.28 No.4 Analysis
Tom Kelly
Theory IV
Petter Wahlbeck

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin’s (born March 1, 1810; died October 17th 1849)
compositional work for piano is considered by some to be the pinnacle of expression and
technicality for the instrument. From his earliest days of childhood, Chopin exhibited
exceptional talent in performance and composition (as early as eight years old), having received
training in piano, organ, and occasionally music theory. Despite any amount of personal tutelage
he received, Chopin is considered predominantly self-taught as a performer, yet rigorously
trained in the field of composition. It is Chopin’s unique mix of academic concentration rooted
in the study of counterpoint with his personal development as a performer (he was considered ‘a
second Mozart’) 1, which result in the masterpieces that are Preludes Op.28.
This set of preludes is both a nod to and an historical expansion on the preludes of J.S.
Bach, specifically in that all keys are represented in their own free-standing prelude, but are
instead organized in succession by mediant relationship rather than by parallel tonic. 1 This
paper focuses on the inner workings of Op.28 No.4 in E minor at the melodic, harmonic, and
structural levels. The compositional elements of No.4 present a certain challenge in the
achievement of a universally-agreed-upon-by-music-theorists analysis, precisely because of
Chopin’s goal to re-work this short-form style—an historically improvisatory movement that
prepares the listener for the upcoming fugue to which the prelude is paired—into a respected
form of art that is able to stand on its own, and in order to accomplish this Chopin had to get

There is much back and forth dialog between music theorists on the appropriate method
of analysis for this piece.2 Do we take Chopin’s training in counterpoint as a sign to approach
this with a linear/contrapuntal-based approach, or do we attempt to find functional, harmonic
identity within each distinct, vertical sonority? This paper does not attempt to prove one method
as being more valid than the other, but will instead take a multi-faceted approach in recognizing
valid aspects in both points of view. This analysis is divided into sections based on the concepts
Chopin utilizes, with text descriptions accompanied by reductions where applicable.

Chromatic Descent
Chromatic descent is constant throughout Op.28 No.4, and occurs most prominently one
voice at a time in the left hand, beginning at mm.1 and lasting through mm.9, with two
exceptions: the downbeat of mm.2 shows a simultaneous descent by diatonic stepwise motion in
left hand’s two lower voices; and the downbeat and second quarter of mm.9 which show
simultaneous and single-voice diatonic stepwise descent, respectively. It appears Chopin’s goal
in mm. 2 is to first establish the tonic through mm.1’s repetitious i6 in E minor, and move the
middle and bass voices on the downbeat of mm.2 as to avoid a doubling of scale degree 5 which
already plays a prominent role in the melody. The goal of mm.9 is to create the appropriate 7-6
suspension/resolution toward iv, ushering the first break in the piece’s thematic consistency.

Ex 1: Diatonic descent from mm.1 to
mm.2 is an exception to the otherwise
constant chromatic descent

With regard to the linear/contrapuntal vs. vertical/harmonically functional analysis
conversation, one particular spot of interest is found in the sounding D7 and Dmin7 in mm.7-8.
While a case can be made that the majority of sonorities in No.4 do not resolve as we expect
them to, these resulting chords specifically highlight chromatic voice-leading as Chopin’s
primary compositional method, as the Roman Numeral analysis of the chords result in V7/III and
v7/III—a functioning secondary dominant and minor v7 of the diatonic mediant which is never
realized. It is clear that this succession of chords is a result of the chromatic process at play, and
not a part of any harmonic structure with regard to verticality and harmonic function.

