Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) is
the only one of the world's great composers whose
music is devoted entirely to the piano. Of the
169 works he created in his tragically short lifetime,
most are devoted to solo piano exclusively, with
his few other masterworks using the piano either
with orchestra, in a chamber music setting, or
as vocal accompaniment. His compositions, full
of moonbeams and longing, sweeping passion and
revolutionary outburst, are among the favorite
literature of all pianists today.
Rich with innovative harmony and singing bel
canto lines, Chopin's music was far in advance
of its time, ranging between deep melancholy and
passionate outburst, dissonance fading into otherworldly
elegance. "He confided
sorrows to which the pious give vent in their
communication with their Maker, " wrote Franz
Liszt about Chopin. "What they never say
except upon their knees, he said in his palpitating
Using captivating melodies and rhythms rooted
in the folk songs of his beloved Poland, Chopin
developed the form of the nocturne, ballade, scherzo,
impromptu, waltz, fantasy, etude and other musical
forms into resplendent, perfect pieces both grand
and miniature. The ties to Polish folk music are
most evident in his mazurkas and polonaises, but
nearly all of Chopin's masterpieces contain some
phrase, some melodic connection to his native
country. The furious opening theme of his epic
C minor "Revolutionary" etude, said
to be inspired by the fall of Warsaw, became the
country's battle cry.
Of his four compositions in the fantasy form,
the Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49, is one of his
highest achievements, moving from start to finish
through a relentless course of drama and dreams.
Some have called it his "fifth Ballade"
for its musical narrative and melodic flow.
Among Chopin's most imaginative (and popular)
works are the beautiful Berceuse, the composer's
only lullaby, and the stunning Barcarolle, with
its rocking rhythms and hints of the splendors
of old Venice. The Barcarolle has also been called
the "sixth Ballade" for its rich complexity
of musical invention and harmonic development.
Chopin's four ballades are rooted in the musical
form of an old story (stanza) and refrain, a "sung
narration" that in the case of his particular
compositions has given rise to various programmatic
tales about each piece. Some say the first Ballade
in G minor was inspired by a poetic work of Adam
Mickiewicz (the "Shakespeare of Poland"),
based on a tale that centers around an incident
of a wife killing her husband and ending with
the laugh of the devil.
The second (F major) Ballade is supposedly rooted
in another Mickiewicz poem entitled Switez ("The
Enchanted Lake") and the graceful, elegant
third Ballade, (A-flat major) in Undine. Whatever
the story behind the fourth (F minor) Ballade,
this last masterpiece is one of Chopin's most
emotional works, which the American critic James
Gibbons Huneker described as "irresistible
Chopin's scherzos, also four in all, include the
stormy C-sharp minor Scherzo, Op. 39, full of
anger, protest and fighting spirit. Composed in
1839 during the composer's miserable stay on the
island of Majorca with George Sand, this work
is also interlaced with zal, an almost untranslatable
Polish word meaning "sorrow," and is
also, according to Huneker, a subtle quality that
is "ironical, sad, sweet, joyous, morbid,
sour, sane and dreamy."
In the final analysis, zal permeated all of Chopin's
music, his life as well as his death, after which
his heart was removed and buried in Poland, while
his precious silver urn of Polish earth was buried
with his body in Paris. "Poland, Poland,"
wrote the French music essayist Georges Jean-Aubry,
"how many nights has he held her to his heart."
The heart of Chopin continues to permeate all
of his works, and his genius changed the concept
of piano composition forever.
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