The Music of Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)


David Halpin and Robert Blackburn

15 September 2014


This was a lecture-recital introduced by Dr David Halpin, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education, London, who summarised the composer’s career, and said something about the special place which Chopin’s music has in his own life as a music-loving non-musician.  Performances and commentaries were given by Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor for Literature and Humanities BRLSI, and former Principal Lecturer in Music, School of Music and Performing Arts, Bath Spa University. At the time of this event, David was still a Bath resident. The following text is the work of Robert Blackburn.

It is not the first time Chopin has figured in a BRLSI talk. Robert gave a lecture-recital on 23 November 2004, comparing and contrasting the piano idioms of Schumann, Chopin and Liszt, all born in 1810-11. These were the three great mainstream pianist-composers of what Charles Rosen has called ‘The Romantic Generation.’ On that occasion, the three short pieces played initially were Chopin’s Study in F minor (from the Trois nouvelles Études of 1839), Schumann’s Romance in F sharp major, Op.28 No.2, and Liszt’s Les Cloches de Genève, from Book One (‘Suisse’) of the Années de Pèlerinage (1855). Other works by these three central figures were quoted from or referred to in the 2004 talk.  Schumann always admired Chopin in an unqualified way, famously announcing ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius’ in 1830. Sadly, this admiration was not returned to anything like the same extent by Chopin, who according to the pianist Andras Schiff, left unopened on his piano-stand for many months a copy of Kreisleriana by Schumann, sent to him in all sincerity and goodwill by the German composer.  Liszt eventually (in 1852) wrote a short monograph on Chopin, observing that ‘ Chopin belonged to those whose charm unfolds especially when they avoid the beaten path.’

Chopin’s extraordinary reputation and fame began in his short lifetime, and has never subsequently faded or been threatened by the vagaries of fashion. He was one of those special creative figures who, even though one can see the process of maturation in his work, somehow arrived on the scene with his creative personality more or less fully formed at the age of twenty. A Pole, arguably the most famous Pole of all, he was born at Zelazowa Wola, just outside Warsaw, moved with his parents and sister to Warsaw itself, then left his much-loved native country for France, spending all his mature years in Paris. While there, Chopin became friendly with Mendelssohn (b.1809) and Berlioz (b.1803) and had an ambivalent relationship with Liszt (b.1811), a friendship in the 1830s which cooled off later. They were men of very different temperaments. Schumann (b.1810) and Wagner (b.1813) were his German contemporaries, but he was not close to contemporary German music. Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti were all his much older Italian contemporaries whose music was not only familiar to him, but whose bel canto melodic vocal style inspired his own instrumental manner as a pianist-composer. Vocal acrobatics and decoration, regular features of the singer’s art, found their way into Chopin’s often highly decorated and ornamented melodic style. Chopin felt the still developing pianoforte as a ‘singing’ instrument, and his works were enjoyed by professionals and amateurs alike for his supreme melodic gifts and his never-failing harmonic subtlety. Verdi, born in 1813, was beginning to make his name in Italy and beyond during Chopin’s last years, as was Wagner (also born in 1813) in Germany, both almost entirely as composers for the stage. Because of Chopin’s early demise, it was Liszt, who lived to be 75, who benefitted form the work of these two giants, transcribing many of their most celebrated numbers and passages for solo piano.

Warsaw in 1830: Painting by Marcin Zaleski

For most of his life, Chopin was plagued by developing tuberculosis.  He was never free from actual or threatening poor health. Though he did play in public, he did not have the strength to fulfil the career of travelling virtuoso in the manner of Liszt.  Liszt was a taller and physically more robust man, and was one of the great natural showmen of 19th century music, a prodigious piano virtuoso of exceptional energy and audience-drawing powers. Instead, Chopin made his reputation as a teacher in Paris, attracting distinguished and able pupils of both sexes from the upper echelons of society, and becoming quite wealthy as a result. He would not take on children or beginners.  Chopin did give occasional concerts, but they were in salons, not larger auditoria, as befitted his fastidious nature. His reputation as a teacher long outlived his lifetime, and was embodied in the lives and careers of many who were taught by him.   Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger goes into this fascinating subject in his important monograph Chopin: Pianist and Teacher, as seen by his pupils (1986).

