Listen to the Piano version: https://youtu.be/9hZVWyY9XyQ
Listen to the Guitar version: https://youtu.be/KKJp9hAQ7q0
Disputed territories of Poland
In 1766, after the death of Stanislas Leszcynski, the former king of Poland, the duchies of Lorraine and Bar were annexed in the French kingdom. Indeed, as he was the father-in-law of Louis XV, those territories had been given for life to him after his defeat at the succession war of 1709.
That’s probably why a certain Nicolas Chopin, born in Lorraine in 1771, decided to go back to Poland at the age of 16.
In 1795, Poland was shared between Austria, Prussia and Russia, but from 1807 to 1830, the duchy of Warsaw went through a period of stability and autonomy, until the repression by the Tsar Nicolas the 1st.
At that time, French kingdom was ruled by the July Monarchy (1830-1848) and hosted many polish refugees.
Bach, Mozart, Paganini and Polish music
Frédéric Chopin was born in 1810 in the Duchy of Warsaw where he grew up with his 3 sisters. His father was a high school teacher in the city of Warsaw.
Chopin took his first music lessons with Wojciech Żywny, a Czech violonist who had studied with a former student of J-S Bach. He made him play pieces from Mozart and Haydn. At the age of 8, Chopin was already famous and even played Piano for the Tsar’s brother.
In 1822, Chopin entered the Warsaw academy where he took Organ lessons with Václav Würfel and forms theory and harmony courses with Josef Elsner.
That was during a stay in the city of Szafarnia in Mazovie when Chopin first focused on Polish country music. That’s how he began to use national popular rhythms, for example in the Mazurka in B flat major of 1826. In reaction to Russian imperialism, this idea of a national polish art was also beginning to catch on among writers and poets (like Kazimierz Brodziński).
In 1829 in Vienna, Chopin gave for the first time a public remunerated concert in which he played improvisations, and in 1830 he played his first Piano concerto (in F minor). It was also at that time he met the composer Johann Hummel. That was also in Vienna he wrote the Studies op. 10 and op. 25, masterpieces built on Bach and Mozart processes, alternating between fury of hatred and tenderness to describe conflicts in Poland,
As to the virtuosity of Chopin’s pieces, he has probably been influenced by composers like Paganini, Hummel and pianists like Maria Szymanowska.
« Paris, a new regime in which money substitutes for noble titles »
In 1831, Chopin moved to the french capital. At that time, we could say Paris was also the Piano capital since many composers, Piano players or makers lived there (Franz Liszt, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Félix Mendelssohn, Hiller, Herz, Pleyel, Erard…).
The coming of Chopin occured right during the dispute between defenders of Classical and Romantic style. In this context, F. Liszt, Hector Berlioz, Vincenzo Bellini… immediately understood the modernism of Chopin’s work and became close friends of the Polish composer.
But they weren’t the only ones to be impressed by Chopin’s pieces. In 1831 in Leipzig, Robert Schumann had yet stumbled upon a Chopin’s score, the Variations in B flat major on La ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni (Mozart). In an article from his German musical review (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung), he immediately stressed how important this work was (Low hat ! Sirs, a genius ! Hut ab, Ihr Herren, ein Genie !).
In Paris, Chopin also met the painter Eugène Delacroix, the writer Honoré de Balzac, and in 1838 he fell in love with Georges Sand (Aurore Dupin de Francueil). The couple remained together until 1847.
Because of Chopin’s frail health, they first decided to spend some time in Majorca, Spain. Indeed, Chopin suffered from tuberculosis, probably transmitted by one of his sisters before she died from complications in 1827.
Although it was a disastrous stay, there he composed the 24 Preludes op 28 (from which Prelude 4 is taken). Then Chopin spent several summers with Georges Sand in Nohant (from 1839 to 1846). That was a happy time for him. During this period, the composer wrote a great part of his work (Polonaise héroïque op. 53, 4th Ballade, Berceuse op. 57, Sonate op. 58, Barcarolle op. 60, Valses op. 64, Sonate for Piano and Cello op.65…).
But the lovers separated in 1847. This is probably attributable to Chopin’s health problems but also to his character.
In 1848, Chopin went to London. In spite of coal pollution which was difficult for him to bear, he could see his friend H. Berlioz, F. Kalkbrenner and Pauline Viardot again. That was also the occasion for him to met Charles Dickens, the Piano maker J. Broadwood and play for Queen Victoria.
Chopin’s predecessors and Pre-Romantic composers
As F. Liszt said, J.S Bach and W.A Mozart were the only 2 composers he considered as masters (the music of L.V Beethoven disgusted him !). Indeed, the numerous alien notes we can hear in Chopin’s melodies, non harmonic notes like grace notes and embellishments are typical of Mozart.
In spite of this harsh judgement, several composers may also have influenced Chopin, or at least foreshadowed his style.
Michał Kleofas Ogiński (1765-1833), who wrote 26 Polonaises and was known all over Europe.
Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836), who composed several Piano Etudes in a pre-romantic style.
Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831), polish composer (Nocturals, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Studies…)
In summary, we could say that in Chopin’s music typical rhythms come from Polish country music, shapes of melodies from Mozart, chords changes from Bach and virtuosity from Paganini. He remains one of the most representative composers of the Romantic period. He and his friend F. Liszt really improved Piano playing techniques during the years 1830-1840, the same way Paganini did with Violin several years before.
Chopin’s improvisations, interpretations and Rubato
But it’s not the only contribution of Chopin. Moreover, for the first time in music History, and among all the artistic movements Romanticism is the one which requires the most a personnal commitment from the musician. Many testimonials confirm Chopin never played any Piano piece the same way.
And about Chopin’s Rubato, Liszt said he was always making the melody wave ! Wind makes leaves shake but trees do not move…
other quotes from Chopin tells us « Let your left hand be your conductor while your right hand is playing ad libitum ».
« Don’t try to play everything with the same sound ! It has been tried for a long time to give each finger the same strength. But none of them have the same anatomy. Each finger has its specific touch, so don’t try to change it but rather use it better ! Thumb is the strongest finger, 3rd and 4th fingers are linked by the same ligament and can’t be separeted, and anyway it would be useless ! What is important is the art of fingering. Hummel is the one who knowns the most about it. »
« The ultimate aim of a composer is simplicity, after having exhausted all the possibilities and played lots of notes. This is impossible to get it at first. It’s impossible to start by the end. »
Concerning improvisation, it was at the Custine Marquis’ and at Duke Constantin’s castle he trained the most.
Many testimonials from G. Sand describe Chopin’s creative process : « The original idea usually came during summer, then Chopin started a long development work which could last several weeks. He locked himself in his room for hours or even days and could spend entire weeks working on a single page. »
Some Chopin’s great players
Sergueï Rachmaninov (1873-1943), the last great Romantic Composer and Pianist. He recorded many pieces from Chopin.
Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) who left us many records. He has been the first to play the complete 24 Preludes, 4 Ballades and 24 Studies in concert.