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The Fishko Files: Chopin's 'Raindrop' Prelude

Friday, March 19, 2010

This month, the world is celebrating the bicentennial of Frederic Chopin. Locally, we’re celebrating what we hope is the end of a long, long winter. As Sara Fishko tells us, "Chopin" and "winter" came together in 1838 to create a popular musical favorite.

Chopin’s Opus 28, Number 15 is one of his most admired works. Franz Liszt called the preludes, "compositions of an order entirely apart...they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams."

Chopin was a great admirer of Bach, and he wrote the preludes as a tribute to him. Each of the 24 preludes is composed in one of the 24 major and minor keys, echoing Bach’s preludes and fugues from books one and two of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Op. 28 No. 15 is the longest of the collection of short preludes, but it’s known for reasons other than its length: The prelude is noted for its repeating A-flat, which appears throughout the piece. The A-flat sounds like raindrops to many listeners, giving Op. 28 No. 15 a nickname: The "Raindrop" Prelude. The "Raindrop" Prelude is associated with romance, having appeared as the musical backdrop in romantic film scenes -- its stormy middle section has even been used in Halo 3, a war video game.

The “Raindrop” Prelude’s creation is connected with a well-known story that may or may not be true.

The facts: In the winter of 1838-1839, Chopin went to Mallorca with his lover, George Sand, and her two children. The group stayed in rooms in an Old Carthusian monastery at Valldemossa. Chopin wrote his 24 Preludes during this time period.

Here is a selection from Chopin’s letters during his time in Valldemossa, from Chopin’s Letters published by Dover Press, 1988.

“Palma, 28 Dec[ember] 1838

--- or rather Valdemosa, a few miles away. It’s a huge Carthusian monastery, stuck down between rocks and sea, where you may imagine me, without white gloves or haircurling, as pale as ever, in a cell with such doors as Paris never had for gates. The cell is the shape of a tall coffin, with an enormous dusty vaulting, a small window, outside the window orange-trees, palms and cypresses, opposite the window my bed on rollers under a Moorish filigree rosette. Beside the bed is a square claque nitouchable for writing, which I can scarcely use, and on it (a great luxe here) a leaden candlestick with a candle. Bach, my scrawls and (not my) waste paper – silence – you could scream – there would still be silence. Indeed, I write to you from a strange place.”

The legends behind the “Raindrop” Prelude:

  • The monastery’s rooms allowed wind and rain inside, causing Chopin’s health to further deteriorate and, as the mythology goes, Chopin spent a lot of his time listening to the repetitive drip-drip-drip of the rain outside. This dripping inspired the repetitive note throughout the “Raindrop” Prelude.
  • Chopin composed the prelude as he waited for George Sand and her children to return from a shopping trip, while listening to the slow, steady rain falling on his windows.
  • Chopin was suffering from hallucinations when he wrote the prelude. One night, when he was alone in his room during a thunderstorm, he was playing piano and it sounded as if his playing echoed the sound of the thunderstorm.
  • The story of the “Raindrop” Prelude was created by George Sand in her novel ‘Histoire de ma Vie,’ in which she describes Chopin improvising the prelude during a storm.

You can find two versions of the “Raindrop” Prelude used in this edition of The Fishko Files at the links below:

Vladimir Horowitz: “Discovered Treasures”

Ivo Pogorelich: “Frederic Chopin Preludes”

Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister

Assistant Producer: Laura Mayer

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