A guide to the composer, his works and the essential recordings
Commentary by Jeremy Nicholas; recommendations by Gramophone
Few composers command such universal love as Chopin; even fewer have such a high proportion of their entire output remaining in the active repertoire. He’s the only great composer whose every work involves the piano – no symphonies, operas or choral works and only a handful of compositions that involve other instruments. He wrote just under 200 works; 169 of these are for solo piano.
More than any other, Chopin is responsible for the development of modern piano technique and style. His influence on succeeding generations of writers of piano music was profound and inescapable. He dreamt up a whole range of new colours, harmonies and means of expression in which he exploited every facet of the new developments in piano construction. The larger keyboard (seven octaves) and improved mechanism opened up new possibilities of musical expression. He possessed an altogether richer and deeper poetic insight than the myriad pianist-composers who flourished during his lifetime.
Chopin was one of the first to write music for the piano in terms of the piano. Beethoven often tried to be orchestral in his piano writing, Schubert to be vocal, whereas Chopin was always completely and convincingly pianistic. Few of his compositions translate successfully to other instruments. Interestingly, this most romantic of Romantic composers disliked the association and this is borne out by the fact that, unlike his contemporaries Schumann and Liszt, his inspiration never came from literature or painting.
Unlike any other great composer, Chopin achieved his claim to immortality not by writing large scale works but in miniatures (the nocturne, prelude, étude, mazurka and so forth) though these frequently encompass emotion of tremendous power. Even his two concertos and three sonatas are really shortish pieces sewn together into larger classical forms, forms which, he realised early on, were not his strength.
He was hypercritical of everything he wrote and what we hear played with such inevitability and apparently effortlessly flowing melody cost him much. George Sand described him going frantic trying to capture on paper what he had in his head, crossing out, destroying, beginning afresh, scratching out once more, re-working a single bar countless times. There are few works which do not seem genuinely inspired. The seemingly inexhaustible variety of moods and ideas, endless supply of beautiful melodies and poised discrimination combine to make his oeuvre one of the high points of human creation.