Solo Piano Works
Frédéric Chopin's career is intricately intertwined with the piano. Although he made forays into orchestral work and chamber work, Chopin did not write any major work that did not include the piano. Certainly, his education would have given him the opportunity to write for other instruments, but his natural inclination led him to focus on piano, and he excelled at composing for the instrument. We can separate most of Chopin’s solo piano works into genre categories based on either their function or aspects of their style. The most prominent of these categories—what we would call, “character pieces”—include etude, nocturne, prelude, mazurka, polonaise, waltz, impromptu and ballade. Chopin composed some of these character pieces throughout his career, while others came from specific times or circumstances. There are a couple of things we can say about most of the solo piano pieces Chopin wrote, regardless of the genre: his harmonies were often surprising, his rhythms were often flexible (and many times were drawn from dance), and despite a definite feeling of dramatic character in so many of his works, Chopin preferred not to give descriptive or suggestive titles to his pieces.
Early in his career, Chopin decided that public performance would not be a large part of his life. His health was fragile, and the pressure of public performance was detrimental. (He gave about thirty public performances in the course of his career.) Instead, Chopin dedicated himself to composing and teaching, sometimes combining the two. Chopin wrote his Etudes for his students, and they can therefore be categorized by their primary function: pedagogical. (“Etude” literally means “study” in French.) But they are more than just that. They comprise a technical system of learning that is not only utilitarian, but also artful. In addition to becoming a standard of piano pedagogy, the Etudes became concert pieces. The piano as an instrument had changed quite a bit over Chopin’s life, and these works not only represent a new style of playing that reflects the new aspects of the instrument, but they also provide an encapsulation of Chopin’s unique style.
Chopin composed three sets, two of twelve (Opp. 10 and 25) and one set of three, twenty- seven in total. A few of the popular Etudes have acquired titles, although none of the titles were Chopin’s invention. The first set of twelve was composed between 1829 and 1832, and published—revised and reordered—the following year. Chopin dedicated the set to his friend Franz Liszt. The next set was composed between 1832 and 1836. This set was dedicated to Liszt’s mistress, Marie d’Agoult, although no one is exactly certain why. The final three were written in 1839, and they were meant to be part of a piano pedagogy book by Ignaz Moscheles and Francois-Joseph Fetis.
Piano students all over the world are still assigned Chopin Etudes, not only because of they are carefully constructed pedagogical pieces, but because, despite their technical aim, they are also beautiful. The Etudes weren’t the only pieces Chopin wrote for his students. Many of the pieces discussed below were conceived for student performance, although some are clearly too technically complex for all but the most talented pianist.
Irish composer John Field (1782-1837) composed eighteen single-movement pieces for piano he called Nocturnes, and they were influential for being evocative without being specifically programmatic, and for not following a set form or structure. Field’s Nocturnes featured a flowing melody over chordal accompaniment, which was likely meant to sound like strumming. Chopin, who admired Field and his work, composed all of his twenty-one Nocturnes between 1827 and 1846. Most of them were published when Chopin was alive, two were published posthumously, one was an early piece that Chopin didn’t specifically call a Nocturne, but which fits into the general style of the others. The numbering of the Nocturnes is therefore not strictly chronological.
In his early years, Chopin was often compared to Field, although Field wasn’t overly fond of Chopin’s work. Like Field’s Nocturnes, Chopin’s Nocturnes maintain the primary melody in the right hand and the accompanying chords in the left hand, but he also uses rubato rhythm and more pedal to add dramatic weight. Chopin also seemed to draw inspiration from vocal pieces like arias. Friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt made the comparison between Chopin’s Nocturnes and the “bel canto” arias of Italian composers like Bellini.
Although each of Chopin’s Nocturnes is unique, structurally, he tended to use an ABA form in which the repetition of the “A” was highly embellished and the “B” section outlined a contrasting mood. There are exceptions, of course. Two of the Nocturnes don’t have a B section at all (Op. 9, No. 2 and Op. 55, No. 2), and one of the Nocturnes repeats the A and B section an additional time (Op. 37, No. 2). The moods of the Nocturnes may be characterized by melancholy or pensiveness, and Chopin chose the tempos of Larghetto, Lento, and Andante (one of them is marked Allegretto). He published some of them in pairs.
The term “Prelude” suggests an opening piece that introduces perhaps a larger work that follows. In the realm of Romantic character pieces, the Prelude was a stand-alone, one- movement work that could display a variety of moods. Chopin’s preludes were short, none of them more than ninety measures long. The shortest of the collection was just twelve bars, leading some critics—including contemporary Robert Schumann—to view them as somehow incomplete, or mere sketches. Liszt, however, viewed them as innovative and poetic.
