The Rip Post                               

May 12, 2002

Deciphered: A Demonic Prelude by an Ailing Chopin


For the first time in 150 years, there is a new work by the great fantasist of the piano, Frédéric Chopin. It is just 33 measures long, shorter than the "Minute" Waltz, but it reveals a world about Chopin the innovator and Chopin the bedeviled. Call it Chopin's lost "Devil's Trill" Prelude.

"Here he was, in 1839, at age 29, half-crazed with sickness and dementia, with these nightmarish visions of specters rising up out of the piano, and trying out something completely wild," said Jeffrey Kallberg, a professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania, who reconstructed the piece. "For the first time, we have evidence of probably his most experimental work of all."

Fevered. Anguished. Demonic. Defeated. One can almost hear it all happen in the music: a delirious Chopin furiously trying out ideas, scrawling them in idiosyncratic shorthand further crabbed by illness. (A diagnosis of consumption was disputed.) It's a momentary pianistic freakout, as it were, perhaps reflective of his fabled improvisational flights never captured on music staffs but documented in writings of his paramour, George Sand, and Delacroix.

The piece, intended as the 14th Prelude of the collection of 24 (Op. 28; to be played today by Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall) but ultimately discarded, is only the second known complete, unpublished Chopin sketch. The other, the Mazurka in F minor (Op. 68, No. 4), was discovered at the time of his death from tuberculosis in 1849.

"We're seeing proof of an aspect of Chopin's compositional vocabulary that we didn't know existed, a completely new lick, if you will," said Jonathan Bellman, the chairman of the music department at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, who has played the piece. "So much for pianists' thinking we had the full measure of him."

The prelude is a lyrical avalanche of ornamentation, bordering on cacophony, which suddenly evaporates into darkness and exhaustion. Mr. Kallberg informally calls it "The Devil's Trill" because its continuous, sustained trills probably echo the famed "Devil's Trill" Violin Sonata by Tartini.

"Chopin was certainly aware of a famous piece for violin from the Baroque, which also was built out of continuous trills," Mr. Kallberg said. "So it seems likely that part of the experiment was trying to recapture something of this Baroque sound in his more Romantic idiom."

Baroque influence, perhaps, but this is music that anticipates the Mahlerian angst and outburst of the 20th century. Divined from trial ideas written right over one another, the prelude not only offers scholars new fodder for debate but also provides a soundtrack, so to speak, for a fabled moment in Chopin's biography.

"Chopin on Majorca is one of the most storied episodes in his life," Mr. Kallberg said. "He had just begun his liaison with George Sand. They were deeply in love. They were trying to escape the public eye, as their relationship was scandalous when it first developed. Chopin became desperately sick, and she was nursing him back to health while he was having nightmarish visions of phantoms coming out of the piano."

The existence of the work, in the collection of the Morgan Library, was widely known among Chopin scholars, many of whom tried in vain to make sense of it. Even Mr. Kallberg was flummoxed, studying it repeatedly over 20 years before finally unraveling the composer's likely intentions.

"He was trying out the notion of building a prelude out of a continuous ornament, the only such example in his work," Mr. Kallberg said. "In the lower register of the piano, you hear trills from beginning to end. Over the top of that, in the upper part of the piano, there is a constant rocking triplet motion."

Yet how important, really, is a work of 43 seconds (as played by Mr. Bellman)? Are such things esoteric trifles? Footnotes to already well-annotated lives? Material for academic salons?

"Will it eclipse the `Funeral March' from the Second Sonata or the Fantasy-Impromptu in terms of popularity?" asked Mr. Bellman, also a Chopin specialist. "No. Will it eclipse any of Chopin's other works? Doubtful. It will not change classical buying habits or Chopin's profile in the wider musical and popular culture.

"Would discovering an early, discarded but authentic Shakespeare sonnet change our view of his entire output? Maybe not. What about a deeper understanding of how Shakespeare's genius worked, and what he decided to rework, and what an early inspiration resulted in? To students of art of any kind, this is profoundly important."

