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As Chopin’s Préludes op 28 are widely known and appreciated, I find the ‘mystery’ in this book’s title a little contrived. There is much thought-provoking material here but how convincing it is must be for the individual reader to decide. One chapter is entitled ‘Lamartine’s Les Préludes: The lyrics and the milieu’. Liszt and others suggested that Lamartine’s poem, included here in French and English, directly inspired Chopin. other chapters include ‘The Mallorca Factor’ and ‘Lamartine’s Les Préludes and Chopin’s Préludes’.

‘Deciphering the Préludes’, the penultimate chapter – but do they need deciphering? – occupies about half of the 160 pages of text. When Chopin went to Mallorca with George Sand, he took Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues with him. It is easy to forget Bach’s enormous influence on Chopin. Chopin finished his own Préludes while staying at the Carthusian monastery and Leikin plays up (with the help of impressive photographs) the Gothic atmosphere of the place. There was even a large Gothic chair in Chopin’s cell. From this he moves on to suggest that a death obsession permeates the whole of opus 28, finally referring to the Préludes as ‘a piano requiem in 24 movements’.

There is a complete chart of all the motifs which may be derived from the Dies Irae chant – every permutation including retrograde, inversion, partial inversion, etc. Readers might be forgiven for believing that they have wandered into an analysis of a 12-tone composition by Schoenberg. Leikin’s forensic thoroughness cannot be doubted but, surely, when some of these motifs are embedded within an extremely rapid passage of semiquavers they do not register as Dies Irae references, unlike Rachmaninov’s numerous quotations. also, the melodic shapes in Leikin’s chart appear in diverse rhythmic contexts in the Préludes, further hindering their recognition. Anyway, I’m not sure that around 80 pages are needed to indicate Chopin’s craftsmanship in working with these dozens of motifs. There are over 80 music examples, but this is an expensive book. I look forward to hearing these pieces again – but not with the Dies Irae primarily in mind.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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