Andante Spianato Op.22

Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 22 (1830)

Written in Chopin’s twentieth year, this is a marvelous display piece. The sumptuous Polonaise is ceremonial, the Andante spianato (i.e., with smoothness) is a liquid-toned gem demanding a poet’s reading. The orchestral part is paltry, but has its flavor; many have dispensed with it altogether, permitting this work to be performed on the recital stage.


Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op. 23 (1836)

The first of the Four Ballades is a glowing masterpiece. James Huneker called this epic narrative “the odyssey of Chopin’s soul.” The great lyric theme, stated in three different forms, is intoxicating. The First Ballade is summed up with a coda of elemental power, culminating in a chilling downward chromatic passage in octaves, which will electrify any receptive listener.

  • ASHKENAZY (Nos. 1-4): London (CD)
  • BACKHAUS: London
  • CORTOT (Nos. 1-4, recorded 1926): Music and Arts (CD)
  • GILELS: Music and Arts (CD)
  • RUBINSTEIN (Nos. 1-4): RCA (CD)

Ballade No.2 in F major, Op. 38 (1838)

Schumann had dedicated his Kreisleriana, Op.16, to Chopin, who returned the honor by dedicating the Second Ballade to his German champion. A work of perfect proportion, it opens with a slow and magical episode which turns into a tempest, Presto con fuoco, a wild, magnificent outburst. In the words of the composer Alan Rawsthorne, at the end of the coda the Andantino theme becomes “a whispered reminder of the very opening,” which “vibrates in the memory.”

  • MORAVEC (Nos. 1-4): Connoisseur Society
  • POGORELICH: Capriccio (CD)
  • RICHTER: CBS/Melodiya

Ballade No.3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 (1841)

The Third Ballade is the essence of charm and warmth, with a sense of irony surrounding the second subject. Frederick Niecks, Chopin’s first important biographer in English, says “a quiver of excitement runs through the whole piece. . . . There is suffused a most exquisite elegance.” The slender second subject becomes a development section, “one of the most powerful Chopin ever composed,” says Rawsthorne, “one is quite staggered to look back at its winsome origins.” The coda, he continues, ends “in a blaze of light.”

  • FRIEDMAN: Pearl (CD)
  • NOVAES (Nos. 3 & 4): Vanguard
  • DE PACHMANN: Pearl
  • SOFRONITSKY: Melodiya

Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842)

The Fourth Ballade is generally agreed to be one of the sublime works of Romantic music. For John Ogdon, it is “the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions. . . . It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.” Huneker calls its chief theme a “melody which probes the very coverts of the soul.” He compares it to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, while Ogdon speaks of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, inviting us to a” Romantic communion of unbelievable intensity.”

The Fourth Ballade remains a narrative but has an inimitable feeling of intimacy and Slavonic coloring, and demands of the interpreter a delicate rubato and a virtuoso technique. It culminates in a coda of bone-crushing technical severity.

  • KOCZALSKI: Pearl (CD)
  • RICHTER: DG/Melodiya
  • SOLOMON: Testament (CD)
  • VASARY (Nos. 1-4): DG

Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60 (1845-46)

One of Chopin’s greatest compositions. It has been the despair of many fine artists, being difficult to interpret successfully. It is easy to sound affected, as does Arrau, or nervous, as does Horowitz, or too plain, as did Gieseking. Chopin must have been its ideal interpreter. At his very last Paris recital, in 1848, Charles Halle heard the frail master, who now “played it from the point when it demands the utmost energy, in the opposite way, pianissimo, but with such wonderful nuances that one remained in doubt if this new rendering were not preferable to the accustomed one.”

The Barcarolle displays Chopin’s ornamental genius in full bloom. Ravel wrote, “Chopin was not content merely to revolutionize piano technique. His figurations are inspired. Through his brilliant passages one perceives profound, enchanting harmonies. Always there is the hidden meaning which is translated into poetry of intense despair. . . . The Barcarolle is the synthesis of the expressive and sumptuous art of this great Slav.” Andre’ Gide finds the Barcarolle to express “languor in excessive joy.”

  • ASHKENAZY: London (CD)
  • SOFRONITSKY: Melodiya

Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57 (1844)

A cradle song which is a tour de force of exquisite filigree. A virtually unchanged tonic pedal in D-flat in the bass continues throughout its seventy magical measures. But “no analysis,” says Sir Lennox Berkeley, “can give any idea of its compelling grace and charm.”

  • BAUER: IPA-Desmar
  • CORTOT: Music and Arts (CD)
  • NOVAES: Vanguard
  • PERAHIA: Sony (CD)
  • SOLOMON: Testament (CD)
Concerto No. 1

Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op. 11(1830)

The concerto is a grand harvest of perfect piano writing. It has retained a special place in the hearts of concert pianists, though conductors have far less to do in it than in other concertos. The slow movement is an exquisite, luxuriant nocturne.

  • ARGERICH, Abbado/London Symphony: DG (CD)
  • AX, Ormandy/Philadelphia: RCA (CD)
  • BRAILOWSKY, Ormandy/Philadelpia: Odyssey
  • CLIBURN, Ormandy/Philadelphia: RCA (CD)
  • CZERNY-STEFANSKA (formerly attributed to Lipatti): Seraphim
  • H. NEUHAUS, Gauk/Moscow Radio Symphony: Russian Disc (CD)
  • NOVAES, Perlea/Bamberg Symphony: Allegretto (CD)
  • POLLINI, Kletzki/Philharmonia: EMI (CD)
  • RUBTNSTEIN, Wallenstein/Los Angeles Philharmonic: RCA; Skrowaczewski/New Symphony of London: RCA (CD)
  • ZIMERMAN, Giulini/Los Angeles Philharmonic: DG (CD)
Concerto No. 2

Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op. 21(1829)

The Second Concerto, composed when Chopin was nineteen, predates No.1, and is more subjective than the latter. Though equally popular, it is more elusive musically. The slow movement of the F minor Concerto is as breathtaking a poetic effusion as that of the First Concerto.

  • ASHKENAZY, Gorzynski/Warsaw Philharmonic: Angel
  • HASKIL, Markevitch/Lamoureux Orchestra: Philips (CD)
  • LICAD, Previn/London Philharmonic: Sony Classical (CD)
  • NOVAES, Klemperer/Vienna Symphony: Vox(CD)
  • POGORELICH, Abbado/Chicago Symphony: DG (CD)
  • RUBINSTEIN, Ormandy/Philadelphia: RCA (CD)
  • FOU TS’ONG, Maag/London Symphony: Westminster
  • WEISSENBERG, Skrowaczewski/Paris Conservatoire: Angel (CD)
Etudes Op. 10

Twelve Etudes, Op. 10 (1829-31)

The Chopin Etudes are the most important pieces in the genre and formed the basis for all future concert etudes. The Op. 10 are dedicated”A son ami,” Franz Liszt:

Op. 10, No.1 in C major: Arpeggios based on wide extension. Huneker considers it “the new technique in all its nakedness, new in the scenes of figure, design, pattern, web, new in a harmonic way. . . . The nub of modern piano music is in the study.”