Ex 2: The non-function
D7 and Dmin7 are a
result of chromatic
descent and do not
fulfill a function in the
key of G

7-6 suspensions are executed at many points during the piece and can be found in the
second half of mm.2 through the third quarter of mm.3; mm.4, mm.7-mm.8, and mm.9. This
process is recalled in the consequent phrase in the second half of mm.14 through the first half of
mm.15, which immediately moves in diatonic stepwise descent to the preparation of the final 7-6
suspension in the piece at the second half of mm.15 through the first half of mm.16. The
frequency of 7-6 suspensions shows yet another hallmark of contrapuntalist, and exhibits
Chopin’s overall goal with this set of preludes: to make something new with an old and wellestablished model. According to Taruskin, “…Harmony based on a suspension chain rather
than a root progression by fifths was the very opposite of a novel device…it was already a
deliberate archaicism when Mozart briefly revived it…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…” 3

Ex 3: Unique instances of 7-6

Form and Structure
While one interpretation of No.4’s form may be that of a strict parallel period, this paper
calls to attention sets of distinct, overlapping, asymmetrical phrase groups shown in both hands,
both in the antecedent (mm.1-12) and consequent (mm.13-end) phrases. The first and third subphrases (mm.1-8 in the right hand and mm.13-18 in both hands) do not display harmonically
traditional inconclusive cadences at their ends, yet they do either lead to or are a part of
structurally important events which deviate from the piece’s melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic
consistency. As a result we may be able to interpret this as a double period in some respects,
though not conclusively. As Chopin blurs the lines between linear and vertical approaches to
harmony, perhaps this as an example of his ability to blur lines between formal structures.
While chromatic descent clearly defines the melodic and harmonic motion in No.4, to
where exactly does this motion lead? A vertical/harmonic analysis benefits us in the pursuit of
this answer, and reveals the goal of a familiar functional form at play.

Consider the antecedent phrase (mm.1-12). Beginning on the naturally unstable i6 in E
minor, a motion toward stability found only in a root position chord is immediately generated.
We do find root position chords in the dominant functioning E7 (V7/iv in the key of E minor on
the downbeat of mm.4) and B7 (V7 in the key of E minor beginning on the second quarter of mm.
10.), though their dominant roles suggest form and function above stability. The predominant
section (suggested by the E7) is prolonged by the first sight of chromatic ascent in the left hand—
a resulting restatement of the piece’s initial B-C neighbor tone melody in the bass voice—which
extends into the half cadence (B7) in mm.12. This reveals that beneath the seemingly complex
harmonic surface of Chopin’s chromaticism lays a simple suggestion toward a familiar i-iv-V
harmonic structure.
The root position E7—prepared by a secondary Fr6/iv—indeed eventually resolves
through chromatic voice-leading to a second inversion iv on the downbeat of mm.5, though this
is an unstable and ambiguous method of showing the structural importance of the predominant
Am7 chord. As Schachter points out, with this E7 we finally have the tonic pitch in the bass, but
as the chord does not support a tonic function, an amount of “gravitational weight” is felt in the
space underneath, calling for further decent. 4 Chopin proceeds to use a combination of
chromatic voice-leading and common tones to resolve the secondary dominant to the Am7.
Because the Am7 shows itself in second inversion (interestingly a progression through the cycle
of inversions—a less stable inversion than the initial first inversion i6 statement in the opening
mm.1—Chopin reaffirms the chromatic descent must continue toward the upcoming cadence.

Ex. 4: Root position
sonorities highlight a
familiar i-iv-V harmonic

The second structurally significant events occur in mm.10-12. First, a 4-3 suspension in
mm.10 resolves to a root position B7, followed by the use of neighbor tones that simultaneously
highlight the predominant functioning

and first-inversion iv6 chords, by way of chromatic

ascent. As mentioned above, this is the first moment in the piece that we see ascent in the left
hand, and it serves two specific purposes: a restatement of the main B-C melodic theme at the
beginning of the piece, and Chopin’s conscious attention to detail. For Chopin, while chromatic
descent is a governing factor of this work, it is not without its own bounds and limitations. This
is not simply an exercise of process for its own sake and to its own end. This break of process
shows calculated choice is necessary to solve compositional problems and achieve compositional
goals. The neighbor tones resolve back to a root position B7 that takes us to the half-cadence in

Ex 5: First instance of
chromatic ascent in the left
hand figure.

This half cadence is interesting on multiple levels, the first of which in its leading gracenote B to an A-G descent, as if this melodic motion were an extension of his use of the
preparation/suspension/resolution format of a 7-6 suspension over B. Finally, the arpeggiation in
the right hand of mm.12 pulls toward two target notes: B3, and B4 by way of an eighth-note
triplet descent from D5, the first triplet sub-division in the piece. This suggests its role as a
development of the pickup leading into mm.1, and serves as a quasi-phrase elision between the
antecedent and consequent phrases.

