Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chopin's Prelude 16 in Bb Minor

If you wanted to know the real me, my essential personality, I recently told a dear friend, one approach would be to listen to Chopin's Prelude 16 in B-flat minor.  I have a rocky past with this piece as a former pianist.  I can't recall how I first came across his 24 preludes, but Chopin is an ivory god to me.  His compositions, his virtuosity, his melancholic passion, his dissonance—they all send me into the most delightful reverie and bedazzle me with clever and ambitious finger work.  Back in the day I studied classical piano at Cal Arts under a wonderful young instructor named Howard Richmond.  Somehow I got it into my head that I should play this piece and, let me tell you, it was an arduous, up-hill battle.  I never mastered the song by any means.  Howard, of course, could play it almost flawlessly in an instant.  Practicing the prelude really required (at least for me) separate labor devoted to the left-hand and right-had parts.  Then, I'd put the two together, playing it slowly at first and incrementally building up speed ultimately to a "fiery" pace—presto con fuoco.  I never quite made it, though.  Prelude 16 might be responsible for my decision to become a rock keyboardist instead of a classical pianist—yes, both very practical career decisions!

So what is it about Prelude 16 that's me?  Honestly, the song probably demonstrates what makes me tick more than it describes me per se.  In a flair for drama that characterized Chopin, the opening chords serve as a starting line.  Then, all of a sudden, the relentless gallop of the left hand jumping two to three octaves on the lower register provides a solid, brisk infrastructure over which a barrage of frenetic 16th notes in the upper reaches of the keyboard comes down.  Finally, in the last four bars, the race to the end comes to a crescendo as both hands climb up four octaves playing sixteenth notes in unison.  Quite a rollercoaster ride!  I vividly remember playing the prelude on my laptop for a Western Civilization course I taught for troops in Afghanistan.  We were discussing the Romantic era.  It transported me, and perhaps a few soldiers and airmen, away from the combat zone, albeit for just one minute!  Those who know me know that I like my music fast, hard, and dark.  Prelude 16 isn't dark, but it's not particularly cheerful either.

The song describes my personality, I suppose, in so far as I can be a rambunctious character who always seems to be in a hurry.  I find myself sometimes literally running from one thing to the other.  My mom remarked on this peculiar trait when I was a kid.  I was running then, and I'm still running in my forties.  Don't try to pigeonhole me as a "manic depressive," as some have, however.  And what I'm about to write probably isn't going to diminish your resolve to label me so.  But the one thing the prelude does not capture about me is my more lugubrious side.  I'd have to refer to another Chopin piece for this purpose.  I'm well aware and gratified by the fact that Der Viator readers are avid listeners to Chopin.  So next time you sample the sixteenth prelude at a listening party or otherwise, think of me running to my next task.