Op. 10, No.2 in A minor:
The study is an expansion of the Moscheles Etude Op. 70, No. 3, in chromatic scale passages for the third, fourth, and fifth fingers of the right hand, with chords in the right hand for the first and second fingers.

Op. 10, No.3 in E major:
An exquisite aria for cantabile playing. A middle section features widely extended double notes. When teaching the work to his pupil Adolf Gutmann, the composer cried out, “Oh, my homeland!”

Op. 10, No.4 in C-sharp minor:
An etude of lightness in high velocity for both hands.

Op. 10, No.5 in G-flat major:
The so-called Black Key Etude. Accuracy of chords in the left hand with exquisitely designed figuration on the black keys calls for a combination of finger technique with rotary action and supple wrists.

Op. 10, No.6 in E-flat minor:
A slow but restless chromatic study; it is difficult musically and needs a luscious touch for its melancholic, even anguished cantabile. For Henry T. Finck, “the etude seems as if it were in a sort of double minor . . . much sadder than ordinary minor.”

Op. 10, No.7 in C major:
A toccata requiring strong fingers for quick changing on the same note with the first finger and thumb of the right hand. There is further need to articulate the melodic line in the fifth finger. Huneker asks, “Were ever Beauty and Duty so mated in double harness?”

Op. 10, No.8 in F major:
Brilliant finger passagework, sweeping the keyboard up and down more than four octaves for development of smoothness in thumb movements; a left-hand melody needs subtle pedaling. Von Bulow called it “a bravura study par excellence.”

Op. 10, No.9 in F minor:
A left-hand figure of wide extension, needing endurance (especially for small hands), and a developed rotational freedom in the forearm; its portamento right-hand melody is feverish. The composer marked this etude Allegro, molto agitato. It is less difficult than many others.

Op. 10, No.10 in A-flat major:
James Friskin describes this as “a tiring Etude for the right hand, which has a continuous octave position with rotation from single notes for thumb to sixths for second and fifth fingers. There are ingenious variations of touch and rhythm.” John Ogdon feels that in its cross-rhythms, “Chopin’s influence on Brahms may be clearly seen here.” Von Bulow attests, “He who can play this study in a really finished manner may congratulate himself on having climbed to the highest point of the pianist’s Parnassus.” Musically, Chopin takes us to HEIGHTs of Romantic poetry with breathtaking modulations.

Op. 10, No.11 in F-flat major:
Both hands play in extended arpeggios of chords, harplike in effect or, in Huneker’s words, “as if the guitar had been dowered with a soul.” Perching on top of these arabesques is a melody needing delicate tonal balance and phrasing.

Op. 10, No.12 in C minor:
Almost universally called the Revolutionary Etude, it is a complex left-hand study in continuous sixteenth notes. The right-hand theme requires tonal discrimination. Moritz Karasowski wrote of this popular work that “the image is evoked of Zeus hurling thunderbolts at the world.” Huneker called the opening “the crack of creation.”

  • Etudes, Opp. 10 and 25:
  • ANIEVAS: Seraphim
  • ASHKENAZY: Melodiya; London (CD)
  • CORTOT: Dante (CD)
  • FRIEDMAN (four etudes): Pearl (CD)
  • GINZBURG: Melodiya
  • KUERTI (Op. 2S only): Monitor
  • LORTIE: Chandos (CD)
  • SAPERTON: IPA-Desmar (CD)
  • SLOBODYANIK: Melodiya/Angel
  • VERED: Connoisseur Society
  • ZAYAS: Spectrum
Etudes Op. 25

Twelve Etudes, Op. 25 (1830-34)

Op. 25, No.1 in A-flat major: This is often called the Aeolian Harp. The weak fifth finger encounters a singing melody above a web of melting textures. A work of melodic magic, and one of the less taxing of the Etudes.

Op. 25, No.2 in F minor:

A study in cross-rhythms, requiring delicate finger articulation for its characteristic Chopinesque whisper.

Op. 25, No.3 in F major:
Theodor Kullak tells us that its “kernel lies in the simultaneous application of four different little rhythms to form a single figure.” Ogdon hears it as “a study in the precise rhythmic values of ornaments,” and Friskin wrote, “A light and independent action from the wrist for each beat constitutes an appropriate technique.”

Op. 25, No.4 in A minor:
Ronald Smith says of this study, “A leaping staccato left hand throughout is combined with subtly varied, syncopated right-hand chords.” The left hand is devilishly difficult to attain accuracy in.

Op. 25, No.5 in E minor:

Once called the Wrong Note Etude because of the piquant grace notes. The study demands variations of touch. This is one of the few Etudes with a middle section: a melody in the tenor register with an effective right-hand figuration. The effect is Thalbergian. The little recitativo coda with trills in both hands is the highest level of pianistic imagination.

Op. 25, No.6 in G-sharp minor:
The most hazardous study in thirds in the literature of the instrument. Louis Ehlert concludes, “Chopin not only versifies an exercise in thirds, he transforms it into such a work of art that in studying it one could sooner fancy himself on Parnassus than at a lesson.”

Op. 25, No. 7 in C-sharp minor:
Ronald Smith calls the form “a Sarabande which links the harmonic worlds of Bach and Wagner.” Von Bulow thought of it as a duet for cello and flute. It is a study in touches calling for discreet tonal balance.

Op. 25, No.8 in D-flat major:

An etude in sixths which can be harmful to a small hand if not practiced with care. Von Bullow thought it “the most useful exercise in the whole range of the Etude literature. . . . As a remedy for stiff fingers and preparatory to performing in public, playing it six times through is recommended, even to the most expert pianist.” But I warn, not six times at top speed.

Op. 25, No.9 in G-flat major:
Rather aptly termed the Butterfly Etude. Good wrist octaves and endurance are necessary for the projection of this puckish creation.

Op. 25, No.10 in B minor:
A fierce study in legato octaves in both hands. Frederick Niecks calls it “a real pandemonium.” It is fearsome in its demand for endurance and can tax a small hand. The etude possesses for the sake of both musical and physical relief a middle section in B major of lyrical beauty.

Op. 25, No.11 in A minor:

Known as the Winter Wind. The left hand has a stately marchlike theme; the right hand projects an immense canvas with complex chromaticism. One of the most turbulent of the set, it asks for tremendous hand malleability.

Op. 25, No.12 in C minor:
An etude requiring powerful weight control and balance for arpeggios in both hands. A work of great majesty and starkness, it has often been called the Ocean Etude.

Etudes, Opp. 10 and 25:

  • ANIEVAS: Seraphim
  • ASHKENAZY: Melodiya; London (CD)
  • CORTOT: Dante (CD)
  • FRIEDMAN (four etudes): Pearl (CD)
  • GINZBURG: Melodiya
  • KUERTI (Op. 2S only): Monitor
  • LORTIE: Chandos (CD)
  • SAPERTON: IPA-Desmar (CD)
  • SLOBODYANIK: Melodiya/Angel
  • VERED: Connoisseur Society
  • ZAYAS: Spectrum

Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49 (1841)

This large-scaled composition is considered one of Chopin’s masterpieces. The Fantasy opens with a solemn and mysterious march-like introduction leading to a passionate drama with a central chorale, Lento sostenuto, of unusual serenity. Niecks felt “Chopin’s genius had now reached the most perfect stage of its development and was radiating with all the intensity of which its nature was capable.”

