Chopin Prelude in C minor op 28 no 20 - Analysis

Frederick Chopin was a master of piano miniatures. We all know that. And his preludes was a fertile soil for all kinds of acrobatics regarding harmony and musical form. In this article, we will talk about his Prelude in C minor op. 28 no. 20; its form, its harmony and its overall musical expression. Some other time perhaps we will talk about its inspiration for Barry Manilow’s song “Could it Be Magic”. 

Analysis of the musical form

Let’s begin with the musical form. Although very dense, 13 measures in total, the structure of this prelude can be marked as a simple ternary form with a lot of segments. Full formal scheme would be: aa1ba2ba2. Pay attention that the recurring a section is shortened and hence, it has a different integer (a2). It does not have a modulation in it, so it couldn’t have been designated as a nor a1. Actually, here in Serbia, we call this kind of musical form transitional ternary form. 

Apart from that, we have one more interesting formal procedure in this composition. Sections ba2 were repeated as a note-to-note written repetition, rather than a repetition by a musical sign. Now, it is interesting that the first sections aa1 were not repeated. Perhaps, we can talk about development in harmony in the first two sections as the main reason why composer decided to not repeat them. Musical flow modulates from principal C minor to A-flat Major, back to C minor and finally to G Major. It is certainly a lot for a 4 bar musical segment which is not a development part of sonata form. So my idea is that the composer decided that these sections were distinctive enough and that they do not need any further confirmation, and the following sections received the usual repetition which comes at the end of the ternary song. If you have a different theory, please tell us in the comment sections below.

chopin prelude op 28 no 20 analysis
Analysis of the musical form and the harmony

Analysis of the harmony

In the field of harmony, this prelude offers us some powerful procedures. As we said before, in the first 4 measures modulations are a common thing (c-Ab; Ab-c and c-G). Paired with ff dynamics, the purpose of these modulations is to intensify the musical expression of the prelude. C minor as a key in romanticism has a specific connotation of tragedy, and these fast and sudden changes of tonal centers emphasize exactly that. It is interesting how Chopin managed to tonicalize final tonic in G Major. At the beginning of 4th bar, musical flow was in C minor, and the chords d-f#-a-c | g-b-d were heard and understood as Vv-V. However, the second part of the same measure features the same chords, but now they sound like V-I in the new key of G Major. Or are these chords not the same? Well, for the most part they are the same. However, Chopin, a master of harmony, did something that completely changed our perception. He added a slight appoggiatura to the chord on the third beat of the measure. Instead of a simple seventh chord, Chopin added an appoggiatura 6-5, his trademark when it comes to the dominant chord structure. That small, but highly significant procedure gives us a sense of closure. 

chopin prelude op 28 no 20 analysis of the measures 3-5
Analysis of the measures 3-5


Another interesting harmonic procedure can be found in the 5th and 6th bars. Pay attention to the bass line, how it goes down chromatically from c to g. It is a clear sign of a passus duriusculus, an important trait of musical portrait of drama and tragedy. After reaching the note g, musical flow goes even further with descending notes to f and e respectively, connecting ba2 sections. It is interesting that in these sections not a single one modulation occurs, however, they are still highly dramatic. Also, pay attention to the change in dynamics. Contrasting to the first two sections in measures 1-4, sections in bars 5-8 are completely different featuring p dynamics. Their repetition will be even quieter with pp dynamics.

Special tragic flavor comes from the Phrygian chord in measures 8 and 12. It’s interesting to note that this Phrygian field, which in music is also a trait of a tragedy, is represented through the raw power of the root position, rather than a first inversion called Neapolitan sixth chord. My interpretation of this procedure is that Chopin wanted to emphasize that tragedy as much as possible with that augmented fourth in the bass line, and we know that augmented intervals are “forbidden” in school harmony.

chopin prelude op 28 no 20 analysis
Analysis of the musical form and the harmony

Musical expression of the piece

This musical piece shows us two sides of tragedy, two sides of drama. Sections aa1 were filled with action, while the following sections are brimming with grief. In such a delicate performance like Ivo Pogorelich did it, we can really feel it in the sound. The last two sections, repetitions of the primary ba2 sections, in his performance sounds like a distant echo, a lament that breaks the heart of a person standing in the chaos after the tragic event had happened. 

If you are interested in the analysis of Beethoven’s Piano sonata Op. 2 No. 1 in F minor click here. Until the next reading, stay safe and enjoy the music.

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