Sociological research finds creativity is concentrated in networks: the most creative in one generation start their careers by contact with the most creative of the previous generation. This is the pattern world-wide in the history of philosophy, mathematics, and science. The pattern also appears in art and music. But Chopin looks like an exception. Chopin is among the most famous composers of all time. But he has no contact with the stars of the previous generation.
Chopin seemingly comes out of nowhere. His father is a French servant on an estate owned by a Polish aristocrat, who returns to Poland to escape the French Revolution. In Poland, he becomes a tutor in French, the high-status international language, then live-in master at a boarding school for boys, where young Frédéric grows up among upper-class friends. His mother, an educated woman from the aristocrat’s household, teaches him piano at an early age. Chopin is treated as a child prodigy, composing by age 7 and touring Poland in his early teens, regarded as a local Mozart. Chopin fits the pattern of servants of east European aristocracy who became upwardly mobile through music-- from Haydn through Liszt-- when feudal lords sought reflected glory as patrons in the new era of musical fame.
Poland had no famous musicians yet, but desperately wanted one in the era of national struggles after Russia and Prussia partitioned Poland in 1795. Young Chopin (born 1810) was groomed for the part in the 1820s. What Polish nationalists wanted was grand political opera-- the prestigious musical genre of the time-- what Verdi (3 years younger) would supply for Italy with his resounding operas of the 1850s that became rallying cries for resistance against Austrian domination. Chopin never filled that part, but national hope launched his early reputation as a pianist. Liszt, one year younger, set the example, touring Europe as a teenager in the 1820s, both as a Hungarian nationalist (although ethnically German) and as the first super-star whose concerts infatuated mass audiences, like the Beatles of the 1960s.
Being famous as a performer, however, is not the same as creating a lasting reputation as a composer; and until the mid-1830s Chopin (when he is around 25 ) had not yet composed the works that would join the repertoire of classics. On theoretical grounds this is not surprising, since creating at the forefront usually comes from an early network that launches you from the previous high plateau of techniques. This network came late for Chopin. It is true that in Warsaw, he was accepted as a pupil at age 6 by a grand-pupil (pupil of a pupil) of Johann Sebastian Bach. Thorough training in Bach’s keyboard music was the foundation of Chopin’s style-- it was one ingredient that set him apart from other composers, and throughout his career Chopin would warm up for performances of his own work by playing Bach. But Bach (who died in 1750) had been considered old-fashioned by proponents of new music even in his own lifetime; and it was Chopin’s new blend that would make him one of the most famous of innovators. Where did the other ingredients come from?
Chopin enters the horizontal network of New Music
Beyond the Classic style: Tonic-dominant chord harmonies
Chopin before and after he finds his niche
Chopin’s peak and decline: hustling on the music market
Chopin’s distinctive style: Prelude in E minor
Chopin’s ingredients: Baroque counterpoint plus Bellini arias
Dissonances as plot tension: Prelude in A minor
History of dissonance: Mozart’s quick resolution
Chopin and Mozart, dying young
Chopin enters the horizontal network of New Music
We see young Chopin’s limitations in his early ventures outside of Poland, two visits to Vienna in 1829 and 1830. Here there is more competition; Hummel’s pupil Thalberg is the reigning virtuoso pianist (he would have a famous piano duel with Lizst in 1835), and there are other musicians in the wake of Schubert and von Weber. Chopin’s earliest music score is a piano settting of Mozart’s famous duet from Don Giovanni, “La ci darem la mano”, but this was from 40 years ago and Vienna publishers seeking new music turn it down. Prospects change when Chopin makes his way to Paris in 1831. By fortunate catastrophe, his old patrons and admirers from Poland had arrived there in exile, after a failed uprising against Russian occupation in 1830; and since they had brought their fortunes in cash, he immediately has a social and economic base of support. Chopin was the darling of the Polish ex-pats in Paris even before he composed his great new works. Yet in the early 1830s Chopin still shared concert stages with other pianists, and he performed other composers’ music as well as his own.
The wealthy international salons were a springboard, at first, because they hosted the networks where Chopin encountered the cutting edge of the musical world: Liszt, Berlioz, Mendelsssohn, Bellini. Chopin formed his distinctive style: not so much by imitating them, but by close acquaintance with the new music then generating popular enthusiasm, while finding his own niche. Liszt was famous for his dramatic modulations and high-speed ripples of sound so dazzling that it was rumoured his hands had six fingers. Thalberg invented a way of playing the melody with both hands, and accompaniment too, giving the impression he had three hands.