  • ARRAU: Philips (CD)
  • GIMPEL: Genesis
Four Impromptus

Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 29: The First Impromptu is carefree as a lark. George Du Maurier had poor Trilby sing it under the tutelage of Svengali. Jean Kleczynski wrote, “Here everything totters from the foundation to summit, and everything is, nevertheless, so beautiful and so clear.”

Impromptu No.2 in F-sharp major, Op. 36:
The greatest and most difficult of the Impromptus, it resembles a Chopin Ballade. An elusive work demanding the utmost delicacy in the delivery of the passage work.

Impromptu No.3 in G-flat major, Op. 51:
A little-known piece, with some rather difficult double notes. The theme has a serpentine, even morbid quality. But Huneker declares that “the Impromptu flavor is not missing, and there is allied to delicacy of design a strangeness of sentiment; that strangeness which Poe declared should be a constituent element of all great art.” The improvisatory element must be brought out for a performance to succeed.

Impromptu No.4 in C-sharp minor, Op. 66(posth.),
“Fantaisie-Impromptu”:Countless pianists of all persuasions have attempted the Fantaisie-Impromptu.
It was composed in 1834, and predates the other Impromptus. The opening, in its Bellinian coloratura, is alluring. The trio is a bit too long and mawkish. The coda uses the trio theme in an ingenious manner.

Four Impromptus:

  • CZIFFRA: Connoisseur Society
  • GINZBURG: Melodiya
  • HORSZOW5KI: Vox (CD)
Four Scherzos

Chopin composed four of his greatest creations under the title Scherzo, a word that means “a joke.” Was Chopin being ironic? Schumann was baffled; when reviewing the B minor Scherzo, he asked, “How are seriousness and gravity to be clothed if jest is to go about in such dark-colored garments?”. The title seems appropriate only for No.4.The Scherzos are epics among Chopin’s works, and their instrumental brilliance has made them staples of the concert hall; each of them demands a highly finished technique.

Scherzo No.1 in B minor, Op. 20:
The First Scherzo was composed most likely in 1834, and first published in 1835. Later, when it was issued in England under the title The Infernal Banquet, Chopin, always a purist and opposed to any literary or pictorial allusions, had a fit. The opening must have shocked his contemporaries. Indeed, its almost repellent realism still astonishes. Niecks asks, “Is this not like a shriek of despair?” The material is feverishly restless and tragic in nature. The middle section, marked Molto piu lento, is based on a Polish Christmas carol, “Sleep, Jesus Sleep” (one of Chopin’s few uses of actual folk material). The section is worked out in the dreamiest manner until the Scherzo’s opening chord interrupts the dream. The first section, which is then repeated, ends in a coda of barbaric splendor, which closes with furious chromatic scales.

Scherzo No.2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31:
The Second Scherzo is the favorite. Schumann compared it to a Byronic poem, “so overflowing with tenderness, boldness, love and contempt.” According to Wilhelm von Lenz, a pupil of Chopin, the composer said that the renowned sotto voce opening was a question and the second phrase the answer: “For Chopin it was never questioning enough, never soft enough, never vaulted (tombe) enough. It must be a charnel-house.” The melody, marked “con anima,” is repeated three times during the lengthy proceedings, the last time bringing us to the coda in a magnificent key change. The gorgeous melody overlies a six-note-per-measure left-hand accompaniment of exceeding richness. The trio, filled with longing, takes on a pianistic complexity. Huneker exults, “What masterly writing, and it lies in the very heart of the piano! A hundred generations may not improve on these pages.

Scherzo No.3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39:
The Third Scherzo opens with an almost Lisztian introduction, leading to a subject in octaves of pent-up energy. The key changes to D-flat major, with a choralelike subject, interspersed with delicate falling arpeggios. Louis Kentner thinks of it as “a Wagnerian melody of astonishing beauty, recalling the sound of tubas, harps and all the apocalyptic orchestra of Valhalla.” This is the most terse, ironic, and tightly constructed of the four scherzos, with an almost Beethovenian grandeur. The finger-bursting coda rises to emotional HEIGHTs, bringing the score to a rhetorical ending.

Scherzo No.4 in E major, Op. 54:
An ethereal composition bathed in light, which ripples over the expanse of the keyboard. It is Chopin in a blessed moment, improvising and happy. His nerves are calm, and his deadly disease in check. Even the long trio in E minor, of seraphic lyric beauty, has no sign of morbidezza. The passagework is elegant; the coda is a picture of pastel beauty.

Four Scherzos:

  • ASHKENAZY: London (CD)
  • CHERKASSKY: Tudor (CD)
  • DARRE: Vanguard
  • FREIRE: Teldec
  • KATSARIS: Teldec (CD)
  • RICHTER: CBS/Melodiya
  • RUBINSTEIN: RCA (CD); (1932) Pearl (CD)

Notable single Scherzos:

  • AX (Nos. 2 & 4): RCA
  • BARERE (No.3): Vanguard
  • CLIBURN (No.2): RCA
  • HOROWITZ (No.1): CBS
  • NOVAES (No.3): Vox
  • ZIMERMAN (No.4): DG
The Mazurkas

The sixty mazurkas are based on the dance’s three main forms: the mazur, oberek, and kujawiak. One-half of them are composed in major keys, the other half in minor, with many moments of modality. The Chopin mazurkas form one of the great libraries of ethnically inspired art music. They are difficult to interpret; besides their own specific rhythms, they require a fine sense of rubato. The English critic of Chopin’s day, Henry Chorley, wrote, “They lose half their meaning if played without a certain freedom and license, impossible to imitate, but irresistible if the player at all feels the music.” Liszt remarked that “to do justice to the mazurkas, one would have to harness a new pianist of the first rank toeach one of them.” These works explore a harmonic kingdom which is unusual even for Chopin. Some are modal, with many subtleties in contrapuntal treatment. Arthur Hedley observed, “The Mazurkas contain beauties which Chopin reserved for these intimate tone-poems alone. Every kind of light and shade, of gaiety, gloom, eloquence and passion is to be found in them.” In the epoch-making four mazurkas of Op.6, the twenty-year-old Chopin announces to the world his unique Slavic genius. Jean KIeczynski says, “In these first mazurkas at once appears that national life from which, as from an inexhaustible treasury, Chopin drew his inspirations.”

Mazurka in F-sharp minor, Op. 6, No.1:
It begins with the triplet rhythm, a characteristic of the mazurka. It possesses a slight sadness in tonality but is filled with a sweet country bloom. “The third section,” wrote Huneker, “with the appoggiaturas, realizes a vivid vision of country couples dancing determinedly.” Chopin leaves the score without tempo marking. Already apparent in this first mazurka is a deep psychological content which becomes fused with the folk spirit to create an art of universal significance.

Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 6, No.2:
It opens in shrouded mystery with a drone bass; the trio, marked “gajo” (merrily), is a fine example of Chopin’s tonal ambiguity. It could be E major or in the Lydian mode. This mazurka is a masterpiece by one who had, as a child, assimilated the spiritual qualities of this Polish national dance. Jean Kleczynski speaks of “a song so sad, heartfelt, naive, diversified and caressing.”

Mazurka in E major, Op. 6, No.3:
This mazurka is ninety measures long, but as usual Chopin is prodigal with his material. After a four-measure drone bass, there follows a four-measure phrase in the bass with the right hand crossing over the left hand. This is used four times in the piece. Chopin goes on to paint a village scene in an upward-moving theme which outlines the key of E major. After two more themes there appears in measures 47-48 an exotic unison, marked stretto, leading to yet another theme. The rustic theme is repeated, and all ends merrily in a four-measure coda.

Mazurka in E-flat minor, Op. 6, No.4:
In twenty-four highly compressed measures, with measures 9-24 repeated, the mazurka is laden with sorrow. The ending floats away.

Mazurka in B-flat major, Op. 7, No. 1:
A scherzando theme proclaims the happiest mazurka thus far-a village dance for rosy-cheeked partners. The trio, marked sotto voce, has a drone bass using an exotic scale with an augmented second. The Op. 7, No.1 is one of the best known of all the mazurkas.

Mazurka in A minor, Op. 7, No.2:
A pretty mazurka, though less original than the preceding ones.

Mazurka in F minor, Op. 7, No.3:
Guitarlike chords accompany this masterful work. At one point, the left hand presents a solo which sings from the heart, with the right hand accompanying in simple chords. One of the finest of the early mazurkas.

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 7, No.4:
Far more complex than it seems on first hearing, this mazurka is harmonically interesting, while lacking the melodic fragrance of the preceding one.

Mazurka in C major, Op. 7, No.5:
Twenty measures long, as if a strain of a folk mazurka from Chopin’s childhood had crept into his consciousness. It has a carefree happiness with lusty overtones.

Mazurka in B-flat major, Op. 17, No.1:
Huneker calls the mazurka “bold and chivalric.” Niecks also finds here “the marked chivalrous element that distinguishes the Polish character.”

Mazurka in E minor, Op. 17, No.2:
Niecks thinks that in this mazurka “all the arts of persuasion are tried, from the pathetic to the playful, and a vein of longing, not unmixed with sadness, runs through the whole, or rather forms the basis of it.”

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 17, No.3:
Pessimistic but not gloomy, this inward-looking composition is one to be played in solitude, rather than on the recital stage.

Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No.4:
This long, languid mazurka opens as it ends, with chords in the left hand for three measures, pursuing a vague triplet in measure four. In shaping his mazurka theme, Chopin uses more aristocratic and decorative figuration than usual. But the trio is earthier, with an almost grating quality; a marvelous unison passage leads back to the main theme.

Mazurka in G minor, Op. 24, No.1:
An attractive and exotic piece, of little technical difficulty.

Mazurka in C major, Op. 24, No.2:
Highly original, with its exotic use of the Lydian mode for fifteen bars.

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 24, No.3:
A work of delicate charm with a coda that seems to die away in the breeze.

Mazurka in B-flat minor, Op. 24, No.4:
The finest and most elaborate of the Op. 24. Huneker calls it “a beautiful and exquisitely colored poem. . . . It sends out prehensile filaments that entwine and draw us into the centre of a wondrous melody, laden with rich odors, odors that almost intoxicate. The figuration is tropical.” A complicated work; its form is A B A C D A with coda.

Mazurka in C minor, Op. 30, No.1:
A beautiful specimen, short in time, long in emotional significance. The “con anima” section “stabs with its pathos,” in Huneker’s phrase.

Mazurka in B minor, Op. 30, No.2 2:
A sprightly mazurka of less importance.

Mazurka in D-flat major, Op. 30, No.3:
Has a characteristic lilt, with marvelous details. Another fine “con anima” section. The term as used by Chopin means “with heart.”

Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 30, No.4:
One of Chopin’s supreme works in the form. Paul Hamburger speaks of “the tragic heroism of this Mazurka.” Often noted are the extraordinary descending seventh chords before the ending. Schumann, who first reviewed the set when it was published in 1835, wrote, “Chopin has elevated the mazurka to an art form; he has written many, yet few among them resemble each other.” One is reminded of Shelley’s line, “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Mazurka in G-sharp minor, Op. 33, No.1:
A plaintive mazurka, less complex than many of the others. One of its themes is marked “appassionato,” the only use of that marking in all of the mazurkas.

Mazurka in D major, Op. 33, No.2:
A delightful specimen; bright, cheerful, and popular.

Mazurka in C major, Op. 33, No.3:
A heartfelt little piece demanding that unique Chopinesque rubato, which was so new, fragrant, and wayward in Chopin’s own playing. Chopin was furious with Meyerbeer when the opera composer accused him of playing this piece in 4/4 instead of 3/4 time.

Mazurka in B minor, Op. 33, No.4:
Among the longest of the mazurkas, it was once a popular favorite. In dull hands the work can sound repetitious, as the first theme returns eight times. Schumann wrote of the Op. 33 set that Chopin’s “forms seem to grow ever brighter and lighter.”

Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 41, No.1:
Of the four mazurkas contained in Op. 41, the thirty-year-old Chopin wrote to the pianist Julius Fontana, “I have four new mazurkas. They seem to me pretty, as the youngest children usually do when the parents grow old.” However, pretty is hardly the word for these four minutes with their depth, complexity, and passion. This is one of the great mazurkas, universal in its impact but Polish to the core, despite Schumann’s complaint that in the later mazurkas Chopin was losing his Sarmatian skin. This mazurka is symphonic in scope and breadth. Huneker declares that “here is the very apotheosis of rhythm.”

Mazurka in F minor, Op. 41, No.2:
There is an almost unbearable nostalgia in this mazurka, which rises to an outcry near the end, when the theme becomes fortissimo and sostenuto.

Mazurka in B major, Op. 41, No.3:
A fascinating dance, seldom played, ending with the same piquant melody that introduced it.

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 41, No. 4:
Filled with light, goodwill, and the radiance of youth. There is an almost valselike lilt.

Mazurka in G major, Op. 50, No.1:
The set of three mazurkas of Op. 50, composed in 1841, shows an ever-growing subtlety of style, both harmonically and structurally. No. 1 in particular is melodious and good-humored.

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 50, No.2:
Here is the embodiment of graciousness. Huneker calls it “a perfect specimen of the aristocratic mazurka.” The D-flat trio is fetching.

Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 50, No.3:
One of Chopin’s great essays in the form. Hamburger sees in the mazurkas in C-sharp minor (Op. 30, No.4; Op. 41, No.1; and Op. 50, No.3) “a common mood of nostalgia–more than that, of almost regal bitterness over the passing of Poland’s glory.” Henry T. Finck wrote, “His love for his country was exceeded only by his devotion to his art.” Chopin, writing to a friend, remarked, “Oh, how sad it must be to die in a foreign country.” In this mazurka, Romantic patriotism is wedded to high art. Chopin’s study of Bach is also finely integrated in a complicated structure ending with a wondrous coda.

Mazurka in B major, Op. 56, No.1:
Critics such as Niecks, Huneker, and others were less attracted to the later mazurkas, which have since come to be understood as among Chopin’s greatest works. For Niecks, these pieces had lost the beautes sauvages: “They strike us rather by their propriety of manner and scholarly elaboration.” The B major work, writes James Friskin, is “interesting for its succession of keys:B-E-flat (i.e., D-sharp, the mediant)- B-G (sub-mediant)-B.” The mazurka is elaborate and refined, with the E-flat section a chain of finely spun leggiero passagework.

Mazurka in C major, Op. 56, No.2:
Thomas Fielden wrote, “Performers should bear in mind the saying that ‘an Eastern European is born with a violin in his hand.’ In every Mazurka there is a violin atmosphere.” Fielden feels “this Mazurka is in the form of a dialogue between a violin and a cello.” Chopin here displays his ever-growing contrapuntal imagination.

Mazurka in C minor, Op. 56, No.3:
Huneker thinks “it is composed with the head, not the heart, nor yet the heels.” The very long C minor Mazurka is symphonic in breadth, serious, beautiful, mature; its coda is glorious. Here Chopin brings the form to its most elevated state.

Mazurka in A minor, Op. 59, No.1:
A long work of astounding genius; the greatest of the six mazurkas in A minor. It reminded Huneker of “some strange glade wherein the flowers are rare in scent.” The chromaticism is dense, with considerable contrapuntal activity. The trio in A major is complex. There follows the mazurka’s main theme, heard in G-sharp minor.

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 59. No.2:
Sir William Henry Hadow goes so far as to call this “perhaps the most beautiful of all the mazurkas.” Friskin calls attention to “an astonishing passage of chromatic harmony leading to a delightful coda.”

Mazurka in F-sharp minor, Op. 59, No.3:
A pungent work. Huneker feels that “Chopin is at the summit of his invention. Time and tune, that wait for no man, are now his bond slaves. Pathos, delicacy, boldness, a measured melancholy and the art of euphonious presentment of all these, and many factors more, stamp this mazurka a masterpiece.”

Mazurka in B major, Op. 63, No.1:
The last set of Chopin’s mazurkas, Op. 63, was published in 1847, and for all the hidden complexity, there is a return to the earlier feeling of charming simplicity so apparent in the mazurkas of his youth. The B major work is vivacious, with a fascinating contour.

Mazurka in F minor, Op. 63, No.2:
Two pages of music of a lingering sadness.

Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 63, No.3:
By far the best known of this group. It possesses an eloquent lyricism and concludes with a display of Chopin’s contrapuntal skill. “A more perfect canon at the octave,” wrote Louis Ehlert, “could not have been written by one who has grown grey in the learned art.” but Huneker slyly observes that “Chopin wears his learning lightly.”

There remain the posthumous mazurkas, written in various years; four are gathered in Op. 67, the best being No.4 in A minor. Exotic in coloration, it is often played. Op. 68 contains four mazurkas; the last, in F minor, from 1849, is Chopin’s last work. It is subdued, morbid, and intensely chromatic. Finck calls it of “heartrending sadness and exquisite pathos.” The desperate composer, near death, hardly had the strength to write it out. Also of interest is the seldom played Mazurka in A minor from 1841. The A major section is all in octaves, and the piece ends with a ten-measure trill.

  • BRAILOWSKY (51 mazurkas): CBS
  • FRIEDMAN (12): Pearl (CD)
  • HOROWITZ (6): CBS (CD)
  • KAPELL (18): International Piano Archives at Maryland (IPA is housed at the University of Maryland)
  • KAPELL (10): RCA (CD)
  • MAGALOFF(51): London
  • MALCUZYNSKI (13): Angel
  • NOVAES (9): Vox
The Nocturnes

The nocturne represents one of he great genres of Romantic art. Chopin inherited the species from John Field and proceeded to obliterate Field’s charming naivete with his own highly chromatic and sultry genius. It is said that Field, upon hearing Chopin’s first three nocturnes, exclaimed, “Chopin’s talent is of the sick-room.” The last critic to prefer Field seems to have been the German anti-Chopinist Ludwig Rellstab: “Where Field smiles, Chopin makes a grinning grimace; where Field sighs, Chopin groans; where Field puts some seasoning into the food, Chopin empties a handful of pepper. . . . If one holds Field’s charming nocturnes before a distorting, concave mirror, one gets Chopin’s work.”

The Chopin night pieces bewitched countless nineteenth-century composers, and soon this category of music became so stereotyped as to cause Moscheles to exclaim, “What antidotes have we here for all these morbid moanings and over-wrought effects! . . . A composer brought me a nocturne of so restless a description that it threatened to disturb my nocturnal rest.” Although Chopin had an instant success with many of them, the Nocturnes are generally the worst-played pieces of his output. Yet they remain critical works for the pianist in the development of a fine cantilena, the shaping of phrases, and tonal balance. Louis Kentner thinks that if pianists neglect the Nocturnes, they “are guilty of peevish discrimination, for if these pieces are ‘too sweet,’ or not very ‘relevant’ to our cheerless age, they are still expressive of another, happier age, and therefore entitled to bring pleasure to us poor deprived humans.”

The lure of the Nocturnes does remain powerfully potent; few poet-pianists have failed to lavish their best efforts on them. Chopin, in these atmospheric works, let flow the full power of his voluptuous melodic gift, in piano writing that remains remarkable to this day. They are love poems of the finest ardor, and within each one an intimate human drama is explored. Henry T. Finck declares, “Mendelssohn in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Weber in Oberon have given us glimpses of dreamland, but Chopin s nocturnes take us there bodily, and plunge us into reveries more delicious than the visions of an opium eater.” Daniel Gregory Mason writes, “Chopin is one of the supreme masters in the coloristic use of the dissonance. His nocturnes may fairly be said to inaugurate by this means a new era in music, comparable in many respects to the era of impressionism in painting.”

Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No.1:
Composed when Chopin was twenty-two years old. A work of sumptuous phraseology, already it offers an elongation of the Field nocturne in the long-limbed opening theme. Charles Willeby wrote, “What could be more triste than the phrase in D-flat . . . marked legatissimo.” The middle section is quite long and, in Huneker’s words, “of exceeding charm. As a melody it has all the lurking voluptuousness and mystic crooning of its composer. . . . There is passion peeping out in the coda.” For Jean Kleczynski, this nocturne “exhibits a thrilling sadness, together with a novel eloquence of construction.” In the middle section he feels “as though the soul were sinking beneath the weight of thought and the heat of a summer’s night.” The B-flat minor Nocturne is a work of significance and is seldom played.

Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No.2:
The most famous of the nocturnes, indeed, it ranks high in celebrity among all of Chopin’s works. It has been played rotten with sentimentality and now deserves a respite. One can still feel the suave, glamorous atmosphere of the fashionable Parisian salon which pervades this work.

Nocturne in B major, Op. 9, No.3:
Chopin’s love for great singing must ever be in the interpreter’s mind when performing the nocturnes. The B major Nocturne is luscious, with ornamental vocalization on the piano. The ghostlike theme is deeply penetrating, while the middle section is turbulent and convulsive. This nocturne is a masterful early work and is rather unknown. The Op. 9 set was fittingly dedicated to the bewitching pianist Mme. Camille Pleyel, nee Moke. All who heard her play fell in love, among them Berlioz, Ferdinand Hiller, and Liszt.

Nocturne in F major, Op. 15, No. 1:
The three nocturnes of this opus were dedicated to Ferdinand Hiller. The F major Nocturne is played less often than the Op. 15, No.2; however, it is a gem, with its serene and tender Andante theme, followed by a trio marked Con fuoco, magnificently planned in double notes.H. Barbedette, a writer who often heard Chopin perform, perceives “a calm and beautiful lake, ruffled by a sudden storm and becoming calm again.” Finck rightfully complains that “few know how to use the pedal in such a way as to produce the rich uninterrupted flow of tone on which the melody should float.”

Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op. 15, No.2:
One of the popular nocturnes; it is of a ravishing beauty, exhibiting a heavenly melody. Niecks says “the floritura flit about us lightly as gossamer threads.” The middle section, Doppio movimento, shows Chopin’s command of pianistic notation. No composer had thus far been so explicit and original in showing to the pianist, on the page, what was needed. The increased motion of the middle section, with its novel figuration in quintuplets, possesses a burning passion.

Nocturne in G minor, Op. 15, No.3:
The first theme is marked “languido e rubato,” with the second section marked “religioso.” The G minor work is a slow-moving, feverish piece, of less value than the two preceding nocturnes; Huneker tells of a performance by Anton Rubinstein where “in the fourth bar, and for three bars, there is a held note, F, and I heard the Russian virtuoso, by some miraculous means, keep this tone prolonged. Under Rubinstein’s fingers it swelled and diminished, and went soaring into D, as if the instrument were an organ.

Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No.1:
The critic Alan Rich considers this nocturne”one of the most personal utterances in the entire realm of piano music. Finck feels that “it embodies a greater variety of emotion and more genuine dramatic spirit on four pages than many popular operas on four hundred.” The work is tragic, menacing, at times hopeless. The form is A B A and coda. The central section marked Piu mosso has a restless, vehement power. The coda once again reminds the listener of Chopin’s seemingly inexhaustible prodigality.

Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No.2:
This exquisite piece, in one continuous mood, is the essence of fioritura. It is a favorite nocturne but demands a highly developed technical skill. Professor Niecks was fearful of the power of this luscious work: “Nothing can equal the finish and delicacy of execution, the flow of gentle feeling lightly rippled by melancholy, and spreading out here and there in smooth expansiveness. But all this sweetness enervates, there is poison in it. We should not drink in these thirds, sixths, etcetera, without taking an antidote of Bach or Beethoven.” Lennox Berkeley writes, “A close study of this piece reveals the individuality of Chopin’s piano writing; the proliferation of the arabesques that embellish the theme are of a kind that is his own invention, bearing little resemblance to the work of any other composer.” The melody is violinistic, yet to transcribe the piece is to destroy its very essence. It can only be sung upon the piano.

Nocturne in B major, Op. 32, No.1:
A nocturne of less importance, though characteristic in design and melodic contour. However, a surprising coda of amazing originality completely shocks the listener out of reverie. Berkeley calls it an ending that “defies analysis, but compels acceptance.” To Huneker, this little recitativo “is like the drum-beat of tragedy.”

Nocturne in A-flat major, Op. 32, No.2:
A long, gracious melody with a balletic middle section. Indeed, the work is important in the ballet Les Sylphides, choreographed to Chopin’s music. The A-flat Nocturne, though attractive, is less important than other members of this species.

Nocturne in G minor, Op. 37, No.1:
Also of lesser importance. Karasowski says it “keeps up a ceaseless sad thought, until interrupted by a church-like atmosphere in chords.”

Nocturne in G major, Op. 37, No.2:
Once far more popular than at present. Its main theme in euphonious thirds and sixths gives it a barcarolle, Venetian flavor. The Victorian Niecks finds “a beautiful sensuousness; it is luscious, soft, rounded, and not without a certain degree of languor. But let us not tarry too long in the treacherous atmosphere of this Capua-it bewitches and unmans.” The view of Chopin’s music as a dangerous aphrodisiac was once prevalent. Kentner warns us that the nocturnes should not “suffer critical degradation because sentimental young ladies used them, in days long gone by, to comfort their repressed libido.”

Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No.1:
In grandeur of conception, the C minor Nocturne is unrivaled among its companions. The work, composed in 1841, finds Chopin’s genius blooming, reaching new vistas of emotional power. The Doppio movimento section has an almost Beethovenian ethical ring. For Kullak, “the design and poetic contents of this nocturne make it the most important one that Chopin created; the chief subject is a masterly expression of a great powerful grief.”

Nocturne in F-sharp minor, Op. 48, No.2:
A subtle and recondite nocturne. It is interpretively difficult, with a discursive middle section in D-flat which is a kind of recitative. The main theme is chaste and transparent, and of an unusual length, with a veiled passion throughout.

Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No.1:
Teachers often prescribe this nocturne for students grappling with Chopin’s style. It is technically easier than many, though it lacks the melodic distinction of its companion nocturnes. Huneker calls it “a nice nocturne, neat in its sorrow.”

Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 55, No.2:
A work of striking beauty and exquisite intricacy. Berkeley notes, “Here no analysis can explain the natural growth of the melodic line.” In the last twenty years, the E-flat Nocturne has become recognized by pianists as a spiritualization of the form. One has only to compare the Field-like E-flat Nocturne of Op. 9, No.2, to understand how far Chopin had traveled in pianistic layout and harmonic plenitude based on a personal contrapuntal approach, and a rarefication of melody. The coda is again a passage of breathtaking inspiration.

Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No.1:
A work of pure luxuriance; the main theme is profusely adorned with difficult chain trills. In his book on Chopin, Camille Bourniquel writes, “The last Nocturnes complete the redemption of the genre and its final liberations-they possess a unique freedom.” Gerald Abraham feels they “illustrate the principle of motive-generated melody in continuous cantabile form.”

Nocturne in E major, Op. 62, No.2:
The eighteenth nocturne and the last one published during Chopin’s life; a luminous and melting composition. It foreshadows Faure’s work in the nocturne genre. Ernest Hutcheson wrote, “This is one of Chopin’s sostenuto melodies, warm and luscious like the G string of a violin.” The middle section is agitated.

