Symbols and Imagination

Chopin's Preludes through the eyes of Robert Spies

By The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

scenario and text: Łukasz Kaczmarowski, translation to English: John Comber

Prelude in B flat major, Op. 28 no. 21, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Introduction

The music of Fryderyk Chopin has always inspired other artists, and we find numerous attempts at representing his works in the plastic arts. Those artistic depictions, marked by the artist’s imagination, also reflect the reception of Chopin’s music at a specific time in history. Allow me to present one particular group of such depictions: the magical world of the 24 Preludes seen through the eyes of the unjustly forgotten German artist Robert Spies. 

Portrait of Robert Spies by Unknown authorThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Robert Spies (1886–1914)

worked mainly in the symbolist current that was popular around the turn of the twentieth century. His works are pervaded by pessimism and marked by the extensive use of signs and attributes, not infrequently referring to the cultural world of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. He also possessed a literary talent and wrote several plays. Today one seeks in vain any materials or studies devoted to Spies. His death at the front during the First World War, at the age of just 28, brought an end to a highly promising artistic career. 

Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes', title page (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Spies’s 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes', published in Munich in 1912, is a collection of graphic works inspired by Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28. Each of the preludes is depicted separately, and, as with Chopin, we find a range of varied and contrasting representations. Taken together, however, these works form a pre-conceived cycle.

Prelude in C major, Op. 28 no. 1, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Prelude in C major, Op. 28 no. 1

On the first picture we see a pair of lovers standing under a lakeside palm. The woman, in a flowing dress, seems to be dancing. The moored gondola lends a romantic and mysterious aura to the scene, evocative of Venice. Have the couple just arrived, or are they about to float off?

Reflected in the gently rippling surface of the water is a light from the opposite shore. On the peak of one of the hills, we see a circle of tall coniferous trees. 

Prelude in C major, Op. 28 no. 1
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Chopin’s first prelude is a buoyant short preface to the cycle. It gives a sense of lightness and airiness. A careful listener may discern an impression of lights flickering on water or a gondola bobbing gently on the waves of a lake. The Prelude in C major captures the magic of a fleeting moment. 

Prelude in A minor, Op. 28 no. 2, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Prelude in A minor, Op. 28 no. 2

The pale figures emerging from the black on the illustration to the second prelude are captured in terrified lament, attempting to block their ears. Yet the expression on their faces leaves us with no illusions – it is all to no avail. 

The dramatic reaction to the tolling of bells clearly suggests that there is no escape from that sound. The bells are certainly announcing something very bad – perhaps someone’s death.

Prelude in A minor, Op. 28 no. 2
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An incessantly oscillating musical motif in the low registers of the piano imitates the tolling of bells. The simple melody that unfolds against that motif and the highly chromaticised harmony sound desperate, even terrifying. Both Spies’s picture and the sounds of the A minor Prelude are in dark, gloomy hues. No one escapes from implacable fate.

Prelude in G major, Op. 28 no. 3, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Prelude in G major, Op. 28 no. 3

In a snow-covered forest clearing we find two young figures: a kneeling boy extends his arms towards the girl seated in front of him, who is covered with just a blanket. The boy almost looks as if he were casting a spell on the girl or transmitting some mysterious energy to her through his hands. 

Prelude in G major, Op. 28 no. 3
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This is certainly positive energy, as becomes clear when we listen to the third prelude. It is a cheerful melody against a lively, restless accompaniment in G major, considered to be a bright and slightly humorous key. So we are witness to a wintry, but happy ritual, the symbol of which may be the snow – that white magic. 

Prelude in A major, Op. 28 no. 7, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Prelude in A major, Op. 28 no. 7

On the depiction of the seventh prelude we see three young ladies in flowing white dresses dancing barefoot on the grass. They may be interpreted as the three Graces (Charites) – Greek goddesses of charm, beauty and joy.

The mythological picture is completed by the figure of the deity Pan, seated on a plinth and playing to the Graces on his flute. The artist clearly wished to portray an idyll of carefree simplicity and dance, expressing harmony between humans and nature. 

Prelude in A major, Op. 28 no. 7
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All of these features are displayed by Chopin’s seventh prelude, a short, charming miniature in the form of a dance – a mazurka. Its elegance, simplicity and grace ideally convey the mood of Spies’s picture. Classical moderation, symmetry, balance and perfection. 

Prelude in E major, Op. 28 no. 9, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Prelude in E major, Op. 28 no. 9

A group of ancient armed warriors stand in closed ranks. In front of them, distinguished by the whiteness of his robes, stands a priest raising his hands up to the light. Could this be a prayer for success in battle? Or perhaps a tribute of thanksgiving to the gods after a battle already won?

Prelude in E major, Op. 28 no. 9
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The chant-like character of the music of the E major Prelude, expressed through chord stacks, conveys the august majesty of the picture. The music is exalted, hymnic, monumental. We are certainly dealing here with an important religious ceremony. 