Chopin in 1836: Watercolour by Maria Wodzinska

His early romances included Konstancje Gladkowska, when he was only 19, then Maria Wodzinska from 1835 to 1837, a woman he might well have married, but which came to nothing in the end because of opposition from Maria’s family. An alleged affair with Countess Delfina Potocka (1807-1877), a hostess and singer, and a lady definitely admired by Chopin, has been discounted. The published erotic correspondence between them has been shown to be a complete forgery, the work of Paulina Czernicka (d.1949) in the 1930s, and has been described by Chopin’s biographer Adam Zamoyski as ‘an elaborate and squalid hoax’.  Chopin’s main romantic attachment was to the writer George Sand. This was her androgynous pen name, but she was in fact was Madame Dudevant, a well known and larger-than life figure, with whom he lived off and on for some years from 1838. She had married Casimir Dudevant in 1823, and had a son, Maurice, and a daughter Solange, by him, only separating formally in 1836. The relationship ended in a quarrel; George Sand’s novel Lucrezia Floriani contained a ‘portrait’ of her relationship with Chopin. Further family arguments brought about the end of their quite long ménage in 1847. It had included a period in which they had lived together in her villa at Nohant, spent time together in Paris, and their summers at Valdemosa on the island of Mallorca.  By the time of their separation, Chopin’s health had deteriorated still further, and he was rapidly reaching the end of his composing life.  He produced very little after 1846.The last works published in his lifetime were some shorter piano pieces and the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op.65, the only work of its kind in his output.

Certain other unpublished pieces, which included several of his now most famous waltzes, and the 1834 Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op.66, appeared posthumously as Op.66 to 74. His friend, fellow-student, and contemporary Julian Fontana (1810-1869) became Chopin’s ‘general factotum’ at one stage, then after Chopin’s death was entrusted with the preparation of a volume of all the posthumous compositions. Chopin gave his final concert in Paris in 1848 then unwisely travelled to England and Scotland, sponsored by his wealthy Scottish pupil, Jane Stirling; he gave concerts in Manchester, Glasgow and London. The piano manufacturing firm of John Broadwood, London, provided him with three Broadwood grand pianos, one of them for him to play while on tour. This is the one to be seen in the Cobbe Keyboard Collection at Hatchlands Park in Surrey (run by the National Trust). Returning to Paris, he was unable to teach or give concerts, but was still supported financially by Jane Stirling.  He died in Paris on 17 October, some four and a half months before what would have been his fortieth birthday. There was a great funeral in the Madeleine church in the heart of the city; at Chopin’s request the music was Mozart’s Requiem.  He was buried in the Cimitière Pere Lachaise, and his memorial tombstone was paid for ‘ by his many friends’, as it says on the monument. Both David Halpin and I have visited Chopin’s grave there, and sat by it in silence, though at widely different times. We have been just two of the numberless thousands who have made that pilgrimage over the years.

Chopin by Eugène Delacroix.  This portrait, painted in oils in 1838, was originally a joint portrait of Chopin and George Sand, which was later separated into two halves.

Chopin composed two concertos for piano and orchestra, in E minor and F minor, early in his career, for himself to perform as soloist. These were actually received very well, and comparisons were made with the works for piano and orchestra by JN Hummel then regarded as the benchmark for such repertoire. However, Chopin never returned to the genre after his move to Paris. Those two works have always remained in the repertoire, alongside the single one by Schumann and the two by Liszt. Otherwise, apart from the Seventeen Polish Songs (published after his death) and the late cello sonata already mentioned, Chopin’s output consists entirely of music for piano solo. Most of it was composed for himself and other virtuoso pianists to play, and unlike Schumann or Mendelssohn, he wrote no sets of pieces for younger players.  Nevertheless there are a great many short pieces among the preludes, nocturnes, mazurkas or waltzes, in particular, which young pianists developing their techniques come to know and love early on in their lives. Such pieces are, however, outweighed and outnumbered by the larger and more difficult works, the four Scherzi, the four Ballades, the two mature sonatas, the big polonaises, the F minor Fantasia, The Barcarolle, the three Impromptus, and the two main, magnificent sets of studies, Op.10 and Op.25, which were always aimed at the virtuoso concert pianists of his own time, and of the future age. In these works, Chopin’s makes no concessions to technical limitation; essentially, he wrote them for himself.