In reaction, Chopin composed pieces to show off his light touch, clear and distinct in every voice. As a teacher, he would admonish his pupils not to practice too many hours; the aim was not to build up muscles for loud crescendos and acrobatic feats on the keyboard, but quiet delicacy. Liszt is the master of the fast and loud; Chopin becomes the master of the quiet and smooth.
I began by noting that Chopin is an exception to the pattern of creative persons being pupils or followers of the stars of the previous generation. But there is a second dimension of creative networks: a horizontal network of contemporaries all breaking away from the older generation at the same time. In the 1820s and 30s, they were breaking away from Beethoven, whose symphonies and concertos were so dominant that younger musicians thought nothing more could be done along that line. Chopin taps into the horizontal network, indeed is greeted by them as a new recruit to their cause. Liszt is quick to befriend him; Schumann, who has started a musical periodical newspaper to promote the new music, gives him enthusiastic reviews.
But horizontal networks of “young Turks,” a brotherhood of rebels, soon encounters a problem of their own: if they all do the same new thing, most of them will not get credit for it, the fame going to the one who most dramatically catches the public eye. * Thus a circle of young rebels eventually start fighting with each other, breaking away to promote their own version of the new style. Each one has to create their own niche. Chopin quite soon recognizes that he needs to do something to distinguish himself from Liszt and other dazzling pianists drawing the big crowds..
* To give just one example from the history of philosophy: Marx, Engels, Stirner, Bakunin and others in the aftermath of Hegel agreed that the Idealist philosophy must be replaced. But they soon quarreled with each other over what direction to go. Their quarrels were constitutive of what they create as they split up the post-Hegelian field. Such quarreling itself was structured by what they had to do to make a distinctive reputation. In this case, Marx upstages all the others. See Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, for the worldwide historical pattern of creativity by opposition.
Chopin eventually becomes the prima donna of the Paris salons. One might describe him as delicate/aggressive; always polite and agreeable with his high-status friends and supporters, but frequently contemptuous of them in private. He is admired and promoted by Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, but he dislikes their styles and scorns their movement of “new German music” (i.e. post-Beethoven). Berlioz, striving to establish a post-classical orchestral style, emphasizes the musical colour of instrumental combinations; but Chopin rejects the idea of an alliance and declares his preference for Bach and Mozart. The one Paris contact that Chopin does imitate is Bellini, an opera composer, whose way of writing arias Chopin adapted for piano melodies. The salon networks bring him together with the avant-garde of art and literature, including Balzac and George Sand. Delacroix is a close friend and supporter during Chopin’s growing illnesses, but Chopin dislikes Delacroix’s painting and finds nothing in common with his emphasis on colour over form. Most of his friends are political radicals, but he himself becomes conservative, despising revolutions of any kind. Although in fact a social climber (or perhaps because), Chopin clings to the lifestyle and milieu of aristocracy. Opposing the main trends is Chopin’s niche.
Chronology tells the story. Chopin meets the cutting-edge musical networks during 1831-34 onwards. His most important works follow: the Preludes in 1837-41; Ballades and Sonatas 1839; Polonaises 1834-42; Mazurkas and Nocturnes 1830-46.
What Chopin gets from the avant-garde is not new tools of the trade. He acquires a sense of the competition in the field, a sense of where a distinctive niche can be found. His unique resources are the counterpoint he has learned from Bach’s disciple, combined with Bellini’s style of “never-ending” melody.
Beyond the Classic Style: Tonic-dominant chord harmonies
Chopin is classified as a Romantic composer. In technical terms this doesn’t just mean a love-lorn sentimentalist, but a method of composing music that comes after the Classic style (Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven), which in turn followed the Baroque (Bach and Handel.) These categories are rather clichéd, and music historians tend to explain these shifts in terms of the psychology and emotions (or lack thereof) in the music. But you can actually see the shift in how the music is written-- and this is what determines what it sounds like. You can be as sentimental as you like, but if you can’t write the notes and harmonies in a particular way, it won’t work. So how did Chopin do it?
Chopin comes along when Classic composing techniques are morphing into something different. The core of Classic composition is the tonic-dominant pattern.
Tonic is the basic note in the scale of the key you are playing in. In the key of C major, these are the white keys of the piano, starting with C and going up the octave via D-E-F-G-A-B-C. The tonic chord is C-E-G. We can also call this 1-3-5. These intervals resonate well together and give a bright, cheerful sound.
