Frédéric Chopin: A Symphony of Emotion
Music is “the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.” A musician, then, is passionate by definition and soulful. And while music plays an integral role in modern society, it has done so for several centuries.
The works of Bach are the hallmark of baroque polyphony, while the masterpieces of Mozart and Beethoven are the quintessential developments of classical style. Romantic music, while highly structured, allows for greater expression of emotions. And works of the twentieth century, some more reminiscent than others, comprise the evolution that has led to the music we know today.
Enter Frédéric Chopin – a name that resonates with elegance, emotion, and sheer virtuosity. Born in Poland, Chopin was a prodigious composer and pianist whose influence on the music world remains memorable. As we explore the annals of musical history, we find Chopin standing tall as one of the most significant figures of the Romantic era.
Biography of Chopin
Frédéric François Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola (near Warsaw, Poland) on March 1, 1810 (or on February 22, according to his baptismal certificate). He was born into a small family of a French father, Nicolas Chopin, and a Polish mother, Tekla Justyna Krzyzanowska. He showed great admiration for the piano at a very young age, and he composed two polonaises (Polish dances) at the age of seven years. At the same time, he gave concert performances to impressed audiences and, being humble, stated that the public was admiring the collar of his shirt.
He began his studies with violinist Wojciech Zywny in 1816. As he soon acquired greater skills than his teacher, he continued his studies at the Warsaw Conservatory under the tutelage of Wilhelm Wurfel. At the age of 15 years, he published his first work (Rondo, op. 1). At 16, he began to study harmony, theory, figured bass, and composition with Jozef Elsner, a Silesian composer who taught at the Conservatory.
In early 1829, Chopin performed in Vienna, where he was received with several optimistic reviews. The next year, he returned to his homeland and performed the premiere of his piano concerto in F minor at the National Theatre on March 17. After these travels, Chopin moved to Paris to eschew the volatile political situation back home. On the road, he learned that the Russians had captured Warsaw, and he composed the great “Revolutionary Etude” in reaction to that. Once in Paris, he began working on his first ballade (Op. 23) and scherzo (Op. 20), as well as his first etudes (Op. 10). It was also at this time that he began his unfortunate struggle with Tuberculosis.
In France, Chopin had the opportunity to acquaint himself with his contemporaries who also participated in the Romantic Revolution in Paris. Among them were Liszt, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Bellini, Balzac, Heine, Victor Hugo and Schumann. Reluctantly, the introvert expanded his horizons and made many lasting friendships. He also came across the friend of Liszt’s mistress, the French author best known by her pseudonym, George Sand. When they met, she was 34, and he was 28. Madame Sand was courageous and domineering: her need to dominate found its counterpart in Chopin’s need to be led. She left a memorable description of the composer at work:
“His creative work was spontaneous, miraculous. It came to him without effort or warning… But then began the most heartrending labor I have ever witnessed. It was a series of attempts, of fits of irresolution and impatience, to recover certain details. He would shut himself in his room for days, pacing up and down, breaking his pens, repeating and modifying one bar a hundred times.”
The 1830s in Paris proved to be a progressive and productive time for Chopin. He completed some of his most popular works and performed regular concerts, receiving fantastic reviews. However, Chopin did not favor public performance; he demanded a constant demand of himself as a composer and teacher. He was demanded in the Parisian salons and played less reluctantly under these circumstances.
Madame Sand shared the gelid winter of 1838-1839 with Chopin. They stayed in an unheated peasant hut and the Valldemossa Monastery. Chopin encountered many difficulties in acquiring a piano from Paris in these parts. Much of this miserable and desperate time is depicted in his 24 preludes (Op. 28), composed during this time. Due to the terrible conditions and Chopin’s unpleasant reaction, he and Madame Sand returned to Paris.
During the following eight years, Chopin spent his summers at Sand’s estate in Nohant. She entertained some of France’s most prominent artists and writers in this location. Unfortunately, the couple’s happiness was relatively short-lived, and they shifted from love to conflict. Their intense relationship ended two years before Chopin died in 1847. Sand had begun to suspect that Chopin had fallen in love with her daughter, Solange; they parted in rancor. One of Chopin’s best friends, Franz Liszt, stated that he once declared that he had ruined his life by ending this long affection. Once found in his later letters: “What has become of my art? And my heart, where have I wasted it?”
On an interesting personal note, Chopin once stated that he had never been attracted to Sand. “Something about her repels me,” said he to his family. Moreover, Sand once suggested in her correspondence that Chopin was asexual; that is, he did not incline to have sexual relations with anyone, male or female.
On October 17, 1849, Tuberculosis ended the life of a young genius. At the age of 39, Chopin passed away, blessing us with no further melodies or harmonies. Thousands joined together to attend his funeral and to pay him homage. His funeral was held at the Church of the Madeleine, and he was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His heart was interred at the Church of the Holy Cross in Poland, and Polish soil was sprinkled over his tomb in France, as he had requested.
