Mike Lee

Rethinking Cyclic Unity through Embodiment: Alternative Sources of Coherence in Chopin’s Preludes Op. 28

As Kevin Korsyn and others have noted, Chopin’s Op. 28 Preludes pose a challenge for the concept of cycles. There have been two contrasting scholarly receptions: one that argues for a structurally unified opus (C. Smith, Eigeldinger) and another that emphasizes the preludes’ self-contained (Schenker, Schachter) and/or fragmentary status (L. Kramer, Kallberg). In this paper, I rethink current notions of cyclic unity by exploring alternative kinds of coherence grounded in gestural and embodied relations, relations that are neither ‘structurally unified’ nor merely ‘fragmentary’. I will show that, in the case of Op. 28, such relations have their sources in performative contexts that lie beyond the published score.
Building upon Schachter’s insights on the E-minor prelude and other writings on the A-minor prelude, I propose so far unnoted gestural and narrative continuities between the two works. Although they are non-contiguous within the opus, the A-minor and E-minor preludes were conceived together on a single sketch leaf capturing a once palpable moment of creative energy. I draw on their intimate temporal and spatial proximity to reconstruct the constellation of sounds, touches, and structures that might have animated Chopin’s hands and ears during their common creation. The paper closes with a brief consideration of a third work sketched on the same leaf, the Mazurka in E-minor Op. 41, which offers further support for a triangular relationship between the tonalities A and E negotiated by the interplay between the pitches f and f-sharp.

In conclusion, the paper advocates an analytical methodology that approaches questions of cyclic integration beyond the binaries of structural unity and fragmentation, but one guided more flexibly by the contingencies of improvisation and performance, gesture and embodiment.