If we start on the 5th note and skip upward every other white key, we get the dominant chord: G-B-D-F. This is smoothest-sounding chord that isn’t the tonic. Other than its own octave (C-C an octave up or down), the micro-tone vibrations of C sound best with G. It is, so to speak, a resting place away from home. The G chord or G-7th chord (with the F) creates a tension in the listener, but this tension is easily resolved by sliding into the tonic chord. G stays the same, since it exists in both chords; the other notes pivot around it: B goes up to C; D goes up to E, and F goes down to E or up to G. Melody notes don’t have to move very far to get from a tonic chord to a dominant chord, or vice versa.*
*The same principle applies to all other keys. Tonic is 1-3-5, counting from whatever note you start on; dominant is 5-7-2-4 (or played in any other order, 2-4-5-7 etc.). Adding the 7th (F is the 7th note going up the G scale) to a dominant chord increases the tension, since there is one more note your ear is striving to resolve back onto the tonic chord.
The tonic-dominant system has been the normal mode in Western music ever since the mid-1700s. Most popular music uses it, even in the era when 20th century “serious” or “art” composers were using more and more dissonances and creating music that avoided resolving back to the tonic. In this respect, rock n’ roll and Beethoven are quite similar. Consider a simple example, the children’s nursery tune, here in the key of C major:
Mary had a little lamb [E-D-C-D-E-E-E] [accompanied by tonic chord C-E-G]
Little lamb [D-D-D] [dominant chord G-B-D]
Little lamb [E-G-G] [tonic chord]
Mary had a little lamb [E-D-C-D-E-E-E] [tonic chord]
Its fleece was white as [E-D-D-E-D] [dominant chord] snow. [C] [tonic chord]
This is a typical song form. The melody is sung or played twice. Each time it goes from tonic to dominant back to tonic. Most rock n’ roll songs do this too, while adding a few more chords, notably the subdominant 4-6-1 (F-A-C in the key of C), or F-A-C-E flat (i.e. F 7th). This is the distinctive “blue-note” of jazz and blues, since E-flat clashes with E of the tonic chord. Even with this cool-sounding dissonance, rock n’roll almost always resolves back to the tonic before long.
Chopin before and after he finds his niche
Chopin becomes simultaneously more old-fashioned and more modern as he developed his own style. His earliest work is more narrowly in the tonic/dominant style. For example, a waltz written in 1829, before he came to Paris, has a conventional sequence of chords in the accompaniment:
Chopin Waltz (1829)
The score is in D-flat major, and the chords as you read across the bottom clef are:
D-flat major [tonic], A-flat major [dominant], B-flat 7th, E-flat 7th, A-flat major [dominant], and again:
D-flat major, A-flat major, B-flat major, E-flat major, A-flat 7th, D-flat major [tonic].
This is mostly the cycle of fifths. A-flat major is the subdominant, the third most common chord in the classical style and its descendants.
One can hear how much Chopin changed by listening to his Piano Concerto No. 1, written in 1830 before reaching Paris. It is an incongruous combination of orchestral effects in the style of Beethoven symphonies, loud blasts of chords in brass and massed strings, alternating with passages of lyrical piano, nice melodies with familiar chord progressions. It contains little that is memorable, nothing comparable to the haunting effects of his famous Preludes. If Chopin had composed nothing but this piano concerto, it would not be remembered. Chopin soon recognized this was not the direction he would make his mark, and composed no more music for large orchestral ensembles.
Chopin found his niche in music for the salon, not for large public concert halls. Big concerts had bigger payoffs (5000 francs or more-- multiply by a factor of perhaps 5 for current dollars) for the few piano concerts Chopin gave when desperate for money. But he felt uncomfortable in big halls, where his light touch did not carry well; and the exclusivity of private salons appealed to his sense of eliteness. Probably he felt out of his element, where he could not keep up with Liszt or Thalberg-- Chopin even said Liszt could perform his music in public better than he could himself.
Chopin’s peak and decline: hustling in the music market
Chopin came along at just the right time to specialize in intimate piano pieces. The lightweight piano of Beethoven’s day had been surpassed by stronger and more resonant pianos. It was one of the most explosive consumer markets of the industrial revolution. Pianos were now constructed with metal frames that did not warp and allowed tighter strings with stronger sounds all across the range from low base to high treble. And they began to be mass-produced, for an expanding middle-class whose prime form of entertainment, as well as claim for cultural status, was a piano in the home. By the 1840s, there were 60,000 pianos in Paris. Along with this came a demand for piano music. The economics of a composer’s career took a new direction. Where previously they had depended on patrons (or the hyper-competitive world of getting an opera produced), famous composers now could make a living by selling music scores. Music publishing had become big business.
