The first example examined here illustrates Chopin's interesting mixture of traditional and forward-thinking harmonic techniques is Prelude No. 4 in E minor, shown below in Figure 1, a harmonic reduction and analysis:
This short prelude is one of the most famous works from Chopin's entire catalogue. In addition to being played at his funeral, No. 4 has been featured in several Hollywood movies and was the inspiration for Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova composition, "How Insensitive", and for "Exit Music (for a film)", by the critically acclaimed art-rock band Radiohead. Though Chopin titled his preludes only with numbers, many have received commonly accepted nicknames from musicologists and critics. No. 4 has been dubbed the "suffocation prelude", perhaps due to its somber quality and the continuous long stretches of descending voice leading through changing harmony.
The first 12 measures of No. 4 are underpinned by a very common chord progression but dressed up with several interesting divergences. Figure 2 isolates the aforementioned harmonic framework that begins the piece:
In measure 2, we find an example of two different ways one could analyze the same chord. It would be most common to call the E that sounds during the first two beats of the bar an appoggiatura resolving downward to the D# on beat three. Alternatively, this chord sounds as an incomplete ii minor seventh chord with the added 9th and 11th degrees, creating a ii-V cadence. This dual harmonic function can be found throughout the preludes.
Chopin uses chromatic downward voice leading to move from V in measure 2 to V/iv in measure 4. Instead of moving voices at the same time, Chopin begins with the lower voice, followed by the upper voice, and finally the middle voice. This method creates a heightened sense of chromaticism and some interesting chords in the process. The first chord of measure 3 could be analyzed as a French augmented 6th chord moving to V/iv and the anticipation tones and passing tones are labeled in Figure 1. In measure 4, Chopin uses a similar method of voice leading to resolve eventually to iv-again, anticipation tones are labeled above. Measures 5-8 feature descending chromatic motion in the tenor voice (G-F#-F) and bass voice (E-D#-D) which again generates some interesting harmony, including the D7 (bVII7) in measure 7 and vii diminished 7th of iv. Another appoggiatura appears in the upper voice in measure 9 which is, not coincidentally, the chord 9th. This addition extends the harmony at a key point in the form. Although there is no regular pattern to the way the voices move in measures 1-8, voices most commonly descend by half step; all other voices descend by whole step.
An excellent example of Chopin's use of extended/altered dominant harmony is the R.H. passage in measure 12 (Appendix A), where he clearly highlights D natural over a B7 chord. This implies that the harmony is actually B7(#9), and it sounds accordingly. This chord is very common in Jazz but is seldom seen in Romantic music.
Measures 13-16 are very similar to measures 1-4 but Chopin uses harmonic diminution by omitting the chord from beat 3 of measure, instead progressing to the chord from beat 1 of measure 4 a half-measure early. Measure 17 features another altered dominant chord, this time B7(b9), which resolves back to i. Later, in measures 20-21, Chopin follows a deceptive cadence on VI (C) by adding the pitch Bb, the chord's lowered 7th degree, implying a German augmented 6th chord and propelling us toward ii. Measure 22 features I (2nd inversion) with a suspended 4th resolving to a major 3rd. This creates a momentary major I chord before the 3rd degree descends by half step to return to i minor. At this point, the final cadence begins with a clear German augmented 6th chord, then V with a 4-3 suspension resolving to V-i. In his Prelude No. 4, it seems as though Chopin's focus is on smooth, often chromatic, descending voice leading from harmonic guidepost to harmonic guidepost. This process yielded 25 measures of music that are at once logical and unpredictable.
Upon first listen, or first glance at a score, Chopin's Prelude No. 8 in F# minor stands in stark contrast with No. 4. Known as "Desperation", this prelude features a heavily figured top voice in the R.H., consisting of continuous 32nd notes. It is directly beneath this ornamentary upper voice that we find the slower-paced melody, consisting of a repeated dotted-quarter/sixteenth note rhythm. Comparing the first 2 measures of the score (Appendix B) with Figure 3 (below), a harmonic reduction, is quite revealing:
Once again, Chopin uses a very simple harmonic progression as the foundation on which he stacks intricate chromaticism. An analysis of the top voice shows that it supports the harmony and melody shown above but incorporates several appoggiaturas that could be analyzed as either passing tones or extensions of the harmony. The G# and B that occur during beats 1 and 2 could be heard as the 9th and 11th of the tonic F# minor chord. The ii half-diminished chord that follows is extended by the appearance of A# (9th) and C# (11th), and over the V7 chord on beat 4 Chopin adds the flatted 9th (D). All of this is evidence that Chopin wished to extend the harmonic vocabulary of the day while remaining faithful to certain aspects of the common practice period, such as balance and the consistent use of functional harmonic progressions.
Measures 3 and 4 appear to be a development of beats 3 and 4 from measures 1 and 2. The ii half-diminished chord, in 2nd inversion, and the root position V7 chord are repeated in the keys of C# minor (v) and B minor (iv). This progression, D# half-diminished 7th-G#7-C# half-diminished 7th-F#7 is followed by F7--G# diminished 7th-F diminished 7th, before finally resolving to the tonic, F# minor. The best explanation of this harmonic sequence seems to be that, after the ii-V sequence lands us in B minor, F#7 (V in B minor) becomes the German augmented 6th chord in the key of Bb. The F7 that follows can be seen as the German augmented 6th chord in the key of A, because the next chord, G# diminished 7th, would lead us to a new tonic of A major (which would be III in the original key). Instead, Chopin moves the diminished chord down an inversion and uses it as E# diminished 7th to modulate back to the home key of F# minor.
The first two measures are restated with slight variation in measures 5 and 6, but in Figure 4, a reduction of measures 7 and 8, another chromatic sequence appears. These two measures are related to measures 3 and 4, but this time Chopin employs a chain of German augmented 6th chords to modulate:
The German augmented 6th chord in the key of Bb major (Gb7) resolves to a Bb major triad in 2nd inversion in measure 9, completing the modulation. Measures 9-14 consist of a series of diminished 7th and dominant 7th chords over an F pedal (V in Bb major). On beat 3 of bar 12 Chopin uses a common-chord modulation, iv in the key of Bb (Eb minor) becomes iii in Cb major. German augmented 6th chords, often descending chromatically, play an important role throughout Prelude No. 8.
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.