Frédéric Chopin – a bicentenary focus

Frédéric Chopin (photo: Tully Potter)Frédéric Chopin (photo: Tully Potter)

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.

The music

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.

The life

1810 The greatest of all Polish composers had a French father, Nicholas, who had gone to Poland  as a young man and become a tutor to the family of Countess Skarbek at Zelazowa Wola. His mother was the Countess’s lady in waiting, herself from Polish nobility. This duel nationality is reflected in Chopin’s music – the epic struggle of the Poles and the refined elegance of the French. Shortly after Frédéric’s birth, the family moved to Warsaw where his father had a teaching post. 

1816 Chopin had his first piano lessons from Adalbert Zwyny, a local all-round musician, and made his public debut at nine.

1825 He became a piano student of Joseph Elsner, director of the Warsaw Conservatory. It’s largely thanks to Elsner and Zwyny that Chopin developed into the original creative force he became: they let him develop in his own way.

1828 A friend of Chopin’s father invited him to Berlin and the following year he gave two concerts in Vienna, including his Variations on Mozart’s "Là ci darem la mano" after which Schumann made his famous judgement: "Hats off, gentlemen! A genius".

1830 The fading attractions of Warsaw, further diminished by his unrequited love of a young singer, persuaded him to leave Poland. Before he left in November, his old teacher Elsner presented him with a silver urn of Polish earth with the admonishment "May you never forget your native land wherever you go, nor cease to love it with a warm and faithful heart." The urn was buried with Chopin when he died.

Despite a Polish revolt against Russian rule soon afterwards, Chopin headed for Vienna (probably he would have been too physically frail to serve in the army in any case).

1831 After some time in Stuttgart, intending to travel to London, he stopped off in Paris. It remained his home for the rest of his life.

1832  His Paris debut in January was not a success. The Parisians did not take to his playing or music immediately and Chopin thought for a time of leaving for America. His destiny was changed by Prince Radziwill who introduced him to the salon of  Baron Jacques de Rothschild. Here, Chopin triumphed and from then on his career as a composer (and highly paid teacher) was a story of unbroken success.

Chopin was a sensitive, fastidious man who never enjoyed exactly robust health. The rich, privileged world of the aristocratic and wealthy salons not only appealed to his snobbish instincts (he liked to mingle with money and beautiful women) but provided the perfect ambience for his music and his particular style of playing. Audiences admired his cantabile (singing) touch. Where Liszt was the thunderous, virtuoso showman, Chopin was the refined, undemonstrative poet, noted for his rubato, the effect whereby notes are not played in strict tempo but subtly lengthened and shortened ‘like a trees’ leaves in the breeze’, as Liszt described it.

1837 His first great love in Paris was the flirtatious daughter of Count Wodzinska. The family put a stop to the affair. His next was perhaps the most unlikely woman of his circle: Aurore Dupin (Mme Dudevant), the radical, free-thinking novelist who called herself George Sand. By no means good-looking (photographs bear witness), she smoked cigars and wore men’s clothing. "What a repellent woman she is," was Chopin’s reaction when he first set eyes on her. "Is she really a woman? I’m ready to doubt it." Nevertheless she exercised a fascination for Chopin and a relationship developed which  lasted for ten years, a mother figure who became the love of his life. One of her personal letters implies that the physical side of their life was embraced less than enthusiastically by the composer.

1838 George Sand travelled to Majorca with her son and daughter and Chopin joined her there. Instead of the paradise they hoped for, it turned into a disaster with inhospitable and antagonistic locals, damp, wet weather and the breakdown of Chopin’s health. He began having haemorrhages and hallucinations and it was only a prompt departure for the mainland that saved his life (he had another haemorrhage in Barcelona).

1839 For the next few years, Chopin was at the height of his creative powers, respected and internationally famous. 

1841 His health deteriorated, becoming more consumptive year by year.

1848 The increasingly-tense relationship with George Sand came to an end. Sand seemed comparatively unaffected; "Chopin", said Liszt "felt and often repeated that in breaking this long affection, this powerful bond, he had broken his life". A Scottish pupil of Chopin, Jane Stirling, persuaded him to make a trip to England and Scotland with her but this and a few fund raising concerts undermined his health further and when he returned to Paris he became a virtual recluse, too weak to compose or teach.

1849 He gave strict instructions that all his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed. Chopin had a good idea of his worth and was determined that only his best work should survive. He died on October 17 from consumption and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery next to his friend Bellini.

The works

Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante in E flat (1830)

The polonaise had long been out of fashion as a dance form when Chopin revived it. He wrote 18, all for piano solo except two: his Introduction and Polonaise brillante (for cello and piano) and this one. It’s a good example of what Chopin was writing at the age of 20, yet this was to be the last of his six compositions using an orchestra. Both parts of the work are heard as often as not as a piano solo these days. The Polonaise (and you’ll hear within a few bars why it’s called grand  and brillant) is preceded by the nocturne-like Andante (“It makes one think of a lake on a calm bright summer day,” wrote one commentator). Spianato? Spiana is Italian for a carpenter’s plane and so it becomes an apt description for “planed, level, smooth” music.

