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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: Polonaises, Vol. 1
"bringing strong nationalistic drama and pathos to each number"
"playing that is rewardingly sensitive to the music's character and range of expression"
Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Polonaises (Complete) Vol. 1
Fryderyk Chopin was born in 1810
at Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw. His father Nicolas Chopin was French by birth
but had moved to Poland to work as an accounting clerk, later serving as tutor
to the Laczynski family and thereafter to the family of Count Skarbek, one of
whose poorer relatives he married. His subsequent career led him to the Warsaw
Lyceum as a respected teacher of French, and it was there that his only son,
Fryderyk, godson of Count Skarbek, whose Christian name he took, passed his
Chopin showed an early talent
for music. He learned the piano from his mother and later with the eccentric
Adalbert Zywny, a violinist of Bohemian origin, and as fiercely Polish as Chopin’s
father. His later training in music was with Jozef Eisner, director of the Warsaw
Conservatory, at first as a private pupil and then as a student of that institution.
In the 1820s Chopin had already
begun to win for himself a considerable local reputation, but Warsaw offered
relatively limited opportunities. In 1830 he set out for Vienna, a city where
he had aroused interest on a visit in the previous year and where he now hoped
to make a more lasting impression. The time, however, was ill-suited to his
purpose. Vienna was not short of pianists, and Thalberg, in particular, had
out-played the rest of the field. During the months he spent there Chopin attracted
little attention, and resolved to move to Paris.
The greater part of Chopin’s professional career was to be
spent in France, and particularly in Paris, where he established himself as
a fashionable teacher and as a performer in the houses of the rich. His playing
in the concert hall was of a style less likely to please than that of the more
flamboyant Liszt or than the technical virtuosity of Kalkbrenner. It was in
the more refined ambience of the fashionable salon that his genius as a composer
and as a performer, with its intimacy, elegance and delicacy of nuance, found
Chopin could not but admire the
ability of Liszt, while not sharing his taste in music. His own background had
been severely classical, based on the music of Bach, Mozart and Haydn, and by
these standards Beethoven, the object of adulation for Liszt and his circle,
seemed on occasion uncouth, by comparison with the classical restraint of Mozart’s
pupil Hummel. At the same time he held reservations about the Bohemian way of
life that Liszt followed, although he himself was to become involved in a liaison
with the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), which lasted for some ten years,
coming to an end two years before his death, while Liszt’s more dramatic association
with another married woman, a less successful blue-stocking, the Comtesse d’Agoult,
forced his withdrawal from Paris society. Both women were to take literary revenge
on their paramours.
Paris was to provide Chopin with
a substantial enough income as a teacher, and there was a ready market for his
compositions, however reluctant he might be to commit them to paper. The country
retreat of George Sand at Nohant provided a change of air that was certainly
healthier for him than that of Mallorca, where, in 1838, the couple spent a
disastrous winter that intensified the weakness of Chopin’s lungs, already affected
by the tuberculosis from which he was to die.
In 1848 political disturbances
in Paris made teaching impossible, and Chopin left the city for a tour of England
and Scotland. By this time his health had deteriorated considerably. At the
end of the year he returned to Paris, now too week to play or to teach and dependent
on the generosity of others for subsistence. He died there on 17th October,
The greater part of Chopin’s music was written for his own
instrument, the piano. At first it seemed that works for piano and orchestra
would be a necessary part of his stock-in-trade, but the position he found for
himself in Paris enabled him to write principally for the piano alone, in a
characteristic idiom that derives some inspiration from contemporary Italian
opera, much from the music of Poland, and still more from his own adventurous
approach to harmony and his own sheer technical ability as a player.
The Polish dance, the Polonaise, found its way from village
to ballroom and thence abroad. In Paris in 1830 Poland was in the news, with
the attempted rising against Russia and its suppression, and things Polish enjoyed
considerable popularity, a fact from which Chopin benefited on his arrival in
the city. As with other relatively trivial dance forms, he was able to raise
the Polonaise to a new level, imparting a degree of complexity and a degree
of feeling that had not always been present in the work of his elders in Warsaw.
His first attempts at the form were at the age of seven and his last in 1846,
three years before his death.
Chopin had written some nine Polonaises before settling in
Paris. These were published posthumously. His first published examples of the
form in Paris were issued in 1836, the year after their completion, with a dedication
to the Bohemian cellist and composer Joseph Dessauer, George Sand’s melancholy
Maître Favilla, a man who seemed to Wagner a hypochondriacal eccentric. Dessauer
had been Chopin’s companion at Carlsbad in the summer of 1835. The Opus 26 Polonaises
are in the melancholy keys of C sharp and E flat minor.