Many inspired tourists visit Chopin’s grave every year to pay their respects. To this date, his music has been performed and recorded very frequently. The Composer of Poland is known as one of the best composers of the Romantic period; ironically, he did not consider himself of this group. He was the Poet of the Piano, and his music’s intense expression and emotion caused this common belief. Anyhow, his music has fuelled millions of musicians’ inspiration and will continue to do so for quite some time.
“Simplicity is the final achievement. After playing a vast quantity of notes and more notes, simplicity emerges as the crowning reward of art.” – Frédéric François Chopin
Chopin composed mainly for solo piano. A few exceptions include the piano concerti and the Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise in E-flat major (Op. 22), for which he composed orchestral accompaniments. In these cases, the piano is still the star, but its music is introduced and supported with help from the orchestra.
The intros are, for several reasons, very much related to the études of Op. 10 and Op. 25. While composing them, Chopin had a conception similar to Bach with the Well-Tempered Clavier: like his predecessor, Chopin put all preludes into an order of tonalities, however with a difference; in the Well-Tempered Clavier all tonalities rise chromatically, while Chopin put his preludes into an order that follows the circle of tonalities. It is known that Chopin thoroughly studied the works of Bach before writing his preludes. He admired the perfection of form and harmony in Bach’s music. In spite of this example, however, Chopin created something completely new. Originally the French word “prélude” meant nothing more than “introduction,” but in this form, Chopin let the 24 preludes develop into independent pieces of music.
“So much for the intros; they are very beautiful and are worthy of the closest study and pains, not with a view of perfecting any stereotyped manner of playing each one but of discovering the various methods which may be employed to bring out their beauty. Half the attraction of a beautiful woman lies in the various dresses she wears. She may be in blue today, in grey tomorrow, and in pink the day after; with every change, she appears more beautiful. So it is with the preludes. Each has a large wardrobe of different dresses. Do not, then, always dress them in the same colors.” – Vladimir de Pachmann
“Chopin’s preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart. They are not only, as the title might make one think, pieces destined to be played in the guise of introductions to other pieces; they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet who cradles the soul in golden dreams and elevates it to the regions of the ideal.” – Franz Liszt (1841)
“I would term the preludes strange. They are sketches, beginnings of études, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions.” – Robert Schumann
- Prelude in C Major, Op. 28 No. 1 — Agitato
This is an arabesque of the finest colors. Vladimir de Pachmann: “The first one is in a style that reminds one very forcibly of Schumann.” Hans von Bulow called this prelude Reunion. It was composed in Majorca in January 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel and Johann Kessler.
- Prelude in A Minor, Op. 28 No. 2 — Lento
Some say this prelude was composed in Stuttgart. The Polish pianist Jan Kleczynski (1837-1895) preferred to play the first prelude two times and then skip this prelude because he felt this prelude was too bizarre to play. Vladimir de Pachmann: “The second is, I think, somewhat poor, and I remember that Liszt himself once told me that he thought it a little weak.” It was composed in Majorca, Nov/Dec of 1838 and published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Presentiment of Death.
- Prelude in G Major, Op. 28 No. 3 — Vivace
This work was composed between 1836 and 1839; it was finally published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Vladimir de Pachmann: “The third, though it has not a very high meaning, is a delightful little prelude. The melody is so smooth that it reminds me of oil floating on water while a zither accompaniment is running.” Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Thou Art So Like a Flower.
- Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4 — Largo
Walter Gieseking recommends pedaling during the opening of this prelude: “The right-hand upbeat is very important. Pedal first on the second note and hold the same pedal into the first measure.” An organ played this prelude at Chopin’s funeral. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Suffocation. It was composed in Majorca in November and December 1838 and published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in D Major, Op. 28 No. 5 — Allegro molto
Hans von Bulow called this prelude Uncertainty. It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839. It is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in B Minor, Op. 28 No. 6 — Lento assai
Hans von Bulow called this prelude Tolling Bells. It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and finally published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in A Major, Op. 28 No. 7 — Andantino
Because Federico Mompou (1893-1987) composed a Variaciones sobre un tema di Chopin based on this intro, Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Polish Dancer. It was composed in 1836, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28 No. 8 — Molto agitato
Some say this one was composed in Majorca during a thunderstorm. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Desperation. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in E Major, Op. 28 No. 9 — Largo
This prelude uses 48 different chords! Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Vision. It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 28 No. 10 — Allegro molto
This work was composed in Majorca in November and December of 1838. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. It is capricious. Vladimir de Pachmann: “In the tenth, Chopin seems to me to point at and imitate his master, Hummel.” Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Night Moth:
“A night moth is flying around the room there! It has suddenly hidden itself (the sustained G Sharp); only its wings twitch slightly. It takes flight anew in a moment and again settles down in darkness — its wings flutter (trill in the left hand). This happens several times, but at the last, just as the wings begin to quiver again, the busybody who lives in the room aims a stroke at the poor insect. It twitches once… and dies.”
