Dinner Topics for Friday
What we see depends mainly on what we look for.
Chopin: Krakowiak Grand Rondeau
Prelude in C Minor
Chopin 12 Etudes
Frédéric François Chopin or Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin (1 March or 22 February 1810 – 17 October 1849) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist. He is widely considered one of the greatest Romantic composers. Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, a village in the Duchy of Warsaw. A renowned child-prodigy pianist and composer, he grew up in Warsaw and completed his music education there; he composed many of his mature works in Warsaw before leaving Poland in 1830 at age 20, shortly before the November 1830 Uprising.
Following the Russian suppression of the Uprising, he settled in Paris as part of Poland’s Great Emigration. During the remaining 19 years of his life, Chopin gave only some 30 public performances, preferring the more intimate atmosphere of the salon; he supported himself by selling his compositions and teaching piano. After some romantic dalliances with Polish women, including an abortive engagement, from 1837 to 1847 he carried on a relationship with the French writer Amantine Dupin, aka George Sand. For most of his life Chopin suffered from poor health; he died in Paris in 1849 at age 39.
The vast majority of Chopin’s works are for solo piano, though he also wrote two piano concertos, a few chamber pieces and some songs to Polish lyrics. His piano works are often technically demanding, with an emphasis on nuance and expressive depth. Chopin invented the instrumental ballade and made major innovations to the piano sonata, mazurka, waltz, nocturne, polonaise, étude, impromptu, scherzo and prélude.
The great majority of Chopin’s compositions were written for the piano as solo instrument; all of his extant works feature the piano in one way or another. Chopin, according to Arthur Hedley, “had the rare gift of a very personal melody, expressive of heart-felt emotion, and his music is penetrated by a poetic feeling that has an almost universal appeal…. Present-day evaluation places him among the immortals of music by reason of his insight into the secret places of the heart and because of his awareness of the magical new sonorities to be drawn from the piano.”
The first systematic, if imperfect, study of Chopin’s style came in F. P. Laurencin’s 1861 Die Harmonik der Neuzeit. Laurencin concluded that “Chopin is one of the most brilliant exceptional natures that have ever stridden onto the stage of history and life, he is one who can never be exhausted nor stand before a void. Chopin is the musical progone of all progones until now.”
Robert Schumann, speaking of Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor, wrote that “he alone begins and ends a work like this: with dissonances, through dissonances, and in dissonances”, and in Chopin’s music he discerned “cannon concealed amid blossoms”.
According to Tad Szulc, though technically demanding, Chopin’s works emphasize nuance and expressive depth rather than sheer virtuosity. Vladimir Horowitz referred to Chopin as “the only truly great composer for the piano”.
Chopin’s music for the piano combined a unique rhythmic sense (particularly his use of rubato), frequent use of chromaticism, and counterpoint. This mixture produces a particularly fragile sound in the melody and the harmony, which are nonetheless underpinned by solid and interesting harmonic techniques. He took the new salon genre of the nocturne, invented by Irish composer John Field, to a deeper level of sophistication. Three of Chopin’s twenty-one Nocturnes were published only after his death in 1849, contrary to his wishes. He also endowed popular dance forms, such as the Polish mazurek and the Viennese Waltz, with a greater range of melody and expression.
Chopin’s mazurkas, while based somewhat on the traditional Polish dance (the mazurek), were different from the traditional variety in that they were suitable for concerts halls as well as dance settings. With his mazurkas, Chopin brought a new sense of nationalism, which was an idea that other composers writing both at the same time as, and after, Chopin would also incorporate into their compositions. Chopin’s nationalism was a great influence and inspiration for many other composers, especially Eastern Europeans, and he was one of the first composers to clearly express nationalism through his music. Furthermore, he was the first composer to take a national genre of music from his home country and transform it into a genre worthy of the general concert-going public, thereby creating an entirely new genre.
Chopin was the first to write ballades and scherzi as individual pieces. He took the example of Bach’s preludes and fugues and essentially established a new genre with his own Préludes. He reinvented the étude, expanding on the idea and making it into a gorgeous, eloquent and emotional showpiece, and he used his Études to teach his own revolutionary style – for instance playing with the weak fingers (3, 4, and 5) in fast figures (Op. 10, No. 2), playing in octaves (Op. 25, No. 10), and playing black keys with the thumb (Op. 10, No. 5).