Piano Music Playlists, Biographies and Resources
Chopin was unique among composers of the highest achievement and influence in that he wrote all his works, with the merest handful of exceptions, for the solo piano. Leaving Warsaw, which at the time offered only restricted musical possibilities, and living most of his adult life in Paris, he acquired a reputation as a pianist of exceptional poetic expression, despite a career that, unlike those of such contemporaries as Sigismund Thalberg (1820–71) and Liszt, largely avoided public appearances. Although he was not the founder of any compositional school, his daring and innovative harmony, complete understanding of the piano and its sonorities, development of Polish genre, such as the mazurka and polonaise, as well as ‘narrative’ forms such as the ballade, all had a profound influence on many composers. The contrast between his personal sensitivity and apparent fragility and the expressive drive and ardour of many of his compositions has contributed to a popular image of the composer as a pallid and otherworldly Romantic, an impression intensified by his early death from tuberculosis. Yet, during his 39 years, he wrote a body of music for the piano that defined the technique of the instrument, expanded its expressive world, and has never disappeared from recital programmes.
Chopin was born on 1 March 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw. His father was of French origin, his mother Polish. From an early age, his extraordinary ability on the piano was obvious, and although he had some lessons, he developed his very individual approach to the instrument largely by himself, away from any rigid school or method. At this early stage he also became familiar with Polish folk music, which was to have a profound impact on his mature compositions. Chopin did study composition for a number of years with Józef Elsner during his time at the Warsaw Conservatory. For Elsner, Chopin wrote his first piano sonata (1828), although it became clear that his talent was mainly to express itself in smaller, freer musical forms. The brilliant rondos and variations were written at this time, and would have provided Chopin with impressive concert pieces. The only pieces Chopin wrote for the very public medium of piano and orchestra also date from these years, including his two piano concertos, which he played with great success in Warsaw in 1830. The concertos have sometimes been criticized for the imbalance between the solo part and that of the orchestra, which is certainly subsidiary, but they contain marvellously inventive and expressive piano writing, beautiful melodies and, in the finales, lively Polish folk tunes.
After a tour of Europe taking in Dresden, Prague and Vienna, in September 1831 Chopin arrived in Paris, then the capital of the piano-playing world. The composer gave his first Paris concert early in 1832, and it was not long before he became an important figure in the musical scene. Among the musicians he met were Liszt, Berlioz and Mendelssohn, and he also moved in literary circles that included Heinrich Heine and Honoré de Balzac. Many significant works date from the early 1830s: the Études op. 10 (completed in 1831) and op. 25 (1831–36), and the G minor Ballade, which Schumann described as the ‘most spirited and daring’ of Chopin’s early works.
With the two sets of studies that make up the 24 Études Chopin encapsulated the virtuoso technique of the Romantic piano, each piece already a demonstration of musical and technical mastery rather than a lesson in how to achieve it. There had already been sets of studies prompted by the rise of the piano as a virtuoso solo instrument, notably the Gradus ad Parnassum (‘Steps to Parnassus’) of Muzio Clementi (1752–1832), the studies of Johann Baptist Cramer (1771–1858) and the exercises of Czerny, but Chopin’s were a new departure in their combination of musical and poetic interest with technical demands: they stand as complete concert pieces, and might easily have carried titles descriptive of their differing moods and atmospheres. Yet in each study a technical element – widespread arpeggios, double notes (thirds, sixths or octaves), rapid left-hand figures – forms the underlying texture out of which each piece develops.
Musically, the studies both look back to the Baroque preludes of J. S. Bach in the first of op. 10, albeit in radically expanded keyboard textures, and also anticipate the chromaticism of Wagner, notably in the E flat minor study of op. 10. In mood they cover a wide range: serene beauty and lyricism (the studies in E major, op. 10, and A flat major, op. 25), mercurial lightness (G flat major, op. 10, F minor, op. 25), and turbulent heroism (C minor, op. 12, A minor, op. 25). With these two sets of studies, the first begun when he was only 19, Chopin defined piano playing and set challenges that pianists must confront even today.
Chopin’s four Ballades are among the larger-scale works that he wrote primarily for himself. The First Ballade was composed in 1834 or 1835 and has an improvisatory feel to it, without ever rambling aimlessly. It starts with a solemn passage in octaves, a curtain-raiser to the drama that follows. The ballade is based on two contrasting tunes. The first is a rather hesitant waltz in the minor, the melody highlighted by a simple, syncopated accompaniment. Chopin toys dreamily with this theme before the mood changes to one of agitation.
