Pedalling Chopin’s B minor Prelude

Chopin’s 24 Préludes, op. 28 were composed at a difficult time in the composer’s life. It was the winter of 1838-9, and Chopin and his lover George Sand had decided to visit Majorca for a romantic holiday. He had contracted tuberculosis and, for fear of contamination, none of the local inhabitants would allow them to stay. So they ended up in the abandoned monastery in Valldemossa – miles from anywhere.

To make matters worse, Chopin’s piano was held up by customs so he had to rent another, a small upright known as a pianino built by Bauza, a local. To say it was not up to the job would be an understatement, but this unpretentious little instrument ended up with a fascinating history and was later owned by the great Polish harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska. Paul Kildea has written an entertaining and informative book about this piano – Chopin’s Piano – A Journey Through Romanticism 

While the Préludes make a magnificent set when heard all together, several of them are manageable by intermediate players. Number 6 in B minor is currently on ABRSM’s Grade 6 exam syllabus, and while at first glance it appears relatively straightforward, it is actually far from easy.

The cello-like melody in the left hand needs to be played with projection, shape and an understanding of legato cantabile touch, and because the player’s attention is likely to be focussed on the left hand it is all too easy to neglect the tolling bell we hear in the repeated right hand B’s. The quaver pairs need a lot of control and careful listening if we are to stress the first and lighten the second as marked.

Pedalling is another issue in this Prélude. Are we to take literally Chopin’s blurry pedal mark at the end, and do we only pedal where he has indicated? Pedalling in Chopin’s piano music is problematic, since notating pedal can never really be that precise. I have attempted to shed some light on the pedalling in this short video extract, I hope it is of some help to you!

For my full video walkthrough of Chopin’s Prélude in B minor on the Online Academy, follow this link. This video also forms part of our collection of resources on the ABRSM syllabus which can be viewed here.

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Clara Schumann’s Prelude and Fugue, Op. 16 No. 2

Clara Schumann née Clara Wieck (1819 – 1896) was a German pianist, composer and sought-after piano teacher. A child prodigy trained and strictly supervised by her father, Friedrich Wieck, Clara became one of the 19th century’s foremost virtuosos and remained active for more than six decades. Before her teens she had already debuted at the Gewandhaus in her native Leipzig and toured to Paris, taking along some of her own compositions to include in her programmes. 

Robert first met Clara when he became a student of her father, and romance soon blossomed. However, Friedrich was set against their marrying and even waged a court battle to oppose their plans. He lost, and they wed in 1840. Before Robert was known to the world, Clara was already commanding an international reputation as a concert pianist, and her advocacy of her husband’s music certainly helped his work circulate. 

Clara had a difficult life, juggling her commitments as a pianist with raising seven children (an eighth died in infancy) and looking after her husband as his mental health waned. Clara more or less stopped composing after Robert’s early death in 1856 (he was 46 and she was only 37), thus her oeuvre is relatively small — just 23 published works. 

Among her compositions for piano are three Preludes and Fugues, op. 16, composed in Dresden in 1845. These pieces resulted from a joint undertaking between Clara and Robert to master the art of counterpoint. Robert felt he needed to improve his contrapuntal skills so the couple decided to tackle the project together.

The Prelude and Fugue in B flat, the second of the set, is currently on the syllabus for ABRSM Grade 8, and will be a good choice for those whose playing would benefit from the study of strict counterpoint but who prefer the Romantic idiom to the more customary Baroque examples. 

While the Prelude is certainly contrapuntal, the mood feels more like a Nocturne, with a singing right hand line against an arpeggiated accompaniment. The noble fugue, in four voices, presents many challenges to the player and will therefore need to be studied diligently.

While progress will feel slow this way, a “stepladder” approach yields the best results in the long term. This practice method involves taking each strand of counterpoint separately before bringing them together in all possible combinations of two and three voices. This works better if the section selected for a given practice session is short (a few bars only). Work out a good fingering as you go along, write it in the score and stick with it each time you practise!

My full video walk-through of this work is available on the Online Academy here. An index of walk-throughs for other pieces from the ABRSM 2021 & 2022 Grade 8 syllabus is available here. Please click here for all grades.


For more on the stepladder approach to contrapuntal playing, follow this link to my previous blog post.