Recorded music did not come along until the early 1900s. In the decades from 1830s through the 1890s, if you wanted to hear music other than by attending a concert, you needed a piano, someone in your home who could play it, and printed sheet music. Operas and orchestral music could be heard in piano arrangements. One of the ways that Liszt padded his income was arranging piano versions of popular operas. At the beginning of his Paris career, Chopin did a little of this too. But his niche was short pieces, like preludes, because they sold well. Obviously, Chopin was far from being a hack, but the economic dimension blended with his special skill. Chopin’s is probably the most beautiful music that an average piano player can perform, not to mention professional pianists and musicologists who see deep excellences in his scores.
Fame brought a composer publishing contracts and high-paying pupils. Concerts were the best way to fame, but Chopin preferred salons where he could pretend to be uncommercial, just another distinguished guest of the aristocracy. This caught him up in a cycle of expenditure. He dressed like a dandy, a style-setter in opera cape and pale gloves, dark gray trousers (no stripes), velvet waistcoat (with a small pattern). His rooms must have dove-gray wallpaper with a dark green border, “nothing loud or vulgar,” and needed a private entrance not shared by children or servants.To make the proper impression on aristocratic pupils, he kept a grand coach to arrive at piano lessons. It took him until the mid-1830s to work himself up to a comfortable level of fame and prosperity (charging $100 per lesson), while his expenses grew along with his status.
The combination of his economic situation, his spendthrift habits, and his need to keep up an aristocratic front probably contributed to Chopin’s declining health during his years of greatest fame. He found himself hustling more and more-- teaching six or seven pupils a day, attending several salons in the evening and playing piano into the small hours of the morning. He got some relief in the summer months, living in a country mansion where he had time to compose. His country hostess and mistress from 1838 (age 28) onwards was George Sand, pseudonym for Aurore Dudevant, an aristocratic heiress and quasi-divorcée, famous writer and exemplar of women’s sexual liberation. But living with Sand created its own strains, with her multiple affairs -- she had a fling with all the Paris celebrities-- and quarrels with her own children over their failed careers and arranged marriages. Chopin distanced himself from her in 1846-- henceforth no more idyllic vacations in the country. His last years were spent in the city, hustling even harder for pupils. In 1848, months of revolution and political turmoil in Paris drove away aristocratic patrons. Chopin finally had to accept an invitation to tour Britain. It was just the kind of public appearances he abhorred, in large halls where his playing could scarcely be heard. English weather and the constant strain of respiratory and digestive illnesses finished him off.
Chopin’s distinctive Style: Prelude in E minor
We can capture the distinctiveness of Chopin’s technique if we look at two of his compositions from 1837-9. I have chosen some of his simplest music, accessible even to persons with a slight acquaintance with reading music. The striking thing about Chopin is that he makes the simple sound beautiful, never banal or boring. How does he do it?
Let us start with Prelude No. 4 in E minor. The key is easy, only one sharp, and the tempo is Largo-- slow, dignified, unhurried. We will walk through it, starting with the melody in the upper clef; then the chords in the lower clef.*
* I suggest that you play the upper or melody line on the piano, and also try to sing it. Each bar or measure has 4 beats, and we will go through it bar by bar. Many of the bars repeat themselves, especially in the melody line.
For orientation, Chopin’s E minor Prelude begins and ends with the tonic/dominant sequence. (The tonic chord is E-G-B; the dominant in B - D sharp - F sharp.) What happens in between is what makes Chopin distinctive.
The melody line jumps an octave to high B [bar 1], holds it for 3 beats, then the 4th beat goes up to C [bar 2]. Same thing repeats for bars 3-4. Then it slowly descends through bars 7-8.
The same pattern occurs over and over: hold the main note for 3 slow beats, then a brief note upward, or drop to a new note, with long slow holds again.
Bar 9 continues descending, 3 beats A, 1 beat G-sharp. Bar 10 briefly livens up the melody line, with a little up-and-down riff of 8th-notes, settling in bars 11-12 onto F-sharp.
Finally, in bar 13, we get another little descending 8th-notes riff that gets all the way down to B-- repeating the starting note in the 1st measure-- before skipping up to high D-C-B, bringing us in bars 14-15-16 exactly where we were in bars 2-3-4.
Bar 13 is the half-way mark and the turning point in the Prelude. We have run through the melody once, and finally melody and chord are aligned on a B-7th chord; the dominant chord which should bring us home to E minor. Instead, it’s back to the top, and we run through the melody again, only this time with some new chord changes and a faster melody line.
I will skip bars 17-19, and pick it up again on the last note of bar 19: A leading to 3 beats of F-sharp in bar 20; and same thing again bar 20 into 21 at the end of which-- finally! F-sharp drops to E (home key). But not yet-- it teases us for two more measures (bars 22-23): 3 beats E, back to 1 beat F-sharp; and repeats.
