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8.554537 - CHOPIN: Rondos and Variations

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)

Complete Piano Music Vol. 11
Rondos and Variations

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.

Most 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 first of Chopin's four Rondos was written in 1825 and published as the composer's Opus 1, with a dedication to Madame Linde, née Nusbaum, wife of Samuel Bogumil Linde, Rector of the Warsaw Lyceum, where the composer's father taught and Chopin himself studied. In the year of its publication Chopin had been called upon to play for the Tsar of Russia on a new instrument, the aeolomelodicon, and at a later charity concert used the same instrument for a performance of his Opus 1. The Rondeau in C minor, a remarkable enough achievement for a fifteen-year-old, may seem derivative in its thematic material, which accords very much with prevailing tastes for Italian opera. The principal theme leads to a contrasted first episode in a more expressive E major and an A flat section in which left-hand arpeggios accompany the operatic melody. After the reappearance of the principal theme there is a further episode in D flat, followed by the return of the second theme, transposed and of the principal theme in conclusion.

The Rondeau á la Mazurka, Opus 5, was written in 1826 and published in Warsaw two years later. It was dedicated to Alexandrine de Moriolles, daughter of the tutor to Pavel, the illegitimate son of Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich, the Tsar's brother and his representative in Poland. As a boy Chopin had been invited to perform for the Grand Duke and afterwards to play with Pavel and Alexandrine. A brief introduction leads to a fuller statement of the F major principal theme, with its mazurka rhythm, relaxing into a B flat episode, marked tranquillamente e cantabile. Transposed versions of the principal theme return and a C major version of the second episode, before the final refrain.

The Rondeau in C major, written in 1828 and published posthumously in 1855, was originally designed for one piano and shortly afterwards arranged for two. An autograph copy of the original version was given to the Viennese collector and musicologist Aloys Fuchs, who entertained Chopin in Vienna in the winter of 1830. A short introduction leads to the principal theme, elaborated and succeeded by a contrasting episode in A minor, which returns in a transposed version before the bravura conclusion.

The Rondeau in E flat major, Opus 16, is a slightly later work, written in Paris in 1832 and dedicated to Caroline Hartmann, one of Chopin's few professional pupils. She died in 1834, before her promise could be fulfilled. The Rondeau starts with a C minor introduction of technical complexity, leading to the lively first theme of the rondo in a composition of greater maturity, composed at a time when the composer was enjoying considerable success.

The collection of 51 Mazurkas, which already includes two posthumously published A minor Mazurkas, is completed by a further group of six, the first, numbered in Maurice Brown's definitive catalogue BI 4, in D major, was written in 1820, followed by an A flat major Mazurka, BI 7, in 1825. The next year brought two more, in B flat and in G major, BI 16. A C major Mazurka, written in 1833, was first published in Warsaw in 1870, and carries the catalogue number BI 82. A second Mazurka in B flat major, BI 73, bears the date 24th June, 1832, and was first published in 1909.

Variations for the pianoforte, improvised or written out for publication, enjoyed great popularity in the nineteenth century, often providing reminiscences of opera or versions of well-known tunes treated with the greatest musical ingenuity. Chopin's first recorded attempt at the form came when, as a student in Warsaw, he tackled the Gennan song Der Schewizerbub, dedicating his Introduction and Variations to Katatzyna Sowinska, née Schroeder, wife of the Chopins' family friend General Sowinski, a hero of the Napoleonic wars. Madame Sowinska had heard the Tyrolean song, Steh' auf, steh' auf, o du Schweitzer Bub, at a concert given by Henriette Sontag, creator of the title rôle in Weber's Euryanthe, and soprano soloist at the first performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and of the Missa solennis. Chopin composed the variations Madame Sowinska begged of him in a remarkably short space of time, less than an hour, although the surviving manuscript shows some signs of care, perhaps from a hand more skilled in writing. The Variations were entrusted to the publisher Haslinger in Vienna in 1829, but not published until 1851. The decorative introduction is followed by the theme itself, presented in all its simplicity. The first variation is marked elegantemente, a direction that sums up its character, to be followed by a second, marked scherzando, a third marked tranquillamente and a final version that soon turns into a waltz. The D major Variations for piano duet were written in the same year that saw the end of the composer's schooling at the Lyceum and the beginning of study at the Conservatory.

The violinist Paganini visited Warsaw in 1829, giving there a series of ten concerts, the inspiration, for Chopin, of the Etudes, as well as of the Souvenir de Paganini, a set of variations on the violinist's B flat major Carnaval de Venise, in which the violin is tuned a semitone higher, playing a violin part written in A major, the key chosen by Chopin. The theme is presented at the outset, followed without a break by a series of variations that mirror in many ways the techniques of the violin, with scale passages in thirds, added arpeggios, a connecting chromatic scale in sixths and a brief passage using the wide leap of a tenth, part of Paganini's remarkable stock-in-trade.

The Introduction and Variations in B flat major on Hérold and Halévy's Je vends des scapulaires, from the comic opera Ludovic, completed by Bizet's father-in-law Fromental Halévy after Hérold's death in 1833, the year in which the opera was staged in Paris. The variations are dedicated to Chopin's pupil Emma Horsford. The introduction, marked Allegro maestoso, leads directly to the theme and a series of variations of increasing elaboration, offered without interruption and leading to a slow D flat major version of the theme and a return to the original key of B flat in a lively Scherzo and a conclusion of mounting excitement.

The single variation on the March of the Puritans, from Bellini's opera, was Chopin's contribution to a composite work, demanded by Princess Belgiojoso for a charity concert in Paris in 1837 in aid of Italian nationalist refugees. Variations on the popular melody were also provided by Liszt, Thalberg, Pixis, Henri Herz and Czerny, with Chopin adding the sixth, to make up the so-called Hexameron. This final contribution to the set is no bravura conclusion, but a gentle and evocative piece that opens sotte voce and concludes raddolcendo, after a central stormier outburst.

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 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.

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