Photograph of Chopin in 1849, near the end of his life

Before Chopin, there were leading pianist composers such as Muzio Clementi  (also a piano manufacturer) and JN Hummel, Carl Czerny (Beethoven’s pupil in Vienna) and Chopin’s contemporaries Stephen Heller, Sigismond Thalberg, Ferdinand Hiller, Johann Peter Pixis, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, and Ignaz Moscheles, as well as Liszt himself. Chopin revered JS Bach and Mozart above all earlier composers; he played Bach’s Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues regularly, usually warmed up before a recital by playing a Bach fugue, and encouraged his pupils to study the ‘48’ and The Art of Fugue. It is true that Chopin played certain Beethoven sonatas, like the A flat Sonata, Op.26, but he was not primarily a Beethoven interpreter. Apart from that, he knew almost nothing of Schubert’s piano compositions, but then few others did in the 19th century, apart from the Impromptus and Moments Musicaux. The Nocturnes of the Irish composer, John Field, as most people have always realised, were a strong influence, though historically, Field is a minor figure by comparison. Chopin always stressed the need to study counterpoint (the interaction of individual musical lines) before harmony, instead of the other way round, as was the norm in his day. The two go together, of course, and his contrapuntal skill can be felt in all his mature compositions.

Hector Berlioz, a non-pianist, but a key musical figure of the age, who knew Chopin quite well, said of the Pole that: “…in order to appreciate him fully, I believe he has to be heard from close by in the salon rather than the concert hall”. Coming from a man whose main works (orchestral and choral) are usually on a very large scale, and require a very large acoustic space for their effective performance, this was a well-judged comment.  Berlioz said of Chopin in 1833 that he was “…an artist apart, bearing no point of resemblance to any other musician I know. His melodies, all impregnated with Polish elements, have something naively untamed about them that charms and captivates by its very strangeness; in his Etudes, one finds harmonic combinations of astonishing depth; he has created a kind of chromatic embroidery in several of his compositions, whose effect is so strange and piquant as to be impossible to describe.” Unfortunately (Berlioz went on) “…virtually nobody but Chopin himself can play his music and give it this unusual turn, this sense of the unexpected which is one of its principal beauties; his playing is shot through with a thousand nuances of movement, of which he alone holds the secret, impossible to convey by instructions.”

Wax cast of Chopin’s left hand

A year before Berlioz wrote the above about his playing, Chopin was able to move into a luxury apartment in Paris, and to charge handsomely for the lessons he gave there usually five a day. He was able to charge even more for giving lessons in the homes of his pupils, virtually all of whom by definition were individuals with plenty of money.  Perhaps quietly amazed by his success, Chopin wrote that “I am in the highest society: I sit with ambassadors, princes, ministers and even don’t know how it came about, because I did not try for it…Though this is my first year among the artists here, I have their friendship and respect. One proof of respect is that even people with huge reputations at the time (for example Pixis and Kalkbrenner) dedicate their compositions to me before I do (mine) to them. Finished artists take lessons from me and couple my name with Field’s.  In short, if I was not stupider than I am, I should think myself at the apex of my career, yet I know how much I still lack to reach perfection.” He was still only in his 23rd year, and his greatest creative achievements lay in the future, something he must surely have realised, like all great creative artists.

