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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: Ballades / Fantaisie in F Minor / Galop Marquis
Fryderyk Chopin (1810 -1849)
Complete Piano Music Vol.1
Ballades / Berceuse / Nouvelles etudes
Fantasie / Galop Marquis / Largo
Marche funebre / Cantabile
Fryderyk Chopin was born near Warsaw in 1810, the son of
Nicolas Chopin, a Frenchman drawn by chance to Poland through the assistance
and kindness of a Polish estate administrator in France, who, on his return to Poland,
had taken young Nicolas with him and given him employment as a clerk. He 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,
Fryderyk 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.
As 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.
In 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.
At 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 became 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.
Chopin 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.
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 Kanrad Wallenrad, 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
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 conclusion.
The 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.
The 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.
It was Chopin who elevated the cradle-song into a higher
art form in his D flat major Berceuse, in which he established 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
The three Nouvelles etudes were written in 1839 for
the Methode des methodes published by the piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles
and the Belgian musicologist Francois-Joseph Fetis in Berlin 1840, studies commissioned
in spite of the reservations Moscheles held about Chopin's style. The first two
are studies in cross-rhythms and the third a combination of legato and
The Fantaisie, Opus 49, opening in F minor and modulating
to a final A flat major, was written in 1841 and dedicated to Princess
Catherine 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
The 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.
Interpreting Chopin by Idil Biret
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 modem
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. 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.
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 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 theatre."
Chopin's sense of rubato was unrivalled. The temps derobe
(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 peuetrating
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."
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 self-imposed 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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