A gentle figure in the left hand, like a horn call, leads to the second tune, in the major. On its first appearance it is lyrical, almost wistful; again, all the emphasis is on the tune, the accompaniment lightly etched in. A brief allusion to the first theme leads to a complete transformation of the second. Crashing chords and a wide-ranging accompaniment mark the first fortissimo outburst. Dazzling fireworks, rising rapidly through nearly four octaves, are followed by a repeat of the virile theme, still fortissimo but now at the lower pitch of its first appearance. The tentative first theme recurs for the last time, picking up strength as it leads into the coda.
In 1836 Chopin met the novelist George Sand (her real name was Aurore Dudevant), who became the object of his most enduring love affair. Their relationship lasted for almost a decade from 1838, and it coincided with Chopin’s most musically productive years. The 24 Preludes op. 28 were completed during a holiday Chopin spent with Sand in Majorca during the winter of 1838–39; their form testifies to Chopin’s reverence for J. S. Bach – in number they relate to Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, and like Bach’s set they follow a strict (though different) key scheme. By the end of the 1830s Chopin had written three of his four scherzos, two of the Ballades and the Second Sonata, as well as several sets of waltzes, nocturnes, mazurkas and polonaises.
Chopin continued his relationship with Sand until 1847 – although at some point it apparently became purely platonic – spending the summers at Sand’s residence in Nohant and the winters in Paris. He now played only for private gatherings (often at aristocratic salons), but despite the advances of illness he continued to compose and teach. The fourth Ballade (F minor, 1842) encapsulates the mature style of these last years. Other works from the 1840s include the idyllic Berceuse (1843), the very original Polonaise-Fantasy, op. 61 (1846), and the Cello Sonata, op. 65 (1846), one of the very few works not for solo piano. Chopin’s break with Sand coincided with a decline in his health, and in the last two years of his life he composed little. A visit to England and Scotland in the summer of 1848, when he again appeared in public as a pianist, only worsened his health, and in November of that year he returned to Paris. The composer died tragically young on 17 October 1849 in Paris, at 12 Place Vendôme.
The attempt to describe and recreate Chopin’s style of playing has been a controversial subject, often relying on anecdote and subjective impressions. Many of his contemporaries tried to define the effect his playing could have and commentators agreed that Chopin achieved his impact at the piano more through subtle gradation of sound and rhythmic freedom (‘rubato’) rather than by force or brilliance. Above all, Chopin valued beauty of tone (he encouraged his pupils to hear good singers, and then ‘sing’ through the piano). In the few written notes he left towards a piano method he also stressed suppleness and a natural approach to the keyboard, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of the hands, a far cry from the rigid technique previously taught. Heine summed up Chopin’s art by writing that ‘With Chopin I forget altogether his mastery of the piano, and sink into the sweet abyss of his music …’.
Chopin’s early sets of variations, written as public display pieces, are close to the virtuoso styles of composer-pianists such as Ignaz Moscheles (1794–1870). Another composer-pianist of importance was Field, whose piano nocturnes formed a prototype for Chopin’s own, with their flowing left-hand accompaniment and extended ‘vocal’ melodic style; Chopin’s long, developing melodies in these pieces also recreate on the piano the bel canto style of Bellini’s operas. Other influences that can be traced include J.S. Bach, whose preludes and fugues Chopin knew by heart, and Mozart. Polish folk styles were also influential. Yet the originality of Chopin’s harmony, form and piano textures goes beyond any amalgam of outside influences.
Chopin’s music in turn was to influence many later composers: his very chromatic harmonies anticipate Liszt and Wagner, while his piano style had a distinct effect on the textures of Claude Debussy’s (1862–1918) earlier piano pieces, and on the conception of some of his later works (Debussy’s own set of 12 Études is dedicated ‘à la mémoire de Frédéric Chopin’). Similarly, the early preludes and études of Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) are close in style to Chopin. Among Polish composers, Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) began by writing Chopinesque preludes and studies, before developing a more personal style.
Ballades, Murray Perahia (Sony SK)
Fryderyk Francisek Chopin (Frédéric François) (Sho-pan, Fri-drikh Fran’-zhek [Fra-da-rek’ Fran-swa’])
(Updated extract from The Classical Music Encyclopedia, Edited by Stanley Sadie, Foreword by Vladimir Ashekenazy), Flame Tree Publishing, new edition 2014). Available in all good bookstores, on Amazon and our own website (with free shipping) here.