Charles Hallé (actually a German, Karl Halle, originally) was nine years Chopin’s junior, and lived until 1895, becoming the first Principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music (R.M.C.M.) and founder of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester.  Incidentally Hallé, a child prodigy pianist, was the first pianist to play all the Beethoven sonatas in public in London, then Manchester and Paris. He lived in Paris from 1836 to 1848, and first heard Chopin play in the home of Baron Eichthal.  It was, he said in a letter home on 2 December 1836   “…beyond all words. The few senses I have quite left me. I could have jumped into the Seine. Everything I hear now seems so insignificant, that I would rather not hear it at all.  Chopin! He is no man, he is an angel, a god… Chopin’s compositions played by Chopin! That is a joy never to be surpassed… During his playing I could think of nothing but elves and fairy dances, such a wonderful impression do his compositions make. There is nothing to remind one that it is a human being who produces this music. It seems to descend from heaven… so pure, so clear and spiritual. I feel a thrill each time I think of it…” Admittedly Hallé was only seventeen at the time, but his reaction to Chopin’s playing of his own works mirrored that of virtually everyone else in Paris during these years. It has to be remembered how short Chopin’s composing career actually was. His entire oeuvre was completed more or less within just over two decades, from 1825 (when he was only a boy of fifteen) to 1847. The G minor Mazurka, Op.67, No.2 was completed in 1849, but otherwise he was too ill to compose during the final two years of his life.

Autograph of page 1 (Maestoso) of the A flat Polonaise, Op.53 (1842)

The trip to England and Scotland he made in 1849, at the invitation of his wealthy admirer, pupil and patron Jane Stirling (1804-1859) is well-documented, but no one looking at it objectively can imagine that it was a sensible idea; he was a terminally sick man, and it almost certainly hastened his end, once he had returned to Paris. On the other hand, Chopin was only one of a great many French people who left the confusion and danger of Paris for Britain as a result of the 1848 Revolution. Jane Stirling, who was devoted to him, and helped Chopin financially in these last years, clearly felt that he would be safer on this side of the Channel. She had spent much time in Paris after 1846 as Chopin’s pupil, and amassed a considerable collection of memorabilia and annotated scores before and after his death, also financing the funeral bust by JBA Clésinger (lover of Solange Dudevant-Sand, George Sand’s daughter) in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery.

Many of the composer’s contemporaries commented on the special qualities of Chopin’s playing, in terms very like those of the young Charles Halle. Antoine-Francois Marmontel (1816-1898) taught for decades at the Paris Conservatoire. Though never Chopin’s pupil, he heard him often in salon recital, and also lived close to him in Paris. Marmontel said that: “… as regards evenness of fingers, delicacy, perfect independence of the hands, Chopin clearly belonged to the school of Clementi, whose excellent studies he always recommended and appreciated. But where Chopin was entirely himself was in his marvellous way of leading and modulating the sound, in his expressive, wistful way of colouring it. He had a completely individual manner of touching the keyboard, a supple, mellow touch, creating sound effects of a misty fluidity whose secrets he alone knew.” Marmontel also praised Chopin’s use of the pedals “… with which he obtained ravishing harmonies, melodic whispers that charmed and astonished.” This was in contrast to the noisy and unsubtle use of the sustaining pedal in particular by the majority of modern virtuosos, strongly criticised by Marmontel.

Karol Mikuli (1821-1897), a Pole of Armenian origin, was one of Chopin’s most dedicated pupils, working with the composer from 1844 to 1848. He observed that: “… under his fingers each musical phrase sounded like a song, and with such clarity that each note took the meaning of a syllable, each bar that of a word, each phrase that of a thought. It was a declamation without pathos, but both simple and noble.” Mikuli’s 17 volume edition of Chopin’s works was published in 1880 by Kistner of Leipzig, using the original French editions, annotated by Chopin during Mikuli’s lessons, together with remarks by Chopin during lessons with other people on which Mikuli was frequently a permitted observer. In the Preface to his edition, Mikuli noted that Chopin played rarely and only reluctantly in public: “…to ‘exhibit himself’ was absolutely against his nature. Prolonged ill health and nervous irritability did not always allow him to unfold the full range of his resources in the concert hall. Even in intimate circles he rarely played anything but his shorter compositions, and occasionally fragments from the large ones.”  Yet, said Mikuli: “… in every kind of touch the evenness of his scales and passagework was unsurpassed, indeed phenomenal; under his hands the piano needed neither the violin for its bow, nor wind instruments for their living breath. The tones melted into one another, as wonderfully as in the most beautiful singing.”

