How to make a Chopin Prelude

Or the first twelve measures of one, at any rate. (The score to the piece [op. 28 no. 4] can be found here.)

In four parts (be sure to enlarge all the way):

Stage 0:

Stages 1-2

Stages 3-5
Stages 5-8

(The rest is left as an exercise for the reader! :-))

 Now, what prompted this? Answer: this 2004 post by Scott Spiegelberg (who, incidentally, was kind enough to link to me — much appreciated!). Alas, here I go again, discovering another interesting music blog, only to immediately start using it as a foil.

Of this piece, Spiegelberg has some interesting and worthwhile things to say; unfortunately, his comments are also contaminated with harmonic theory, which never illuminates and usually obscures. So let’s see if we can do anything to help. Spiegelberg says:

[The Prelude] starts innocently enough with a simple tonic chord, though the E is not in the bass so the chord is slightly unstable.

The beginning of this analysis seems as innocuous as the beginning of the piece itself; but, as in the case of Chopin’s opening, the veil of innocence merely serves to conceal difficulties that will rear their head in due course. In this case, there is already something subtly misleading about saying that a work “starts with a tonic chord”. It’s as if the composer came up with the opening of the piece by consulting a list of possible “chords”, and choosing to go with the tonic rather than the dominant or perhaps the doubly lowered raised submediant (if the composer happens to be, say, Max Reger). One presumes that after making the choice, the composer then goes back to the list and decides what the second chord of the piece will be. (Oh, and I almost forgot — he has to pick an “inversion” too!) And so on.

Although this model of musical construction sounds ridiculous (or so I hope), it is nevertheless precisely the model that is being invoked whenever anybody speaks of “harmony” or “chord progression”. It is the model that some people think music students need “a thorough grounding” in before they can study Schenker. It is a model so hallowed by tradition that even Schenker needed several decades to break free of it — and he almost succeeded.

What would be a better model? Returning to the Chopin work under discussion, I think that, instead of saying it begins with a “tonic chord”, we ought rather to say that it begins with a B in the top voice, which is counterpointed by a G in the bass, along with a couple of inner voices starting on B and E. Each of these notes then sets off on a journey of its own through some region of diatonic space — in the process of which it elaborates (or “composes-out”) some particular gesture that the composer wished to convey.

Spiegelberg continues:

The next chord is the dominant chord, though with a suspension: the E refuses to let go.

Except for the “next chord” business, this is very well put.

When this suspension does resolve, Chopin “misspells” the chord with an Eb instead of a D#. The melody turns this dominant chord into a diminished seventh chord, which resolves as a common-tone chord to a secondary French augmented-sixth chord!

This is where my head starts spinning, so let’s see if we can translate the harmonic jargon into English. To say that “the melody turns this dominant chord into a diminished seventh chord” is an extremely awkward way of saying “the B moves up to C”; but it also carries the suggestion that there is a sort of “conspiracy” among the voices — as if they said, “let’s now form a diminished seventh chord!”. Now, conspiracies of that sort can certainly happen in music, but this is not one of those occasions. Here, it seems, we simply have a note moving to its upper neighbor, without any concern whatsoever for what its fellow notes are doing at the same moment. (Just as in real life, it takes quite a lot of work to establish a musical conspiracy.)

“Secondary French augmented sixth chord” — oh, boy. Well, a “French” augmented sixth chord is the kind that has scale degree 2 in it; thus in E minor we would be talking about pitch-classes C, A# (the augmented sixth), E, and F#. However, our chord is a secondary chord, meaning evidently that it is a French sixth when viewed from the perspective of some other key. Now, the pitch-class content of the sonority I presume Spiegelberg is talking about (namely the one on the first half-note of m.3, immediately following the “diminished seventh chord”) is F, A, Eb, B; if we thought of the Eb as D#, this would spell a French sixth in A minor.

What Spiegelberg is claiming, then, is that, at least for the first half-note of m.3, we are locally in A minor — and in particular the Eb is a raised scale degree 4! Needless to say, I have absolutely no idea how one could arrive at such an analysis: as far as I am concerned (see the graphs above), there is nothing in the entire Prelude (least of all in the first three measures) that requires one to think in terms of any key other than E minor — not so much as a single secondary dominant, let alone a secondary French sixth!

This stands in stark contrast to what Spiegelberg says:

By this point, only the third measure, the listener is quite confused as to where tonic is, even though the chords progress by very small steps with many common tones.

Not only am I not confused about where the tonic is, I don’t even see how one could be confused about that in this context. What note besides E is even a candidate for tonic status?

Spiegelberg is apparently quite serious about A minor being a contender:

The augmented-sixth chord does not resolve correctly, instead shifting to a chord progression that fits best in the key of A minor: iiø43 – viio42 – V7. By half-steps the dominant chord gets transformed, leading us back to the key of E minor. A minor is hinted at several times, and the final cadence of each phrase (there are only two phrases in the 25-measure prelude) includes an oscillation between the dominant B7 chord and the A minor triad.