The draft was conceived as a complete musical whole, Mr. Kallberg says, and thus merits a place in the composer's relatively small output (65 works with opus numbers and a couple dozen without). As for its brevity, the prelude that replaced the sketch was 19 measures long, 14 shorter. Then there is the value of the piece as a sample of Chopin "rocking out."

"This kind of `Devil's Trill' writing has no parallel in his work," Mr. Bellman said. "We do have several different accounts that absolutely rave about Chopin's improvisations, and no less an artist than Eugène Delacroix, who was friends with Chopin, wrote that Chopin's pieces were but pale distillations of his improvisations. Do you see the significance this begins to take on?"

Mr. Kallberg stresses that the new score is a "performable version" of a work that required educated guesses to realize. As the English Chopin specialist John Rink, a professor of music at the Royal Holloway University of London, put it in an e-mail: "What makes Professor Kallberg's work particularly valuable is the setting-out of different possibilities. The proposals he makes are not meant to be definitive."

Still, the notes are Chopin's. This is not another Beethoven "Macbeth" Overture, a ballyhooed "lost" work that turned out to be a cobbling together of two or three themes, excerpts from the "Ghost" Trio and six or seven minutes of new music by a contemporary Dutch composer.

"I think it's very heroic that Professor Kallberg was able to make a finished piece out of the sketch," said the pianist Marc-André Hamelin, a noted champion of unusual repertory. "I would have been very hard pressed to decipher anything. It obviously demonstrated a lot of patience and quite a bit of insight, but I wouldn't expect less from such a scholar."

Mr. Kallberg, Mr. Bellman said, is simply "the man" when it comes to Chopin manuscripts, having studied nearly every extant specimen hands-on. Mr. Kallberg, 47, is the author of "Chopin at the Boundaries: Sex, History and Musical Genre." The pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen calls him the most original Chopin writer alive and "Chopin at the Boundaries" "the most stimulating book of Chopin criticism I have ever read."

Mr. Kallberg has written myriad articles for scholarly journals, including the British quarterly Early Music, where he revealed his reconstruction of the discarded prelude. His study of Chopin manuscripts began during work on his doctoral dissertation, on Chopin's compositional process, at the University of Chicago in the late 70's. In one episode worthy of Sherlock Holmes, in Warsaw, he shone a flashlight behind pages to distinguish darker spots, literally illuminating crossed-out ideas.

Cracking the code of the "Devil's Trill" sketch was vexing work.

" `Cracking the code' is probably a good way of putting it," Mr. Kallberg said. "When Chopin was sketching, which he usually did at the piano, it was as if he was possessed to get something down on paper as quickly as he could, so he wouldn't lose the idea. So this sketch is hasty, yes. But there's hasty, and there's really hasty, and this is really hasty. It's written in a very difficult to decipher hand, even more imprecise than Chopin's normal sketching hand, which can be maddeningly imprecise.

"He wrote down one layer of ideas and the second layer on top of the first layer, and you have to realize there are two separate layers for them to make sense. So what you do, to make sense musically, is read the notes as if they are all written in the bass clef, but you take the right hand part and move it up to the treble clef."

The method has been validated by reliable sources, including the pianist Murray Perahia and Carl Schachter, a professor of music at the City University of New York.

"Nowhere in the piece had Chopin marked clefs," Mr. Kallberg said. "For a sketch, that's not unusual. But in this particular one, just looking at the notes on the page, it turns out that no matter what combination of clefs you play in, if you read the notes literally, they don't make any sense. I was ultimately able to figure it out, and this is where Murray Perahia helped me. He happened to be present when I delivered a talk about the sketch, along with Carl Schachter. I laid out several possibilities, and they thought that one of them made more sense than the other, and that's what I went with."

The lost work has yet to be recorded or publicly performed, but both will undoubtedly happen soon. Still, a question lingers. If Chopin rejected the piece, why should anyone outside academia pay attention?

"Plainly, it's flawed," Mr. Kallberg said. "But it's visionary nonetheless. It's a first stab at something that didn't quite work. Yes, he just put it aside. It's interesting, though, that he kept it."  


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