The German poet Heinrich Heine (1798-1856) lived in exile in Paris for much of his adult life, latterly as an invalid.  He heard Chopin play many times, and whatever he thought of the actual music, spoke plainly of his intense pleasure at hearing Chopin improvise at the piano. For Heine, Chopin was then “…neither Polish, nor French, nor German; he betrays a much higher origin, from the land of Mozart, or Raphael, or Goethe; his true fatherland is the dream realm of poetry.”  Heine wrote this in 1837, when Chopin was still only 27. In 1843 the poet wrote “In the vicinity of Chopin, I completely forget the playing of the past master (he means Thalberg, 1812-1871, the Swiss-born Austrian who was Liszt’s main rival) and I sink into the soft unfathomed depths of (Chopin’s) music, into the sorrowful delight of his creations, as exquisite as they are profound.” Honoré de Balzac, living and working in Paris at the same time as Chopin, has one the characters in Le Cousin Pons speak of another as someone who “… found sublime themes on which he embroidered caprices, sometimes with Chopin’s Raphaelesque perfection and grief, sometimes with Liszt’s Dantesque fire and grandiloquence, the two musical approaches closest to that of Paganini.” In Ursule Mirouet, Balzac again refers explicitly to Chopin in the remark that: “… this beautiful genius (Chopin) is less of a musician than a soul manifesting itself through all manner of music, even through simple chords.” Finally, the Baron de Trémont (1779-1852) godson of King Louis-Philippe, and an influential politician, civil servant and patron of the arts, felt, shrewdly, that: “… one must have part of his exquisite musical sensibility to appreciate its scope.  He is a musician apart, who has no connection whatever with any other.” Trémont wrote this in 1843, then in 1849, after Chopin’s death, wrote that: “Chopin, immersed in his inspiration, is not halted by any complication of harmony, figuration or fingering, and many passages, perfectly clear under his fingers, sound confused and muddy when played by other pianists.  Only the overconfident will believe they convey his entrancing music, and then a part of its beauties will have passed by them unnoticed.” There was indeed a stress during his lifetime on Chopin’s marvellous musicality amid the ‘perfection’ of his playing, especially of his own works, alongside a preoccupation with his physical frailty, and the known effects of his long-running illness.  This continued notion of ‘sickliness’ regrettably became associated with his music for many, and did much harm to his reputation for many years after his death. It is as though physical frailty and decline were somehow embedded in his astonishing output for all time, rather than the sheer inspiration, consistency and manliness of his works taken as a whole. It is really only in modern times, and through modern scholarship that the true extent of his greatness has been fully appreciated. Fastidious, fussy, irritable and often hypercritical he certainly was, but a mere miniaturist, a master of short forms, but little else, as many conceived Chopin to be well into the 20th century, he certainly was not.

In view of the peculiar fascination of Chopin’s biography in human terms, which has never disappeared, it needs to be stressed, as Jim Samson did in the Introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Chopin (1992) that “… the single most important activity in Chopin’s life was the production of music.” From that point of view, his efforts to launch himself as a pianist-composer in the early Warsaw and Vienna period are essential to an understanding of his career, and even more are the years he spent with George Sand, from 1838/9 to 1845/6, when he was in full flower as a mature composer, and, as Samson says, and as we have always known, produced his finest work. Modern musicology has inevitably been concerned with the genesis and development of the music, first and foremost. The contents of the Cambridge Companion are a good indicator. The three sections of this deal respectively with the growth of a style, profiles of the music, and reception, simple enough categories. In Part One, the topics are; piano music and the public concert; the Nocturne-the development of a new style: the 27 studies and their antecedents; and tonal architecture in the early music. Part Two covers extended forms (meaning the ballades, scherzi and fantasies); small forms; ‘beyond the dance’ and the sonatas. Part Three, Reception, has essays on Chopin in performance, Chopin reception in 19th century Poland, Victorian attitudes to Chopin, and Chopin’s influence on the fin de siècle and beyond—this last an essay with many music examples in the text, by the distinguished music analyst and French music specialist Roy Howat.

