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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: Ballades / Berceuse Op. 57 / Fantasie Op. 49
"Idil Biret's Chopin recordings go from strength to strength"
Chopin (1810 - 1849)
Chopin was born near Warsaw in 1810, the son of Nicolas Chopin, a Frenchman who had been
drawn by chance to Poland, through the assistance and kindness of a Polish estate
administrator in France, who, on his return home, had taken the boy with him and given him
employment as a clerk. Nicolas Chopin was to become a respected figure in Warsaw as a
teacher of French, after serving as a tutor in various families and marrying a poor
relation of one of his employers, Count Skarbek.
himself was educated in Warsaw. His musical abilities were given every encouragement and
he took private lessons from Jozef Elsner, director of the Conservatory, before finally
becoming a student there. He had begun to make a name for himself locally, but Warsaw
offered relatively limited opportunities, and in 1830 he set out for Vienna, a city where
he had already aroused some interest during an earlier visit.
matters turned out, Chopin was to receive relatively little attention in Vienna now that
his intentions were more serious, and the following year, on the pretext of travelling to
London, he obtained a passport for Paris. It was there that he was to spend the greater
part of his career, recapturing the spirit of his native Poland, its armies now defeated
by Russia, in a musical language that was entirely his own.
Paris Chopin had immediate connection with Polish refugees. At the same time he
established himself as a popular teacher of the piano for the more distinguished families
of the capital, and as a performer in the fashionable salons of the leading hostesses of
the day. His style of playing, with its delicate variety of nuance, its idiomatic
pedalling and rhythmic freedom, was not of a kind to offer serious competition to the showmen of the keyboard,
to Liszt, Thalberg or Kalkbrenner.
first Chopin regarded Liszt and his Bohemian circle with some reserve, but it was through
Liszt that he was to meet the novelist George Sand (Baroness Dudevant), a woman who was
his mistress for some ten years, before estrangement as her children grew older and
tempers wore thinner. His health had for long been seriously endangered by tubercular
infection, exacerbated during the famous winter he spent in Mallorca with George Sand in
1837. The revolution of 1848 and an interruption to normal sources of income brought
temporary exile with recitals in England and Scotland. He returned to Paris towards the
end of the year and died there on 17th October, 1849.
was largely responsible for the creation of the Ballade
for piano. The word itself describes a kind of poetic composition that had found
particular favour in Germany at the close of the eighteenth century, with the verses of
Goethe and Schiller appearing in the famous Balladenjahr of 1797. Thereafter the Ballade
continued to hold the romantic imagination as a re-creation of the primitive narrative
verse of an earlier age, particular that of the Scottish borders.
four Ballades of Chopin are said to have
been inspired by the verses of the Poet Adam Mickiewicz, an exile in Paris and a friend of
the composer. The source of the first Ballade,
it has been suggested, was the poem Konrad Wallenrod, a medieval story of patriotic
vengeance wrought through treason, and a thinly disguised attack on the Russian domination
of Poland. Here the characteristic lilt of the music is preceded by a dramatic
introductory passage, a call to the listener's attention. After this the tale unfolds, a
story of increasing intensity, with moments of serenity, moments of passion, and what
seems to be the recurrent voice of the narrator, captured in the first, principal theme.
first Ballade was completed in 1835 and
published the following year with a dedication to the Hanoverian ambassador in Paris,
Baron Stockhausen. The second Ballade was
published in 1840 with a dedication to Robert Schumann, who found it inferior to the
first, "less artistic, but equally fantastic and intellectual", but suggesting
that the more intense episodes had been inserted as an afterthought. The literary source
may have been Mickiewicz's account of the Lake of the Wilis, a legend evoked in Adam's
ballet Giselle. Here the narrative begins at
once, in the simplest form, to be interrupted by a sudden, feverish burst of activity. The
voice of the story-teller is heard again, mounting in excitement and interrupted once more
by a passage of fierce intensity, on which there is the briefest melancholy comment in
third Ballade, published in November, 1841,
with a dedication to the composer's pupil, Princess Pauline de Noailles, is said to draw
on Mickiewicz's poem Undine, the story of
the water-spirit, subject of Friedrich de la Motte Fouque's fairy-tale and of operas by
E.T.A. Hoffmann and Lortzing, as well as the inspiration of the first episode in Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit. Undine loves a mortal, who would
be unable to survive her aquatic embraces. The moderate voice of the narrator opens the Ballade, a tale of love, set against the gentle
rocking of the waves, an intervening episode leading to a recapitulation of greater
passion and intensity.>
last of the Ballades was published in 1843
and dedicated to Baronne Nathalie de Rothschild. In F minor, the Ballade opens with some harmonic ambiguity, gently
introducing the narrative and going on to moments of greater intensity and a gently
lilting chordal passage, before the increased elaboration and passion of the conclusion.
