About this Recording
8.550291 - CHOPIN: Famous Piano Music
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Fryderyk Chopin (1810 - 1847)
Fryderyk Chopin was born at Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, in 1810. His father, Nicholas 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 Nicholas 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 1862. 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 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 him 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, Aurore Dupin, the estranged wife of Baron Dudevant, generally spending the summer at her country estate at Nohant. The winter 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. The C minor Study, Opus 10 No.12, generally known as the Revolutionary Study, was once thought to have been Chopin's reaction to news of the Russian occupation of Warsaw, when the report reached him in September 1831. The story adds an extraneous element to a work of considerable bravura, the last in a set of twelve etudes dedicated to Franz Liszt when they were published in 1833.

The E Flat Major Nocturne was written at the time when Chopin was leaving his native country to settle in Paris. The piece is a well-known example of Chopin's extension of the range of piano music in his own instantly recognizable idiom.

The Ballade in A Flat Major is the third of the set of four which make up Opus 47. Published in November, 1841, it is dedicated to the composer's pupil, Princess Pauline de Noailles and is said to draw on Mickiewicz's poem Undine, the story of the water spirit, subject of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué'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.

It seems probable that the inspiration for the Berceuse, Opus 57, might have come to Chopin because of the presence of the baby daughter of the singer Pauline Viardot at George Sand's country house at Nohant during the summer of 1843. He was much taken with the child, who had learned to say his name, "petit Chopin". The months spent at Nohant were relatively tranquil, interrupted, perhaps to the composer's relief, by the visit of the painter Delacroix and by the late arrival of the Viardots. During the year Chopin wrote little, apart from a group of three Mazurkas and the Berceuse, a work of tender simplicity, with no hint of the tension that was creeping into his relationship with George Sand or the deteriorating state of his health.

The Polonaise Fantasie of 1845 and 1846 is the final imaginative exploitation of a form that Chopin had developed since his first childhood attempt in 1817, a form in origin essentially Polish, but here transcending any such national limitation.

Among other forms Chopin developed that of the Nocturne, a poetic creation for the piano in which he was able to employ all those delicate nuances of which he was a master. The Nocturne in F Minor was written in 1843.

Schumann, as a young critic, had been among the first to recognize the ability of the Polish pianist and composer, greeting his performance with the words "Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!" He later went on to parody Chopin's style in his pianistic parade, Carnaval, something that Chopin never forgave. The Fantasie Impromptu was written in 1835 and was the first of four such compositions.

For the piano Chopin created an idiosyncratic style of composition and performance, delicate, poetic and highly characteristic. The two sets of twelve studies, Opus 10 and Opus 25, explore technical problems of performance in a completely musical way, as in the familiar E Major Etude, Opus 10 No.3.

The Scherzi also explore a new form of piano composition. Originally a musical joke, with Beethoven the scherzo had come to replace the more limited minuet as the third movement of a symphony. Chopin, however, made of it an independent, virtuoso form, subjecting the player to severe technical demands. The Scherzo, Opus 31, in B Flat Minor, was completed in 1837 and is dedicated to a pupil, Countess Adele de Furstenstin.

Chopin had first turned to the Waltz form in Warsaw in 1827, having already adapted Polish dances, the Mazurka and the Polonaise, to his artistic purpose. He was to continue to write waltzes until the year before his death. Within the form itself there still remained scope for variety of harmony and melody and even of speed and mood, since these dances are not intended for the ball-room. It might be added that there is no sign of a final flagging of spirits. The last three surviving waltzes that Chopin was to write, in 1846 and 1847, open with this, the famous 'Minute' Waltz published with the rather less exuberant C Sharp Minor Waltz and the remarkable chromatic A Flat Waltz that completes the set of Opus 64.

The so-called Raindrop Prelude is one of a set of 24 Preludes, written during the uneasy Winter Chopin spent with George Sand and her children in Mallorca in 1838. The Barcarolle is an apotheosis of the Venetian gondolier's song and was completed and published in 1846.

Poland and its traditions, remembered in exile, lie at the heart of much of Chopin's music. Dances like the Mazurka he transformed from a mere country dance into something of poetic beauty, purged of vulgarity. The set of four that make up Opus 33 were written in 1837 and 1838 and demonstrate the delicate variety of mood possible within the same rhythmic dance form, to which he was to return finally in the year of his death.


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