Autograph score of the B minor Piano Sonata, Op.58  (1846) First movement  (Allegro maestoso)

The later influence of Chopin’s music, as Charles Rosen has pointed out strongly, is all-pervasive. It is evident in many of Liszt’s pieces, as he would have been the first to admit; one has only to think of Chopin’s D flat Nocturne, Op.27, No.2, and Liszt’s long-phrased Consolation in the same key. The big differences between them are also clear enough, in that while Liszt’s piano works are littered with literary and landscape references and connections, none of Chopin’s works contains this kind of intertextual allusiveness.  He actively disapproved of attempts to find extra-musical meanings in his music. Chopin’s stylistic influence is there in much of Tchaikovsky too, a composer who had, like Chopin, that most precious of musical attributes, a powerful melodic gift. In other respects, of course, Tchaikovsky was a very different composer, active in many musical spheres, a pioneer ballet music composer and eventually the composer of no fewer than ten operas, though certainly not a significant composer of solo piano music.  (This last does not include the First Piano Concerto, of course, one of his most consistently popular works in any genre)  The Chopin influence is even there in Brahms, though Brahms slyly denied it, while producing a fine edition of Chopin’s mazurkas, ballades and sonatas, much praised for its scholarship and accuracy by Rosen.  Brahms’ admiration for Chopin’s music is plain to see. It is fascinating to compare Chopin’s famous rippling F minor Study, Op.25, No.2, with its rapid passage- work in the right hand, against a triple metre accompaniment in the left, with Brahms’ transcription of this piece, to be played in sixths in the right hand, and thus harmonised more densely, while at the same time keeping the whole original structure intact. This transcription can be found in the Peters edition of Brahms’ piano works, Volume Two. There is a case to be made, too, for the influence of Chopin’s style on Wagner, especially in passages of sequential chromatic phrasing. What Chopin would have made of Tristan or Die Meistersinger is anyone’s guess, as his operatic background was that of the Italian operas of his own day.  Rosen has suggested that Chopin might well have enjoyed (and recognised himself in) the music of Amfortas in Parsifal, Wagner’s last work, composed in the very early 1880s.

Both Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) were profoundly indebted to Chopin as pianist-composers from the outset. Scriabin’s fine early set of 24 Preludes, Op.11, in all the major and minor keys, composed between 1888 and 1896, is a homage to Chopin’s Op.28 Preludes in every way, while at the same time being a fine artistic achievement in its own right for both performer and listener.  Rachmaninoff, too, composed twenty four Preludes in all the major and minor keys, but over a longer period, publishing them in 1894 (the C sharp minor) then 1901 (the ten of Op.23) and finally 1910 (the thirteen of Op.32). These pieces are on a much larger scale than Scriabin’s Op.11, but their origin in Chopin, like the style of Rachmaninoff’s two piano sonatas  (1907 and 1913), is plain for all to see and hear. Though all are given the title ‘Prelude’, several of them resemble Chopin’s Studies, in that they are based on the exploration and development of a single technical feature. Examples are the running right hand semiquavers of the C minor Prelude, and the elaborate moto perpetuo arpeggios of the A flat Prelude, both from Op.23.  Fauré, Debussy and Ravel were saturated with Chopin’s music in their various ways. Fauré’s barcarolles, impromptus and nocturnes are the French composer’s homage, once again, to the earlier composer, and use extensively Chopin’s keyboard layout and figuration, while clearly being the work of someone writing in a later idiom. (Examples are the Barcarolle No.3 in G flat and the Nocturne No.6 in D flat). Debussy’s préludes and études look back to Chopin in spirit, even though in style and idiom they belong to another sound- world. He also produced a Chopin edition for the publisher Durand. Ravel’s fastidious harmonic and textural ear, so evident in all his work, has its roots, at least partly, in Chopin’s music. My guess is that Chopin would have loved and applauded works as different as the neo-classical Sonatine (1905) Gaspard de la Nuit (1909), the Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) and Le Tombeau de Couperin (1918) not to mention the orchestral Mother Goose Suite  (Ma Mère L’Oye).

