The news was so big it rated a headline in the New York Times in May of 2002: “Deciphered: A Demonic Prelude by an Ailing Chopin.”
It was Chopin’s “Devil’s Trill.”
That’s the description musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg suggested for a Chopin sketch scholars had known about for decades. But now, after twenty years of study, Kallberg had painstakingly reconstructed its 33 measures. The result was described as “a lyrical avalanche of ornamentation, bordering on cacophony, which suddenly evaporates into darkness and exhaustion.”
The sketch was intended to be the 14th of the 24 preludes in Op. 28. It appears to be an experiment in building a coherent piece out of a single continuous ornament. According to Kallberg, “In the lower register of the piano, you hear trills from beginning to end. Over the top of that, in the upper part of the piano, there is a constant rocking triplet motion.”
The overall effect suggests possession…and madness. Add to it that it was written during Chopin’s ill-fated sojourn in Majorca with George Sand, when he was desperately ill and seeing phantoms rise out of the piano…and the “Devil’s Trill” title is self-evident.
But not everyone buys that Kallberg’s reconstruction was Chopin’s intention. Just read the comments on a YouTube video: “The score looks so vague to me that half of the harmonies can only be complete guesswork. Sounds like utter nonsense.” Another: “This Sounds like Bartok.” Another: “Not Chopin!” To which the musicologist replies: “It's a first stab at something that didn't quite work. Yes, he just put it aside. It's interesting, though, that he kept it." - Frank Dominguez