Chopin composed twenty-four Preludes between 1835 and 1839 and collected them into one opus number (28), publishing them in 1839. In the French edition, Chopin dedicated the collection to Camille Pleyel, a piano-maker, and the man who commissioned the work. For the German publication, Chopin chose a different dedicatee, composer Joseph Christoph Kessler. Kessler and Chopin knew each other from Kessler’s visit to Warsaw in 1829, and it was in that year that Kessler had dedicated a set of twenty-four preludes to Chopin.
Although each work can stand alone, some scholars have suggested that the collection is one large work with twenty-four pieces, citing motivic connections among the preludes, and even musical connections from the ends of some preludes to the beginnings of others. Chopin never played all twenty-four in a row in a public performance. In fact, he never played more than four in concert. The twenty-four Preludes vary in character, tempo, and key, and in the set they seem, for the most part, to alternate slow and fast. The keys follow the pattern of the circle of fifths, with each major key preceding its relative minor. This pattern of circle of fifths had been used by Joseph Christoph Kessler in his set of twenty-four etudes.
Although the music suggests non-musical ideas, or emotions, Chopin didn’t give them evocative names, like Schumann and Liszt did for some of their pieces that were of a similar character. Hans von Bulow suggested some names for the preludes like “Reunion,” “Tolling Bells,” “The Polish Dancer,” and “Raindrop.” Of these names, only “Raindrop” seems to be widely used. The twentieth prelude in the set became the basis for variations by Rachmaninoff and twentieth century Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni.
Chopin wrote three other Preludes, not in this set. No. 25 (also catalogued as Op. 45) was composed in 1841 and dedicated to Princess E. Czernicheff. No. 26 had actually been composed in the 1830s and bears the tempo marking Presto con leggierezza. It was a gift for Liszt’s student and pianist Pierre Wolff. The twenty-seventh prelude—which was left incomplete—has been called the “Devil’s Trill” by musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg. Giuseppe Tartini, a composer whose music Chopin might have heard, composed a violin sonata called “The Devil’s Trill.” Kallberg “realized” the prelude from Chopin’s incomplete sketches. The piece was played in public for the first time in 2002. Despite the excitement of having a “new” piece by Chopin, any reconstruction or realization of incomplete sketches—by any composer—will bring up questions of the composer’s true intentions. This prelude is no exception.
Chopin composed a number of solo piano pieces that are similar in character to a Polish folk dance called the Mazurka. The traditional dance is quick and in a triple meter. It derives from other Polish forms, the kujawiak and oberek. The mazurka traveled to other parts of Europe, and Chopin helped popularize the dance with the nearly seventy mazurkas he wrote for the piano, although Chopin’s mazurkas were not necessarily meant to accompany actual dancing.
Of the nearly seventy mazurkas that exist, fifty-eight have been published (forty-five before his death and thirteen posthumously). Others that we believe are extant are likely in private collections.
Chopin attempted mazurkas beginning in the 1820s, but his use of the form became more focused after political events in Poland in 1830 inspired him to honor the culture of his native land. Nationalism like this gained momentum in the nineteenth century, and Chopin’s mazurkas and polonaises were no doubt influential to other composers of the time. There have been debates about how Chopin experienced the folk music of Poland, whether it was directly or indirectly, but no matter what, Chopin made an effort to honor the tradition. He incorporated some of the elements of the dance—distinctive rhythms, repetitive sections— with musical elements we associate with Chopin, like unique and interesting harmonies and contrapuntal textures.
In addition to Mazurkas, Chopin also wrote Polonaises, which were solo piano pieces inspired by a Polish dance in triple time. The dance was normally performed at carnival parties and at student dances. Chopin was not the only composer who used this designation. Other works with the alla polacca notation include pieces by J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart, and Schubert.
Chopin composed his first Polonaise when he was just a child, and his last dates from just a few years before his death in 1849. Of the twenty-three polonaises we believe Chopin wrote in his lifetime, there are a few thought lost. Seven were published when Chopin was alive, and nine were published posthumously. Some of the polonaises have nicknames, like, the “Military” or the “Heroic.” Chopin did not, as a rule, give these kinds of names to his pieces, but as we have seen in some of the preludes and other pieces, these nicknames just become part of the story. The “Heroic” name for the Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53, seems to have originated with Chopin’s companion, George Sand, who suggested that the piece be a symbol of the 1848 Revolution because of its heroic character. One of the most famous polonaises is the Polonaise-Fantasie of 1846. It is a complex work of virtuosity that Chopin conceived as a Fantasy first. The aspects that suggested Polonaise must have emerged as Chopin was composing.
