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Expanded Harmonic Vocabulary in the Preludes of Frederic Chopin

Last Updated: February 10, 2012 / by Chuck Newsome


Although Frederic Chopin is known as a composer of inherently lyrical piano music, his influence has extended far beyond the piano and into the vocabulary of 20th century American jazz. Based on an analysis of several of Chopin's preludes, the forward-thinking tendencies of the composer emerge in his use of "upper extensions", altered tones, and German augmented sixth chords descending in half steps-all common techniques in jazz composition. Prelude in E minor Op. 28 No. 4 and Prelude in Db Major Op. 28 No. 15 are among the works analyzed in examining Chopin's expanded harmonic techniques.

Polish-born Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) composed almost exclusively piano music during his primary years of activity, from 1830 until his death in 1849. Despite this fact, he influenced generations of composers that followed, beginning with many of his contemporaries and admirers, including Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Franz Liszt. Chopin consistently found a striking balance between chromaticism and lyricism in his melodies. Perhaps, even more astonishing are his harmonic achievements; functionality and tonality are preserved despite a substantial expansion of harmonic techniques. During the Classical and the early Romantic Eras, the intervals of a 2nd, 4th, and 6th above the bass were typically treated as passing tones or suspensions, instead of functional parts of the harmony. At times, Chopin treated these pitches the same way, but he often used one or two consistently enough as to imply that he might have considered them somewhat functional parts of the harmony. Throughout his music, dominant chords frequently feature "upper extensions," such as the 9th, 11th, 13th, and even altered tones, harmonized as part of the sounding chord. This expansion would contribute greatly to the richer harmonic textures that became more common as the Romantic Era continued. In addition, Chopin planted some of the seeds that would develop into the harmonic vocabulary used in 20th century American jazz. In Prelude No. 8, Chopin uses a chain of German augmented sixth chords descending in half steps, a common technique in jazz composition. Chopin occasionally used series of modulating ii-V cadences, sometimes without resolving to I for several measures. Also of particular note is Chopin's use of smooth, often step-wise, voice leading to achieve powerful harmonic effect while preserving the lyrical quality inherent in his melodies.

This study will examine Chopin's expanded harmonic vocabulary through the analysis and comparison of several of his Op. 28 Preludes, published in 1839. This set of 24 short piano pieces contains one individual work in each key. The 1st prelude is in C major, followed by its relative minor, A minor; this pattern of pairs is taken around the cycle of fifths through the twelve key signatures. Chopin's preludes are not standard preludes of an introductory nature but a set of stand-alone works, none of which is longer than 90 measures. Prelude No. 9 is a mere twelve measures in length. Despite their relative brevity, the preludes provide tremendous insight into the harmonic techniques and textures used throughout Chopin's piano music. When viewing the score, the textures often appear dense and filled with figuration, but harmonic reductions reveal many interesting characteristics-often very clearly. The melody often appears in a middle voice, as in Prelude No. 8, or even in the bass, as we see in Prelude No. 9. Another technique commonly found in these preludes is the pedaling of one note, often in eighth notes, over several different chords. This device is employed throughout Prelude No. 15 among others. Other preludes, such as No. 20, feature very little figuration and move in block chords. The 24 preludes span the spectrum of keys, styles, difficulty level, harmonic density, and chromaticism. Below is a complete list, for reference:

Op. 28 preludes

  1. Agitato – C major
  2. Lento – A minor
  3. Vivace – G major
  4. Largo – E minor
  5. Molto allegro – D major
  6. Lento assai – B minor
  7. Andantino – A major
  8. Molto agitato – F-sharp minor
  9. Largo – E major
  10. Molto allegro – C-sharp minor
  11. Vivace – B major
  12. Presto – G-sharp minor
  13. Lento – F-sharp major
  14. Allegro – E-flat minor
  15. Sostenuto – D-flat major
  16. Presto con fuoco – B-flat minor
  17. Allegretto – A-flat major
  18. Molto allegro – F minor
  19. Vivace – E-flat major
  20. Largo – C minor
  21. Cantabile – B-flat major
  22. Molto agitato – G minor
  23. Moderato – F major
  24. Allegro appassionato – D minor


Expanded Harmonic Vocabulary in the Preludes of Frederic Chopin
Chopin Prelude in E Minor Op. 28 No. 4
Chopin Prelude in E Major Op. 28 No. 9
Chopin Prelude in Db Major Op. 28 No. 15

Written by Chuck Newsome


About the Author: Chuck Newsome

A lifelong resident of metropolitan Detroit, Chuck Newsome has been working professionally as a musician and educator for the last 12 years. During that time, he has devoted his life to helping young musicians improve and reach their goals. Chuck holds Bachelor of Music (B.M) and Master of Music (M.M.) degrees from Wayne State University. He is currently a faculty member in the Department of Music at Wayne State University, and the Educational Coordinator for the Detroit Jazz Festival. In addition, Chuck is a faculty member at J.C. Heard Jazz Week at Wayne and an Educator in Residence with the Detroit Jazz Festival’s Infusion Program. He has worked with Detroit Public School students at Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School, Detroit School of the Arts, Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School, Duke Ellington Conservatory and Bates Academy. As a dedicated jazz guitarist, Chuck has performed with such Detroit, national and international jazz notables as Joe Lovano, Eddie Daniels, Kurt Elling, John Clayton, Diane Schuur, Sean Jones, Marion Hayden, Chris Collins, Russ Miller, Rob Pipho, Gary Schunk, David Taylor, and Sean Dobbins. He has also been featured as a guest soloist with the Wayne State University Big Band. At the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival, Chuck appeared twice—as a performer with the Detroit Jazz Guitar Ensemble and as the conductor of the WSU Jazz Big Band featuring Joe Lovano and Judi Silvano. Chuck is an active composer and arranger, with over 100 works to his name.


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