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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: Scherzi and Impromptus (Complete)
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Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1847)
Impromptus / Scherzi / Allegro de Concert
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 Thaiberg, 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
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 Impromptu, in title at least, was typical
of its period in its suggestion of romantic abandon and freedom. In common with
much else in European music, it had its origins in Prague with the publication
in 1822 of Impromptus by Jan Vaclav Vorišek, followed five years later by the
Bohemian-born composer Marschner. Schubert’s publisher in the 1820s, Tobias
Haslinger, found the title commercially attractive, and thereafter the name
endured, descriptive of an independent piano piece, lacking the formality of
a sonata movement.
The four Scherzi explore a new form of piano composition.
Originally a musical joke, with Beethoven the scherzo had come to replace the
more limited minuet as the third movement of a symphony. Chopin, however, made
of it an independent virtuoso form. He completed his first Scherzo in 1832 and
dedicated it to Tomas Albrecht, wine-merchant and Saxon consul in Paris and
a good friend, who was present at the composer’s death-bed in 1847. Two emphatic
chords summon attention before the impetuous principal material of the piece
makes its appearance, with its contrasting B major trio section, a Polish folk-song
transformed into a Berceuse. The second Scherzo, Opus 31 in B flat minor and
D flat major, was written in 1837 and dedicated to a pupil, Countess Adèle von
Fürstenstein. Once again the Scherzo opens with a call to attention, this time
ominously quiet, until the answering burst of sound, followed by a display of
agility, leading to a central oasis of general A major tranquillity that is
not without passing excitement. The third Scherzo, in the key of C sharp minor,
belied in its opening, was written in 1839 and dedicated to his favourite pupil,
Adolf Gutmann, one of the few professional pupils that he took during a teaching
career largely devoted to the interests of rich amateurs. Marked Presto con
fuoco, the Scherzo embarks on a series of open octaves with which and with wider
intervals Gutmann would be well able to cope and includes a central D flat
major passage in contrast. The last of these pieces, the Scherzo in E major,
Opus 54, composed in 1842 and published with a dedication to his pupil Countess
Jeanne de Caraman, after its introduction, moves into the fairy scherzo territory
of Mendelssohn, a delicately nuanced conclusion to the series, ending with an
Chopin wrote his first Impromptu in 1837, the
year of his first liaison with George Sand, dedicating the work, as he so often
did, to one of his society pupils, the Countess Caroline de Lobau. Its delicate
and lively outer sections enclose a more sustained F minor passage at the heart
of the work. The second impromptu followed two years later, to be issued by
Chopin’s new publisher Troupenas, who had temporarily replaced Maurice Schlesinger,
whom he suspected of duplicity. The left hand establishes a pattern of chordal
accompaniment, before the entry of the well known principal melody and its elaborate
embellishment. There is a lilting D major section and an F major restatement
of the main theme before a passage of filigree ornament leads to a conclusion.
By 1843 Chopin had returned to Schlesinger, who published his third Impromptu
in that year, with a dedication to Countess Jeanne Esterhazy, née Batthyany,
a member by birth and by marriage of one of the leading families of the Habsburg
Empire. Following a pattern he often used, Chopin frames a more sustained central
section in the relative minor key with music of a livelier turn. The Fantaisie-Impromptu,
published posthumously in 1855, predates the other three Impromptus and was
completed in 1835. Its intense and excited outer sections frame a central Largo
in D flat major, in which, as so often, an arpeggio left-hand accompaniment
points an upper singing melody.
The Allegro de concert, Opus 46, was conceived
originally as a movement of a projected piano concerto in 1831, when it seemed
Chopin might still have use for such material. It was revised as a solo work
and published in 1841, with a dedication to a new pupil, Friederike Müller,
who noted in her diary the physical weakness of her teacher, his coughing and
remedy of opium drops with sugar and his enormous patience. The Allegro de concert
preserves something of the rhetoric expected in a concerto.
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CHOPIN: Scherzi and Impromptus (Complete)