Recommended recordings

Richter; LSO / Kondrashin (BBC Legends) Buy CD from Amazon

Arrau; LPO / Inbal (Philips) Download from Passionato Buy CD from Amazon

 

Four Ballades (1836-42)

“Arias without words”, “poetic stories” – these are the best ways to describe the four masterpieces for solo piano that Chopin called Ballades. Almost every pianist has (or has had) them in his or her repertoire: No 1 in G minor (Chopin’s own favourite) and No 3 in A flat (which Sir Winston Churchill called “the rocking-horse piece” – he was particularly fond of it) are the most heard. No 2 in F has been interpreted as the “struggle between a wild flower and the wind”, while the pianist John Ogdon thought No 4 in F minor was the most powerful of all Chopin’s compositions. Its technical difficulties apparently infuriated Chopin’s contemporaries.

Recommended recordings

Perahia (Sony Classical) Buy CD from Amazon

Kissin (RCA Red Seal) Buy CD from Amazon 

Hough (Hyperion) Download or buy CD from Hyperion

Cortot (Naxos) Buy CD from Amazon

 

Etudes (1829-34)

There are numerous books of piano etudes (studies), each study devoted to one aspect of technique (the execution of scales, octaves, arpeggios etc). Most of them are boring beyond belief. All that changed with Chopin’s two sets of 12 studies (Opp 10 and 25 as they’re known in the trade) which lifted the ordinary étude into the realm of poetry. Perhaps the most loved is Op 10 No 3 in E (Tristesse), a study to develop expression, turned into a song in 1939 (“So Deep is the Night”). The best-known is a study for the left hand – Op 10 No 12 in C minor (the Revolutionary, composed in 1831 under the impression that Warsaw had been captured by the Russians) which a generation of young music lovers first heard played by Sparky (or was it his magic piano?). But if you dip in anywhere you will come up with a treasure – Op 25 No 1 in A flat (known as the Aeolian Harp), Op 25 No 11 (Winter Wind), for instance, ot the two studies in G flat, Op 10 No 5 (Black Keys) and Op 25 No 9 (Butterfly). Leopold Godowsky went a step further and composer 53 Studies on Chopin Etudes, works of incredible complexity. One of them, which he jokingly called Badinage, is a study made up of the two G flat studies played simultaneously!

Recommended recordings

Perahia (Sony Classical) Buy CD from Amazon

Pollini (DG) Buy CD from Amazon

 

Fantasie in F minor (1841)

This work, as much as any other, displays every facet of Chopin’s genius. Written at the height of his creative powers, is said to depict (and have been inspired by) a quarrel and reconciliation between Chopin and his paramour George Sand. But everyone will read what he wants into this marvelous work for solo piano, by turns heroic. Melancholic and tender.

Recommended recording

Kissin (RCA Red Seal) Buy CD from Amazon

 

Fantaisie-impromptu (Impromptu No 4 in C sharp minor) (1835)

This is among the most popular of all piano works, yet Chopin himself thought so little of it that he kept it in his bottom drawer and did not permit its publication (it appeared only after his death). It’s the earliest of the three other impromptus which were published. The middle section (trio) provided two American songwriters with a hit tune in 1919 – “I’m always chasing rainbows”.

Recommended recording

Perahia (Sony) Buy CD from Amazon

 

Nocturnes (1827-46)

Here is another musical form developed by Chopin. The term nocturne was first coined (in musical terms) by the Irish composer and pianist John Field in 1814, but Chopin “invested it with an elegance and depth of meaning which had never been given to it before”, as the critic James Huneker wrote. The most popular (probably the most popular of all of Chopin’s compositions) is No 2 in E flat, Op 9 No 2. But, like the Etudes, whichever one you alight on will be an exquisite gem – and quite unlike the previous one. 

Recommended recordings

Pires (DG) Buy CD from Amazon

D’Ascoli (Athene) Buy CD from Amazon

Rubinstein (Naxos) Download from Passionato

 

Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor (1830)

Chopin composed two piano concertos. Both date from early in his career (1829 and 1830). This one in E minor was the second to be written but the first to be published and so designated No 1. In a letter to his friend Titus Wojciechowski, Chopin described the slow movement (Romanza) as, “intended to convey the impression one receives when gazing on a beautiful landscape that evokes in the soul beautiful memories – for example, on a fine moonlit spring night.” The first performance took place in Chopin’s home city of Warsaw on October 11, 1830. It was a huge success: “I was not in the least nervous,” wrote Chopin, “But played as I do when I am by myself.” It was the last time he played in Poland. Three weeks later, Chopin left, never to return. He was then just 20.

Recommended recordings

Pollini; Philharmonia / Kletzki (EMI) Download from Passionato

Argerich; Montreal SO / Dutoit (EMI) Download from Passionato

Rubinstein; LAPO / Wallenstein, NBC SO / Steinberg (Naxos) Download from Amazon Buy CD from Presto Classical

 

Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor (1829-30)

Introduced by Chopin in Warsaw on March 17, 1830, the Second Concerto’s slow movement (Larghetto) is “possibly on of the greatest pages ever written by Chopin” according to one critic. It was inspired by Constantia Gladowska, a young voice pupil with whom Chopin was madly in love. The concerto itself is dedicated to Countess Delphine Potocka, among the very few people to whom Chopin dedicated more than one piece (her name also appears on the ”Minute” Waltz) and it was she who sang to Chopin on his death-bed.

