170 years after his death, Chopin still captivates audiences with his music. His set of preludes that cover all 24 major and minor keys are a great starting place to learn how to analyze his work, as it can be dense.
The Prelude in E minor, op. 28 no. 4 is one of my favorites and grows so much more fascinating the more times you listen to it. It sounds simple at first, a simple melody in the right hand over block chords in the left hand, but it is this simplicity that showcases the complexity of Chopin’s work.
Dr. Benjamin Zander gave a TED Talk on the power of classical music, and he used this prelude to illustrate just how magical music can be. He also provides a short analysis for the novice, so I’ve embedded it here:
To sum up this part of the video for those who can’t watch it, Dr. Zander introduces this piece to the audience and uses it as a tool to show that classical music can touch everyone.
He focuses on the melody, so simple when you look at it. It’s a B and a C alternating and then walking down toward E. He says, “the job of the C is to make the B sad.” These alternating scale steps 5 and 6 are traditionally associated with grief, coming from use of the Phrygian mode in the Renaissance. Not only does the melody sound sad in and of itself, it also references a tradition of somber music.
Zander then walks the melody down to F and asks the audience what comes next, and they sing an E!
But that’s not what Chopin does here. Chopin writes a stunning turn to bring us back up to B and starts the piece all over.
The beginning is repeated verbatim until he adds a lot more fancy turns that wind their way back down to the F we got stuck on before, and then, Chopin finally allows us to hear the E, but it’s on the wrong chord! It’s a deceptive cadence, so we’re not satisfied yet.
Then, it goes back up to F to reset for another try on E, and that chord’s not right either. After a couple more “failed attempts” at finding the chord we want, we start to lose hope that we’re ever going to make it home.
But then, once we’ve gotten to that sense of hopelessness, Chopin gives us a perfect authentic cadence right where we want it. It ends in E minor in root position.
What I love about Zander’s explanation and performance of the piece is that he explains the complexity of this piece in a way that everyone can understand, and then when he’s ready to play it in earnest, he asks the audience to think about someone they’ve recently lost. I’ve watched this video numerous times, and that part always leaves me in tears.
If we look a little deeper at the chords underlying the melody, we uncover another layer of beauty in this piece, based upon Chopin’s clever use of inversions.
A rule of thumb in adding chords is to remember that the higher the inversion number, the more forward momentum a chord has. Root position chords tend to feel settled where they are, but first and second inversions want to move forward until they find a settled root position chord. A simple glance at the left hand in this piece shows us that there really aren’t any root position chords until the very end. There are a couple mixed in here and there, but the chords themselves in these positions aren’t quite resting points either.
Additionally, the bass also descends throughout the course of each half of the piece; the entire work encompasses a sensation of falling. It just wants to find rest on E, but the left-hand harmony, built of inversions, can’t find rest either. It just wants to settle, but it can’t.
The piece is one page, but it’s one of the most stunning and heartwrenching pieces ever written. It seems simple enough, just a five note melody (for the most part) over a bunch of block chords, so it’s incredible that Chopin could create something so effective from this texture.
How do we tie this into our music?
You may not be a composer, but you can still learn about performance or just music appreciation from this.
Simple can be effective.
The melody here may be so memorable because it is short, contains few notes, and repeats itself enough that it gets stuck in your head but not too many times as to be annoying.
Building tension can be as simple as refusing to use root position chords until the moment of truth, and then adding onto that, you can avoid the tonic in the melody as well.
Pieces don’t have to be long to be memorable. Just write a simple melody and see what you can do to make it mean something.