First we have to decode the Roman numerals: ii43 (the “ø”, meaning half-diminished, is of course redundant in a minor key) is the “second inversion” of ii7, which means the fifth is in the bass; ii7 in A minor is B-D-F-A, so we’re looking for F-A-B-D (or some other arrangement with F on the bottom). Likewise, vii42 is a version of vii7 (G#-B-D-F) with F in the bass. V7 (the only one I can spell without having to think!) is of course E-G#-B-D.

Well, we do indeed find an instance of that particular (partially-ordered-by-register-pitch-class-set)-sequence (for that is what a “chord progression” is) in mm. 3-4 — provided, of course, that we don’t take into account the C on the last quarter of m.3! (Remember that the presence of an exactly corresponding C in m.2 compelled Spiegelberg to posit a “diminished seventh chord” for that timespan — what’s the difference here?) The question, however, is whether this “progression” has the analytical significance that Spiegelberg is attributing to it. I don’t see any good argument for this at all. A “V7 chord”, for example, is by definition composed of scale degrees 5, 7, 2 and 4 — but is the E in the bass in m.4 a scale degree 5? Is the G# a scale degree 7? If so, when exactly did E cease to be scale degree 1, and why?

(In case you’re worried that my question reflects too much of an “in time” analysis rather than a “final state” analysis, I can put it this way:  why is the A-minor analysis of these notes given by Spiegelberg preferable to the E-minor analysis that I have given above?)

Spiegelberg and I agree that there are exactly two “phrases” in the prelude (although this is something of a contradiction on his part, since he has analyzed mm. 3-4  as a cadence in A minor!). However, to speak of “an oscillation between the dominant B7 chord and the A minor triad” is once again misleading, even if literally accurate. Yes, we do get the pitch-class set C-E-A occurring in measures 10 and 11; but this is the purely accidental result of simultaneous neighbor-note motions in the two lowest voices — a very mild conspiracy, in which the A is not involved at all (it just happens to be there, like an innocent bystander). In fact, far from being the “root” of an A-minor triad, this A is actually a dissonant 7th, as you will see by referring to Stage 2(b)  of the above analysis (second page).  Needless to say, I do not understand how this phenomenon could possibly be said to reinforce any sense of A minor, which is what Spiegelberg implies.

This prelude is all about the tensions between the melody and the harmony, with the harmony clearly winning. But what is so striking is that the exotic harmonies are created by simple means, small little movements of the left hand, and this slow harmonic rhythm creates such emotional intensity

Well, since I don’t believe there is such a thing as “harmony” (in the traditional sense), obviously I can’t agree that the harmony “wins”. The fact is that these “small little movements of the left hand” are perfectly comprehensible — if ingeniously and subtlely timed — melodic motions through various parts of the E-minor scale. It is, indeed, Chopin’s highly refined sense of timing (and not any exotic modulations to other keys) that is responsible for the mysterious magic of this Prelude.

Spiegelberg concludes with a challenge:

For a real brain twister, try to analyze the second prelude!

Sure! I’d be happy to do this, if there’s any interest. The A-minor Prelude is, if you will, opposed to everything the E-minor Prelude stands for: it, unlike the E-minor, actually does keep you guessing about where the tonic is, and doesn’t in fact reveal the truth until the very end. Quite a contrast!


13 Responses to How to make a Chopin Prelude

  1. I’m surprised that you think Schenker didn’t believe in “harmony” or “chord progressions.” He wrote a whole book on harmony, and his whole theory of tonality is about how rules of counterpoint became altered by harmonic pulls. He posits that all tonal pieces start with the Chord of Nature, which is prolonged through a piece by various operations such as Arpeggiation, Passing Motion, and Harmonize. Have you read Free Composition? He talks about chords and progressions all over that monograph, and uses Roman Numerals as well (granted, they stand for Stufen). I don’t have time right now to debate each point you make, perhaps in a few weeks after I finish putting my tenure file together. Thanks for getting me to rethink my analysis and to remember my Schenkerian Theory.

  2. James Cook says:

    I’m surprised that you think Schenker didn’t believe in “harmony” or “chord progressions”

    I never said that. What I said was that I don’t believe in harmony or chord progressions. Regarding Schenker, I said:

    It is a model so hallowed by tradition that even Schenker needed several decades to break free of it — and he almost succeeded.

