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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: Polonaises, Vol. 2
American Record Guide
Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Polonaises Vol. 2
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 childhood.
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
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 its place.
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
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 weak to play or to teach and dependent on the generosity of others
for subsistence. He died there on 17th October, 1849.
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 ball-room 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.
The three Polonaises published as Opus 71 are
all early works. The first, in D minor, was probably written in 1825, and the
second and third in 1828. All three were published posthumously in Berlin in
1855. The first Polonaise of all is the Polonaise in G minor, BI 1, written
in 1817 and published with the help Canon Cybulski of the Church of our Lady
in Warsaw, a family friend. The printed dedication is to Countess Victoria Skarbek,
the wife of Chopin’s godfather, Count Fryderyk Skarbek. The composer’s father
had served as tutor to the Skarbeks and married a poor relation of the family.
Count Skarbek did much to advance Chopin’s early career in Warsaw as the Polish
Mozart. The derivative B flat major Polonaise, BI 3, of the same year, only
remarkable for the age of the composer and his subsequent achievement, was first
published in 1947.
In 1821 Chopin wrote a Polonaise in A flat, BI
5, which he dedicated to his eccentric teacher, the Bohemian violinist Adalbert
Zywny, as a birthday present. It was followed in 1822 by a Polonaise in G sharp
minor, BI 6, dedicated to a family friend, Madame Du Pont. A further work in
the form, the Polonaise in B flat minor, BI 13, based on Rossini’s La gazza
ladra, performed in Warsaw in the same year, was written in 1826 and dedicated
to his schoolfriend Wilus Kolberg. The series of early Polonaises comes to an
end with the G flat major Polonaise of 1829, BI 36, first published in 1870.
The Grande Polonaise in E flat, Opus 22, was written
in Vienna, where Chopin spent a disappointing winter in 1830, before leaving
for Paris. Originally for piano and orchestra, the work was later augmented
by an introductory Andante spianato for piano alone, and later performed by
the composer as a solo piano work. It was published in Paris in 1836 by Schlesinger
with a dedication to Baroness d’Est.
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
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
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. 2