About this Recording

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Waltzes (Complete)
Contredanse in G Flat Major, BI 17
Three Ecossaises, Op. 72, No. 3
Tarantelle, op. 43

Fryderyk Chopin was born near Warsaw in 1810, the son of a French émigré, Nicolas Chopin, who had established himself in Poland as a teacher of French, married a Polish wife and embraced his new nationality with the greatest patriotic enthusiasm. Chopin himself was to settle in Paris and remain chiefly in France for the greater part of his career. At the same time he retained his full share of Polish patriotism, associating with refugees from Poland and grieving for the fate of his country under continued Russian domination.

Chopin’s early career was in Warsaw, where he studied at first privately with the Director of the Conservatory, Jozef Eisner, before continuing with the same teacher as a student at the Conservatory. He was already beginning to win something of a reputation at home, when he took the inevitable and natural decision to seek his fortune in the wider musical world. A visit to Vienna in 1829 seemed promising, with a good response from the public to his Polish music, in spite of the grumbling of orchestral players, handed illegible parts. This first success was not repeated when Chopin returned to Vienna in the autumn of the following year, now in earnest. He passed there a winter of considerable discontent.

In July, 1831, Chopin set out for Paris, having with some difficulty procured a passport that would have taken him to London, a less revolutionary part of Europe, at which the Vienna authorities looked less askance. Poland itself was in turmoil, and Russia had finally occupied the country, to his patriotic dismay. Paris was to prove a centre for Polish nationalists, and it was in these circles that Chopin was first to mix.

In Paris Chopin was not, in any case, without friends and connections, and he was to establish himself as a teacher of the piano to the most distinguished families, and as a performer at elegant soirees in the French capital. At first he entertained considerable suspicion of the unorthodox behaviour of musicians like Liszt, and his Bohemian associates. Nevertheless by 1837 he had embarked on a liaison with the writer George Sand (Baroness Dudevant), a woman whose femininity he had first doubted.

The affair with George Sand was to continue for ten years, allowing Chopin to retreat in summer to her country house at Nohant, and bringing in 1838 a very much less desirable winter in Mallorca, which decisively weakened his health, already debilitated by tubercular infection. The couple finally separated in 1847, after a period in which George Sand’s two children, Maurice and Solange, made life difficult either by their resentment, in the case of the former, or by enlisting his support, as Solange did, against her mother.

The political disturbances in Paris in 1848 deprived Chopin of his usual sources of income, and he took the occasion to visit England and Scotland. By this time, however, his health was already extremely weak. He returned to Paris at the end of the year and died there on 17th October, 1849.

As a composer Chopin was innovative. In particulate developed his own idiosyncratic and poetic way of playing, lacking the thunder and histrionics of Liszt and Thalberg, but offering instead an infinite range of delicate nuances. In melody he was influenced by the Italian opera of Bellini and Donizetti, while in harmony he devised his own remarkably adventurous language that later composers were to extend still further.

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. Even Lord Byron objected. Fashion, however, could not be denied, and the waltz was to grow in popularity, particularly with the help in Vienna of Lanner and the Strauss family. The dance made its way into opera and into ballet, and, with the work of composers like Chopin, into the salon. It was to undergo a later apotheosis in the concert hall in the symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, and in the evocative choreographic poem of Ravel, La valse.

Chopin had first turned to the form in Warsaw in 1827, having already adapted Polish dances, the Mazurka and the Polonaise, to his artistic purposes. He was to continue to write waltzes until the year before his death. Within the form itself there still remains 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 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.

It should be added that Chopin’s dislike of writing his music down has complicated the work of later editors and scholars. The opus numbers do not represent the order of composition of the Waltzes, with the B minor Waltz, Opus 69 No. 2, and the Waltz in D flat, Opus 70 No. 3, the work of 1829, and similar discrepancies of opus number and date of composition throughout.

The listing of the complete Chopin waltzes here recorded includes, for greater clarity, the chronological numbers assigned by Maurice Brown (Chopin: An Index of his Works in Chronological Order). Julian Fontana, a musician who was a contemporary of Chopin in Warsaw, later settled in France, near Paris, and copied out some 80 of Chopin’s compositions by hand and after Chopin’s death was responsible for the publication of works numbered from Opus 66 to Opus 77. It is his version of these later publications that is here followed.

Chopin’s short G flat major Contredanse, with its C flat major Trio, was composed in 1827 and perhaps sent to the composer’s intimate friend Titus Woyciechowski as a name-day present. The three Ecossaises written during his student days in Warsaw in 1826 use a form based on a French ball-room conception of a Scottish dance, with foreign echoes of the pipes in a form that had acquired considerable popularity in the earlier years of the nineteenth century, whatever its national origin. The A flat major Tarantelle of 1841 preserves the more typical form of the energetic dance, reputedly either caused by or a cure for the bite of the tarantula spider. In the hands of Chopin and of Liszt it is a vehicle for virtuosity.

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