We do not think of Chopin as a composer of vocal music; he didn’t write a single opera in the course of his career. But he did try his hand at songs for voice and piano. They’re certainly not as well known as his pieces for solo piano, and they are not often performed, but they are endlessly charming and show off a talent for vocal writing that we can otherwise discern in his melodic, lyrical phrases for piano.
He composed songs likely beginning in the late 1820s, when he was a teenager, although his style—throughout his exploration of the genre—is more akin to that of Franz Schubert, who wrote his Lieder a generation earlier. Chopin chose to set Polish texts, and rather than use the work of the literary elite, Chopin instead set the poetry of people he knew personally. His friend Stefan Witwicki, for example, provided the text for ten of Chopin’s songs. Witwicki was also the dedicatee of a set of Chopin’s Mazurkas.
There are nineteen songs that have survived, written at various times during Chopin’s thirty- nine years. Only two were published while Chopin was alive. In 1857, the composer’s friend and musical executor Julian Fontana published Op. 74, a set of sixteen songs. (The order of the set does not reflect the order in which the pieces were written.) Fontana published a seventeenth song separately, but it is now usually listed as part of Op. 74. The final surviving two songs were published in 1910.
A few of Chopin’s songs are through composed, but many of them display a strophic structure and hallmarks of some Polish folk song or dance influence. This was yet another way for Chopin to show his nationalistic feelings toward his homeland and nostalgia for the life and culture he left behind. Unlike his contemporary Schumann, who also wrote songs for voice and piano, Chopin’s piano parts for his songs are more accompanimental, and less integrated into the dramatic narrative. We might expect that the piano parts of Chopin’s songs would be complex and challenging, but the composer was sensitive to the voice, allowing it to be the focus. The vocal parts in some songs show effervescent joy while others demonstrate deep emotion and pathos.
Between the years of 1847 and 1860, Franz Liszt chose half a dozen of the songs from Op. 74 and arranged them for piano solo, calling them Six Chants polonaise.