Recommended recording

Rubinstein; Philharmonia / Giulini (BBC Legends) Buy CD from Amazon

 

Polonaises (1817-46)

The first two of Chopin’s polonaises (officially No 13 in G minor and No 14 in B flat) were written in 1817 when Chopin was only seven. The character and rhythm of this old Polish dance form attracted Chopin throughout his life and the later polonaises reflect thee hapless condition of his native land, full of defiance and pride. No 3 in A (Military) is one of Chopin’s best-known works, closely followed No 6 in A flat (Heroic) with a “cavalry charge” in the middle. You should also try the Polonaise-fantaisie in A flat, a more extended piece in which Chopin strives to develop the form. Many consider this to be among his most profound and personal creations.

Recommended recordings

Rubinstein (RCA) Download from Amazon

Pollini (DG) Download from Amazon and buy CD from Amazon

 

24 Preludes (1939)

The prelude was originally an introductory piece of music (the opening movement of a suite, say). Chopin liked to create new forms from old titles and these preludes preface nothing – they are their own self-contained thoughts. There is one written in each major and minor key. Many were composed at Valdemossa in Majorca where Chopin and George Sand spent a few unhappy months. Look out for No 7 in A, No 15 in D flat (Raindrop) and No 20 in C minor (Rachmaninov and Busoni each wrote sets of variations on this, and Barry Manilow used it as the basis for his song “Could it be magic?”). Nos 4 in E minor and 6 in B minor were played on the organ at Chopin’s funeral.

Recommended recordings

Argerich (DG) Download from Passionato

Sokolov (Opus 111) Download from Amazon Buy CD from Amazon

 

Four Scherzi (1832-42)

It was Haydn who developed the stately ¾ minuet into the scherzo (which means, literally, “joke” in Italian); Beethoven’s scherzos are more bustling, humorous affairs; to Mendelssohn, the scherzo was synonymous with a light-hearted caprice. Chopin saw the scherzo as “breathings of stifled rage and of suppressed anger” according to Liszt. The opening pages of No 1 in B minor demonstrate just that, though its middle section could hardly offer a greater contrast. No 2 in B flat minor is the best known (at one time nicknamed The Governess’s Scherzo, even if the music must have been way above the capabilities of most governesses). No 3 in C sharp minor has a central section that might remind you of a hymn played on the organ. No 4 in E is glittering. Intense and passionate. 

Recommended recording

Pogorelich (DG) Buy CD from Amazon

 

Piano Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, “Funeral March” (1939)

One of the priceless gems of music, this is known as the Funeral March Sonata because of its celebrated and sombre third movement, played at every state funeral (usually by a military band). It’s followed by a brief final movement in which the whirling right hand plays in unison with the left to create the impression (according to Anton Rubinstein) of “night winds sweeping over churchyard graves”. There is something doom-laden and threatening about the opening two movements as well (just listen to the opening bars of the Sonata and the anxiety behind the first theme). Strangely, though, the last thing you ever feel after listening to the work is depressed. Just the opposite in fact.

Recommended recordings

Argerich (DG) Download from Passionato Buy CD from Amazon

Trpceski (EMI) Buy CD from Amazon Download from Amazon 

 

Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor (1844)

A flawed masterpiece compared with No 2 (the earlier Sonata No 1 in C minor is far inferior to both and rarely played). The first movement is overflowing with ideas, though the scherzo (which follows) is succinct and graceful; the nocturne-like slow movement is one of weakest but has the effect of building anticipation for the gloriously jubilant finale (a fast rondo) that brings the work to a thrilling conclusion. This is one of the most difficult of all Chopin movements to play and is certainly one of the most effective.

Recommended recordings

Argerich (EMI) Download from Passionato

Kissin (RCA) Download or buy from Amazon

 

Waltzes

Johann Strauss I was at the peak of his popularity when Chopin arrived in Vienna in 1829. Though Chopin thought those composed by the Strauss family quite vulgar – “I have acquired nothing particularly Viennese,” he wrote, “and I still cannot play waltzes” – he was nevertheless inspired by the form. His efforts are Parisian more than Viennese, “never mant to be danced by ordinary mundane creatures of flesh and blood,” as one commentator put it. Listen out for the Grande valse brillante in E flat, Op 18, the one in A minor, Op 34 No 2 (said to be Chopin’s favourite), the A flat Waltz Op 42 (arguably the best and certainly the most difficult to play) and of course the Minute Waltz. Impossible to play in 60 seconds, even if you rush the more lyrical middle section (which would be criminal). On average it takes about 90 seconds – the shortest (hence the French description “minute”) and most popular of Chopin’s waltzes.

Recommended recordings

Rubinstein (RCA) Download from Amazon Buy CD from Amazon

Lipatti (EMI) Download from Passionato Buy CD from Amazon

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