Page One

Professor reconstructs unfinished Chopin prelude from artist’s notes

Catherine Lucey The Associated Press
Tuesday June 11, 2002

PHILADELPHIA – Feverishly ill and hallucinating, Frederic Chopin was staying on the island of Majorca in 1839 with his mistress, writer George Sand. It was raining, and he was trying to finish his preludes — 24 in all, one in each key. 

The Romantic piano composer tried in E-flat minor to convey his fraught state of mind by using a continuous trill in the left hand. He later abandoned that effort in favor of a different prelude in that key — but he saved his notes. 

Now, by transcribing Chopin’s shorthand, University of Pennsylvania music history professor Jeffrey Kallberg has resurrected the piece. 

It is not a perfect piece of music, Kallberg said, but it provides new insight into Chopin’s musical ideas and work process. 

“He had this vision of a kind of experimental prelude,” said Kallberg, 47. “He wanted to write it down as quickly as he could, so he used a kind of shorthand.” 

Directly translated, Kallberg said, the music makes little sense. Chopin didn’t mark clefs, so sometimes the positions of notes have to be adjusted. He also didn’t write in every note, so Kallberg had to fill in blanks. 

The result is a frantic 33 measures. Kallberg has nicknamed the piece “The Devil’s Trill” for its similarities to “The Devils Trill” Violin Sonata by Tartini, a likely influence on Chopin. 

The trill in the left hand is paired with rocking triplets in the right. It lasts for just 43 seconds in the version on Kallberg’s Web site, played by Jonathan Bellman, chairman of the music history department at the University of Northern Colorado. 

The piece is dark, turbulent and not at all typical of the composer. 

It “shows a degree of experimentalism we hadn’t known before,” Kallberg said. “At the same time, that’s why it doesn’t work. You’ve got the experimentalism in sound, but the chord progression isn’t that strange.” 

Bellman added, “This is another side to (Chopin) we didn’t know was there. Is this going to change anybody’s view of him in the larger sense? No. But for people who study him, you want to understand.”