After the Prelude: Chopin Reconstructed

The cloister was for him full of terrors and phantoms, even when he felt well … When I would return from my nocturnal explorations in the ruins with my children, I would find him, at ten in the evening, pale at his piano, his eyes haggard, his hair standing almost on end. It would take him some moments to recognize us.

He would then make an effort to laugh, and he would play us the sublime things he had just composed, or, better, the terrible and harrowing ideas that had seized him, unwittingly, in that hour of solitude, sadness and terror.

It is there that he composed the most beautiful of those brief pages that he modestly entitled preludes.—George Sand, History of My Life.

The year was 1839—a tumultuous one for Frédéric Chopin, then 29 and in fragile health. The Polish composer had fled to the Spanish island of Mallorca with his paramour, the novelist George Sand, and there, in an abandoned monastery, composed a trove of preludes and other pieces.

Some would be published. But although Chopin himself destroyed most of those that were not up to his standards, one—a strange, short piece in an unusual key that was clearly an unfinished sketch—would languish in unpublished limbo.

Jeffrey Kallberg: Reconstructing an unknown side of Chopin. Photo by Candace diCarlo.

Dr. Jeffrey Kallberg, professor of music history and a leading authority on the work of Chopin, first saw a photograph of that undated sketch in the late 1970s while a graduate student at the University of Chicago. (The original is in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.) At the time, he was living in Warsaw and deeply immersed in Chopin’s manuscripts. But even his growing comfort level with Chopin’s handwriting and compositional style couldn’t help him much in this case.

“This one was a good deal more incoherent, at least to visual inspection, than any others I had seen that were clearly ripped off with great speed,” says Kallberg, the author of Chopin at the Boundaries: Sex, History, and Musical Genre. “It was basically illegible, and very difficult, beyond a few surface impressions, to see what was going on.”

Sketches, wrote Kallberg in the August 2001 issue of Early Music, “were for Chopin intensely private documents,” and seldom up to his lofty standards for public consumption, which helps explain why so few survived his death. One was the Mazurka in F minor, a relatively finished piece that was published shortly after he died in 1849. The other was this weird, undated piece with the words Es moll—Polish for E-flat minor—in the upper left-hand corner.

Such drafts, noted Kallberg, “did not represent the élan of the composer’s creative passion, but rather the detritus of his most agonizing labours.” And there was plenty of agony as well as ecstacy, as George Sand noted:

His creativity … arrived at his piano suddenly, completely, sublimely, or it sang in his head during a walk, and he would hasten to play it to himself, casting it down on his instrument. But then would begin the most heart-breaking labor I have ever witnessed … What had come to him all of a piece, he now over analyzed in his desire to transcribe it, and his regret at not finding it again ‘neat’, as he said, threw him into a kind of despair. He would shut himself in his room for days at a time, weeping, pacing, breaking his pens, repeating and changing a bar one hundred times, writing it and erasing it with equal frequency, and beginning again the next day with meticulous and desperate perseverance. He would spend six weeks on a page, only to end up writing it just as he had done in his first outpouring.

To help him wrestle his inspirations onto paper, Chopin developed a kind of musical shorthand. “He was always in a panic to get things down on paper,” notes Kallberg. “And one of the things he did was to evolve a kind of shorthand. He would just get the outlines of the piece down, and then he could move on from there if he thought it was worth something.”

“Chopin viewed his sketches as private documents whose notation need make sense only to him, and this particular draft displays some of the scribal shortcuts that he habitually used in such circumstances,” wrote Kallberg in Early Music. As a result, he added, “Many aspects of the piece resist definitive interpretation; pitches, rhythms and voice-leading fall onto the page with maddening imprecision.”

“It just wasn’t making any sense,” recalls Kallberg. “There aren’t the signs that tell you where to put your hands, and the problems multiply from there. The indeterminacy of it all is just kind of overwhelming. So I kind of put it aside and said, ‘This wasn’t really what I was focusing on for my dissertation.’”

In the late 1980s, Kallberg, by then at Penn, took another look at the manuscript. But he didn’t get very far this time, either. “I tried a little bit harder, but it still was not making much sense,” he says. 