Prelude in G sharp minor, Op. 28 no. 12, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Prelude in G sharp minor, Op. 28 no. 12

Spies illustrated the twelfth prelude with a fencing duel. The dark, slender figures of the duellers are dynamic; despite the static nature of the picture, one senses intense movement. The setting is a cloudless, starry night – the rivals no doubt agreed to duel at a given time to resolve some conflict. 

Yet this is not a sporting rivalry. It is a battle of life and death; one of them has been struck right in the heart. His bent legs and raised arms show that he has lost control over his body. In a moment he will fall to the ground. 

Prelude in G sharp minor, Op. 28 no. 12
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The contrasting dynamics and articulation employed by Chopin can be heard from the opening bars of the twelfth prelude. This dualism, the inner struggle between textures, is full of temperament and at times even aggressive. The compulsive and insistent force of the two clashing musical elements ends in a sharp, definitive way. Someone has won, and someone has lost. 
 

Prelude in A flat major, Op. 28 no. 17, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Prelude in A flat major, Op. 28 no. 17

One pleasant spring night, an elegantly dressed couple are walking along the street. They stop by a blossoming chestnut tree to talk. Behind them we see part of a building with closed windows – everyone’s asleep. Yet in one window, right at the top, a light still shines and the window is open. Is that where the couple have come from? Or perhaps the man is trying to invite the woman inside?

Looming in the background is the silhouette of another building – a monumental cathedral that looks just like Notre Dame. It is possible that we have found ourselves in the romantic city of Paris in Spies’s imagination.

Prelude in A flat major, Op. 28 no. 17
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The seventeenth prelude is a charming, songful work with the distinctive character of a Chopin nocturne – a ‘song of the night’. The melody is full of passion and tenderness, but these are not stormy feelings, but a more delicate, nascent enchantment. Unlike the dynamic short compositions in the cycle, the A flat major Prelude seems to be suspended in time, calmly finishing what it has to say. ‘Beautiful moment, do not pass away!’

Prelude in C minor, Op. 28 no. 20, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Prelude in C minor, Op. 28 no. 20

The illustration of the twentieth prelude leaves us in no doubt – someone has died. The funeral cortège is led by warriors blowing trumpets, followed by lamenting figures bearing the defunct’s coffin, which resembles an Egyptian sarcophagus. The mourners’ grief is overwhelming – one of the women faints. Is the dead man one of the warriors, or perhaps the priest who recently conducted the thanksgiving ceremony? 

A ray of hope is offered by the flame of an oil lamp flickering in the corner. A mysterious woman observes dejectedly the procession passing above her.

Prelude in C minor, Op. 28 no. 20
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The sounds of this prelude turn into a funeral march. The chorale chords, which were previously a proud symbol of triumph, now determine the mourners’ measured pace.

Prelude in F major, Op. 28 no. 23, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Prelude in F major, Op. 28 no. 23

In a garden bower, by an ivy-covered pergola, we witness an intimate lyrical scene. Two lovers embrace with a kiss. Is this the couple that were walking the streets of Paris a moment ago? Or perhaps the woman and the man from the lakeside scene that illustrated the first prelude?

A delicate stream is flowing from a fountain in the rock, and water lilies are floating on the surface of the water below. Pots and baskets of flowers complete the romantic scene, creating the view of a place which, with its charm, helps to stir the deepest feelings. 

Prelude in F major, Op. 28 no. 23
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The penultimate prelude in Chopin’s cycle is numbered among the idyllic group. The cheerful mood, simple melody and short duration help to forge an ephemeral, oneiric impression. The dream is short-lived, but filled with sweetness and charm. The repeated melodic figures in the piano’s high registers evoke the delicate stream from Spies’s illustration. 

Prelude in D minor, Op. 28 no. 24, from 'Frédéric Chopin, Les 24 Préludes' (1912) by Robert SpiesThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Prelude in D minor, Op. 28 no. 24

The last scene in the cycle is perhaps the most dramatic of all: we observe a battlefield on which horrific events are taking place. Naked warriors armed with swords are fighting each other, striving to climb to the top of a hill. 

Yet besides the two clashing groups killing each other in cold blood, there appears to be someone else in the arena of battle. It is a Force Majeure that hurls lightning bolts at the rebellious people, punishing them for their fratricidal battle. The fury of the gods is more powerful than human evil. There are no victors in this battle. 

Prelude in D minor, Op. 28 no. 24
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Prelude No. 24 stands apart: according to oral tradition, Chopin composed it, like the famous ‘Revolutionary’ Etude Op. 10 No. 12, under the sway of the shocking events connected to the defeat of the November Uprising in Poland. Hence Spies’s vision of battle could have been inspired by those assumptions. The work is in D minor, which the Romantics regarded as the key of death. It is full of drama, menace and revolt. The work’s emotional charge is like nothing else that the composer wrote. 

The slowly closing curtain obscures the vision of a battle lost, presaging the closure of the cycle of images and sounds to which we have been witness. It is a tragic finale to the tale – both Spies’s and Chopin’s. 

Credits: Story

Scenario and text: Łukasz Kaczmarowski

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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