Classical Music October/Nov

Chopin – Prelude Op 28 No 15 in D Flat, Sostenuto (Raindrop)

Etudes Op 10 Nos 1 and 2

Notes kindly prepared by Dr. Helmut Frehse

Frederick François Chopin (1810 – 1849)

Tourists spending their holidays on the isle of Mallorca should not fail to pay a visit to Valldemossa. This picturesque village is famous for one landmark: the Royal Charterhouse (Real Cartuja).It was founded as a royal residence and later converted into a monastery of the Carthusian order. The monastery existed from 1399 until its secularisation in 1835. The historic estate was sold to private owners, who have since hosted prominent guests, including Frédéric Chopin and George Sand. Since the 19th century Valldemossa has been promoted internationally as a beautiful spot thanks to the affection of a distinguished traveller and cultural writer, the Austrian Archduke Ludwig Salvator.

Chopin, the famous Polish composer and virtuoso pianist, was of French-Polish parentage. He is considered one of the great masters of Romantic music. A renowned child-prodigy pianist and composer, Chopin grew up in Warsaw and completed his music education there. He composed many mature works in Warsaw before leaving Poland in 1830 at age 20, when he settled in Paris. During the remaining 19 years of his life, Chopin gave only some 30 public performances, preferring the more intimate atmosphere of the salon. In Paris, Chopin found artists and other distinguished company, as well as opportunities to exercise his talents and achieve celebrity. Before long, he was earning a handsome income by sales of his compositions and teaching piano to effluent students from all over Europe.

For most of his life, Chopin suffered from poor health. In 1848, he returned to Paris from a tour of the UK and died shortly thereafter in his home at Place Vendôme 12. He was penniless at this point; his friends had to pay for his stay there as well as his funeral, which was attended by over 3.000 people, including Delacroix, Liszt, Victor Hugo and many other celebrities.

After some romantic alliances with Polish women, from 1837 to 1847, Chopin carried out a relation-ship with the French writer and pioneering feminist Amantine Dupin (1804 – 1876), the Baronesse Dudevant, better known by her pseudonym George Sand. In 1822, at the age of 18, she had married Baron Dudevan (1795 – 1871). In 1831, she left her prosaic husband and entered upon a four- or five-year period of “romantic rebellion” with various affairs of varying duration. Her most widely used quote is “There is only one happiness in life, to love and to be loved.” In 1835, she was legally separated from Dudevant and took her children with her. In 1836, she met Chopin at a party hosted by Countess Marie d’Agoult (1805 – 1876). From 1835 to 1839 the Countess lived with Franz Liszt and became close to Liszt’s circle of friends, including Chopin, who dedicated his 12 Études op. 25 to her (his earlier set of 12 Études, op. 10, had been dedicated to Liszt). D’Agoult had three children with Liszt; one of them was Cosima (1837–1930), who first married pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow and then Richard Wagner.

Chopin initially felt an aversion to Sand (“What a repulsive woman she is. Is she really a woman?”). Sand, however, admitted strong feelings for the composer. By the summer of 1938, Chopin’s and Sand’s involvement was an open secret. A notable episode in their time together was a turbulent and miserable winter on Majorca (November 1838 to February 1839), where they, together with Sand’s two children, had gone in the hope of improving Chopin’s deteriorating health. Chopin was already ill with incipient tuberculosis (or, as has recently been suggested, cystic fibrosis) at the beginning of their relationship, and spending a winter in Majorca – where Sand and Chopin did not realize that winter was a time of rain and cold, and where they could not get proper lodgings – exacerbated his symptoms.

However, after discovering the couple were not wedded, the deeply religious people of Majorca became inhospitable, making accommodations difficult to find. This compelled the foursome to take lodgings in the scenic yet stark and cold former Carthusian monastery. Chopin had also problems having his piano sent to him. It was only in early January 1839 that George Sand could eventually release it from customs. From then on, Chopin was able to use the long-awaited instrument for five weeks, time enough to complete some works, including the Preludes op. 28.

The winter in Mallorca is still considered one of the most productive periods in Chopin’s life. But during that winter, the bad weather had such a serious effect on his health that the entire party was compelled to leave the island. Chopin’s piano was sold to a French couple, whose heirs are the custodians of Chopin’s legacy on Majorca and of the Chopin museum in Valldemossa. The party of four went first to Barcelona, then to Marseille, where they stayed for a few months to recover. In May 1839, they headed to Sand’s estate at Nohant for the summer. In autumn they returned to Paris. The trip to Mallorca was described by George Sand in “Un Hiver à Majorque”, praising the island’s natural beauty but criticising what she perceived as the prejudices and vices of the natives.

In the years 1839 – 43, Chopin found quiet but productive days during which he composed many works. As the composer’s illness progressed, Sand became less of a lover and more of a nurse to him, but she would maintain her friendship with Chopin while often affectionately venting her impatience in letters to third parties. In 1845, as Chopin’s health continued to deteriorate, a serious problem emerged in his relations with Sand. Mutual friends attempted to reconcile them, but the composer was unyielding. In 1847, Sand and Chopin quietly ended their ten years relationship, two years before Chopin’s death. George Sand had promised that he “would die in her arms”. When he died and at his funeral, however, she was notable by her absence.

