Notes from the Keyboard – Prelude in E minor, Op. 28 No. 4 by Chopin
Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, Op. 28 No. 4 is a favourite among piano students, and if you love his music but do not play the piano, you are most likely to already know this piece from somewhere.
Now, wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing if you can also learn it and play it like a professional?
I will give you a few secrets to help you achieve this.
FIRSTLY, we must have a look at the key this prelude is written in.
E minor is a dark tonality. It sounds cold and lonely. It also has overtones of desolation.
Think back to what the Dementors from Harry Potter are like: they drain happiness and hope from people.
You have to channel this feeling of gloominess and (as the piece builds to its climax) despair when you play this piece. One way to get into the mood is to play the piece in E major and then switch to the tonic minor.
It is very simple: you just need to play the left hand triads of bar 1 with a G sharp instead of a G natural and the C in the right hand as a C sharp. (Please see the example below.)
Try it now (keeping a straight face in the major version if possible).
This exercise should show you how big the gap is between sunny E major and cloudy E minor.
Secret Number 2: Murmur
Once you have the mood set in your mind, you have to be able to play the left hand chords in a way that resembles murmuring.
When people murmur, they do not articulate their words clearly. Their speech resembles a continuous sound, low and indistinct.
The left hand chords have to sound like that.
To achieve this effect, you must play from the key surface. In other words, take special care not to hit the key with the tips of your fingers and your nails. Hitting (and the accompanying clicking noise) happens when you play from above the key surface (in the air) and descend rapidly onto it.
Once you’ve played each chord, you should aim to play the next (if it is exactly the same chord) without letting the keys come up completely or rise too far from the key bed. (This is easier on a grand piano.) It will feel like you’re playing in the piano keyboard. This helps your left hand to avoid sounding clunky.
All your left hand movements should be minimal. In the same way that the harmony shifts and slides slowly, your left hand should also move gradually, ‘walking’ from one chord position to the next.
Notice also that the gradual—and staggered—chromatic descent of the notes of the chords in the left hand adds to the bleak atmosphere of the music. Chromaticism in tonal music adds colour. In this prelude, it adds a kind of negative colouring: tension. A more specific example which denotes sorrow and tragedy is the ‘lament bass’. (More on this in a future post!)
Secret Number 3: Save it for the big moment!
Now, the final secret for this post: save your forte for the climax in bar 17. (See bars 16 and 17 in the example below.)
In addition to the forte marking, Chopin also indicates a stretto in bar 16, so save up for this moment. It is the cry of despair after a long period of despondency.
I hope that you find this post informative and useful. As before, please try out my suggestions, leave a comment below, and I’ll see you in the next post!
Meanwhile, here’s my performance of this prelude. Enjoy!
Malaysian concert pianist Lee Jae Phang continues to astound audiences with his virtuosity, expressiveness, and searching intellect. He has been lauded for his “great ability to play a wide variety of repertoire with great interpretation and passion” and for his spellbinding accounts of complex masterworks such as Tippett’s Piano Sonata No. 3.
Along with 15 other people, Lee Jae once held a Guinness World Record for the largest number of people playing the same piano simultaneously.
Lee Jae is also a notable accompanist and chamber musician and complements all his performing with his passion for teaching. He strongly believes that music enriches our lives and loves helping young pianists reach their full musical potential.
More information can be found on his website: https://phanglj12.wixsite.com/lee-jae-phang