Nocturne No.19 in E minor, Op. 72, and Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth.: The E minor Nocturne is the earliest piece by Chopin in nocturne form, composed when he was seventeen, and it is still played often. The popular C-sharp minor is a pastiche of his nocturne style, with passages from his F minor Concerto. Friskin describes it as “a poverty-stricken nocturne.” It is now published in most Nocturne editions, although Chopin did not title the piece.

The Nocturnes:

  • ARRAU: Philips (CD)
  • ASHKENAZY: London (CD)
  • FOU TS’ONG: Sony Classical (CD)
  • KATIN: Unicorn
  • LIMA: Arabesque
  • MORAVEC: Elektra/Nonesuch (CD)
  • NOVAES: Vox
  • OHLSSON: Angel

Separate Nocturnes of Note:

  • BUSONI (Op. 15, No.2): Pearl (CD)
  • FLIER (Op. 62, No.2): Westminster
  • FRIEDMAN (Op. 55, No.2): Pearl (CD)
  • HOFMANN (Op. 15, No.2): RCA; IPA
  • LOESSER (Op. 9, No.3): IPA
  • DE PACHMANN (Op. 37, No.2): Pearl (CD)
  • POGORELICH (Op. 55, No.2): DG (CD)
  • RACHMANINOFF (Op. 9, No.2, & Op. 15,No.2): RCA (CD)
  • P. SERKIN (Op. 48, No.2): RCA
  • SOLOMON (Op. 9, No.2): EMI
Other Works

Among Chopin’s miscellaneous works, mention should be made of the Variations brillantes on an air from an opera by Herold, Op.12, which shows how Chopin applied his art to the then popular custom of composing variations on opera themes. Arthur Loesser called it “a masterpiece in its way.

A Bolero in C major, Op. 19, dates from 1833. Chopin turns this Spanish form into a rather Polish-sounding affair. In the proper hands, it can be elegant and gallant. The Tarantelle in A-flat, Op. 43, has spirit, though it lacks the native frenzy of the dance. Schumann praised it too highly when he found it “in Chopin’s most daring manner.” But the work has always been played.

In the Introduction and Rondo in E-flat, Op. 16, a Weber-like opening leads to a brilliant and engaging rondo, which is overly long. Perhaps more characteristic is the 1827 Rondo a la mazur, Op. 5, with its florid passages exuding a Slavic flavor.

The Polonaises

From the first, the polonaise was important in Chopin’s creative life. At the age of seven, he composed his first one, in B-flat major, and throughout his career he made the form exclusively his own, overshadowing the early examples by Oginski, Kurpinski, and Meyseder.

Chopin’s mature polonaises form a heroic national epic. The dance, or more rightly the processional, is in triple time with an unmistakable rhythm featuring an eighth note and two sixteenths, followed by four eighths. Liszt felt that “this dance is designed above all to draw attention to the men and to gain admiration for their beauty, their fine arts, their martial and courteous appearance.”

In these works, Chopin’s Romantic patriotism envisions Poland’s former greatness and chivalric deeds. The form also became a means of expressing his most violent and angry emotions concerning his nation’s struggle. The Polonaises, with their “cannon buried in flowers,” in Schumann’s words, have become symbolic and poignant evocations of an oppressed people.

There are sixteen polonaises, of which nine were composed before Chopin left Poland at twenty-one. These are charming, especially the Op. 71, No.3 in F minor. But only in Paris, idealizing his country from afar, could Chopin’s genius for the polonaise ripen. His seven mature examples are thrilling in their splendor, rancor, and pianistic invention.

Polonaise in C-sharp minor, Op. 26, No.1:
It opens with an arrestingly grand statement, but the main character of the work is lyric. Once played frequently, the C-sharp minor Polonaise ought to be revived. The Meno mosso section is exquisite, in Huneker’s words “tender enough to woo a princess.”

Polonaise in E-flat minor, Op. 26, No.2:
A tragic tone poem which requires depth of expression on the part of the pianist to fulfill its savage, brooding character. The E-flat minor Polonaise is sometimes called The Siberian Revolt. The discontent of the work, its wild anger, makes this neglected polonaise one of Chopin’s most realistic compositions.

Janacek must have loved this Slavonic masterpiece.

Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No.1:
Often called the Military; a world-famous piece, splendid in its pomp and glory, its chivalry and lean muscularity.

Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No.2:
Anton Rubinstein saw in this a gloomy picture of Poland’s downfall, just as the Polonaise in A major was a portrait of its former greatness. The C minor Polonaise is seldom played. It is an enigmatic yet noble composition.

Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44:
A raw and overwhelming work when played properly. Huneker asks us to “consider the musical weight of the work, the recklessly bold outpourings of a mind almost distraught!

There is no greater test for the poet-pianist.” Liszt called it the “lurid hour that precedes a hurricane,” while John Ogdon sees in it a “Goya-like intensity.” The central section is a mazurka preceded by two pages of the strangest monotony, reverberating madly. The psychological impact is shattering. This work finds Chopin’s spirit far from the elegant world of the Parisian salon.

Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53:
One of the world’s most famous pieces of music, it never fails to thrill. It is Chopin dreaming of an all-powerful Poland. The A-flat Polonaise is the very picture of the martial spirit. It has been called the Heroic Polonaise, and its majestic octave episode in E major resounds with the hooves of a proud cavalry. After “this central episode,” wrote Ogdon, “Chopin’s return to the main section is a tour de force: few composers would have dared and achieved so apparently wayward and capricious a return in so grandiose a work.” Huneker cautions, “None but the heroes of the keyboard may grasp its dense chordal masses, its fiery projectiles of tone.”

Polonaise- fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61:
This late work, published in 1846, ranks with the master’s most sublime creations. Chopin had said all he had to say in the form of the polonaise; he was now groping for a new, expansive, and more personal structure-hence the title Fantaisie. It took decades for it to be properly understood. Even Liszt was confused by it, saying, “Such pictures as these are of little value to art. They only serve to torture the soul, like all descriptions of extreme moments.” The weaving of five themes, the impressionist harmony, the total mystery and profundity present one of the most absorbing interpretive problems in the Chopin canon.

 Selected Polonaises:

  • ASHKENAZY: London (CD)
  • FRANKL: Turnabout
  • OHLSSON: Angel

 Individual Polonaises of Interest:

  • ARGERICH (Opp. 53 & 61): DG
  • AX (Op. 61): RCA
  • CHERKASSKY (Op. 53): Mercury
  • FLIER (Op. 26): Westminster
  • HOFMANN (Op. 26): International Piano Archives; (Op. 40, No.1): RCA
  • HOROWITZ (Opp. 53 & 61): CBS; (Op. 44): CBS (CD)
  • LHEVINNE (Op. 53): Dante (CD)
  • H. NEUHAUS (Op. 61): Russian Disc (CD)
  • PENNARIO (Op. 53): Angel
  • P. SERKIN (Op. 61): RCA
The Preludes

Twenty-Four Preludes, Op. 28

Within these very small frames, Chopin captures a universe of feeling and mood. There is a prelude for each major and minor key; many of them demand high virtuosity. James Friskin writes, “Perhaps no other collection of piano pieces contains within such a small compass so much that is at the same time musically and technically valuable.” Schumann thought them “eagle’s feathers, all strangely intermingled. But in every piece we find his own hand-Frederic Chopin wrote it. One recognizes him in his pauses, in his impetuous respiration. He is the boldest, the proudest, poet-soul of his time.” Finck feels that “if all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin’s Preludes. There are among Chopin’s preludes a few which breathe the spirit of contentment and grace, or of religious grandeur, but most of them are outbreaks of the wildest anguish and heart-rending pathos. If tears could be heard, they would sound like these preludes.”