    Note that critical word “almost”! Yes, it’s true that there are Roman numerals in Free Composition — but the role they play there is very limited in comparison with their role in traditional “harmonic analysis”. In fact, he could have dispensed with them altogether, had he wanted or cared to. (This may be a good topic for a future post.) Of course, it did take him a while to get to that point…

    He wrote a whole book on harmony

    Indeed he did — his very first book, published in 1906. The theory presented in that book represented a radical departure from the theories that were widely taught at the time (and still today!). Since I’m on vacation at the moment and don’t have my copy handy, I’ll just refer you to the Wikipedia article on Stufen , and the passage from Harmony quoted therein. See also “Rameau or Beethoven?” from the third volume of The Masterwork in Music (if you can get past the francophobic ranting).

    Have you read Free Composition?

    Yes. Have you read An Introduction to Tonal Theory?

    I don’t have time right now to debate each point you make, perhaps in a few weeks after I finish putting my tenure file together.

    I’ll still be here, so there’s no hurry. I look forward to it.

    • c. mcgettigan says:

      This article is very interesting about
      Schenker and his disregard for chord
      progressions in composing or his ideas about it. I guess he uses more harmonic analysis.
      It is very interesting. I have an instructor, non traditionalist for composing music and he talks about harmonic theory a lot. enjoyed this blog. take care. C,M,

  3. […] as “tonal” once we start thinking about “tonal” music in the right way. Contributing to the drama is the fact that Westergaard himself never intended his “tonal […]

  4. […] “reger chord progressions” into a search engine. (Evidently they were led to my Chopin post, where Max is given a brief mention.) You have to be kidding me, […]

  5. […] The inevitable has happened: Scott Spiegelberg has returned fire on the harmony question. Unfortunately, I’ll be busy in meatspace over the next couple of […]

  6. […] now, it’s time to roll up our sleeves for the second round (the first round is here): JC – [I’ll ignore the straw man version of harmonic theory James describes first. I made […]

  7. […] chords that are found in E minor tonality. As an example, shift the entire right hand part of the Prelude over by one beat, so it starts at exactly the same time as the left hand… How would the […]

  8. pianist says:

    Hi everybody

    If you ever want to know about chopin check out this website its very good.

  9. ss says:

    Well this post doesn’t really have a relvant title! Composers do not write music by writing a schenker background and then filling in the gaps. All of Chopin can easily be analysed in terms of tonal harmony and it is quite evident what keys he is in at any point in time. You just have to what out for the false modulations when the music seems to be modulating away for a couple of bars and then returns to the tonic. I I7 IV V is a classic example of this. By stating I7 we believe that he is going to modulate to the sub-dominant but by reintroducing the IV chord he actaully reestablishes the same key rather than modulating. But really the title of this blog should be Analysing a Chopin Prelude. If you are like me and visited this site in order to learn how to write your own prelude then don’t bother with any blogs or books out there just study the music straight away and put roman numerals under every chord. The only exception to this is to buy Walter Pistons book on Harmony and read it!

  10. komponisto says:

    At this particular blog, statements like
    If you…visited this site in order to learn how to write your own prelude then…put roman numerals under every chord.
    buy Walter Pistons book on Harmony and read it!
    offered without supporting argument, effectively constitute trolling, and such comments may be subject to deletion in the future.

    Having said that, I’ll address the interesting part of the previous comment:

    Composers do not write music by writing a schenker background and then filling in the gaps

    That’s because composers, by definition already know how to write music. They don’t need to explicitly go through the most elementary stages of musical construction; to them, the latter are either obvious or subconscious. Music isn’t mysterious to composers, so they don’t need it to be demystified.

    The target audience for pedagogical music theory is not Mozart or Chopin, and nor is it historians interested in a particular composer’s sketching procedure. It is people — musicians or laymen — for whom the act of musical composition itself seems like a transcendent feat, beyond the reach of ordinary human cognition. People who know not of what ingredients music is made. People who are unable to mentally imagine music they have never heard before.

    You cannot necessarily gain this kind of knowledge by observing a composer in the act, the way you can learn the ingredients of a meal by watching the chef prepare it. For between each sketch, or each improvised variation, the composer is silently using, in his or her mind, all the knowledge that he or she has and that you don’t. This is why theory is different from composition. Theory — that is, demystification of composition — is where the study of music begins; in order to study composition per se (how to actually put a piece together, effective sketching procedures, refined questions of aesthetics and rhetoric, etc.), you really have to be a composer already.

    • Scott Eggert says:

      Speaking as a composer currently taking a graduate course in musical analysis, I tend to think that harmonic analysis is a lot of useless over-intellectualizing of music. The type of harmonic analysis I was taught for jazz at Berklee actually works better for this piece than classic analysis, which restricts harmonic progression to an incredibly limited/outdated language. What really works here for this piece is to think in terms of each note of the chordal harmonies as individual voices moving chromatically, rather than the chords being as shapes that don’t fit into the standard “molds.”

  11. greg says:

    Right on James! It is the old argument if theory creates composition or composition creates theory. We know the answer.

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