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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: Piano Favourites, 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 childhood.
Chopin showed an early talent for music. He learned the piano from his mother
and later with the eccentric Adillbert Zywny, a violinist of Bohemian origin,
and as fiercely Polish as Chopin's father. His later training in music was with
Jozef Elsner, 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 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 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
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
fourth of Chopin's essays in the form, the Fantaisie-Impromptu, published
posthumously in 1855, predates the other three 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
Chopin made the nocturne his own, developing the form from the earlier work
of the Irish pianist John Field. He wrote the three Nocturnes published
as Opus 9 before he left Warsaw. They were published in Paris in 1833, with a
dedication to Marie Moke, once engaged to Berlioz but from 1831 until their
separation four years later wife of the piano-manufacturer Camille Pleyel. The
second is probably the most immediately familiar of the set. The two Nocturnes
that make up Opus 27, published in 1836, were dedicated to Countess Apponyi,
wife of the Austrian ambassador to France. The second of the set, in D flat
major, marked Lento sostenuto, includes considerable chromatic
The waltz, a German country-dance in origin, had by the end of the eighteenth
century won considerable popularity in the ball-room, in spite of the warnings
of doctors and moralists, who feared physical and spiritual degeneration as a
result. Chopin had first turned to the form in piano pieces written in Warsaw.
The seventh of his nineteen waltzes, the Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64,
No.2, is here coupled with the famous "Minute" Waltz, the
rapid Waltz in D flat major, Op. 64, No.1, written towards the end of
Chopin's life, one of a series of works that starts with the Grande valse
brillante in E flat major, Op. 18.
The famous funeral march of Chopin forms the slow movement of the second of
his three sonatas, the Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35. In its original
context it forms a contrast with the movements that precede and follow it.
Among forms that Chopin made his own was the Mazurka, a Polish dance
that takes its name from the Mazurs, inhabitants of the province of Mazovia,
near Warsaw. Chopin wrote some fifty compositions under this title, making use
of the characteristic rhythmic patterns of the dance. The Mazurka in B flat
major, Op. 7, No.1, was published in Paris in 1834.
The Polish dance, the Polonaise, also 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 death. The two Polonaises that make up Opus 40 were
published in 1840 by Troupenas, who for the moment replaced Chopin's usual
publisher Schlesinger, suspected now of duplicity. The first of the pair, in the
key of A major, is among the best known of all. 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 Pontana failed to make any significant name for himself.
Chopin w rote his A flat major Polonaise, Opus 53, in 1842, dedicating it
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.
It was in Mallorca that Chopin, suffering from bronchitis and then
tuberculosis, continued work on the set of twenty-four Preludes, a series
of generally short pieces of contrasting mood, of which the so-called "Raindrop"
Prelude in D flat major is the longest. The twenty-four Études, published
as Opus 10 and Opus 25, represent a rather different form of music in which
technical problems for the pianist are tackled in an overwhelmingly musical
form. The Opus 10 Études were written between 1829 and 1832 and
published the following year with a dedication to Franz Liszt. The so-called Revolutionary
Étude has been popularly and apocryphally associated with the composer's
feelings on hearing the news of the Polish rising against Russian domination and
its suppression in 1831. The G flat major Étude confines the player's
right hand to the black keys of the piano, while the E major Étude, No. 3
breathes gentle serenity.
The 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. The first Ballade was completed in 1835 and
published in 1835 with a dedication to the Hanoverian ambassador in Paris.
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret started to learn the piano at the age of three and
later studied at the Paris Conservatoire under the guidance of Nadia Boulanger,
graduating at the age of fifteen with three first prizes. A pupil of Alfred
Cortot and of Wilhelm Kempff, she embarked on her career as a soloist at the age
of sixteen, appearing with major orchestras in the principal musical centres of
the world, in collaboration with conductors of the greatest distinction. To many
festival appearances may be added membership of juries for international piano
competitions, including the Van Cliburn, Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians and
Busoni Competitions. She has received the Lili Boulanger Memorial Award in
Boston, the Harriet Cohen / Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal in London, the Polish
Artistic Merit Award and the French Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite.
Her more than sixty records include the first recording of Liszt's transcription
of the symphonies of Beethoven, and for Naxos the complete piano works of
Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninov, with a Marco Polo disc of the piano compositions
and transcriptions of her mentor Wilhelm Kempff.
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CHOPIN: Piano Favourites, Vol. 1