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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: Mazurkas, Vol. 1
Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)
Complete Piano Music Vol. 3
Mazurkas Vol. 1
Fryderyk Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, in 1810. His father, Nicolas Chopin, was French by birth, but had been taken to Poland in 1787, at the age of sixteen, working first as a clerk in a tobacco factory, before taking part in the Polish rising against the foreign domination of the country as an officer in the National Guard. After the failure of this attempt, he was able to earn his living as a French tutor in various private families, and in 1806 he married a poor relation of his then employer, Count Skarbek.
Chopin was to inherit from his father a fierce sense of loyalty to Poland, a feeling that he fostered largely in self-imposed exile, since the greater part of his career was to be spent in Paris. His early education, however, was in Warsaw, where his father had become a teacher at a newly established school. He was able to develop his already precocious musical abilities with piano lessons from the eccentric Adalbert Zywny, a violinist from Bohemia, who shared Nicolas Chopin’s enthusiasm for Poland and was able to inculcate in his pupil a sound respect for the great composers of the eighteenth century. Chopin later took lessons from the director of the Warsaw Conservatory, Jozef Elsner, and entered the Conservatory as a student in 1826. By then he had already developed his own individual style as a pianist and had written, during the previous ten years, a number of pieces for the piano.
Warsaw offered a restricted environment for musical achievement, although Chopin was able to hear Hummel there in 1828 and the violinist Paganini in the following year. He had already acquired a considerable local reputation when in 1830 he set out for Vienna, where he was to pass the winter with very little to show for it. An earlier visit to Vienna had aroused interest, but this second visit, undertaken with a more serious purpose, produced nothing, and the following summer he set out for Paris, where he was to spend much of the rest of his life.
Chopin’s attitude to Paris was at first ambivalent. As a provincial he found much to shock him, while, at the same time, there was much to impress in the splendour of the city and in the diversity of music there. He was to create a special place for himself as a teacher to some of the most distinguished families and as a performer in more intimate social gatherings than the theatres and concert-halls where his cruder contemporary Franz Liszt could excel.
By 1837 Chopin had embarked on a liaison with the writer George Sand, born Aurore Dupin, the estranged wife of Baron Dudevant, generally spending the summer at her country estate at Nohant. The writer of 1838 was spent with her in Mallorca, where an attempt to battle against a high wind seriously affected his lungs, already weakened by tuberculosis. Thereafter Chopin’s relationship with George Sand took a more conventional course, until the jealousies and rivalry of her two children led to a final quarrel in 1847. George Sand and Chopin were never to be reconciled, and he died in Paris in 1849, his health having deteriorated considerably during the course of a visit to England and Scotland the year before, when Paris was undergoing revolution.
As a composer Chopin’s achievement was remarkable. He perfected his own idiomatic style of performance, in which technical problems seemed not to exist, a style of delicate nuance and elegance. His music, suited to his manner of playing, showed considerable originality in its exploration of harmony and in its expansion of existing forms and creation of new ones, opening a world that later composers were to continue to develop. Highly characteristic were the Polish dances that he transformed from folk-dance or society entertainment into vehicles of poetic expression, retaining still the original source of inspiration.
The Mazurka takes its name from the Mazurs, the inhabitants of the province of Mazovia, near Warsaw. It is a strikingly rhythmic dance, based on certain rhythmic and melodic formulae that find their place in the fifty Mazurkas of Chopin. Like the Polonaise, the Mazurka had made its way from the villages of Poland to fashionable ball-rooms in the cities of the country, to Paris, to London and to Russia, enjoying still wider popularity in the last. In Russia the dance had a modest success too in keyboard repertoire, with contributions from Glinka, Borodin and Tchaikovsky. Nothing there, however, could rival the variety of feeling and musical content that Chopin achieved in a form that he first attempted as a ten-year-old in 1820 and last touched in the year of his death.
The four Mazurkas that make up Opus 6 were written in 1830 before Chopin left Warsaw and published in Paris two years later with a dedication to the composer’s pupil Paulina Plater, daughter of a Polish emigrant family at whose house the mazurka was danced with all the full-blooded energy of Poland, as Chopin’s friend, the poet Juliusz Slowacki reported to his mother. 1831 brought a set of five Mazurkas, published in the following year as Opus 7 and dedicated to the American musician Paul Emil Johns.
The four Mazurkas of Opus 17 were written in Paris in 1832 and 1833, and published in 1834 with a dedication to the singer Lina Freppa, whom Chopin had met with Vincenzo Bellini, a visitor to Paris in 1833 and a strong influence on his melodic writing. In 1836 he published in Paris a set of four Mazurkas, Opus 24, written in 1834 and 1835 and dedicated to the Comte de Perthuis, director of music to King Louis-Philippe.
Two sets of four Mazurkas were published in 1838. The first, Opus 30, dedicated to the Polish-born Princes Maria Warttemberg, born Czartoryska, sister of Countess Zamoyska and a member of one of Poland’s most distinguished families, the Czartoryskis, whose these dansants for children at the Blue Palace in Warsaw had often been attended by Chopin and who had settled in Paris in 1832, Here Prince Adam Czartoryski, a statesman of considerable experience, led the Polish community in exile. The second set published in the same year, Opus 33, was dedicated to Chopin’s pupil Roza Mostowska, whose father had served as Polish Minister of the Interior at a time when the young composer’s application for a grant for study abroad had been refused ten years earlier. The Mazurka in C Sharp Minor, Op.41 No.1 was the first of a set of three published in 1840.
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 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.”
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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CHOPIN: Mazurkas, Vol. 1