Frederick Chopin 01.03.1810

Frederick Chopin

Chopin was born on 1st March 1810 in Warsaw and was to become one of the world’s best known composers and virtuoso pianists. He has maintained worldwide renown as a composer whose “poetic genius was based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation.” (Rosen, 1995).

The following blogs were designed to be read in order but can be enjoyed individually. I will be presenting some history, alongside some professional videos and some of my own recordings of Chopin’s best loved pieces. I do hope that you enjoy this little encounter with one of the world’s greatest ever piano composers.

Chopin’s Legacy

Chopin at 25, by Maria Wodzinska, 1835

Chopin is, undoubtedly, the pianist’s composer. Although he composed two concertos for piano and orchestra and some ensemble pieces, his best-loved compositions are for piano solo.

His larger scale works such as the sonatas, the four scherzi, the four ballades, the Fantaisie in F minor, opus 49 and the Barcarolle in F sharp major, opus 60 have cemented a solid place within the piano repertoire, as have his shorter works: the polonaises, the mazurkas, the waltzes, the Impromptus and the nocturnes.

Chopin invested all these works with deep feeling and emotion. His distinctive style conveys a musicality and beauty unsurpassed and the range of his work demonstrates versatility and virtuosity.

In order to illustrate this, I have selected three pieces which demonstrate the melodic and emotional depth of his work. I hope my recordings do some justice to these beautiful works.

Chopin Waltz in A flat major, opus 69, No.1
Chopin Polonaise in G minor, opus.posthum
Chopin Waltz in A minor, opus 34, No.2

Piano: John McGuinness

Chopin’s music is still very popular today and has been an inspiration to later pianists, composers and audiences. Indeed, contemporary piano composers are very much influenced by his romantic style and many refer to themselves as the new romantics. Major outlets for this music are to be found in film, theatre and the concert hall. These composers will be the subject of future blogs and include Ludovico Einaudi, Dario Marianelli, Yiruma and many more.

Chopin, Field and the Nocturne

Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9, No. 2

The term “Nocturne” was first applied to musical pieces in the 18th century. It indicated an ensemble piece in several movements, normally played for an evening party and then laid aside.

However, in its more familiar form, as a short piece usually written for solo piano, the nocturne was cultivated primarily in the 19th century. The first nocturnes to be written for piano were by the Irish composer, John Field (26 July 1782–23 January 1837).

Field is generally viewed as the father of the romantic nocturne, being the person who elevated the nocturne to the status later achieved by the great romantic composers, such as Chopin. The nocturne is traditionally associated with the night – a sort of evening serenade. However, it came to be associated more with its musical form. Simply put, it is usually in the form of a pure melody on the right hand with arpeggios on left hand.

Field composed eighteen nocturnes, their mixture of reverie and charming melodic invention providing constant musical delight.

I think one of the best examples of a nocturne in its pure form is Field’s first ever nocturne, Nocturne No. 1 in E Flat Major. I decided, for better or for worse, to record it a few years back. I do hope you enjoy my rendition of it, warts n’all.

Field’s first ever nocturne, Nocturne No. 1 in E Flat Major

Incidentally, to give some idea of Field’s popularity in Russia – where he lived and worked for many years – he is mentioned in passing in War and Peace. There is a scene in Tolstoy’s novel where Countess Rostova calls on the Rostov household musician to play her favourite nocturne.

However, the most famous exponent of the form was Frederick Chopin who wrote 21 nocturnes. His nocturnes for piano solo are undoubtedly amongst the most glorious in the classical piano repertoire. They cover a broad spectrum of feelings and moods and are rich in musicality.

I am working on two of Chopin’s nocturnes at the moment but I haven’t recorded them yet. Maybe in a future blog when I reach my 300th birthday!

It is one of the curses of being largely self-taught that I fear I have arrived at Chopin a little too late in my life. However, the magic of audio and video recording brings with it immediate access to the genius of Chopin through the beautiful performances of world-renowned pianists.

I recently saw on YouTube a wonderful performance by a young pianist called Tiffany Poon. She is playing Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major, Opus 9, No.2. I found it rather beautiful and very moving. I hope you enjoy it too.

I hope this little blog and Tiffany’s gorgeous playing might entice you, even if you are not normally into classical piano music, to search out more of Chopin’s beautiful nocturnes. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!

Chopin’s Preludes

Chopin wrote a number of preludes for piano solo. His cycle of 24 Preludes, Opus 28 covers all major and minor keys

They are short pieces for the piano, and were originally published in 1839. Whereas the term “prelude” had up to that time been used to describe an introductory piece, Chopin’s preludes are self-contained units, each conveying a specific idea or emotion.

Chopin wrote some of the preludes whilst staying at Valldemossa, Mallorca, during the winter of 1838–39, where he had fled with George Sand and her children to escape the damp Paris weather.

The following two preludes are my favourites. They each convey a depth of feeling that quite surpasses expectation. They are No. 4 in E Minor and No. 15 in D flat Major.

