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Fryderyk Chopin (1810 -1849)
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 Zwny, 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
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,
Pari 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 first of Chopin’s four Rondos was written in 1825 and published
as the composer’s Opus 1, with a dedication to Madame Linde, née Nusbaum, wife
of Samuel Bogumil Linde, Rector of the Warsaw Lyceum where the composer’s father
taught and Chopin himself studied. In the year of its publication Chopin had
been called upon to play for the Tsar of Russia on a new instrument, the aeolomelodicon,
and at a later charity concert used the same instrument for a performance of
his Opus 1. The Rondeau in C minor, a remarkable enough achievement for a fifteen-year-old,
may seem derivative in its thematic material, which accords very much with prevailing
tastes for Italian opera. The principal theme leads to a contrasted first episode
in a more expressive E major and an A flat section in which left-hand arpeggios
accompany the operatic melody. After the re-appearance of the principal theme
there is a further episode in D flat, followed by the return of the second theme,
transposed and of the principal theme in conclusion.
The Rondeau à la Mazurka, Opus 5, was written in 1826 and published
in Warsaw two years later, It was dedicated to Alexandrine de Moriolles, daughter
of the tutor to Pavel, the illegitimate son of Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich,
the Tsar’s brother and his representative in Poland. As a boy Chopin had been
invited to perform for the Grand Duke and afterwards to play with Pavel and
Alexandrine. A brief introduction leads to a fuller statement of the F major
principal theme, with its mazurka rhythm, relaxing into a B flat episode, marked
tranquil lamente e cantabile. Transposed versions of the principal theme return
and a C major version of the second episode, before the final refrain.
The Rondeau in C major, written in 1828 and published posthumously
in 1855, was originally designed for one piano and shortly afterwards arranged
for two. An autograph copy of the original version was given to the Viennese
collector and musicologist Aloys Fuchs, who entertained Chopin in Vienna in
the wiriter of 1830. A short introduction leads to the principal theme, elaborated
and succeeded by a contrasting episode in A minor, which returns in a transposed
version before the bravura conclusion.
The Rondeau in E flat major, Opus 16, is s slightly later work,
written in Paris in 1832 and dedicated to Caroline Hartmann, one of Chopin’s
few professional pupils. She died in 1834, before her promise could be fulfilled.
The Rondeau starts with a C minor introduction of technical complexity, leading
to the lively first theme of the rondo in a composition of greater maturity,
composed at a time when the composer was enjoying considerable success.
The collection of 51 Mazurkas, which already includes two posthumously
published A minor Mazurkas, is completed by a further group of six, the first,
numbered in Maurice Brown’s definitive catalogue BI 4, in D major, was written
in 1820, followed by an A flat major Mazurka, BI 7, in 1825. The next year brought
two more, in B flat and in G major, BI 16. A C major Mazurka, written in 1833,
was first published in Warsaw in 1870, and carries the catalogue number BI 82.
A second Mazurka in B flat major, BI 73, bears the date 24th June, 1832, and
was first published in 1909.
Variations for the pianoforte, improvised or written out for
publication, enjoyed great popularity in the nineteenth century, often providing
reminiscences of opera or versions of well known tunes treated with the greatest
musical ingenuity. Chopin’s first recorded attempt at the form came when, as
a student in Warsaw, he tackled the German song Der Schweizerbub’, dedicating
his Introduction and Variations to Katarzyna Sowinska, née Schroeder, wife of
the Chopins’ family friend General Sowinski, a hero of the Napoleonic wars.
Madame Sowinska had heard the Tyrolean song, ‘Steh’auf, steh’auf, o du Schweitzer
Bub’, at a concert given by Henriette Sontag, creator of the title role in Weber’s
Euryanthe, and soprano soloist at the first performances of Beethoven’s Ninth
Symphony and of the Missa solennis. Chopin composed the variations Madame Sowinska
begged of him in a remarkably short space of time, less than an hour, although
the surviving manuscript shows some signs of care, perhaps from a hand more
skilled in writing. The Variations were entrusted to the publisher Haslinger
in Vienna in 1829, but not published until 1851. The decorative introduction
is followed by the theme itself, presented in all its simplicity. The first
variation is marked elegantemente, a direction that sums up its character, to
be followed by a second, marked scherzando, a third marked tranquillamente and
a final version that soon turns into a waltz. The D major Variations for piano
duet were written in the same year that saw the end of the composer’s schooling
at the Lyceum and the beginning of study at the Conservatory.
The violinist Paganini visited Warsaw in 1829, giving there a series of ten
concerts, the inspiration, for Chopin, of the Etudes, as well as of the Souvenir
de Paganini, a set of variations on the violinist’s B flat major Carnaval de
Venise, in which the violin is tuned a semitone higher, playing a violin part
written in A major, the key chosen by Chopin. The theme is presented at the
outset, followed without a break by a series of variations that mirror in many
ways the techniques of the violin, with scale passages in thirds, added arpeggios,
a connecting chromatic scale in sixths and a brief passage using the wide leap
of a tenth, part of Paganini’s remarkable stock-in-trade.
The Introduction and Variations in B flat major on Hérold and
Halévy’s “Je vends des scapulaires”, from the comic opera Ludovic, completed
by Bizet’s father-in-law Fromental Halévy after Hérold’s death in 1833, the
year in which the opera was staged in Paris. The variations are dedicated to
Chopin’s pupil Emma Horsford. The introduction, marked Allegro maestoso, leads
directly to the theme and a series of variations of increasing elaboration,
offered without interruption and leading to a slow D flat major version of the
theme and a return to the original key of B flat in a lively Scherzo and a conclusion
of mounting excitement.
The single variation on the March of the Puritans, from Bellini’s
opera, was Chopin’s contribution to a composite work, demanded by Princess Belgiojoso
for a charity concert in Paris in 1837 in aid of Italian nationalist refugees.
Variations on the popular melody were also provided by Liszt, Thalberg, Pixis,
Henri Herz and Czerny, with Chopin adding the sixth, to make up the so-called
Hexameron. This final contribution to the set is no bravura conclusion, but
a gentle and evocative piece that opens sotto voce and concludes raddolcendo,
after a central stormier outburst.
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
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: Rondos and Variations