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Lea Peterson


Chopin’s 22nd prelude in g minor is a very interesting and confusing piece of music. It

exhibits very typical Western classical elements in phrase and chord structure, while

simultaneously displaying atonal and non-conventional harmonic elements, leaving the

listener wondering about the true tonal center of the piece until the final rolled chord in the

last measure.

One of the very predictable elements of the piece is its phrase structure. It opens

with a four measure phrase ending on the tonic. The next four measures serve as a type of B

subphrase before the initial four measure sequence is then repeated, ending the listener

again on the tonic. There are another 4 meausres which serve to modulate keys from g

minor to A-flat major. Once the new tonic is fully established, Chopin composes 8 measures

in the major key, which are played a second time directly after the first, creating a

cumulative 16 measures in the new key. After these two repeat phrases, Chopin gives two

breif measures to modulate back down to the original g-minor before ending the piece with

the same initial four measures and a perfect authentic cadence.

The harmonic construction of the piece, however, is far less typical and raises many

questions about chordal structure and atonalities. In an unusual fashion, the piece opens on

a diminished ii chord. The only indication of the tonic in the opening of the piece is that it

functions as the root of the ii 7 chord, putting it into a third inversion position, which is

again unusual, especially for the first chord of a piece. If the ii chord had been preceded by a

tonic, this would be a very typical pattern where the ii functions as a predominant before

resolving to the major dominant seventh chord in the second half of the measure. It seems
that Chopin is teasing the listener throughout the entire piece. He does not begin on the

tonic, and even the opening cadence, while authentic, is in first inversion. He refuses to give

a root position chord in the g-minor tonic until the final notes of the piece. He also waits

until the penultimate chord of the piece to ever allow the listener a root position dominant

seventh chord without any suspensions or embellishing tones. This absence increases the

lack of tonal center felt by the listener and creates a climactic sense of urgency to the piece,

drawing us more and more intensely to the last two measures when we are given the only

perfect authentic cadence of the prelude.

What is very interesting is Chopin’s modulation from g minor to A-flat major in the

middle of the piece. Measures 13-16 and 30-32 function as the bridges between the two

keys on either end of the move to A-flat. Chopin uses secondary dominants to introduce

non-diatonic notes, focusing especially on the D-natural to D-flat transition as a key point to

establish tonicization. For instance, in measure 13 the D-flat is introduced as a major IV

chord in A-flat before returning to a D-natural in the next chord, which could be considered

a second inversion i chord in the original key of g minor if not for the added seventh which

makes it function as a secondary dominant of the following minor iii chord in A-flat. In

measure 29 he then reintroduces the D-natural. In this case it is clearly to ease the

transition back into g-minor, because the D-natural functions in a diminished iv chord in the

key of A-flat major which is harmonically very irregular and cannot even be considered a

predominant in the context.

Chopin also uses the c minor chord in both modulation sections as some sort of

bridge. In measures 14 and 15 Chopin uses the minor c chord as the brief tonic of a

secondary dominant before resolving to the iii itself and then repeats the chord in a new
structure at the start of measure 16. He features the c minor again in the second half of

measure 30 and then as the opening chord of measure 32. The iii chord appears nowhere

else in the piece and is used on the downbeat of measure 16, which is the last measure in g

minor as well as measure 32, the last measure in A-flat major. This is no coincidence.