The Romantic Frederic Chopin and His Elegant First Piano Concerto

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) had an intimate connection with the piano. He was a composer of mazurkas, etudes, waltzes, 24 preludes, 21 nocturnes, 3 piano sonatas, 2 piano concertos, 4 ballades, and many more brilliant works that makes one appreciate the enchanting sensibilities such a glorious instrument invokes. He was gifted in the sphere of melody.

Frederic Chopin, 1835. Painting by Maria Wodzinski

He is, I admit, my favorite composer, and eager to hear a live performance of his music, I once asked a conductor why his orchestra didn’t perform either of Chopin’s concertos. He replied that ‘Chopin was a terrible orchestrator.’ This conductor is not alone. The composer’s concertos have come under vicious attack, often because they are compared to the classical composers Beethoven and Mozart.  But Chopin, like other romantic and classical composers—Carl Maria von Weber, John Field (whose nocturnes inspired Chopin’s own), Friedrich Kalkbrenner and Johann Nepomuk Hummel—may have borrowed from the classical “tradition,” but created his own expressions and structures, which make the comparisons invalid.

Chopin composed both piano concertos by the time he was twenty, following his studies at Warsaw Conservatory. His Concerto no. 1 in E minor for Piano and Orchestra, op. 11, premiered in Warsaw on October 11, 1830, with the composer at the piano. Soon thereafter, he left his native Poland for Vienna and eventually ended up in Paris. His concerto was not met with a warm reception. His music was praised, but the Parisian audience gave a callous reply. He never performed it again following the cool response.

The piano in the first movement, “Allegro maestoso,” appears four minutes into the majestic introduction. While the entrance for the featured instrument may seem a bit late, it is hardly disappointing. It is clear Chopin knows how to make the piano speak in the proper language, and you are immediately drawn into this back and forth procession of orchestra and ivory keys.

His second movement, “Romanze: Larghetto,” is just that: marvelously romantic. The composer referred to the movement as melancholy, although meant to conjure visions of “a thousand happy memories.” His trills are like the breeze fluttering through the leaves of the trees—light and airy. Here, the piano is given the stage, while the violins, horns and rest of the orchestra join its calming jaunt through a vivid garden. They remain almost a distant, whispering voice in the background.

The strings in the third movement, “Rondo: Vivace,” pull us out of the tranquil state, and the piano jumps in a mere 16 measures later with its animated dance. The piano is the star once again, and here Chopin shows off the instrument’s capabilities and his multiple talents, a foretaste of the composer’s future aptitude.

Chopin’s focus was perhaps limited to the piano due to his illness (although he squeezed in a G minor Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano, op. 8). He suffered from tuberculosis, a disease which also hindered him from continuing an affair with Marie Wodzinski, daughter of Count Wodzinski. He later found solace in the arms of the French novelist and playwright George Sand (aka Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin). His life revolved around her for years until she became bored with him, as she did other lovers before. She could not tie herself down to one man, and left Chopin crushed. His health rapidly deteriorated and his Sonata for Cello and Piano op. 65 was his last published work.

What about you? Do you like or dislike his concertos?

Upcoming Chopin “E minor Piano Concerto” Performances:
Jan. 4, 2011

with
Yulianna Avdeeva
New York Philharmonic

More Chopin:
March 13, 2011

12 Etudes, op. 10
Yefim Bronfman
San Francisco Symphony

Upcoming Performances:
Jan. 6-8, 2011

Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex
Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle
with
Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Russell Thomas, tenor;
Matthew Plenk, tenor; Albert Dohmen, baritone;
Raymond Aceto, bass; Örs Kisfaludy (narrator for Bluebeard); Frank Langella, (Narrator for Oedipus)
Boston Symphony Orchestra

Jan. 6-8, 2011
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2
Bartok: Viola Concerto
with
Reid Harris
Brahms: Piano Concerto no. 2
with
Yefim Bronfman
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Jan. 6-8, 2011
Mozart: Symphony no. 40
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
with
Thomas Hampson, baritone
Thomas Ades: In Seven Days
with
Thomas Ades, piano
New York Philharmonic

Jan. 6-9, 2011
Debussy: Nocturnes
Mozart: Requiem
with
Lucy Crowe, soprano; Birgit Remmert, mezzo-soprano;
James Taylor, tenor; Andrew Foster-Williams, baritone
The Philadelphia Orchestra

Jan. 6-8, 2011
Liadov: Baba-Yaga and The Enchanted Lake
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto no. 1
with
Stephen Hough
Prokofiev: Symphony no. 5
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Jan. 6-8, 2011
Mozart: Concerto for Piano no. 22 in E-flat major
with
Robert Levin
Beethoven: Symphony no. 4
Nashville Symphony Orchestra

Jan. 6-8, 2011
Beethoven: Romanze no. 2 in F for Violin and Orchestra
with
Augustin Hadelich
Strauss: Romanze in F for Cello and Orchestra
with
Alban Gerhardt
Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Cello
with
Hadelich and Gerhardt
Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

Jan. 6-9, 2011
Schumann: Piano Concerto
with
Helene Grimaud
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
San Francisco Symphony

Jan. 6-9, 2011
Bernstein: Symphony no. 1 “Jeremiah”
with
Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano
Beethoven: Symphony no. 7
Los Angeles Philharmonic

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4 Responses to The Romantic Frederic Chopin and His Elegant First Piano Concerto

  1. I have all of Chopin’s nocturnes played by Maria João Pires. She is my favourite when it involves Chopin and the piano concerto’s of Mozart. But of course we all have our own preferences.

  2. I prefer the two concerto’s played by Maria João Pires. They are indeed romantic concerto’s especially for the easy listener. It is a pity that at that time of Chopin’s life Rimsky-Korsakov was not around to instruct the composer about appropriate and required orchestrations.

  3. J.M. Lacey says:

    Thanks, Gina! Love Chopin’s Nocturnes (my usual ring tones) and Love Vladimir Ashkenazy!

  4. Gina says:

    Great post. I also enjoy Chopin and listen to his music frequently when writing. Nocturne No. 9 in B (played by Vladimir Ashkenazy) is my favorite of his. Thanks for posting this!

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