Chopin, Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4

Upon first listening to this work, many conventional conceptions of rhythm come to mind: there is a steady eight-note pulse; the opening 12-measure unit is neatly divided into three 4-measure phrases (an easily identifiable hyper-meter); and the brief interruption of the eight-note pulse half-way through the work establishes a two-part structure (each part of which has a clear beginning and end). The start of the second part (m. 13) suggests periodicity, given that it is a re-beginning. And in this respect, one could interpret the form of this work—albeit very loosely—as a period or periodic hybrid.

Despite the snaking chromaticism in the left hand, the upper voice establishes a consistent accent pattern, which is emphasized by Chopin’s persistent use of upper-neighbor tones. This pattern, however, is obscured in the second part of the work, where Chopin deviates from the opening measures and launches into a stretto passage that sounds quasi-improvisatory.

The stretching of tempo asked for in this section, which is typical of Chopin’s rubato technique, raises an interesting question with regards to our perception of rhythm: are listeners able to follow an implied background pulse despite ongoing superficial contortions of tempo, or do they simply lose their orientation momentarily? The answer to this question depends partly on the performer. From a performative point of view, we are often taught to count internally in order to proportion variations in tempo. I.e., we are discouraged from playing gradual changes in tempo as we “feel” them; instead, we are encouraged to construct some kind of internal scaffolding such that the performance isn’t “random”.

One final point of interest: as the music progresses, the overall sense of rhythm seems to become weaker and weaker. The first twelve measures, as already noted, divide nicely into symmetrical units with a clear end point; the ensuing eleven measures, though still with a steady eighth-note pulse and recognizable accent structure, loosen our sense of rhythmic orientation via stretto; and the final two measures, which are set apart by a fermata, obscure this sense altogether.

The formulaic cadential tag that closes the work then reestablishes order, both rhythmically and harmonically. And so is seems that rhythm contributes significantly to our emotional response to the work: we are grounded, then lost, and then reunited with order. It would be fascinating to see what kinds of emotions this sort of pattern elicits in listeners.

In summary, it seems that this piece can be viewed fruitfully from at least three of the four rhythmic perspectives we talked about: rhythm as order and proportion, rhythm as movement, and rhythm as form.

4 thoughts on “Chopin, Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4

  1. You might take a few minutes and listen to Beaudoin’s interpretation of Argerich’s Chopin. Beaudoin’s piece is an “exact” reproduction of Argerich’s expressive timing… Of course, “exact” here is a contentious term. How is your sense of rhythmic structure for this composition altered by the extreme slowness?

  2. Listening to Beaudoin’s interpretation brought forth at least one concept from the Tan et al. reading: due to the drawn out tempo, it was difficult to hear the underlying rhythm—much of it sounded like separate events. That said, the fact the certain melodic tones don’t line up exactly with supporting chords didn’t affect my sense of the pulse (when I managed to find one). At such a slow tempo, all sense of hyper-meter was lost on me (well…if I didn’t know the piece so well, it would have been).

    • When you did find a pulse, how did it relate to the events? Did it subdivide the series of event onsets? Was it at all influenced by the asynchronies between “coinciding” events in the musical score?

      Although the tempo is very slow, I can help but feel that if one is familiar with the piece, it is still possible to get a sense of continuity or linear structure. In listening to the piece again after not having heard it in a while, I was surprised how much filling-in and re-grouping was occupying my mind. This made it very hard for me to be “in the moment,” although it didn’t threaten my ability to make sense of the music.

      • My sense of the pulse came and went so frequently that it didn’t relate much to the musical events unfolding; in other words, I couldn’t reliably establish any sense of meter (grouping). The unevenness of the pulse also prevented me from subdividing the event onsets, which says something about categorical perception (at least mine!) at such a slow tempo.

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