Bar 24 looks we’re there-- but not if you look at the left hand, which throws us a switch, harmonizing E with a C-7th chord instead of E minor. We’ll finish up the last two measures below.
That is Chopin’s game: the melody note goes remote from home, then slowly drifting downwards, briefly punctuated with slight upwards teasing notes. In chordal terms, we jump an octave to the 5th (B, in the key of E minor); slide all the way down once; then back up again, slide down even further-- and a little surprise before we finally resolve into the home key.
Shortly we will look at the score again, this time for the bass clef (the left hand piano part). But first, consider how Chopin has combined elements from several styles, creating his unique sound.
Chopin’s ingredients: Baroque counterpoint plus Bellini arias
The melody line in Prelude No. 4 is unusual, compared to Classical style. At first glance at the written score, it looks simplistic. It has none of the ringing high notes, trills and vocal acrobatics favored by opera singers throughout the history of previous opera. It is just a long, slow, descent from B down to E. The descent is chromatic, and each step is held a long time-- it would be an opportunity for a singer to show off her voice quality. It is made even slower since in most bars the melody note is held for three beats, then takes a short upward step on the fourth beat. Everything about the melody echoes itself.
These brief rising notes usually create suspended chord dissonances. These passing dissonances are quickly resolved, although they keep on repeating. They give interest and tension to the melody line: imagine what it would sound like if it were nothing but a straight descent from B down to F-sharp, with every note held for four beats or even longer. These suspended dissonances make the melody work.
This type of aria was invented by Vincenzo Bellini, an opera composer from Naples who moved to Paris in 1834 and became a friend of Chopin. Bellini was known for the “never-ending melody”, his technique of stretching out the sequence of notes to create sweetness and emotion in the aria. Chopin in effect makes the piano sing a Bellini aria in the melody line, combining it with his chromatically shifting counterpoint in the accompaniment. The combination is the same that Puccini would use in the 1890s and early 1900s in operas with full-scale orchestration (instead of the tonic/dominant accompaniment Bellini still used). Think of the slowly descending aria “Vissi d’arte” in Tosca, or similarly nerve-melting moments in Madama Butterfly that leave you weak in the knees. Puccini is too sweet for some hardened music critics, and it is true that he is more of a culmination than a pioneer of new paths; but the point here is that the techniques that make such music work were created in the lineage Bellini/ Chopin/ Wagner/ Puccini.
In Prelude No. 4, the overall design is counterpoint, the style of composition that preceded Classical, and that dominated in the century leading up to Bach. Counterpoint itself developed out of medieval music, which for centuries consisted of singing one line only. When more voices were added, each one followed its own melody. Counterpoint was a technique of singing or playing lines simultaneously, guided by rules for what kinds of relationships there could be between two notes heard at the same time. It had no tonic and no dominant. Various chord intervals were created as the music went along, but the chords were not driving the melody the way they do with Classical music. Chords did not resolve into each other, but just happened coincidentally as the result of the combined melody lines.
This is essentially what Chopin was doing. The E minor Prelude is harmonic to the extent that the melody and chord lines start out and end in the same key. But in between, they go their own way. The overall effect of the chords is a series of coincidences. To be sure, original counterpoint did not sound like Chopin; for one thing, he is much more chromatic than early counterpoint, and the development of keyboard instruments made it possible to play a lot more notes in faster rhythms. Chopin’s counterpoint is based on Bach. His set of 24 Preludes, in all the major and minor keys (more or less), is patterned on Bach’s systematic compositions displaying the possibilities of the clavichord. Bach is also similar since he composed in the early 18th century, when the tonic/dominant system was coming in, and thus combined elements of it with counterpoint. Chopin also sounds like Bach’s predecessors and contemporaries such as Pachabel and Albinoni, who ring through the changes of chords that arise above a chromatically changing base line.
The chord accompaniment line
BARS 1-8 AGAIN
Starting with bar 2, we are in E minor, because the left hand is playing G-B-E. This is the E minor chord, except in inverted order; E is not at the bottom, which creates a little feeling of tentativeness, since the firmest chord would have the tonic note in the base line. The melody line above it -- high B-- also fits the E minor chord.
The left hand plays the E minor chord eight times in the bar, a steady strumming of eighth-notes in a rhythm that will be maintained until the final 3 bars (24-26). The only exception is bar 13, where the melody has been played through the first time: the left hand holds a dominant-7th chord for 1 beat, followed by three beats of silence while the melody climbs back to the top to begin again.
