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8.555799 - CHOPIN: Piano Favourites, Vol. 2
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Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)

Piano Favourites, Vol. 2

 

Fryderyk Chopin was born in 1810, the son of a French father and a Polish mother. He spent his early life largely in Warsaw, where he had his musical training at the Warsaw Conservatory and gave his first successful concerts. He left Poland in 1830 to seek the kind of opportunities that his own native country could not then offer. He spent a winter in Vienna, where he had earlier won brief success on the occasion of another visit, but now that he was in earnest pursuit of a career, he achieved nothing. He then moved to Paris where he would live for the rest of his life.

 

In Paris, Chopin established himself as a pianist, generally performing to private audiences in the elegant salons of the capital, rather than competing with more ostentatious performers such as Liszt, Thalberg or Kalkbrenner. Instead he found a more congenial position for himself as a teacher with a socially distinguished clientèle.

 

Through Liszt, at whose way of life he had previously looked askance, Chopin met the blue-stocking writer George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), recently separated from her husband. The two became lovers and in the winter of 1838-39 travelled together to Mallorca, where the climate had a deleterious effect on his health, with signs of tuberculosis that were alarming not only to the couple but also to the local people, who had already nurtured suspicions of the strange couple, accompanied, as they were, by George Sand’s two children. In France again he returned to his life in Paris, generally spending the summer months at George Sand’s country-house at Nohant. The complications of involvement with George Sand’s now adult children led to their separation in 1846. During the political disturbances of 1848, when normal life was impossible in Paris, Chopin accepted an invitation to Britain, but the climate greatly affected his weakened health. He returned to Paris, where he died in 1849.

 

Chopin’s compositions were mainly for the piano. He was able to use the instrument to convey subtle tone-colours, creating new forms to suit his genius. His two Piano Concertos were written before he left Warsaw and were intended as material for his career as a virtuoso performer. Much of his later work, however, was for solo piano, composed in forms that he adopted and developed, such as the Nocturne, the Waltz, the Polish Mazurka, and the Polonaise.

 

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. With Lanner and the Strauss family in Vienna it became even more fashionable, making its way into opera and into ballet. With composers like Chopin it found a further home in the salon, and later, with Mahler and others, in the concert hall. Chopin had first turned to the form in Warsaw in 1827, having already adapted Polish dances for his own artistic purposes. The present collection includes two examples, the Waltz in E minor [1], with its E major central section, written in 1830 and published posthumously, and the more elaborate and adventurous Grande Valse in A flat major, Op. 42 [14], written in 1840.

 

Among the forms that Chopin made his own was the Nocturne, at one time synonymous with the Serenade, but with the Irish pianist John Field and Chopin, his successor, a lyrical piano piece, offering, nominally at least, a poetic vision of the night. Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp major, Op. 15, No. 2 [2], was one of a set of three published in Paris in 1833 with a dedication to Mendelssohn’s friend Ferdinand Hiller. Here the relatively tranquil outer sections enclose a passage of greater intensity. The Nocturne in C sharp minor [11], was written in Warsaw in 1830 but published posthumously in 1875. Something of its character is indicated in the direction Lento con gran espressione.

 

Chopin’s single Barcarolle, Op. 60 [3], in F sharp major and written in 1845-46, is an extended treatment of the original Venetian boating-song, an example of the composer’s later style in its complexity. The rocking motion on which it is based still provides scope for elaborate chromatic figuration above. The Berceuse, Op. 57 [7], in D flat major and written in 1843, elevates the cradle-song into a higher art form, setting here, as elsewhere, an example to later composers.

 

The four Ballades of Chopin are said to have been derived from poems by the exiled poet Adam Mickiewicz. The third of these [5] was written in 1841 during an uneasy summer spent, as had become his custom, with George Sand at her country house at Nohant. The Ballade is said to draw on the poem Undine by Mickiewicz, telling again the story of the mermaid, a subject of opera and of other musical manifestations, whose love for a mortal would prove fatal. The moderate voice of the narrator is heard at the outset, introducing this tale of love, against the gentle rocking of the waves, leading to a central development and a recapitulation of greater passion and intensity.

 

Chopin completed his set of 24 Preludes, Op. 28, during the winter of 1838-39 spent in Mallorca, handicapped there at first by the lack of a satisfactory piano and by the conditions in which he and Geroge Sand were living. The Preludes, individual pieces rather than introductions to anything else, as their title would have suggested, are in key order, each one followed by its counterpart in the relative minor key, as the cycle proceeds through the circle of fifths, the most complex keys at the heart of the whole work. The Prelude No.17 in A flat major [4], an Allegretto in 6/8, is a lyrical work, while the Prelude No. 20 in C minor [6] is in a slower and more sombre mood.

 

Chopin wrote his first set of a dozen Etudes between 1829 and 1832 and dedicated them to his friend Liszt. The second group of twelve Etudes, Op. 25, were written between 1832 and 1836 and dedicated to Liszt’s mistress, the blue-stocking Comtesse Marie d’Agoult. The Etude in A flat major, Op. 25, No. 1 [8], popularly known as ‘The Aeolian Harp’, has a melody accompanied by arpeggiated chords held by the sustaining pedal of the piano, creating a subtle mist of sound. The Etude in G flat major, Op. 25, No. 9 [13], known to many as ‘The Butterfly’, brings contrasts of legato and staccato within each group of notes.

 

The Impromptu, in title at least, was typical of its period in its suggestion of immediate inspiration, abandon and freedom. Chopin wrote the first of his four works under this title, the Impromptu in A flat major, Op. 29 [9], in 1837. Its delicate and lively outer sections frame a more sustained F minor section, which is at the heart of the work. He also wrote four Scherzi, pieces that expanded beyond recognition the original scherzo form, making what had been a little musical joke into a work of extended virtuosity. Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31 [12], written in 1837, starts with a summons to attention, before the principal melody emerges. There is a central oasis of A major tranquillity, before the original key and mood return.

 

The Mazurka takes its name from the Mazurs, inhabitants of the province of Mazovia, near Warsaw. The dance is strikingly rhythmic, based on rhythmic and melodic patterns followed by Chopin in his fifty odd versions of the form. The Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4 [10], with its A major middle section, is a slower version of the dance, finding a place for a poetically nuanced piece of writing.

 

The Fantasia in F minor, Op. 49 [15], was written in 1841. It starts with a solemn march, through which the sunlight shines from time to time. It was said to have been written at Nohant during a quarrel with George Sand, who first knocks at the door and is then told to come in, before the ensuing passionate conversation. The march moves on to a passage of greater excitement, giving way to a more rational chordal intervention. In broadly classical sonata form, the work ends, unusually, in A flat major.

 

Keith Anderson


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