Chopin Prelude Opus 28 No. 4 in E Flat Minor
Chopin Prelude Opus 28 No. 15 in D Flat Major

I do hope you enjoy listening to them. They have proved to be very popular over the years and have found their way into popular culture through film, theatre and drama. A wonderful legacy!

Here are two quite different videos from Youtube about Chopin and Sands stay in Valldemossa!

This is a short film about Valldemossa, where Chopin used to spend few months of his life working. Maciej Puczynski.
María Márquez: Pianist and Narrator. Guillem Durán: Edition Camera operator and resources Gabriel Quetglas: The charterhouse keeper and guide. Lara Wong: Camera operator and resources Esteban Márquez: Graphics Fundacja Talenty Muzyczne Europy. Musical Talents of Europe.

Chopin’s Etude, Opus 10, No.3

Étude Op. 10, No. 3, in E Major is a study for solo piano composed by Chopin in 1832. It was first published in 1833 in France, Germany, and England.

This is a slow cantabile created to assist students with their musical expressiveness and smoothness of playing. For me, it is simply one of the nicest wee tunes I’ve ever heard. Even the maestro himself believed the melody of the piece to be the most beautiful he had ever composed.

The melody became famous through numerous popular arrangements. Although this étude is sometimes identified by the names “Tristesse” (Sadness) or “L’ Adieu” (Farewell), neither is a name given by Chopin, but rather his critics. For me, it is rich in all sorts of feelings and, as such, irresistibly romantic.

I hope you enjoy my recording of this piece which I made some time ago for the “Wedding Album”

Frederick Chopin Etude Opus 10 No 3

The dominant feeling that comes across from the music is a deep sense of nostalgia. This is actually confirmed by some of Chopin’s students. One reported that, on hearing his student play the Etude, Chopin wept and said out loud “ My homeland!”.

It is claimed that Chopin altered parts of the Etude so that a poem by Marian Jozefovicz would fit better to the music. For this reason, I find the following performance of the song derived from the Etude and sung in Polish, very touching. You might also like the version sung by Janus Popławski, a tenor from 1934 which can be found here.

My Polish sister-in-law played the Etude beautifully. My French mother-in-law used to refer to it as Tino Rossi‘s “Tristesse”. I’ve always loved the French version because it reminds me of beautiful summer days in France so many years ago.

There have been many English versions of the song “So Deep is the Night”, heavily based on the Etude. These range from beautiful to mediocre to appalling. One version which is rather delightful sung by David Chittick, is presented below with clips from the film “A Song to Remember” a 1945 musical drama in which Chopin sacrifices everything, even love, for his native Poland.

Many films have used the Etude as background, one notable example being near the beginning of “Testament of Youth”, a highly acclaimed film based on the life of Vera Britten, the late Shirley Williams’ mother.

Frederick Chopin

This blog is the first in a series focusing on my favourite piano composers. I will be presenting some recordings of Chopin’s best loved pieces and I do hope that you enjoy this little encounter with one of the world’s greatest ever piano composers.

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born on 1st March 1810 in Warsaw and was to become one of the world’s best known composers and virtuoso pianists. He has maintained worldwide renown as a composer whose “poetic genius was based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation.” (Rosen, 1995).

Chopin was a musical prodigy and he had completed many glorious early works by the time he was 20 years old. This first blog focuses on an extremely popular waltz composed by Chopin in the year 1829 at the age of 19. Waltz Op. 69, No. 2. from Deux Valses (“Two Waltzes”) was only published posthumously in 1852. The main theme is in the key of B Minor and is marked with an overall tempo of Moderato.

Chopin’s music has had a broad appeal and many of his melodies are instantly recognisable today. When I was a young psychology student at Glasgow University in the early 1970’s a lovely friend, Anne, gave me a book of Chopin Waltzes. I have always felt daunted by the prospect of playing Chopin but my love of and respect for his music has led me to “try” one or two of his pieces and, now that I am retired, I have even managed to record my efforts.

Waltz Op. 69, No. 2. from Deux Valses

The piece for me conveys a strong sense of underlying melancholia. There are three different sections. The waltz opens with a beautiful melody that is very popular. For right or wrong, I like to play the opening a bit slower than a lot of players because I genuinely feel that the slightly slower tempo conveys more of the underlying pathos of the piece. Soon the melody changes. It is quicker, lighter, smoother as if the load is lifted a little and is a little bit cheerier in tone. The change to a major key assists this. Then the melancholia returns with the opening theme reestablished toward the end. I suspect my fondness for this piece is due to the way the music seems to mirror perfectly the switches in mood Chopin is purported to have experienced throughout his life.

Although it has achieved great popularity, ironically, it is one of several works that the composer hoped would be burnt upon his death. Thankfully, it wasn’t!

The Waltz

I have never met anyone who does not know what a waltz is. This dance is renowned for its elegance, charm and romanticism. Even as a young lad I can remember my dad or an aunt telling me to stand on their feet and they would move around the kitchen in time to some awful tune on the radio, step by cumbersome step, shouting “ One, two, three -One, two, three.. ad Infinitum”. I loved it! It’s easy to please a four-year-old.