A classic tonic/dominant composer would undergird the melody line with chords, not so much by strumming them repeatedly but breaking them into arpeggios (skipping up and down the notes of a chord, which gives a lively but harmonious quality to the “development” parts of a Beethoven sonata where he is elaborating on the theme). Chopin creates more variation in a different way: he gradually changes the strumming chords very slightly so that the harmony shifts. In Prelude No. 4, he changes one or two notes in the chord at a time, almost always descending a half-note. This gives a chromatic sound-- like going through all 13 white and black keys in the octave, and violating the straight-forward sound of a regular 7-note scale (also known as a diatonic scale).
In bar 3, the E minor chord keeps the top E but the lower notes drop to A and F-sharp for 4 repetitions; then the top E drops to E-flat for the next 4 reps; in bar 4, the top E-flat is still there but the bottom F-sharp drops to F natural; then the E-flat drops to D (2 reps), then A drops to G-sharp (2 reps).
If you trace with your finger across the base clef of the entire Prelude, you will see the bit-by-bit dropping of one note at a time happens 18 times while the melody line is first played through. Then back to the top again, dropping more rapidly the second time around. The whole Prelude, in both the melody line and the chord accompaniment, consists of a gradual downward flow.
This could sound mournful, but it’s beautiful. What keeps it from being boring? It’s the steady stream of key changes, many of them strange and surprising.
If you include the melody note as part of the chord underneath it, the Prelude starts out in familiar E minor; then shifts to something that sounds like B 7th except for the E held over from the previous chord-- this would be called a suspended 4th, since in a B chord E is the 4th note, and clashes with the expected D-sharp right next to it. This tension is soon resolved by dropping the E to E-flat (which is the same as D-sharp in the B chord); but then the F-sharp goes to F, creating another strange-sounding chord, which resolves into the next one (D minor 6th)-- and on and on.
Every once in a while there is a recognizable chord (E 7th in bar 5); but nothing is stable, the whole rhythm of the piece is to keep changing the chords note by note downwards.
Obviously, Chopin is not being a tonic/dominant composer. Or is he? The melody is played through twice. The first time it ends on B 7th-- the dominant, which should resolve into the tonic E minor. Now we are back in the normal universe, except that in bar 14 everything jumps back to the high B melody note and the chords start their chromatic journey downward again, with a few more surprises.
Look at the bottom line:
In bar 22, the melody line has finally ended its descent to the tonic E; but the chord underneath it is C, then C 7th. In bar 23, the left hand underneath the melody E goes to B-E-A, which is a suspended 4th; the next two eighth-notes resolve this chromatically into B-E-G-sharp-- we’re home, except this is a E major chord and we’re supposed to be in E minor. Two eighth-notes later we drop to the expected E minor-- except that now the melody line rises to a suspended F sharp, for one last bit of tension...
In bar 24: the suspended F goes back to E, but instead of finishing, the low B goes down to B-flat-- now we have a C 7th chord-- where the hell is this going? Chopin piles on the suspense, breaking the strumming rhythm of the entire Prelude by holding the chord for two beats. --- Then--- 2 beats of silence, as prolonged as the pianist wants to make it.
Now both hands are in the base clef: left hand playing low B in octaves; right hand playing E-F-sharp-B-E -- what the hell is this? it should be B-F-sharp-D-sharp to create the dominant chord leading back to E. A half-note later, the chord resolves chromatically downwards, the E’s become D-sharps, we’ve got our dominant, leading to the final measure which is a full-scale whole note E minor chord: THE END.
In sum: the first chord of the entire prelude is the tonic E minor; at the half-way point between the first and second times through the melody, the chords go from dominant B 7th to E minor; and again in the last two chords to end on the tonic. In between, Chopin follows none of the normal chord transitions.*
* Not even the cycle of fifths, so common in Mozart and the Classicals: a succession of chord changes, each a fifth apart, each one acting as a dominant for the next tonic. The cycle of fifths is a staple of popular songs:
Twenty-six [C major] miles a- [A minor] cross the [D minor] sea [G 7th]
Santa Cata- [C major] lina is a- [A minor] waiting for [D minor] me [G 7th]
Santa Cata- [C major] lina [A minor] the island [D minor] of ro- [G 7th] mance [C major]
Chopin is a tonic/dominant composer at the beginning and end, while in between he follows an entirely different pattern of chromatic changes. These create a lot of strange-sounding but momentary dissonances. The reason Chopin could get away with this, and why he has been so enduringly popular ever since, is because the outer frame of his music is conventional. The audience recognizes the normal harmonies and chord sequences at the beginning and the end, and occasional points in between. It is like a journey away from home, but you eventually get back there. This is the essence of post-classical music (I am resisting calling it by the misleading cliché, “Romantic”). George Bernard Shaw, explaining Wagner to the English public in the 1890s, said that Wagner starts with dramatic but recognizable harmonies, then pulls further and further away (especially in vocal parts of his operas), creating a tremendous feeling of tension; so that when the tension is finally resolved in the climax, it is like a musical orgasm. Chopin is a lot quieter, but the principle is the same.*
* Musicologists have pointed out that many of Wagner’s most exotic chord effects are there in Chopin. Although they never met, Wagner worked in Paris in his struggling years of the early 1840s, and surely would have known Chopin’s music.
