Chopin Concerto No. 1: Context and Composition cover

Chopin Concerto No. 1: Context and Composition

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The Paris of Frédéric Chopin outshone Paris between the wars as a crucible of creative enterprise. Creating, enjoying and judging art were what Paris was about. This was the city of Franz Liszt, who invented modern musical superstardom, and of Hector Berlioz and Gioacchino Rossini, who retired as a celebrity composer to become a celebrity gourmand.
In Chopin’s case we have both the glitter and the unique aesthetic qualities of the composer who wrote for the piano as no one else ever would. No other great classical composer is identified so closely with a single instrument; every work that Chopin composed features the piano, and the concertos are his largest-scale works that engage the orchestra to accompany it.

Included are listening notes and sound clips.





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Chopin Concerto No. 1: Context and Composition

Background

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, bass trombone, timpani, strings, solo piano

The phrase “Paris in the ‘30s” conjures up the intellectual glamour of Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and the composers who beat a path to Nadia Boulanger’s door. But exactly a century earlier, the Paris of Frédéric Chopin outshone Paris between the wars as a crucible of creative enterprise. Creating, enjoying and judging art were what Paris was about.

This was the city of Franz Liszt, who invented modern musical superstardom, and of Hector Berlioz and Gioacchino Rossini, who retired as a celebrity composer to become a celebrity gourmand; the city of writers such as Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo, and of painters Jean-Baptiste Corot and Eugene Delacroix, who became Chopin’s best friend. Chopin arrived there at the age of 21 and quickly took his place at the center of it all. The year was 1831.

Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric Chopin as portrayed by Eugène Delacroix in 1838.

This portrait was originally part of a larger painting showing both Frédéric Chopin and Georges Sand.

The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide.

Early Years

Born in 1810, Chopin displayed all the signs of a music prodigy early on, playing the piano by ear and composing at the keyboard as a small boy.

When he was 7 his first teacher notated one of his improvisations, a polonaise, and had it published; his next teacher taught young Chopin to notate music himself. His first rondo for solo piano was published in 1825.

Five years later, Chopin unveiled his piano concerto in F minor (now known as No. 2)—composed not in the heroic mold of the great Beethoven concertos, but in the familiar tradition of the display piece in the distinctive style of the composer-performer. He composed the concerto now known as No. 1, in E minor, that same year, performing it in Warsaw to acclaim that Chopin himself described as “deafening bravos.”

More Polish than Poland

From then on—he was just 20 years old—Chopin was not just famous but a national hero of Poland.

He was a figure whose brilliance and standing in music history remain central to Polish national identity. Ardently patriotic, he arrived in Paris with a goblet of Polish soil in his effects—”more Polish than Poland,” in the words of his lover George Sand, the aggressively nonconformist writer equally known for her cross-dressing and her novels.

George Sand

George Sand

Artist - Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)

The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide.

The Importance of the Piano

For Chopin, his two great concertos were the portfolio pieces that comprised proof of achievement for a young man longer on talent than experience.

Such concertos, typified by the showy works of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, were intended to display compositional and instrumental skills rather than artistic gravitas. But in Chopin’s case we have both the glitter and the unique aesthetic qualities of the composer who wrote for the piano as no one else ever would.

No other great classical composer is identified so closely with a single instrument; every work that Chopin composed features the piano, and the concertos are his largest-scale works that engage the orchestra to accompany it. We are lucky to have them, since his personal preference was to play unaccompanied, and his early renown and his willfulness prompted him to play exactly as he wished.

Hats Off, Gentlemen!

Another of his piano-and-orchestra compositions—the variations on the duet “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni—had already made a sensation.

Chopin had performed it in Vienna at age 19, and it was this work that prompted Schumann’s famous comment, “Hats off, gentlemen—a genius!” By the time he arrived in France, Chopin had little to prove, and he was able to concertize in the more intimate venues he preferred, performing shorter works that he composed exclusively for the piano. At his first public performance

in Paris, early in 1832, he played the concerto to great acclaim with Liszt and Mendelssohn in attendance; after that, he rarely performed in public more than twice a year, focusing on the exquisite color and introspection of his smaller-scale works.

Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric Chopin

Artist: Henryk Siemiradzki (1843–1902)

Public Domain

An Early Rock Star

Though this intimacy ran counter to the prevailing style of virtuosi such as Paganini and Liszt, Chopin’s salon concerts took on

a legendary status resembling certain rock concerts of the 1960s:

You had to say you’d been there, whether or not it was true. But if Chopin seemed to neglect these concertos himself (he never played his No. 1 after 1835), they were certainly not forgotten. They have been consistent favorites since Clara Wieck, the pianist and composer who married Robert Schumann, performed the final movement of the No. 1 in 1833, when she was 14.

What to Listen For

Even during his lifetime, some listeners noted that Chopin’s handling of musical materials lacked the complexity and the formal innovations of experimenters such as Liszt, or the structural mastery of large forms and orchestrations.

But these quibbles miss the point: Chopin was unparalleled in his ability to make the piano sing in a way that more closely resembled the heartfelt melodies of bel canto operas than other piano compositions. In fact, his ability to bend bittersweet harmonies far surpassed that of the opera composers who inspired him.

Wounds of First Love

It has been said that time and Chopin are the only known remedies for the wounds of first love.

Such is the affinity between Chopin’s music and the heart’s most inexpressible feelings. His piano concertos can seem grudging or perfunctory in their use of the orchestra, setting up an accompanying line rather than a dialogue between equals. But this creates a closer identification between the listener and the pianist that makes the solo voice all the more thrilling.

Besides, the charge of minimally engaging the orchestra hardly stands up to the first concerto’s long, formal introduction, which follows all the rules of orchestration and structure Chopin learned in his years studying composition with Jozef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory.

Broken Heart

Broken Heart

Artist: Samael Kreutz from Concepción, Chile

(CC BY 2.0)

First Movement

At over four minutes in length, this first-movement opening seems highly formal and almost Beethovenian in length, building suspense and duly introducing thematic material in the orchestra before the piano plays a note.

But once the piano enters, it is clearly dominant, and suddenly the melodies that sounded merely felicitous in the orchestra have the indescribably expressive sweetness of Chopin.

Allegro Maestoso

What follows is an allegro maestoso movement that does not follow a highly elaborated development of key modulations, but that continually alternates between E minor and E major until it finally modulates upward to G major as the movement ends.

Here is an audio link to the Allegro Maestoso: link Please note, it may take a moment to load.

Second Movement

We do not have to know the rules of sonata allegro form to intuit the structural rightness of this key change and the sense of expectant resolution it brings to the concerto’s opening.

But then in the second movement, marked Romanze, Chopin brings us back to the original key and to a mood of lyrical contemplation. He described this as a movement that “rests on a beloved landscape that calls up in one’s soul beautiful memories—for instance, a fine, moonlit spring night.”

Romanze

The effect is not unlike one of Chopin’s beautiful unaccompanied nocturnes.

He seems to have been wary of audience reaction to his orchestration: “I have written [it] for violins with mutes as an accompaniment…I wonder whether it will have a good effect. Well, time will show.”

Click the link to listen to a sample from the second movement. Please note this may take a moment to load.

Third Movement

The finale of this concerto, like that of his second, takes the form of one of Chopin’s beloved Polish dances.

In this case a krakowiak, a high-energy two-step performed in a quick dotted rhythm. Its complex syncopations and shifts of tempo afford Chopin the opportunity to alter the mood from foot-stamping intensity to tender lyricism.

Rondo - Vivace

By this time the entire concerto has unfolded without providing the soloist a chance to play a cadenza—a showy, unaccompanied solo passage designed for climactic virtuosity—yet the overall effect is of spectacular virtuosity and beauty in which the piano is dominant from beginning to end.

Click the link to listen to a sample from the third movement. Please note, this may take a moment to load.