Chopin – Preludes Op. 28 – No. 1-24 – Music | History
Frédéric Chopin wrote a number of preludes for piano solo. His cycle of 24 Preludes, Op. 28, covers all major and minor keys. In addition, Chopin wrote three other preludes: a prelude in C♯ minor, Op. 45; a piece in A♭ major from 1834; and an unfinished piece in E♭ minor. These are sometimes referred to as Nos. 25, 26, and 27, respectively.
Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28, are a set of short pieces for the piano, one in each of the twenty-four keys, originally published in 1839.
Chopin wrote them between 1835 and 1839, partly at Valldemossa, Majorca, where he spent the winter of 1838–39 and where he had fled with George Sand and her children to escape the damp Paris weather. In Majorca, Chopin had a copy of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, and as in each of Bach’s two sets of preludes and fugues, his Op. 28 set comprises a complete cycle of the major and minor keys, albeit with a different ordering.
The manuscript, which Chopin carefully prepared for publication, carries a dedication to the German pianist and composer Joseph Christoph Kessler. The French and English editions (Catelin, Wessel) were dedicated to the piano-maker and publisher Camille Pleyel, who had commissioned the work for 2,000 francs (equivalent to nearly $30,000 in present day). The German edition (Breitkopf & Härtel) was dedicated to Kessler, who ten years earlier had dedicated his own set of 24 Preludes, Op. 31, to Chopin.
Whereas the term “prelude” had hitherto been used to describe an introductory piece, Chopin’s pieces stand as self-contained units, each conveying a specific idea or emotion. He thus imparted new meaning to a genre title that at the time was often associated with improvisatory “preluding”. In publishing the 24 preludes together as a single opus, comprising miniatures that could either be used to introduce other music or as self-standing works, Chopin challenged contemporary attitudes regarding the worth of small musical forms.
Whereas Bach had arranged his collection of 48 preludes and fugues according to keys separated by rising semitones, Chopin’s chosen key sequence is a circle of fifths, with each major key being followed by its relative minor, and so on (i.e. C major, A minor, G major, E minor, etc.). Since this sequence of related keys is much closer to common harmonic practice, it is thought that Chopin might have conceived the cycle as a single performance entity for continuous recital. An opposing view is that the set was never intended for continuous performance, and that the individual preludes were indeed conceived as possible introductions for other works.
Chopin himself never played more than four of the preludes at any single public performance. Nowadays, the complete set of Op. 28 preludes has become repertory fare, and many concert pianists have recorded the entire set, beginning with Ferruccio Busoni in 1915, when making piano rolls for the Duo-Art label. Alfred Cortot was the next pianist to record the complete preludes in 1926.
As with his other works, Chopin did not himself attach names or descriptions to any of the Op. 28 preludes, in contrast to many of Robert Schumann’s and Franz Liszt’s pieces.