Dissonances as plot tension: Prelude in A minor
Try another Chopin Prelude, No. 2 in A minor. This one is even more blatantly disssonant, in the chords accompanying another sweet “never-ending” melody line.
PRELUDE NO. 2 BARS 1-8
Start by tracing the left hand. The first three bars are exactly the same, 8 eighth-note chords per bar, the second and fifth chords clashing with the lower chord that makes a steady drone every other half-beat. This rippling alternation goes on slowly-- Lento-- all the way down to bar 19, when the melody line takes over and we get a traditional dominant-tonic conclusion.
The Prelude is in A minor, but you wouldn’t know it until the very last chord (bar 23). The beginning measures are especially ambiguous, since the left hand plays two-finger chords. The melody line doesn’t start until bar 3, so in the first two bars, we hear only two notes at a time: E-B / A-sharp-G / E-B / G-G octave / E-B / A-sharp-G / E-B / G-G.
E-B is an open fifth, the tonic and dominant notes of the E scale; but is it major or minor? Open fifths have a hollow sound. The second chord has G as its upper note, which fills in the minor third-- we are in E minor. --except that the low note is A-sharp, a very dissonant combination.
Another way to say it is that the middle note of the E chord wavers between B and A-sharp. B is the 5th of the E chord, but A-sharp is an augmented 4th-- if you play A-sharp and B together, the result is is a grating sound, especially when the other notes anchor it in the E chord. Chopin softens the dissonance by having it appear only in two of the eight chords in a measure; the E chord gets the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th repetitions, the dissonant A-sharp-G chord gets the 2nd and 6th, while a bland G-G octave gets the 4th and 8th.
The effect is that the accompaniment is constantly going in and out of harmony, “in and out of tune”.
The same pattern repeats throughout the Prelude. In bars 4-8, the basic chord is D-B, then D-A, then G-E-G, then B-F-sharp; and so on throughout. The 2nd and 6th chords in each measure create a harsh dissonance, while the 4th and 8th chords usually soften it. This goes on all the way down to bar 19.
Chopin gets away with what in the 1830s would have been considered a horrible dischord. In one respect he pours it on: if it had been played fast it might have just sounded like a passing ripple, but it is played Lento-- you can’t avoid hearing it. But you soon get the idea-- this piece is driven by the device of going in and out of key, in a predictable pattern.
PRELUDE NO. 2 BARS 9-23
Now for the melody line. The melody is simple; it has four phrases, all with the same shape.
In bars 3-7, we start with E, held for three and one-half beats, then down to B (the 5th of the E chord) for a half-beat, and up to D. Then D is held five and one-half beats (ignoring a little F-sharp-E grace note), down to A (its 5th) for a half-beat, and up to B, which is held for 6 beats (including a little syncopated repetition of B). Altogether, the melody first time through moves very lazily from E to D to B. We then get four beats of silence in the melody line, while the left hand continues its alternating harmonic and dissonant chords.
Second time through (bars 8-12), the same pattern is shifted up to B, down to A (with the same grace notes), and then to F-sharp (with the same syncopation). Another silence (7 beats long) in the melody line.
Third time through (bars 14-19), same pattern starting in A, down through F-sharp, to D. After a 2-beat silence, we get:
Fourth time the same melody starts, but more quickly (bar 20): D three and one-half beats-- (including the grace notes), down to A (its 5th). But then (bar 21) B is added above it, both held for two beats. B above A, no other notes: what is this? it could be a segment of a B 7th chord, ambiguous because the left hand is silent.
Then two firm chord changes: resolving the A-B into G-sharp-B with E below it-- an E major chord-- not the B 7th we expected; but then comes a full B chord (B-D-sharp-F-sharp-B). Bar 22 repeats the conventional dominant/tonic closing even more emphatically: two beats E major chord, two beats E 7th. The ending (bar 23) is a full-fledged A minor chord rippling from low A upwards.