The great majority of Chopin’s piano works have remained in the standard repertoire of pianists down to the present day. Such is the worldwide popularity of his music that this situation is likely to continue far into the future. All-Chopin recital programmes were not uncommon in the mid-20th century, and are still to be seen; more common are recitals in which his works occupy the first or the second half, frequently ending with one of the big pieces, for example the Fantaisie, Op.49, the A flat Polonaise, Op.53, the Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op.61, the B flat minor Sonata, Op.35  (with its Funeral March in that key, composed earlier) or the B minor Sonata, Op.58. With the exceptions of Alfred Brendel and Radu Lupu, virtually all the great pianists of the last 70 years have played Chopin’s works regularly, and some - I think here of Artur Rubinstein (also Polish), Alfred Cortot, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Claudio Arrau, Vlado Perlemuter, Vladimir Horowitz, and Shura Cherkassky -have specialised in interpreting his music.  Dinu Lipatti, (1917-1950) the legendary Italian pianist, who died tragically early, left a small, precious recording legacy, including Bach and Mozart.  Among them was one of Chopin’s B minor Sonata, Op.58, fourteen of the waltzes, the Barcarolle and a number of smaller pieces. Solomon (1902-1988) recorded many of his works, and so did Richter and the American William Kapell (1922-1953). Much further back are the figures of Pachmann, Paderewski, Michalowski, Rosenthal, Sauer and Godowsky, who all left important recording legacies, vital for an historical perspective, and an understanding of the way Chopin interpretation has changed over time.  Rachmaninoff recorded the B flat minor Sonata, together with Schumann’s Carnaval; he also recorded the Third Ballade, the Third Scherzo and a number of waltzes and mazurkas, but unfortunately never the Preludes, polonaises or any of the studies. Nearer our own time, Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Maria Joao Pires, and Krystian  Zimerman (winner of the Warsaw International Chopin Piano Competition in 1975) have recorded much Chopin, as have the Brazilian Arthur Moreira-Lima and the American Murray Perahia.  Both Moreira-Lima and Perahia emerged from the Leeds International Piano Competition, Perahia as outright winner in 1972. Pollini won the Warsaw international Chopin Competition when he was only 18, in 1960, when Rubinstein led the jury. David Halpin recommended Perahia’s recordings, after careful comparison with many others, as the one to have at home. In 2007, I heard Daniel Barenboim give an all-Chopin recital in Madrid; more recently, I heard Charles Rosen give a recital in the Wiltshire Music Centre in 2013, the year before his death, entirely comprising music by Chopin, when Rosen was physically frail but mentally as alert and communicative (musically and verbally) as ever.  All Chopin recitals are still to be heard at the Wigmore Hall in London, always guaranteeing a full house. A good example was the one given by the Canadian pianist, Janina Fialkowska, in April 2013, which I was lucky enough to hear.

Chopin’s statue  (2011) in Deansgate, Manchester, by Robert Sobocinski. Erected by public subscription from Manchester’s present day Polish community

David Halpin had divided Chopin’s works into eight categories for the purpose of discussion and comparison. These were not necessarily based on Chopin’s use of different musical forms, and in any case obviously overlap considerably. But it was felt that they form a good starting point for a look at Chopin’s work as a whole. There was time, in the event, for Robert to play most of the examples listed here, including the sequence of preludes, Nos.7 to 11, as shown, and at least seven other complete pieces, beginning with the E minor Etude, Op.25 No.5, and concluding with the Waltz in C sharp minor, Op.64 No.2, dating from 1847, and one of Chopin’s very last compositions. The aim was to demonstrate as wide a variety of Chopin’s various forms and styles as possible.