But where did this dance form come from? And why has it had such enduring popularity? Television programmes such as “Strictly Come Dancing” or New Year concerts from Vienna testify to the Waltz’s grand legacy of delight.

The Waltz almost certainly derived from the old German “Ländler“. It grew in prominence at the end of the 18th century, being the vogue in Vienna. It arrived in Britain around 1791. Popular composers such as Mozart regularly wrote waltz pieces for balls and public events in Vienna.

It is hard to imagine now, but the waltz was once regarded as quite improper and was almost universally disapproved of. An English chap called Burney in 1805 wrote, “ the verb ‘waltzen’… implies to roll, wallow, welter, tumble down, or roll in the dirt or more. What analogy there may be between these acceptations and the dance, we pretend not to say; but having seen it performed by a select party of foreigners, we could not help reflecting how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated, and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females”. I don’t know who this guy was but he must have been a wee bit of a kill-joy.

Johann Strauss Statue, Vienna

The great waltz composers of the early part of the 19th century were Joseph Lanner and the Strauss family. There are many celebrated waltz melodies that emerged in Vienna at this time but probably the best known today is “The Blue Danube Waltz” by Johann Strauss. It is smooth, elegant, and beautiful.

Even Andre Rieu, in a typically lavish performance of the waltz, leaves aside a proportion of his cheesy smile in order to give us a flavour of the grandness of the waltz as it may have been experienced in early 19th century Vienna.

A particular feature of the Viennese Waltz is worthy of note. Compared to the classic waltz, in the Viennese Waltz the second beat of the accompaniment is played a trifle before its legal moment. This is what adds to the vitality and energy of this particular form of waltz. It is the reason why some, but clearly not all, of the celebrities in “Strictly…” come a cropper in the Viennese Waltz section.

Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and many other classical composers wrote wonderful waltz tunes. The piano waltzes of Chopin and Brahms are of particular importance in the history of music.

Chopin’s Waltz in B minor, Opus 69, No.2 (Op. posth.)

A personal favourite of mine is Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor, Opus 34, No.2. A friend gave me a book of Chopin Waltzes when I was at Glasgow University in the early 70’s and I was delighted that this particular waltz was in it. I recorded it a few years ago. I hope you enjoy listening to this. I have also recently recorded Chopin’s much loved Waltz in B minor, Opus 69, No.2 (Op. posth.)

Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor, Opus 34, No.2.
Chopin’s Waltz in B minor, Opus 69, No.2 (Op. posth.)

The waltz as an instrumental form continued to be popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. However, it has been less favoured in more recent times. A lot of contemporary rock music tends to have 2 or 4 beats to the bar, but this is not a universal phenomenon. Much jazz, classical and contemporary music genres use mixed beat set-ups so that the rhythm of the piece changes, creating variety and novelty.

As far as the contemporary piano is concerned, there are some beautifully evocative waltz compositions. One of my favourite compositions is by Alexis Ffrench. Born in 1970, Ffrench has been improvising on the piano since the age of four. He received scholarships to study at The Purcell School for Young Musicians, the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He is known for his unique style of combining his classical training with a love of roots music and Rhythm and Blues.

Bluebird (Solo Piano Version) by Alexis Ffrench is a smooth, melodic composition for solo piano. It is an elegant waltz and is quite beautiful. In my opinion, this contemporary piece demonstrates why rock artists are missing a trick or two by ignoring the waltz form.

A couple of my own little pieces are in waltz time. When I visited Italy some years ago, I made some new friends, including three amazing ladies in their eighties. Carol and I, being younger and more able-bodied (when not tipsy), would often walk holding arms with them in order to negotiate steep and busy pathways in places like Verona and Venice. Sometimes it must have looked to other tourists as if we were doing some crazy, unsychronised dance. When I got home I wrote a little waltz to celebrate those lovely moments. I called it “The Dance of Youth”!

Another little waltz I wrote is quite different. I was walking along the canal at Willington to get some exercise. I was in a sombre mood when I noticed some Willow trees hanging over the water. The weather was wintry, grey and bleak and the trees also seemed a bit sad. Of course, I know a tree cannot be sad but I sensed the pathos of the moment. Then a little bit of magic happened. The branches hanging over the water began to dance about in the wind – here, there and everywhere. They made my heart leap a little and I smiled for the first time that day. It is funny how the littlest things in life can give so much pleasure!

Later that day, I returned to my music diary and decided that my experience could best be encapsulated in a small piano solo. I decided it would have a sad opening. Then a little waltz melody would be introduced to describe the fluttering of the branches and leaves over the water. Then the piece would finish with the sad feeling again. I called this piece “The Willow Trees”.

Extracts from The Dance of Youth & The Willow Trees by John McGuinness

I hope you like my little waltzes and that they illustrate how the waltz rhythm can be varied in order to change the feeling of a piece of music. Vive la valse!

You can find full versions of my waltzes on Riversongs and Among the Willows by clicking on the images above.