Around that time a Swiss scholar named Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger argued persuasively that the numbers on the right-hand side of the page were Chopin’s notes indicating which of the preludes of the 24 musical keys he had planned to write were still unwritten. “The need to sketch a prelude in E-flat minor arose precisely from this tonal plan,” noted Kallberg. Furthermore, Kallberg himself had developed a way of dating manuscripts using measurements of the staves, and Eigeldinger had used that system to show that the paper “was consistent with the paper that Chopin was using at Mallorca.” Knowing that Chopin had finished writing the 24 preludes on Mallorca, Eigeldinger had concluded that the piece “must be therefore a sketch for a prelude in E-flat minor” hinted at in the notation for the 24 preludes. But, says Kallberg, “he couldn’t make any sense of the sketch either.”

In Chopin’s day, preludes “were just what the name indicates: they were pieces that you could use to introduce other pieces,” Kallberg explains. “Chopin’s preludes tend to stand as pieces on their own, too, which is sort of Chopin transforming the genre. So we have these little miniatures that are intriguingly short. They’re hinting at some kind of mood or impression, but only hinting—and it’s up to the listener to fill in the missing parts as he or she wants.”

But was the 33-bar piece—which takes roughly 45 seconds to play—a complete prelude, or just a fragment? And what, exactly, did it sound like? Clearly, the devil was in the details.

Fast forward to 1999, the 150th anniversary of Chopin’s death. At conferences around the world, scholars and musicians were celebrating and examining Chopin’s work. Kallberg decided to take one last crack at this strange jumble of notes. He would try to transcribe and reconstruct it to determine not only what notes Chopin had actually written but how to fill in the gaps between them. Eventually, the scales began to fall from his eyes.

“I finally realized what the significance was, because until you transcribe it and make sense of it, you can’t know what’s there,” he says. “I didn’t know there was a complete piece there. We have other little sketches that Chopin wrote for preludes that are just beginnings. And this was more than a beginning; it was the whole thing. But it was also the whole thing in a short-hand version.”

Kallberg could not tell for certain exactly which notes Chopin would have chosen, but he knew his style as well as anyone, and was able to make highly educated guesses. In the Early Musicarticle, in fact, he offers more than one possible interpretation.

“It’s clear that he wanted to do something experimental for this key,” says Kallberg. “People still hint about the keys of music having different personalities, different characters, and E-flat minor was one of the more peculiar keys. So people just didn’t write in it very often. After Chopin led, they wrote in it more often, but before Chopin, it was a pretty rare key. And he wanted to do something strange.” 

Despite the “haziness” of the piece’s internal details, “we can understand what led Chopin to undertake the sort of compositional labours on paper that George Sand so evocatively described in her memoirs,” Kallberg wrote in Early Music. “For undoubtedly it was the innovative timbral and textural surface, the intriguing possibility of building a prelude around unremitting torrents of trills densely enchained beneath melodic triplets …” And the timbre he produced, Kallberg added, “sounds disturbing, even grotesque: there is something disquieting in the prolonged turbulence of the trill.” The New York Times’ Rip Rense describes the piece as a “momentary pianistic freakout,” which may reflect Chopin’s turbulent state of mind on Mallorca.

“Chopin, who was prone to having visions anyway, was having these kinds of nightmares that Sand reports—he was just in a fraught state of mind,” Kallberg says. “We can’t ever give a causal link that says, ‘Because he was having these nightmares, he was writing strange pieces,’ but it is striking that these two things are going on at the same time. You don’t really find other outlandish pieces happening at other times of his life. It’s suggestive that he was at wits’ end, basically.” 

Yet for all its storm and strife, the piece also reflects the composer’s fondness for Baroque music, and in particular Giuseppe Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill,” which in Kallberg’s view was probably well known to Chopin.

Asked why Chopin never finished or published this prelude, Kallberg responds:

“I think he decided finally that it was just too wild on the one hand and maybe a little bit too tame on the other. It’s got a kind of wild sound, but the chords from measure to measure are not all that unusual. Chopin had one of the best self-censoring modes of any composer ever. And he knew when he wrote something that wasn’t up to his normal level, and he usually put it aside—and normally, we assume, he destroyed it. But there was something here that interested him so that he kept it. 

“It’s a piece that shows Chopin experimenting with something, with a device that he wouldn’t come back to again until very late in his career,” he adds. “In terms of quality, it’s clear that this piece is second-drawer Chopin. But it is still something that shows us a side of the composer that we haven’t known before.”

Kallberg says he’s “close” to finding a commercial publisher for the piece, and when he does, he will probably publish more than one version. “I’ll give the skeleton version,” he explains, “and then one or two or three different possibilities for how you might make the pianist realize this—and to show the way to how the pianist can bring his or her individual creativity to bear on the parts that are not fixed.”

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