Chopin’s birthday

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born on this day in 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, a village in the Duchy of Warsaw. He left Poland when he was 20 and never returned. He settled in Paris for the rest of his life. His heart was returned to Poland when he died.

He is, dare I say it, one of the greatest composers for the piano ever, and he wrote some of the most arresting, absorbing, sublime and touching music for the instrument, music which has become part of the pianist’s standard repertoire and is regularly performed around the world by pianists amateur and professional. It is also some of the most difficult music in the repertoire, yet it is wonderful to play because, as a pianist himself, he knew what he was writing, so to speak.

Chopin “highlights”:

The Nocturnes: as I said in an earlier post (Must Plays for Pianists), the Nocturnes are amongst his most exquisite miniatures for piano, and are some of the most charming and expressive pieces he wrote.

The Études, Opus 10 and 25: Chopin took the student study, a genre developed by earlier composers such as Clementi and Czerny, and elevated it to a concert piece while retaining the crucial attributes of the form – that it is intended to practice specific technique or techniques. There is huge variety of mood, texture, sound and technical difficulties throughout the two opuses; some are very famous, others less so. Here is Sokolov in one of my favourites, and the first Étude by Chopin I learnt:

The Mazurka and the Polonaise: peasant and folk music from his homeland, like the Études, Chopin elevated both forms into refined, drawing room music. He gave the Waltz the same treatment: these are not pieces to dance to, but to perform and enjoy, in the salon or at home, amongst friends. The Mazurka in F minor, Opus 68, No. 4 is one of the most beautiful and poignant pieces Chopin wrote, with the ambiguous direction in the score regarding the repeat: ‘D.C. al segno senza fine‘. In effect, the keep repeating and eventually fade away to nothing). My teacher told me she “never teaches” this piece because it is so special. Here is Ashkenazy:

Vladimir Ashkenazy – Chopin: Mazurka No.51 in F minor Op.68 No.4 – Revised version

The ‘infamous’ Marche Funèbre from the B-flat minor Sonata. Much has been written and posited about this work, many commentators suggesting that Chopin wrote it with intimations of his own death in mind. In fact, it was composed some years before he conceived the Sonata, and he then included it in the work. Played well it is grandiose and soaring, its darkness offset by the trio with its beautiful cantabile melody.

The Ballades. Chopin ‘invented’ the Ballade, deriving it from its poetic and vocal cousins, and was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece. It was later taken up by composers such as Liszt and Brahms. The Ballades are innovative in form in that they cannot be placed in any other form, for example, Sonata form. Despite sharing the same title, each is highly distinct, with its own character, though all share certain attributes, such as the clever use of “lost” or “ambiguous” keys, exquisite delayed gratification through unresolved harmonies, contrasting, climactic passages, and moments of pure romanticism. The structure of the pieces does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds. (The Third, for example, has a “ticking clock” motif which brings to mind a lovely image of Chopin working at Nohant, while an elegant carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece, perhaps reminding him, poignantly, of the passing of time.)

Chopin and me:

Hearing English pianist John Lill play the B-flat minor Sonata on the Southbank, circa 1980. A highly emotional experience (Lill was in tears at the close of the work) and the first time I’d seen red roses thrown onto the stage at the end of a concert.

Visiting Chopin’s frugal accommodation at the monastery in Valldemossa, where Chopin and Sand spent their ill-starred holiday in 1838 (documented in Sand’s book A Winter in Majorca). The museum there contains some touching memorabilia – a lock of Chopin’s hair, letters and manuscripts.

Hearing Chopin’s music played on a piano which belonged to him when he visited England in 1848, held in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands. The programme – the Opus 55 Nocturnes and the Sonata in B minor. That same day, in the evening at the Royal Festival Hall, I heard Nelson Freire play the B minor sonata on a modern concert Steinway – the difference was extraordinary, yet it was clearly the same work.

Learning to play some of the Études, and feeling I had finally “arrived” as a pianist. This sense of having entered a rather exclusive “pianistic club” was enhanced further when my teacher suggested I should learn some of the Ballades and/or Scherzi.

A handful of my favourite works by Chopin:

Murray Perahia – Impromptu in G-flat Major, Op. 51

Freddy Kempf – Polonaise No. 7 In A Flat Major, Op. 61, “Polonaise-fantaisie”

Martha Argerich – Chopin: Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante in E flat, Op.22

Peter Katin – Waltz No. 5 in A flat major, Op. 42

Truls Mørk – Sonata For Cello And Piano, Op. 65, Allegro Moderato

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this lovely appreciation of Chopin, and sorry for taking a few day to make a comment. Surely, though, there is no need for you to apologise or be tentative : “dare I say it”; and your description “one of the greatest composers for the piano ever”, specifically highlighting the instrument in the context of what you want to say in your blog, is also equally true without the limiting qualification “for the piano”, even though he never wrote a piece without it.

    In my youth, half a century ago, Chopin’s music was still the target for all kinds of criticism from commentators of the stuffy variety who couldn’t cope with Chopin’s intensity of romantic expression. “Sentimentality” and “febrile” (meant derogatively) were words which frequently cropped up. He was also accused of being a mere “miniaturist”, incapable of coping properly with the larger classical forms, in particular sonata form. Commentators questioned his originality, somehow regarding the undoubted influence on Chopin of Italian opera and John Field’s music as a reason for adverse criticism – quite why I’ve never been able to understand. The piano concertos were dismissed as immature “jejune” works, with inadequate orchestration (there is a little bit of truth in that perhaps!).

    Now fortunately, Chopin no longer needs apologia or qualification. What he did for the piano has never been questioned, even by those who felt the need to criticise his idiom, but now his music is appreciated for the utter originality of its tender and impassioned expression, and for its unique position in the development of the romantic movement which followed on from the classicism of the eighteenth century, especially Mozart whom Chopin adored, and in particular for his revolutionary development of harmony. We now marvel at his ability to say so much in pieces lasting only a few minutes and for the coherence of his own individual adaptations of classical forms in his larger pieces. The concertos now have a firm place in the repertoire for what they are: wonderful youthful early flowerings of the mature genius soon to be manifest.

    My own earliest encounter with Chopin was as a small boy hearing one of my elder brothers, twelve years my senior and a very competent amateur pianist, playing the D flat Nocturne Op 27 no 2, a piece which he played, if not every day, three or four times a week for the rest of his life. This piece is exquisite and peerless, and remains my favourite piece of music, not just piano music. More recently, on a Chopin pilgrimage to Poland in his anniversary year 2010, memorable occasions included visiting the Chopin family’s apartment in Warsaw, beautifully and evocatively set out as it might have been in the 1820s, and hearing superb performances of the Polonaise-Fantaisie and the B minor Sonata, at dusk in the open air in one of the courtyards of the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow, by a young pianist Marcin Koziak, who subsequently just missed getting into the final of the 2010 International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

    There are of course numerous recordings, good and bad, of the D flat Nocturne but this marvellous live performance forty years ago by Martha Argerich, at her very best, does not appear to be available anywhere in disc or downloadable form:

Comments are closed.