Immerse Yourself in Chopin's Piano Music!

Waltz in c sharp minor, op. 64 No. 2 - Dinu Lipatti

What is at the Heart of Chopin's Music?

I remember listening to a recording of Lili Kraus playing Chopin’s Waltzes when I was about seven, together with my father. And I remember very well how this music touched something deep inside. I am sure some of you have similar experiences. Chopin’s piano music stirs emotions in people from all kinds of societies and of all ages.

What is it that gives Chopin’s piano music its great power, to make us want to listen to it over and over in the entire course of a lifetime? This Hub will try to give you a few ideas about what the kinds of things are that add upp to Chopin’s particular style, and to encourage you to immerse yourself in it.

The Greatest Piano Composer?

We are speaking about the most famous piano composer ever. Yes, Beethoven, Bach and Mozart are all in the same sort of league, but they composed so many different sorts of music. Of course, nobody would want to live without Beethoven’s piano sonatas, Mozart’s piano concertos and Bach’s Goldberg variations. But I doubt if these pieces have conquered so many hearts and minds as the Waltzes, Nocturnes, Ballades, Polonaises and Mazurkas of Chopin? No matter where you go around the globe, people will be listening to and admiring Frédéric Chopin’s piano music. There is something at the heart of this composer that makes his pieces speak with great force to almost anybody.

The fact that Chopin devoted all his energies to the piano and almost no other instrument (yes, he wrote a couple of songs and a very beautiful cello sonata) gives his production extra pregnancy and weight. I don’t mean that Beethoven’s symphonies takes anything away from his piano music, but only that the concentration to the piano of Chopin’s oeuvre makes our mind’s picture of him a lot clearer.

Chopin and Poland

What is wound up with our idea of Chopin more than anything else is his exile from his beloved home country Poland. Chopin was born and brought up there, but happened to be on a concert tour abroad when there was an uprising against the Russians, who were then occupying Poland. It would have been too risky for him to return, and his friends advised him to go on to France, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Chopin stayed devoted to the cause of Poland for the rest of his life, and made use of genres like the Mazurka and Polonaise to honour his suffering countrymen. This music remains the pride of Poland until this day, but it is also a touching picture of the longing, nostalgia, anger, hope and resignation that always accompany a forced exile.

The strong emotions for which he found such perfect expression at the piano, is always at hand when we listen to Chopin’s piano music, but they never become oppressive. Chopin always keeps an air of nobility and elegance which is irrestistible because one can always detect real feelings just below the surface.

Rubinstein Playing "Heroic" Polonaise, A flat major, op.53

yundi li - Nocturne In B Flat Minor Op.9 No.1

How Chopin Made The Piano Sing

Of course, one could say that Chopin´s piano music is effective because it is simply superbly written. Chopin knew the capabilities of the piano like nobody else, and also developed a technique to make it sing like it had never done before. Chopin’s particular style of playing was based on a complete flexibility of the hands, wrists and arms, which opened up new possibilities of legato playing and fluency. This new ideal was partly inspired by contemporary opera, where bel canto technique had made similar developments possible for singers.

Chopin made the piano sing like nobody before him. In part, this is just because he understood its capabilities better than anyone else, but it is also the result of a true fascination with the human voice, and opera singing in particular. The bel canto singers of his time had developed a technique that allowed them to achieve a perfect legato and an incredible flexibility of the voice, which they used to fire off dazzling scales and cadenzas in an improvisatory fashion.

Chopin listened to this and went home and did something similar on the piano, mixing long and beautiful legato lines with sudden bursts of finger dexterity.  But certainly, Chopin was no mere emulator of the opera styles of his day. Bellini and Donizetti may have been very talented, accomplished and respectable composers, but neither of them possessed a genius comparable to Chopin. He aspired to learn from the best composers of the past, and turned to the music of Bach and Mozart to develop his craft.  

Chopin and the Tradition

It’s actually quite remarkable how the person that we all consider the perfect romantic genius, should have had such great a regard for the music of the past. The simple and perfect form of Mozart found a 19th century equivalent in Chopin. What they also have in common is the remarkable combination of utter sophistication with simple and straight-forward expression.

From Bach, Chopin learned to put the horizontal element in music first, letting the individual voices create the harmony, and not the other way around. Priorities like this were actually considered rather conservative among the Romantics, but that didn’t prevent Chopin to become one of the dominant figures of his era. Chopin’s piano music is the eloquent result of deep and noble emotions combined with a perfect knowledge of his craft.

One thing we can be sure of: the amazing qualities of Chopin’s piano music makes it absolutely certain that it will continue to speak to generations of listeners, for many hundred years to come.

Chopin Barcarolle Op. 60 Martha Argerich

Watch the Chopin Competition's Video Archive

In 2010, eighty-one pianists from 23 countries competed for honours at the prestigious Warsaw Chopin competition held every five years. Since this competition also marked the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, the excitement of the event was on an even higher level than usual.
Hundreds of performances of Ballades, Nocturnes, Mazurkas and other piano pieces by Chopin are now available to enjoy through the video archive at konkurs.chopin.pl.

Did the right person win?

The Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva won the 2010 Chopin Competition. Watch videos of her and others performances and share your impressions with us here on Hubpages! Did the right person win? Which performances impressed and moved you the most?

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1 comment

John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Nice hub. If it came to choosing, I'd give up all other music for Chopin's - to quote Nietzsche

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