Those who have sought literary inspiration for the Ballades
have had less to say on the matter with this work, with its contrasting episodes of naive
simplicity and filigree complication, although there are many who regard it as the summit
of Chopin's achievement.
was Chopin who elevated the cradle-song into a higher art form in his D flat major Berceuse, in which he establishes the
rhythm and mood to be followed by later composers, including Liszt, who took Chopin's Berceuse as his model. The work was completed in 1844
and published a year later, with a dedication to Elise Gavard, one of those female pupils
and admirers who joined in later general attempts to console him after his breach with
George Sand in 1847. The Berceuse was
principally the work of an otherwise largely unproductive summer at Nohant in 1843, its
inspiration perhaps the small daughter of the singer Pauline Viardot, left with George
Sand for the summer, while her mother was on tour. It is music of charm and elegant
Fantaisie, Opus 49, opening in F minor and
modulating to a final A flat major, was written in 1841 and dedicated to Princess
Cathérine de Souzzo, a pupil whom Chopin continued to teach until the end of his life.
The work was committed to paper during the first weeks of the composer's stay that year at
George Sand's country estate of Nohant, an uneasy time, and sent for copying to Chopin's
friend Fontana in Paris. The Fantaisie opens
with a solemn march, through which shine shafts of sunlight, although it is of interest to
recall the story that associated the work with yet another quarrel with George Sand, who
first knocks at the door, then is bidden enter, before the ensuing passionate
conversation. The opening march is linked by
a series of modulating arpeggios to a more excited passage, which gives way to a more
rational chordal intervention. At the heart of the Fantaisie,
which is in broadly classical sonata form, is a B major section, marked >Lento sostenuto. The work parts with classical
tradition primarily in its A flat major conclusion.
Galop Marquis, E flat Largo, Funeral March and Cantabile are less well known. The Funeral March, Opus 72, No.2, published posthumously,
in the key of C minor, with an A flat major Trio
section, was written in 1827, a forerunner of the more famous Funeral March that later formed part of the B flat
minor Piano Sonata. The short Cantabile was composed in Paris in 1834 and the
solemn Largo three years later. The
energetic Galop became a fashionable dance
in Paris from 1829, making its appearance initially as an adjunct to the quadrille.
in Ankara, Idil Biret began piano lessons at the age of three. She displayed an
outstanding gift for music and graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three first
prizes when she was fifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, and
composition with Nadia Boulanger. Since the age of sixteen Idil Biret has performed in
concerts around the world playing with major orchestras under the direction of conductors
such as Monteux, Boult, Kempe, Sargent, de Burgos, Pritchard, Groves and Mackerras. She
has participated in the festivals of Montreal, Persepolis, Royan, La Rochelle, Athens,
Berlin, Gstaad and Istanbul. She was also invited to perform at the 85th birthday
celebration of Wilhelm Backhaus and at the 90th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Kempff.
Idil Biret received the Lily Boulanger Memorial Fund award (1954/1964), the Harriet
Cohen/Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal (1959) and the Polish Artistic Merit Award (1974) and was
named Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite in 1976.
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.
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. In spite 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.
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
bel canto and unimaginable richness in tone-colour were the product of subtle variations
in a sound full 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
sense of rubato was unrivalled. The temps dérobé (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."
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.
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: Ballades / Berceuse Op. 57 / Fantasie Op. ...