After a first Prelude that paid tribute to Bach and followed a clear tonal structure in C major, Chopin strikes hard in terms of destabilization with a dark number two, with a tortuous harmonic course and a quest for ambiguity that evokes Brahms’ late intermezzos. One of the most common of the cycle, next to one of the most bizarre: a contrast in line with Chopin’s romantic spirit and his polish soul. Very slow, the Prelude is characterized by a strong surface dissonance, created by the constant chromatic neighbor ornamental figure which traverses the accompaniment. Combining the neighbor with appoggiaturas in another part (shown in a slightly darker shade of red below), Chopin even strikes diminished octave intervals in bars 5 and 9-12, harsh sonorities justified harmonically as both notes are ornamental. But if this gloomy ornamental dissonance is striking to the listener, is only hides a highly original harmonic trajectory beneath it. Here we go:

This Prelude is extremely directional, the expected tonic A chord arriving only in the very last bar, and the first proper dominant right before it. There is not a single G sharp, leading-tone of the main key, that appears as a harmonic tone anywhere in the piece before the next-to-last bar. The piece does open on a V chord, but is a minor one, not major, tricking us into thinking E minor is the home key, before quickly drifting towards other tonal regions. My personal guess is that the composer started writing this Prelude with this idea of outlining a global VmI movement. However, within the common tonal practice, minor Vs cannot appear at the beginning of structural harmonic units – they adopt a passing role between two “normal” functions of the key, such as I and VI, or appear in the middle of harmonic sequences. The only possible way to have a piece start with a Vm chord is then to justify the chord as a borrowing from a neighbor key.

Looking at the possibilities, the Em chord could be II in D major, III in C major, IV in B minor, or VI in G major. Chopin chose this last option for the first harmonic phrase of the piece, a VI V I movement in G, or, if we adopt a non-modulating perspective, of VII. Should the analysis be modulating or not? A good question, on which opinions will differ, but one which is ultimately rhetorical, deciding between a weak neighbor key or a strong tonicization. Certain elements, such as the presence of a cadential 6/4 chord, typically point to a new key establishment. But this Prelude is not typical, and for me the outlining VI background idea roots the whole piece in A minor.

The VI V I movement in G (VII) is followed sequentially by a VI V I (almost) in D (IV). Why D? The secondary and primary tonics outline a large-scale plagal VIIIVI movement, which Chopin certainly liked. But it also allows a clever deviation back towards the home A minor key, because when you evade the cadence, replacing the I with a V/IV, in a diminished 7th form, this V/IV in D is enharmonically a V/V in A. If the surface ornamentation obscures this (on purpose) in the score above, here is a reduction which show the progression more clearly:

The V/V turns into a German augmented 6th version, and then, bam, a stroke of genius as Chopin makes the following chord play the role of V and I at the same time. Relative to the V/V in the preceding bar, this second inversion A minor chord is a cadential 6/4 playing the role of V. But as a dominant pedal starts there, the chord is retroactively perceived as a I over a V pedal, starting a IVI IV II V progression. Effectively, two harmonic events happen in parallel here: on one layer, the I 6/4 resolves through the pedal to the V in bar 21; on the other, the chord progression takes place, eventually leading to the same V. Part of what makes this dual reading possible is the contradictory placement of the VGer/V I 6/4 progression, extremely cadential, at the beginning of what is formally the continuation phrase: the chord acquires thus this ability to function both as an arrival point and a beginning.

Speaking of form, the Prelude is extremely interesting in the interplay it creates between the convoluted harmonic path and a fairly standard sentence canvas: a presentation made up of two basic ideas presented sequentially, each composed of two motives, ab, and a continuation developing those motives in an abb’ cadential gesture. As you can see from the formal schema below, the grouping structure and the harmonic rhythm most often do not coincide. The basic phrase is 5 bars long, but while the grouping structure follows a 2+3 bars pattern, the harmony opposes a 1+2+2 pattern. This is clever and composers reading this should take notice, as de-phasing formal and harmonic structure is a sure way to create formal fluidity and direction, in tonal and atonal languages alike. Notice also how the two halves of the sentence are linked together by the V/V in the middle:

The 1+2+2 pattern is retrograded and compressed to create acceleration towards the cadence, introducing 1.5 bars-long chords which create metric dissonance, building on the process started by the shifted accompaniment pattern appearing across bars 18-19.

A final word on the background melodic structure, which would make Leonard B. Meyer proud. The melody starts on the 5th degree of the scale and moves down, implying a resolution to the tonic (Schenker would approve too). This movement is interrupted by the sequence, which creates an 8ve melodic leap, initiating a gap-fill process. Of course, this second line eventually reaches the low B, joins the suspended implication of line 1, and arrives at the tonic:

Some further thoughts:

  • As mentioned earlier, in the presentation part, Chopin does its best to trick us into thinking that E minor is the home key (I did consider analyzing the entire presentation in E minor and modulating to A minor in the continuation, but as said before, the harmonic structure is unstable and ending-oriented, encouraging a non-modulating perspective). Apart from the fact that it starts with an Em chord, there are 3 other little details worth noticing:
    1. the Em to G VI V I movement mimics the cliché movement to the relative major in minor keys;
    2. the sequence brings us to D major, a neighbor key of E minor, and not to D minor, the neighbor key of A minor;
    3. the E and Eb alternating neighbors of D in bars 6-7 sound suspiciously like E and D#, a tonic/leading-tone oscillation.
  • The surface chromaticism disappears in the continuation part, leaving space for the pedal and the 7th chords – a good lesson in complexity control.
  • The a motive starting point is delayed or anticipated when it is repeated, further contributing to the formal fluidity.

There! Quite unusual, this one was exciting to dive into – we will get back to something more normal next with number 3. Thoughts, comments? Have a go at it below!