REGISTER NOW AND GET
• 5 FREE tracks! • 101 tracks for $9.99
ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: Preludes / Barcarolle, Op. 60 / Bolero, Op. 19
Complete Piano Music
Bolero; Bourrées; Wiosna; Feuille d’Album; Fugue
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 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 Venetian barcarolles
gondoliers' songs, were well known to the many visitors to Venice even in
the eighteenth century, forming even then a collectable item for the curious.
The characteristic rhythm, if not the title, found a place in some of the songs
of Schubert and more overtly in three of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words. The
most famous example of a Barcarolle for solo piano is Chopin's Opus 60
in F sharp major, written in 1845, the precursor of a set of thirteen written
by Gabriel Fauré towards the end of the century. Chopin completed his Barcarolle
in the winter of 1845, after his return to the city from autumn months
spent at Nohant. It was dedicated to Baroness Stockhausen, wife of the
Hanoverian ambassador in
Paris, providing music
of greater complexity than its title might have suggested.
The Bolero had
reached Paris by the time of Chopin's arrival in the city in 1831, its
popularity assured by the fame of the singer, guitarist and composer Manuel
Garcia, Pauline Viardot's father. Chopin's single use of the dance was written
in 1833 and dedicated to Countess Emilie de Flahaut, wife of a diplomat and
later Lady Shelburne. Three opening notes summon the attention of the listener,
before the dance begins, music that seems to stem rather from contemporary
operatic convention than from the villages of Spain, a country that he had not
In the two Bourrées
of 1846 Chopin returned formally to the French court dance of the
seventeenth century. The Andantino in G minor, written seven
years earlier, is a piano arrangement of the song Wiosna (‘Spring’), a
setting of a poem by the composer's Warsaw friend and fellow-exile Stefan
Witwicki. The Albumleaf was written in 1843, with a dedication to his
pupil Countess Sheremetieff. The two-voice Fugue in A minor, written
in 1841-2, while using a form not generally associated with Chopin, may remind
us of the solace he found in the 48 Preludes and Fugues of Bach
during weary hours at Nohant.
Interpreting Chopin by
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. 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 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."
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.
Last Albums Viewed
CHOPIN: Preludes / Barcarolle, Op. 60 / Bolero, Op...