The great majority of Chopin’s compositions were written for the piano as solo instrument; all of his extant works feature the piano in one way or another. Chopin, according to Arthur Hedley (1905 –1969, English musicologist and scholar, biographer of Chopin), “had the rare gift of a very personal melody, expressive of heart-felt emotion, and his music is penetrated by a poetic feeling that has an almost universal appeal…. Present-day evaluation places him among the immortals of music by reason of his insight into the secret places of the heart and because of his awareness of the magical new sonorities to be drawn from the piano.” Chopin’s music for the piano combined a unique rhythmic sense (particularly his use of rubato), frequent use of chromaticism, and counterpoint. This mixture produces a particularly fragile sound in the melody and the harmony, which are nonetheless under-pinned by solid and interesting harmonic techniques. He took the new salon genre of the nocturne, invented by Irish pianist and composer John Field (1782 1) to a deeper level of sophistication. He also endowed popular dance forms, such as the Polish Mazurkas and the Viennese Waltz, with a greater range of melody and expression. Furthermore, he was the first composer to take a national genre of music from his home country and transform it into an entirely new genre worthy of the general concert-going public.
Chopin was the first to write ballades and scherzi as individual pieces. He also took the example of Bach’s preludes and fugues, transforming the genre in his own Préludes. He reinvented the étude, expanding on the idea and making it into a gorgeous, eloquent and emotional showpiece. He also used his Études to teach his own revolutionary style. An essential aspect of Chopin’s poetics of the piano can be found in his exploration of the resources of the instrument to be exploited by a new keyboard technique. This side of his genius is seen, in a pure state, in his Études and Preludes.

The pieces featured are: Prelude Op 28 No 15 in D Flat, Raindrop and Etudes Op 10 No 1 in C Major and No 2 in A Minor

The 24 Preludes Op. 28 were composed between 1836 and 1839. They use all the related major and minor keys, paying homage to Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavier”. Arthur Hedley regarded them as “tone poems, whose dimensions correspond perfectly to the nature of their contents”, rather than as preludes. They are some of the most challenging and evocative pieces of all the works in concert piano repertoire. Some, though not all, of op. 28 was written during Chopin’s and George Sand’s stay in Valldemossa.

Prelude No. 15, known as the “Raindrop” prelude, is noted for its repeating A-flat, which appears throughout the piece and sounds like raindrops to many listeners with its suggestion of the “gentle patter” of rain. George Sand had already suggested that such an association might have been Chopin’s motive when composing the Etude. He protested with all his might. It is actually a veritable nocturne.

The prelude opens with a “serene” theme in D flat. It then changes to a “lugubrious interlude” in C sharp minor, “with the dominant pedal never ceasing, a basso ostinato” (American music critic James Huneker, 1857–1921). The repeating A flat, which has been heard throughout the first section, here becomes more insistent. Following this, the prelude ends with a repetition of the original theme. Frederick Niecks (1845 – 1924, German musical scholar and Chopin biographer, resident in Scotland for the bulk of his life) says, “This C sharp minor portion…affects one like an oppressive dream; the re-entrance of the opening D flat major, which dispels the dreadful nightmare, comes upon one with the smiling freshness of dear, familiar nature – only after these horrors of the imagination can its serene beauty be fully appreciated.

The Études op. 10 were composed between 1829 and 1832, when Chopin was still in his teens. They are his first complete masterpiece, a revelation of his genius and marked by an astonishing power of invention. They perfectly combine nobility of musical invention and the solution of formal problems with experimentation in the field of technique and keyboard sonority embodied in a revolutionary pianistic style.

Étude op. 10, No. 1, C major,
forms the majestic portal to the Études. This study in reach and arpeggios focuses on stretching the fingers of the right hand. Huneker compared the “hypnotic charm” that these “dizzy acclivities and descents exercise for eye as well as ear”. Virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who refused to perform this étude in public, said, “For me, the most difficult one of all the études is the first one, Op. 10, No. 1. The novelty of this étude is its broad right hand arpeggios in sixteenth notes. These nonstop arpeggios, based mostly on chords of the tenth and covering up to six octaves, surpass the drier octave arpeggios of earlier piano composers such as Beethoven, Clementi or Czerny in richness of overtones as well as in difficulty.

Étude op. 10, No. 2, A minor
This étude is an exercise in developing the independence of the weaker fingers of the right hand by playing rapid chromatic scale figures, accompanied by chord attacks. Meanwhile, the first two fingers of the right and the left hand play an accompaniment of short chords and single notes. The left hand plays a melody in slow legato octaves.

Hugo Leichtentritt (1874–1951, German musicologist and composer who spent most of his life in the USA) describes its sound effect as the “murmuring and blowing of a gentle wind”, French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877–1962) mentions its “gliding and vaporous character”, and Alfredo Casella (1883 – 1947, Italian composer, pianist and conductor) talks about a “character of swift, aerial and unsubstantial mysteriousness”. Huneker writes that “the entire composition, with its murmuring, meandering, chromatic character, is a forerunner to the whispering, weaving, moonlit effects in some of Chopin’s later studies”.

It is a particular physical and psychological challenge to perform this étude in public and especially after the C major one with its enormous stretches. The Australian pianist Alan Kogosowski, famous for his Chopin recitals, reports that even “the imposingly powerful Sviatoslav Richter, who possessed the most awesome technical equipment of any pianist in the world, would quake before this tiny piece. When performing the twelve Études op. 10 as a set, he’d hesitate and sometimes skip over the quiet but treacherous second Étude. And Richter was certainly not the only pianist to feel this way about this little Étude.”

Recommended recordings:

Chopin – 24 Preludes, Op 28; Sonata No 2: RCA Label with Evgeny Kissin
Available at

Have a taster with the You Tube performance by Maurizio Pollini playing Prelude Op 28 No 15, the Raindrop

Chopin – Etudes Op 10 and 25 with Maurizio Pollini on the DG Label
Available at