Sunday, July 8, 2012

Chopin's Prelude and the Prometheus, or Music vs. Aliens (Vol. 3, No. 8)

Chopin Portrait, Vintage Postcard from Maja Trochimczyk's Collection
Of all the preludes by Chopin, the one in D-flat Major, op. 28 no. 15, known as the "Raindrop" prelude, has attracted the most attention - among the poets and filmmakers, at least. . . I think it is because it is relatively easy to play; even I could learn it! And I was known in my music-making days as having two left hands on the keyboard. ..

In any case, this sublime melody (or rather, the sostenuto themes appearing in the A-sections of the ABA form) has recently been used in a new sci-fi film by Ridley Scott, "Prometheus." This pre-quel to the alien trilogy, focuses on the attempts of totally evil, poisonous alien creatures, both grossly slimy and supremely intelligent, to take over and destroy humanity.

Apparently, Ridley Scott has loved this melody for a long time and decided to use it both in the film and in the final credits as a symbol of what matters. Chopin's miniature becomes here the most delicate sign of our shared humanity, threatened and attacked by unbearable screeches of the alien life-killing life forms. [An account loosely based on an article in the Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2012]


Let's listen to the Prelude played by pianists who did not have two left hands:

  • Arthur Rubinstein: Prelude in D-flat Major, op. 28 no. 15, a tad too fast to my taste...
  • Martha Argerich: Prelude in D-flat Major, op. 28 no. 15, with amazing rubatos!
  • Maurizio Pollini; Prelude in D-flat Major op. 28 no. 15, this one is a concert encore, a great way to end an evening...

  • ________________________________

    Chopin's Room at Valldemosa, Mallorca, Vintage Postcard, Maja Trochimczyk Collection
    The "Raindrop" Prelude has been surrounded by stories and legends since its creation. Chopin wrote some of it during the fateful stay in the Monastery on the island of Mallorca, the city of Valldemosa in 1834. He got really sick and was suffering from hallucinations, nausea, and fevers. Some modern scholars claim that these were the symptoms of his poisoning with carbon monoxide, from a heater he had in the closed space of the cold cell where he was composing all day.

    George Sand wrote in her Histoire de ma vie that Chopin had a very peculiar vision or dream, while playing the piano and working on this prelude:

    He saw himself drowned in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might – and he was right to – against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds."


    Before the cosmic battle of Ridley Scott's aliens, film-makers used the Prelude in a variety of contexts, as listed on Wikipedia by anonymous sribes (thanks for all the work!):

    • In the 1979 James Bond movie Moonraker, villain Sir Hugo Drax plays the Raindrop Prelude in his chateau on a grand piano when Bond comes to visit.
  • The raindrop prelude is also featured on the soundtrack of the 1996 Australian film Shine about the life of pianist David Helfgott.

  • The prelude appears in the "Crows" section of Akira Kurosawa's film Dreams.

  • The prelude plays a pivotal role in the 1990 film version of Captain America. The piece is played at a childhood piano recital by the young prodigy who would become the Red Skull, and a recording of this incident is later played by the titular hero to delay the now-70-year-old Red Skull from detonating a nuclear bomb that would destroy all of Southern Europe, the detonator for which was also concealed in a grand piano.

  • The dramatic bridge of the prelude was used in an elaborate pre-release commercial for the video game Halo 3 as a part of the $10 million "Believe" ad campaign. The piece plays over close-up footage of a highly detailed diorama of an historically pivotal battle in the game's universe.

  • The piece appears in the John Woo film Face/Off in a seduction scene between Castor Troy and Eve Archer.

  • The prelude appears in the fantasy video game Eternal Sonata, where Chopin's music plays a major part.

  • The piece is studied as a 'Set Work' in the English exam board Edexcel's GCSE in Music.

  • The piece is used in the film Margin Call, as Kevin Spacey's character sleeps in his office but is then woken up by the prelude's climax.

  • The prelude is used in the English trailer for the Japanese film Battle Royale.

  • In addition, a music blog, The World's Greatest Music, mentions yet another TV appearance of Chopin's Prelude, in the credits of a 1980s show, Howard's End.

  • If you know of more ways to "kill" this perfectly beautiful piece of music, let me know...


    The Prelude No. 15 has long been a favorite of poets. In the anthology "Chopin with Cherries," there are no fewer than ten poems inspired by or mentioning this particular prelude. Christine Klocek-Lim goes back to the story by George Sand.  

    Prelude in Majorca  

    Christine Klocek-Lim  

    The wet day carried rain into night
    as he composed alone.
    With each note he wept
    and music fell on the monastery,
    each note a cry for breath
    his lungs could barely hold.
    Even as his world
    dissolved around him
    “into a terrible dejection,”
    he played that old piano in Valldemosa
    until tuberculosis didn’t matter;
    until the interminable night
    became more than a rainstorm,
    more than one man sitting alone
    at a piano, waiting
    “in a kind of quiet desperation”
    for his lover to come home
    from Palma.
    When Aurore finally returned
    “in absolute dark”
    she said his “wonderful Prelude,”
    resounded on the tiles of the Charterhouse
    like “tears falling upon his heart.”
    Perhaps she is right.
    Or perhaps Chopin “denied
    having heard” the raindrops.
    Perhaps in the alone
    of that torrential night
    he created his music simply
    to hold himself inside life
    for just one note longer.

    Prelude No.15 in D-flat Major, Op. 28. Quotes from Histoire de Ma Vie (History of My Life, vol. 4) by George Sand (Aurore, Baronne Dudevant).


    Another contemporary poet, Carrie Purcell thought about her music lessons...  

    Prelude in D-Flat Major, Opus 28, No. 15  

    Carrie A. Purcell  

    You have to
    my teacher said
    think of that note like rain,
    steady, but who,
    my teacher said
    wants to hear only that?
    On Majorca in a monastery
    incessant coughing
    covered by incessant composition
    and everywhere dripping
    sotto voce
    move the rain lower
    let it fill the space left in your lungs
    let it triumph
    We die so often
    we don’t call it dying anymore