The two Polonaises that make up Opus 40 were published in 1840
by Troupenas, who for the moment replaced Chopin’s usual publisher Schlersinger,
suspected now of duplicity. The first of the pair, in the key of A major, is
among the best known of all, closely rivalled by its C minor companion. The
set was dedicated to Julian Fontana, Chopin’s friend and contemporary at the
Warsaw Conservatory, who had taken refuge first in Hamburg, after the abortive
Polish rising, and then, in 1832, in Paris, afterwards to seek his fortune for
some years in the New World, in New York and in Havana. Fontana helped Chopin
in negotiations with publishers and also as a copyist, serving his friend’s
memory with a posthumous edition of a number of later works, in spite of a measure
of ill-feeling between the two as Chopin prospered and Fontana failed to make
any significant name for himself.
By 1841 Chopin had returned to his earlier publisher Schlesinger,
who issued the F sharp minor Polonaise, Opus 44, in 1841. The Polonaise, which
in passing is transformed into a mazurka, was dedicated to Princess Ludmilla
de Beauveau, sister of Delfina Potocka, whose association with Chopin was once
the subject of gossip from neighbours, and a leading figure in Polish émigré
circles in Paris.
Chopin wrote his A flat major Polonaise, Opus 53, the following
year, with a dedication to the banker August Léo, a man who had earlier been
the object of the composer’s anti-semitic complaints during the traumatic winter
spent with George Sand on the island of Mallorca in 1838-9. Three years later
he wrote his last Polonaise, the remarkable Potonaise-Fantaisie in A flat major,
Opus 61, dedicated to his pupil Madame Veyret. In structural and harmonic terms
the Polonaise looks forward to the music of the future, to territory to be explored
by Wagner and Liszt, and later still by Debussy.
Although the romantic era in its music and its performances
is not so far from our own time, for various reasons we seem to have distanced
ourselves from it. As a consequence, often composers very different from one
another like Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Wagner are brought under the same title
of Romantic Composers. In this context it is quite normal to find Chopin and
Liszt mentioned together as composers of similar style, while there are no two
sound worlds as different from one another as those of Chopin and Liszt. The
conception of the piano sound that Chopin created is based on the model of the
voice. Liszt, on the other hand, fascinated by the development of the modern
piano during his period, challenges the orchestra in an attempt to reproduce
on the piano the richness of the orchestral palette.
It must be among the fondest wishes of any pianist to be able
to have heard Chopin perform his own music. Fortunately there are some recordings
providing indirectly some evidence of this way of approaching the piano. One
may in particular mention the recordings of Raoul von Koczalski who studied
with Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli. It is also enlightening to listen to the recordings
of Cortot, a pupil of Decombes who received precious counsel from Chopin. Further,
Friedman de Pachmann and Paderewski who were not direct descendants of Chopin
were still close enough to his aesthetic conceptions to be able to convey the
spontaneity Chopin is said to have brought to his playing as well as the polyphonic
and rhythmic richness which are so apparent in Chopin’s conception of the piano.
Inspite of the inferior quality of the recordings from the earlier part of this
century, a considerable number of common points are audible in the performances
of these pianists. Notably, a very fine legato, a piano sound that never loses
its roundness since intensity replaces force, the exact feeling of rubato, recognition
of the importance of inner voices and consequently a remarkable sense of polyphony.
Contrary to the popular image of the romantic virtuoso, simplicity and naturalness
remain exemplary in the way these great Chopin interpreters approach music.
It is interesting to note also the evidence left by musicians,
contemporaries of Chopin, and Chopin’s pupils about his interpretations. A perfect
legato drawing its inspiration from bet canto and unimaginable richness intone-colour
were the product of subtle variations in a sound kill of charm and a purity
that lost none of its fullness even in its forte passages. Chopin could not
sound aggressive, especially on the pianos of that period. Berlioz wrote, “To
be able to appreciate Chopin fully, I think one must hear him from close by,
in the salon rather than in a theatre.”
Chopin’s sense of rubato was unrivalled. The temps dérobée
(stolen time) assumed under the hands of the great master its true meaning.
Mikuli gives a description of the rubato as Chopin conceived it, which seems
to be of penetrating clarity. After recalling that Chopin was inflexible in
keeping the tempo and that the metronome was always on his piano, Mikuli explains,
“Even in his rubato, where one hand - the accompanying one - continues to play
strictly in time, the other - the hand which sings the melody - freed from all
metric restraint conveys the true musical expression, impatience, like someone
whose speech becomes fiery with enthusiasm.”
Together with a certain classicism, moderation was the basis
of the world of Chopin. Hence, playing his music on the powerful modern pianos
and in large concert halls is often problematic. One should ideally never go
beyond a limit of sound and keep in mind as the criteria the possibilities of
the human voice. It is therefore better to somewhat reduce sonority without
sacrificing the quality of the sound.
In performing Chopin’s works one should neither try to reconstruct
nor imitate the interpretations of the past which remain unique, but try, with
the help of all the recorded and written material we are lucky to possess, to
penetrate deeper into the musical texts and advance further in the unending
quest for a better understanding of the art of Chopin.
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CHOPIN: Polonaises, Vol. 1