- Prelude in B Major, Op. 28 No. 11 — Vivace
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Dragon Fly. It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839. It is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 28 No. 12 — Presto
This one could have been an etude as well. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Duel. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in F-sharp Major, Op. 28 No. 13 — Lento
Hans von Bulow called this prelude Loss. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in E-flat Minor, Op. 28 No. 14 — Allegro
Hans von Bulow called this prelude Fear. Composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839, it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
“This is a torturous, frustrating piece. It wants to go in a certain direction, starting as if to go forwards. Then it falters and falls back. It is a very chromatic work, alternating between minor and major. In the end, you fall on the tonic without a preceding dominant. You are here but have no solution. This is the atmosphere I find; therefore, I don’t play it quickly because I would lose this torturous, frustrated, faltering, contradictory quality.” – Tamas Vasary
- Prelude in D-flat Major, Op. 28 No. 15 — Sostenuto
This work was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Raindrop.
“One came to him through an evening of dismal rain – it casts the soul into a terrible melancholy. Maurice and I had left him in good health one morning to go shopping in Palma for things we needed at our “encampment.” The rain came in overflowing torrents. We made three leagues in six hours, only to return in the middle of a flood. We returned in absolute dark, shoeless, having been abandoned by our driver to cross unheard-of perils. We hurried, knowing how our sick one would worry. Indeed he had, but now he was as though congealed in quiet desperation, and, weeping, he was playing his wonderful intro. Seeing us come in, he got up with a cry, then said with a bewildered air and a strange tone, “Ah, I was sure that you were dead.” When he recovered his spirits and saw the state we were in, he was ill, picturing the dangers we had been through, but he confessed to me that while waiting for us, he had seen it all in a dream and no longer distinguish the dream from reality, he became calm and drowsy. While playing the piano, persuaded that he was dead, he saw himself drowning in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might—and he was right to—against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds. His composition of that night was surely filled with raindrops, resounding clearly on the tiles of the Charterhouse, but it had been transformed in his imagination and his song into tears falling upon his heart from the sky.” – George Sand
Sand does not specify the key or number of the prelude written on this occasion, and although the D-flat major prelude is usually given the informal title, Raindrop, the story could apply to any of the melancholy preludes with a repetitive figure (A minor, E minor, B minor, as well as D-flat major).
- Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 28 No. 16 — Presto con fuoco
Suppose one plays this intro in the desired whirlwind tempo, presto con fuoco. In that case, one will find that the prime difficulty of this intro is not the obvious difficulty of the right-hand 16th notes but the follow-through motion required to play the three-note left-hand groups all in one sweep.
“The sixteenth is my great favorite! It is la plus grande tour de force in Chopin. It is technically the most difficult of all the preludes, possibly except the nineteenth. In this case, presto is not enough. It should be played prestissimo, or, better still, vivacissimo.” – Vladimir De Pachmann
Hans von Bulow called this prelude Hades. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in A-flat Major, Op. 28 No. 17 — Allegretto
This piece is a little romance in which Chopin introduces harmonies not previously found in other compositions. This one was the favorite of Clara Schumann and Anton Rubinstein. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, A Scene on the Place de Notre-Dame de Paris. It was composed in 1836, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in F Minor, Op. 28 No. 18 — Allegro molto
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Suicide. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in E-flat Major, Op. 28 No. 19 — Vivace
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Heartfelt Happiness. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in C Minor, Op. 28 No. 20 — Largo
Composed between 1836-1839, published in 1839, and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Chopin originally ended this piece at bar 9. Based on this intro, Rachmaninov composed his Variations on a Theme of Chopin. These variations scare off even the best of pianists—they last more than half an hour and are both technically and musically demanding. Hans von Bulow called this prelude Funeral March.
- Prelude in B-flat Major, Op. 28 No. 21 — Cantabile
This work was composed in Majorca in November and December of 1838. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Hans von Bulow called it Sunday.
- Prelude in G Minor, Op. 28 No. 22 — Molto agitato
Hans von Bulow called this prelude impatience. It was composed between 1836 and 1839. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Vladimir de Pachmann: “In the twenty-second Prelude, Chopin created an energetic modern octave play. It was the first prelude of its kind in the world.”
- Prelude in F Major, Op. 28 No. 23 — Moderato
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, A Pleasure Boat. Vladimir de Pachmann: “In the twenty-third Prelude, pretty well all the editions indicate short legato passages. Chopin never played such passages. He sometimes introduced a long legato passage, but never short ones of a few notes only.” It was composed between 1836 and 1839. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in D Minor, Op. 28 No. 24 — Allegro appassionato
Vladimir de Pachmann: “In the twenty-fourth, the amateur would do well to remember that the whole beauty of this prelude is generally spoilt by the left-hand notes being banged. These should be masked the whole time and should never be allowed to drown the right hand.” Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Storm. It was composed between 1836 and 1839. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
- Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45
Op. 45 is the twenty-fifth prelude with widely extending basses and shifting harmonic hues. It is a bit dark and elegiac but pinpricked with more hopeful excerpts, though still ultimately sorrowful.