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unpublished Chopin sketch.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
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
"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
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
"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