Ex. 6: A comparison of the pickup measure and its
development in mm.12.

The consequent phrase (mm.13-end) begins exactly as the antecedent and largely fulfills
the same harmonic functions by way of the same left-hand chromatic descent used in the
antecedent. One difference in this phrase is an acceleration of harmonic rhythm, shown most
clearly by the entrance of the dominant prolongation which begins in the second half of mm.18
—a repeated Vsus to first inversion iv6 motion that arrives four measures earlier than the
dominant section of the first half of the piece.
The stretto figure in the right-hand of mm.16 can be seen as a development of the
structural role of the right-hand of mm.9, as this is the first appearance of both rhythmic
deviation and melodic ascension in the consequent phrase. Evidence that harmonic rhythm
continues to accelerate here is evident in the return of mm.12’s triplet figure in the right hand of
mm.18—six bars earlier than we might have expected—almost in conjunction with the stretto
passage. Chopin takes two structurally distinct elements from the antecedent phrase

(mm.9 and mm.12) and places them in linear succession to each other in the following
consequent (mm.16-18), joined by the most dense sonorities up until this point (mm.17)—a
pedaled seven-voice V9 figure which moves to a quasi-7-6 suspension (harkening back to the
quasi-suspension of mm.12) complete with a proper leading tone resolution to the initial tonic
chord i6. The dual leading tone/diatonic second (D# F#) resolution to tonic (E) happens nowhere
else in this piece, shining additional emphasis on the expansive dominant function chord it
evolves from, the tonic i6, and eventually predominant, root position iv that it evolves into.
Ex. 7: mm.16-18 is a development of mm.9 and 12—an example of an accelerating harmonic rhythm in the consequent phrase.

The above mentioned dominant prolongation is interrupted after a traditional V-V7
motion by a deceptive cadence in C major at mm.21, and it is now that Chopin finally shows us
the tonic pitch, E in the melody. Dominant prolongation then continues from the second half of
mm.21 through mm.24, with a stop on the chromatically respelled Gr6 chord that is directly
followed by a dramatic, held silence. The Gr6 resolves more or less as expected to the most
dense chords of this prelude: a six-voice Vsus resolving to a seven-voice V7. A parallel between
the half-cadence of mm.12 and the dominant function of mm.24 can be drawn with regard to
“gravitational weight”, mentioned above. As the chromatic descent is initially drawn toward the
B7 in the antecedent phrase, we see the most time and musical space devoted to the dominant

function in the consequent, intensified at its very end by the delayed resolution of the Gr6, and
the sheer amount of notes (weight) carried by the final V7 in mm.24. With the final resolution, a
PAC in E minor in mm.25, Chopin takes us to the lowest register E that is possible on the piano
—an apt resting place for the final sounding sonority of the prelude. It is notable that here and
only here does Chopin use a stable, root position tonic chord.

Ex. 8: Formal mapping of the piece
shows multiple interpretations of
form are possible; emphasizing the
piece’s inherent ambiguity

Enharmonic respelling
E♭ on the second half of mm.2 serves as an enharmonic common tone between the
chordal 3rd (D#) of the V chord on downbeat of beat two, and the chordal 7th (E♭) of the second
half of beat two, a sounding

chord. This enharmonic respelling continues into the downbeat

of mm.3, where the written Eb again acts as the #4 scale degree in the secondary Fr6/iv. The
respelling of D# to E♭ happens again in the consequent phrase, from beat two of
mm.14 through the downbeat of mm.13. and it is here that we see the function of the enharmonic
respelling is not solely linked to function between chords that contain enharmonic equivalent
pitch classes, but also because a hierarchy of importance is placed onto the contrapuntal 7-6
suspension. With a consistent spelling that utilizes E♭ instead of D#, we expect the minor 7th
interval to resolve downward to scale degree 6. Another example of Chopin’s exacting nature of
notation can be seen in his choice to notate C# in the left hand of the last quarter of mm.4 instead

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