This is the first time Chopin gives us an A minor chord, although the piece is titled Prelude in A minor. One might call it an A-minor tease. Also, a tonic/dominant tease, since Chopin has been playing with ambigous and dissonant chords all the way through. No worries: in the end, all is revealed; the cycle of fifths is firmly repeated: B-7th-E / B-E7th / A minor. Your tradition-accustomed ear is cleansed. It was all a dream, and now you are waking up.
The History of Dissonances: Mozart’s quick resolution
Dissonances of course had been used before. A mild dissonance had been a staple of Classical compositions, certainly since the time of Mozart:
MOZART MINUET K.6
In the 8th bar, Mozart plays F-sharp in the right hand against G in the left; but this resolves on the very next note, upper line going up to D, lower line down to D and G-- i.e. resolving into the G chord. He does it again in bar 16, this time playing a B above a low C, then resolving it into a C chord for the ending.
Mozart composed this when he was six years old, and it was quite standard-sounding music for that time (1762). The value of the temporary dissonance is easy to hear. If you play it G over G, C over C, it takes away some of the interest of the piece.
This was a general principle, well understood by composers ever since the tonic/ dominant system came into use. Dissonances drive the music forward, because the ear wants them to resolve into another note. The rules of composition told you how to do this, and to do so more or less immediately. Dissonances play the same role in music as plot tension does in literature.
Dissonances are even more important for tension-creating in Chopin, since he doesn’t resolve them in the conventional way. They are much more frequent, and give a distinctive bitter-sweet quality to his music. Mozart’s music is clear and sweet because he got the most out of tonic/dominant harmonies with the briefest of dissonances. With Chopin, if you change the dissonant notes to harmonies-- as one can easily do with Prelude No. 2 on the piano-- it loses its quality.
Chopin can be considered the first composer in the modern style (usually considered to come after the Romantic style). But he knew how to please his audience, and he didn’t take it too far. The pathway to modern music would increase the dissonances and put off their resolution until later, or not at all.
Chopin and Mozart: dying young
Chopin died in 1849, age 39. In this he resembles Mozart, who died at age 35, in 1791. They lived in different music-market conditions. Mozart had to work harder, because the amateur market for piano scores was as yet small. In his last years, he was simultaneously producing operas-- not just composing and directing them; taking commisions for church masses; giving orchestral concerts, chamber music, anything that paid. No wonder Mozart wrote so much music-- Opus numbers mounting over 600--- he needed the money. Like Chopin, Mozart was a spendthrift, renting posh apartments in Vienna and keeping up with aristocratic fashion as best he could. Mozart literally worked himself to death, staying up all night trying to fulfill commissions. There were a lot of pages to write out-- even if he composed tunes and harmonies in his head-- since he did large-scale works requiring scores for many instruments and voices. Chopin wrote fewer pieces -- reaching Opus 68-- and these were shorter and had fewer instrumental parts. But Chopin spent more time hustling than Mozart, in a daily grind, out on the streets of Paris no matter his bad health, making visits to give lessons and entertain salons.
The image of Chopin as a Romantic artist following his spontaneous impulses is far from the truth. He worked hard over his music, obsessively revising, a self-driven perfectionist. It was not Romantic fatefulness that killed Mozart and Chopin at an early age; nor were they starving artists whose time had not yet come. They had opportunities to become famous and make a lot of money, but neither had a salaried position or a steady income. They lived among the wealthy elite and disguised themselves as one of them, but they had to hustle every day, piece-meal for what the music market could give them. Both worked constantly and under a lot of strain. Whenever there was a temporary setback, they had to hustle even harder. Both died struggling, to do what they did so well, just one more day.
It is tempting to exclaim, what couldn’t they have done if that hadn’t died so young! On the contrary, it is easy to see what they would have done if they had survived their last sickness. It would have been more of the daily grind, with all its strains and susceptability to illness. They were like boxers who couldn’t afford to leave the ring, taking more and more punches until the final knockout.
Liszt, whose career as pianist more or less parallels Chopin’s, escaped alive. How? Liszt made a great deal of money on concert tours-- more whole-sale income than piece-meal. He was not a spendthrift. And he retired from touring at age 38, taking a salaried position as musical director for the court at Weimar, where he composed at a leisurely pace, and promoted the works of other new musicians, having made the transition from entrepreneur to patron. He lived to 75.
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The Cambridge Music Guide. 1985. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Charles Rosen. 1995. The Romantic Generation. Harvard Univ. Press.
Randall Collins. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies. Harvard Univ. Press.