Piano Concertos

Piano Concertos

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor

When Frédéric Chopin was about nineteen years old, he finished his education at the Warsaw Conservatory and began looking for funding to live and work abroad. On short trips to Berlin and Vienna, Chopin was able to play some of his music for new audiences, and he found that the pieces with Polish forms or characteristics were especially popular. He returned to Warsaw briefly before beginning a tour, and it was at this point that Chopin undertook the composition of his first piano concerto. This piece came to be known as the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, and it was completed in 1830. The following year, Chopin completed another piano concerto, this one ultimately called the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. (The reversed numbering reflects the order of publication.) In response to the positive reaction European audiences had to the Polish character he’d already displayed in his music, the third movements of both concertos are based on Polish dance forms.

In March of 1730, Chopin performed a concert at the Polish National Theater in Warsaw. The F minor Concerto was extremely well received, and the entire concert was repeated—with small changes—less than a week later. The Polish public was immediately smitten with Chopin’s charming use of national dance rhythms and folksongs. In October of that same year, Chopin presented one final concert in Warsaw, this one featuring the E minor Concerto. After the success of this concert—which was not quite as overwhelming as the one in March —Chopin finally left for Vienna, where he spent eight months. He was not able to repeat the success he’d had there previously, and he moved on to Paris with the intention of going to London, but he ended up making Paris his home thereafter.

Unlike other Romantic composers like Liszt or even Beethoven, Chopin had no great desire to re-invent the concerto form. Chopin’s Piano Concertos show a conservative style in the orchestral writing, but where they are truly unique and special is in the music for the soloist. The melodic material that is first presented by the orchestra is lovely, but in the hands of the soloist, it is magic. Chopin truly succeeded—and certainly this was his foremost intention—in creating stunning showpieces for himself. The orchestra in Chopin’s concertos supports and encourages. It does not overpower. It stays in the background most of the time, but it shapes the harmonies that highlight Chopin’s delightful melodies.

There are three movements in Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. The first movement, marked Allegro maestoso, is as majestic as its marking suggests.

The orchestral exposition seems to hold itself back a little, but once the piano enters, the movement opens up and shows its noble bearing. The second movement, marked Romanze Larghetto, is a nocturne that virtually sings with tunefulness. A nocturne is simply a musical piece that evokes the night. Chopin is probably the best-known composer of solo piano nocturnes, a genre that is thoroughly Romantic. (He wrote twenty-one of them.) There is no conflict here, no overwrought drama. Chopin’s gift for melody absolutely shines. At the end of the movement, lovely bassoon lines intertwine with the piano, giving us a chance to distinctly hear the woodwinds and piano together. The music of Poland appears in the finale, a Vivace - rondo that features a polka. Chopin paid homage to his homeland in numerous pieces, both big and small, and here he brings this lively dance to an international audience.

The opening movement of the F minor concerto, marked Maestoso, is sufficiently dramatic, with the piano soloist taking on most of the thematic development. In this movement, Chopin eschews the traditional cadenza, possibly because the entire movement has had the soloist as its focal point. The second movement seems to draw upon the bel canto style popular in the Italian operas of the time. The piano part may seem improvisational, but it was meticulously planned. The delicacy and intimacy of the movement come more sharply into focus when we realize that while writing this piece, Chopin claimed to have been thinking of a young woman he’d known (and loved) at the Warsaw Conservatory. The final movement, an Allegro vivace, was inspired by the mazurka, another Polish dance. The piano again gets the spotlight, with the orchestra providing accents and punctuation. The soloist never rests, and indeed the virtuosity, ornamentation and adventurous lines continue to the very end of this scintillating rondo.!

Although Chopin included Polish folk music in his works to exploit the “exotic” tastes of the Viennese and Parisians, there are also political implications of Chopin’s use of folk music. Chopin, because he had emigrated, was able to give voice to a culture oppressed by the Czar. Poland had been under the threat of Russian occupation since the end of the Napoleanic wars and the Congress of Vienna. After the war, according to the provisions of the Congress of Vienna, Poland was supposed to retain internal autonomy, but Russian authorities gradually moved into a position of direct power under orders from the Czar. Certainly Chopin wrote in this manner because he missed his homeland, but there is a definite feeling that Chopin felt the need to show the larger musical world the beauty of Polish folk music, a tradition that was surely being crushed under political machinery. Robert Schumann grasped the implications of Chopin’s music, saying that Chopin was a dangerous enemy of Czar Nicholas. Schumann stated, “Those works [mazurkas] are like cannons hidden beneath flowers.”!

As the remainder of Chopin’s output would prove, the two piano concertos are something of an anomaly in a key respect: Chopin rarely wrote orchestral music. And he rarely performed in public, finding it taxing on his poor health. He expended his energies on teaching and composing, and the performances he did undertake were usually for intimate gatherings of friends.