Like the mazurkas, Chopin’s Waltzes were not meant to accompany dancers. He began writing waltzes in 1824, when he was a teenager in Poland, but at first he didn’t consider the waltz a serious art form. Indeed, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was some controversy about the waltz causing dizziness and shortness of breath among dancers, and some scandal that the waltz allowed men and women to share an intimate embrace in public. Chopin’s Waltzes, which were meant more for seated audiences than dancers, achieved an
artfulness that elevated the art form. In addition to the waltzes he must have heard while living in Vienna, Chopin may have also been influenced by German composer Carl Maria von Weber, who wrote a concert work based on the waltz called Invitation to the Dance.
Chopin published just eight Waltzes when he was alive, but wrote many more. Five more were published in 1855, and one more came to light in 1868. There were more that were catalogued, but many of those have been lost, including half a dozen that Chopin’s sister had in her house when it burned down. All convey the 3/4 time associated with the waltz, but some have quick tempos and dance-like moods, while some display a melancholy and pensive character. Like many dance forms, the Waltzes often consisted of distinctive sixteen- bar melodies that were repeated. Chopin sometimes embellished this form, and sometimes kept it simple. The dramatic shifts within one Waltz could be quite affecting.
Chopin composed four Impromptus, which are one-movement, multi-sectional pieces that suggest the character of improvised music. The first, Op. 29, was composed in 1837. It has three sections with the two outer parts in A-flat major and a contrasting section in the middle of F minor. Its quick tempo and continuous figuration in the hands makes it quite a challenge. Impromptu No. 2, Op. 36 was composed two years later. Chopin chose the key of F-sharp major, and again, Chopin constructed a complex work. His gift for melody shines in this particular piece. The third impromptu, Op. 51, was composed in 1843, which was actually his last composed, but not the last one published. He dedicated this piece to one of his pupils, and it was clearly one of his favorite pieces to play because he programmed it on more than one of his rare public performances. In the contrasting middle section, Chopin achieves a great effect by switching the melody to the left hand while the right plays the accompaniment.
The most famous of the four Impromptus is the Fantaisie-Impromptu from 1834. The dedicatee was Julian Fontana, a fellow Polish composer and pianist. Fontana, who was Chopin’s musical executor, published the work after Chopin’s death (without Chopin’s blessing). This is actually a work that was written from Chopin’s first years in Paris. It is impetuous and striking, and the opening section and the closing are quite quick. The middle section provides a respite with a lovely Largo melody. It is this tune that briefly appears at the end, almost like a memory of the melody’s ephemeral beauty.
Chopin composed four Ballades for solo piano. Composed between 1835 and 1842, they have a high level of difficulty for players. The name ballade has many old associations, including the Italian Renaissance ballate or the eponymous old French poetic form. Chopin’s Ballades may have been inspired by specific poetry by Adam Mickiewicz, who is considered Poland’s greatest national poet.
Structurally, the Ballades follow a form that is similar to sonata form, but with some variations. Sonata form presents two themes—usually in differing keys—at the beginning. After a developmental middle section, the two themes return, this time in the same key. In Chopin’s Ballades, the themes return, although in his recapitulations, the position of the themes is opposite from the way we would expect to hear them in traditional Sonata form. Chopin’s Ballades have inspired other composers, like Chopin’s friend and contemporary, Franz Liszt, and Johannes Brahms.
Chopin composed the first ballade in 1835-6, but didn’t complete it and is listed as Op. 23. He dedicated the work to Baron Nathaniel von Stockhausen, ambassador to France. There is an introduction, two themes that Chopin explores, and an energetic coda. There are switches of time signature, which is a variation that the subsequent ballades do not feature. The second ballade, Op. 38, was composed over three years, from 1836 to 1839. Robert Schumann had dedicated a piece to Chopin, and Chopin returned the favor with Ballade No. 2. Some felt—Schumann included—that the second Ballade wasn’t quite as charming as the first. It may have been inspired by a poem by Mickiewicz, but no one is sure. This ballade begins very quietly, but the middle section is quick and fiery. The ballade eventually returns to the quiet mood of the beginning, but Chopin provided further elaborations.
Ballade No. 3 was composed in 1841 and was dedicated to Pauline de Noailles. Many suspect that the ballade was inspired by Mickiewicz’s poem Undine or Switezianka. There is further speculation that the ballade was inspired by an unsuccessful trip Chopin took to Majorca with George Sand. In addition to similarities to sonata form, Chopin composed variations on segments of the three themes in this ballade. There is a hopeful mood to this ballade, and the major key underlines this. The final ballade was composed in 1842, and was dedicated to Baroness Rothschild, a woman who introduced Chopin to important members of the Parisian aristocracy. It may have been inspired by a Mickiewicz poem about three Polish brothers who find brides. In terms of level of difficulty, this ballade seems to be the most challenging to play. It displays thematic transformation and variations, and ends with an intricately complex coda that shows off Chopin’s innovation. This ballade also features counterpoint, and shows a melancholy character. This work is highly dramatic, full of passion, and could be considered the apex of the composer’s unique and singular style.