1. Short Forms

24 Preludes, in all the major and minor keys, Op. 28 (1838-9) sequence of five, No.7 to 11.  Andantino (A major); Molto agitato (F sharp minor); Largo (E major); Allegro molto (C sharp minor); Vivace (B major)

Etude in E minor, Op.25, No.5 (the 12 studies, Op.25, were composed in 1835-7)

2. Melodic intensity

Nocturne in D flat, Op.27, No.2 (1835) opening

Nocturne in E major, Op. 62, No.2 (1846): Lento, middle section Agitato, then return to Lento

3. Rhythmic power

Openings of the following large-scale works: Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op.31 (1837); Barcarolle in F sharp, Op.60 (1846); Fantaisie in F minor/A flat major, Op.49 (1841); Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat, Op.61 (1846); Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23 (1835)

4. Dramatic energy

Openings of Scherzo No.3, in C sharp minor, Op.39 (1839); Mazurka in B flat (vivo e            risoluto) Op.17, No.1 (1833)

5. ‘Beauteous weight’

Part of Mazurka in A minor (Lento ma non troppo) Op.17, No.4 (1833)

Openings of Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op.38 (Andantino-Presto con fuoco) (1839) Ballade No. 3 in A flat, Op.47, (Allegretto) (1841) and Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52 (Andante con moto) (1842-3)

6. Disguised spontaneity

Impromptu in A flat, Op.29 (1837); Allegro assai, quasi presto

7. Dignified Ritualism

Opening of Polonaise No.1 in C sharp minor, Op.26, No.1 (1835): Allegro appassionato

Opening of Largo from Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op.58 (1844)

8. Choreographic Efficacy

Early E minor Waltz (1830, published posthumously in 1868); Waltz in A minor, Op.34, No.2 (1834); Waltz in C sharp minor, Op.64, No.2 (1847)


Towards a short Chopin bibliography

The Chopin bibliography is vast, and is still growing.  It ranges from early studies: JW Davison’s pioneering Essays on the Works of Frederick Chopin (1843); Frederick Niecks’ Chopin as Man and Musician (1888) and C Willeby’s Frederic Francois Chopin: A Biography (1892) and James Huneker’s Chopin: The Man and his Music (New York, 1900, reprinted 1966) to the modern scholarship of Jim Samson’s Chopin (Oxford U.P.1996) and The Music of Chopin (Oxford UP, 1985/1994)

There have been countless biographies, some concentrating on the man and his times, as a key figure in the Romantic movement, and some on the music. The short study by Liszt (1852) was one of the earliest, written in French soon after Chopin’ s death, while there are inevitably many in Polish. One of these is by the composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937): Chopin (Warsaw, 1925). The following are recommended:

Ates Orga Chopin: His Life and Times   (Midas Books , 1976)

Arthur Hedley: Chopin (Dent 1947) This is the old Dent Master Musicians volume, now superseded by Samson, but still useful and enjoyable, written with passion and understanding.

Jim Samson: Chopin (Master Musicians) Oxford UP 1996   

Adam Zamoyski: Chopin: A Biography  (Collins /Granada 1979 and later editions)

Alfred Cortot, tr. Cyril and Rena Clarke: In Search of Chopin  (Peter Nevill, 1951)

André Gide: Notes sur Chopin / Fragments du Journal; L’Arche, Paris, 1949

Basil Maine: Chopin (Great Lives series) Duckworth, 1933

I also recommend the article Charles Rosen wrote or the New York Review of Books , for the bicentenary of Chopin’s  birth in 1810. Entitled simply ‘Happy Birthday, Frederic Chopin !’ it appears in the NYRB for 24 June 2010, pp.4-6. There are also three extensive chapters on Chopin’s music in Rosen’s big book The Romantic Generation (HarperCollins 1996).


Special studies abound. They include the following:

Gerald Abraham: Chopin’s Musical Style (Oxford 1939)

Alan Walker (ed.): Frederic Chopin: Profiles of the Man and the Musician (Barrie and Rockliff, 1966)

Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger: Chopin: Pianist and Teacher, as seen by his pupils Tr. N. Shohet with K. Ostostowicz, and Roy Howat; CUP 1986  (original French edition 1979)

Jim Samson (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Chopin (CUP1992)

Jim Samson: Chopin: The Four Ballades (Cambridge Music Handbook) CUP 1992

JP Dunn: Ornamentation in the Works of Frederick Chopin (London, 1921)

David Branson: John Field and Chopin (London, 1972)

There is also a still useful book by Maurice JE Brown: Chopin: an Index of his Works in Chronological Order (1960, revised 1972)


Dr Robert Blackburn

March 2016