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The Piano Music of Frederic Chopin
The Music of Chopin
note: I’ll use youtube recordings below every genre of composition discussed
The Piano Music of Frederic Chopin. What can I say that hasn’t already been more eloquently stated by other writers, but I’ll try to put in my ‘two cents’ anyway. Many have called Chopin, the greatest composer for the piano that has ever lived; he is one of the giants of music, period. The only other composers for the piano that have fought to gain his supreme title (some of Chopin's fans would say they do not even come close...) are: Beethoven, Liszt and Debussy; Mendelssohn and Schumann, while also great composers of piano music in their own rights, scarcely come close to Chopin. Many music scholars have claimed, that after Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas, Chopin’s piano music is the greatest that has ever been composed for the instrument; many have placed Beethoven above Chopin in piano music; some have placed Chopin above Beethoven in piano music; many have placed both Debussy and Liszt above Beethoven and Chopin in piano music, etc...; however, few if anyone would argue Chopin’s greatness as one of music’s greatest poets, by reason of a refined, startling and very vivid imagination - when it comes to his music, it’s all simply about colors....
This article is not a biography of Chopin, but of his famous and great piano music. However and for all intents and purposes: Frederic Chopin lived from 1810 - 1849; he died of tuberculosis (back then known as consumption) at the early age of 39.
Although Chopin was primarily a miniaturist (a composer who writes in smaller musical forms, such as preludes, waltzes, nocturnes, etc), he also wrote large scale works for the piano such as Concertos, Sonatas, Ballades, Scherzos and, his Fantasy in F minor, which some have called it his Magnum Opus - greatest work.
Chopin wrote four Scherzos for the piano. What's interesting to know, is that before Chopin, the scherzo form was considered to be a simple bagatelle (short and light musical composition). Chopin expanded the ternary form and created works with deep emotional content. Many have argued if Chopin's Scherzos are true scherzos in the sense of the word - scherzo is the German word for "joke" or "fun." "Fun" might well describe the Fourth Scherzo, while strong emotional passions would best describe his Second Scherzo. Regardless, they are technically challenging compositions for even the greatest among pianists. Here's the most famous of the set:
Chopin's Scherzo No. 2
Chopin is - hands down - the greatest composer of nocturnes that has ever lived. However, unlike popular believe, Chopin was not the progenitor of this musical form. We must give credit to the Irish composer, John Field, as he was the true progenitor of this musical form. Liszt's nocturnes pale by comparison to Chopin, although "Liebestraum" is without doubt the most famous nocturne that has ever been composed. Chopin's Op 27, No. 2 is one of the most pianistic composition ever written; it's simple gorgeous! And, here it is performed by the great Arthur Rubinstein:
Chopin - Nocturne Op, 27, No. 2
Another genre in which Chopin reigns supreme is the prelude. One of the things which makes Chopin's preludes so special in contrast to say Rachmaninoff's for example, is their simplicity. Before Chopin, few composers managed to write short and simple bagatelles, while at the same time making them intellectual and interesting. Well, Chopin's Preludes have great emotional depth, yet are technically easy for even beginning piano students to learn to play. Chopin's Raindrop Prelude is one of his most famous and beautiful, and here it is:
Chopin's Raindrop Prelude
Chopin wrote two piano concertos. Because Chopin struggled with large musical forms (concerto's, sonatas, etc), his concertos aren't considered as eminent as his other piano music. However, the slow movement of this concerto is beautiful; it's really just a simple nocturne. The young lady performing was the winner of the 2010 Chopin International Competition:
Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 - Slow Movement
Chopin wrote many short piano bagatelles which he called "Mazurkas." These short piano compositions are quite representative of his Polish Culture. Here's the great Vladimir Horowitz performing one of them:
Horowitz performing a Chopin Mazurka
Chopin wrote many of them. The most famous of all - hands down - is the A flat aka 'Revolutionary Polonaise'. All said, the polonaise I decided to feature is also very beautiful:
Chopin's Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brilliante
If nothing else, know this, Chopin and Liszt made the "Etude" what it is today - Liszt turned it into a 'Tour de Force' for piano solo to be reckoned with; and, Chopin turned it into an actual piano composition, instead of a mere exercise - hence its name's sake "etude/study." Well, Chopin wrote many Etudes for the piano, but this one I featured is by far the most famous and loveliest of all:
Chopin's Etude Op. 10, No. 3
Before Chopin, C. M. v Weber, and a small handful of other composers attempted to conquer this genre, but Chopin was the first composer who made it cool for future composers to write piano waltzes. ...not only is this one of Chopin's most famous waltzes, but it's also one of the most famous classical compositions of all times - and here it is:
Chopin's "Minute Waltz"
Here's an area of composition in which some may say Chopin felt short. He was arguably the greatest miniaturist that has ever lived, but Chopin did have a few problems in tackling larger and more ambitious musical forms. All said, Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 3 is very beautiful and melodic. Of course, one can hardly discuss Chopin's Sonatas, without playing his most famous/infamous of all and here is that famous slow movement:
P. S. this famous movement is in ternary form aka "ABA" - the "A" or first section of the movement, is dark and gloomy, whereas the "B" or second section of the movement, is quite lyrical and typical Chopin.
Chopin's Sonata No. 2, 3rd Movement
Chopin wrote just a few impromptus, but this one is by far most famous of all:
Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66
In addition to these compositions, Chopin also wrote miscellaneous works for piano and orchestra, a Fantasie for solo piano, and much more.... All said, it's Chopin's simple and lyrical style that has made him so famous and well loved. True, Beethoven, Liszt and Debussy (the composers whom I discussed in the beginning of this article), unlike Chopin, all excelled in different musical genres - large and small forms alike; however, Chopin's niche was always in his unique, poetic and startling approach to piano music, which has yet to be surpassed by any other composer.