Prelude and Fugue in C-Sharp Minor

Preludes - Book 2

13 Preludes, Opus 32


By Lawrence Budmen

While an entire concert of "Preludes" may seem repetitive at first glance, the term had a very different meaning to various composers. While in an opera or ballet, a prelude may be a mood setting introduction to a larger musical and dramatic structure, an instrumental prelude usually is a self contained work even if it is part of a larger cycle.

For Bach (and may other Baroque composers) a prelude was part of a formal structure. Bach's keyboard preludes are his slow introductions to the more complex fugal writing that follows. While these preludes and fugues were originally written for harpsichord, pianists as diverse as Alfred Cortot and Glenn Gould have given stimulating performances of these works. It can be argued that the piano actually enhances these scores with its darker instrumental texture and greater flexibility.

To Debussy, preludes were the musical equivalent of impressionistic painting. His second book of preludes - published in 1913 - consists of twelve generous vignettes painted in a pastel kaleidoscope of pianistic colors.

Nature was central to Debussy's artistic aesthetic. Orchestrally, this is manifest in the tempest tossed waves of "La Mer", the misty clouds of "Nuages" in the "Nocturnes", and even in the super heated atmosphere of "Prelude ? L'Apr?s-Midi d'un Faune." The second set of preludes provide equally vivid musical images in "Brouillards" (Fog) and "Feuilles Mortes" (Dead Leaves), both of which are harmonically more adventurous than the preludes of the first book. "Bruy?res" (Heather) is an exquisite miniature. "La Terrasse des Audiences du Clair de Lune" (the Terrace of Spectators by the Light of the Moon) comes from a newspaper account of the coronation of George Vas as Emperor of India in 1912.

Debussy's sound portrait of the water nymph "Ondine" is less elaborate than Ravel's treatment of the same subject in "Gaspard de La Nuit." "Les F?es Sont D'Exquises Danseuses" (The Fairies are Exquisite Dancers) is based on an illustration for "Peter Pan." (It is interesting that creative artists as different as Debussy, Leonard Bernstein, Julie Styne and Steven Spielberg have been drawn to this subject.)

Debussy prefigured the work of Les Six in his use of popular and folk elements. "Homage ? Samuel Pickwick, Esq., P.P.M.P.C." makes reference to "God Save the King." "General Lavine - Excentric" uses music hall elements. The concluding "Fleux d'Artifice" (Fireworks) has an illusion to the "Marseillaise." The diversity of these preludes proves that impressionism has many musical faces.

Sergei Rachmaninoff has often been viewed as an inward looking romanticist. This view denies the sheer variety of his music. While his 13 Preludes, Opus 32 (1913) have strong romantic influences, they could not have been written by Tchaikovsky or Arensky (Rachmaninoff's teacher). This is music that definitely comes from a different century, despite its 19th century nostalgia.

Rachmaninoff's Opus 32 completes his set of 24 Preludes encompassing all the major and minor keys - just as Chopin had done. There are illusions to Chopin in the piano writing to be sure, but there is a brooding intensity that is quintessentially Russian.

Rachmaninoff presents a formidable challenge to a pianist's technique in these works. These scores are less miniatures than small scale etudes. The varied musical elements range from folk like vigor to intense passion to moody despair. This is music for the concert hall rather than the salon.

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