Prelude No.1 in C major:
An exquisite example of Chopin’s devotion to Bach. Pulsating and agitated, it is over in half a minute,leaving the listener yearning for more.

No.2 in A minor:
Slow, indeed perversely morbid, in its musical makeup, but unforgettable.

No.3 in G major:
The right-hand melody is a puff of air. Ernest Hutcheson wrote, “It takes fairy fingers to compass the sun-kissed ripples of the left hand.” And Robert Collet exclaims of its difficulties that “the Prelude in G major I regard as one of the most dangerous little pieces ever written.”

No.4 in E minor:
A slender melody over a rich, slow-moving chordal accompaniment. Huneker wrote, “Its despair has the antique flavor.” It was fittingly played, with Nos. 6 and 20, by the famous organist Lefebure-Wely, at Chopin’s funeral service at the Madeleine Church in Paris. Mozart’s Requiem was also performed.

No. 5 in D major:
Very short, with cross-rhythms, intricate and iridescent.

No.6 in B minor:
A cello melody in the left hand; very sad and slow. A famous piece.

No.7 in A major:
Three lines, a skeletonized mazurka, used prominently in the ballet Les Syiphides. Even more famous than No.6.

No.8 in F-sharp minor:
The right-hand melody is played by the thumb. Chopin writes the chromatic inner voice in smaller notation. This feverish vision is one of the greatest of the preludes.

No.9 in E major:
A work of only twelve measures but also of infinite grandeur.

No.10 in C-sharp minor:
It’s over in a blink, and needs the lightest fingers.

No.11 in B major:
Concentrated grace and poetry. Huneker says, “Another gleam of the Chopin sunshine.”

No.12 in G-sharp minor:
A powerful and despairing work. Technically treacherous.

No.13 in F-sharp major:
A nocturne like prelude with a middle section. This is a pearl of lyric serenity.

No.14 in E-flat minor:
A unison study of a moment of gloom.

No.15 in D-flat major:
The so-called Raindrop Prelude is the longest of these pieces, with a dramatic middle section. The work has always been popular.

No. 16 in B-flat minor:
Perilous right-hand fingerwork as the left hand becomes more explosive. A tour de force for the virtuoso.

No.17 in A-flat major:
A richly colored romance concluding with eleven low A-flats reminiscent of a bell. Mendelssohn wrote, “I love it! I cannot tell you how much or why; except perhaps that it is something which I could never at all have written.”

No.18 in F minor:
A difficult prelude in fiery, recitativo style.

No. 19 in E-flat major:
Marked Vivace, a beautiful and difficult piece. To play it through unscathed is an achievement.

No.20 in C minor:
Twelve bars of chords. George Sand had this funereal prelude in mind when she aptly stated that “one prelude of Chopin contains more music than all the trumpetings of Meyerbeer.” Rachmaninoff and Busoni used it as the basis for sets of variations.

No.21 in B-flat major:
A nocturne-type prelude with a double-note accompaniment.

No.22 in G minor:
Short and stormy, with left-hand octaves.

No.23 in F major:
Ending on a dominant seventh chord, this prelude has the bliss of a perfect June day. Huneker rhapsodizes, “This prelude is fashioned out of the most volatile stuff. Aerial, imponderable, and like a sunshot spider-web oscillating in the breeze of summer…”

No.24 in D minor:
It is a discharge of tremendous emotion marked Allegro appassionato. The turbulent left hand never relents. Three solo Ds in the bowels of the piano make for a foreboding conclusion.

  • Twenty-four Preludes:
  • CORTOT: Music and Arts (CD)
  • MORAVEC: Supraphon (CD)
  • OLHSSON: Arabesque (CD)
  • Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45

A seldom played work of great improvisational beauty. The composition contains far-flung modulations and needs imagination for its presentation. It has nothing in common with the Op. 28 Preludes (although some of the recordings include it).

  • PERLEMUTER: Nimbus (CD)

“Funeral March”

Chopin wrote three piano sonatas. No.1 in C minor (1827) was written for his teacher Elsner as a compositional problem. Academic and difficult, it holds almost no interest for pianists. Its third movement is an early example of a 5/4 meter.

The Second Sonata is resplendent. Composed in 1838, it is one of the staple items of the pianist’s repertory and contains the world’s most famous Funeral March.

This work expresses a life-and-death struggle. The opening movement begins with a portentous motive, leading directly into a Doppio movimento. The grandeur of the conception leads to a lean and inevitable development section. The second movement, a scherzo, echoes the first movement’s conflagrations. The Marche funebre is placed as the third movement with extraordinary effect; its trio must not be played sweetly. The finale, composed in unison, is a shudder of grief.This sonata was a specialty of Liszt and of Anton Rubinstein; the latter called it “night winds sweeping over church-yard graves.

John Ogdon says, “The finest recording of it is still Rachmaninoff’s magnificent, unforgettable performance.” Alan Walker wrote, “There are fewer great interpretations of this Sonata than there are great pianists.”

  • KATZ: Pye
  • NOVAES: Vox
  • UCHIDA: Philips (CD)

Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op. 58 Not as stark as the Second Sonata, No.3 almost bursts its form in the first movement, so rich are the themes, so vital and ornamental. In this late masterpiece, Chopin is charting new formal and harmonic paths. As in the Second Sonata, he breaks out of the Viennese tradition of sonata form. The recapitulation begins with the second subject, which must be one of the most beautiful melodies ever composed within the confines of sonata form. The second movement is a blithe scherzo in E-flat major, with a chiseled and strange trio. The third movement opens with a funereal introduction leading to one of Chopin’s greatest meditations, music that leaves one spell-bound. The movement is worked out with formal genius and the last page calls for great profundity of feeling. The agitated finale, Presto, ma non tanto, is a volcanic conception, utilizing only two subjects, worked out on a grand scale. It is a triumph of primordial power.

  • ARTYMIW: Chandos (CD)
  • CHERKASSKY: Nimbus (CD)
  • CORTOT: Biddulph (CD)
  • FIRKUSNY: Fone (CD)
  • GRAINGER: Biddulph (CD)
  • HOFMANN (first movement): RCA
  • HUNGERFORD: Vanguard
  • LIPATTI: Angel (CD)
  • NOVAES: Vox
Trois Nouvelles Etudes

Trois Nouvelles Etudes (without opus number) (1840)

These were written for a piano method published by Moscheles. They make a fine six-minute set. No. 1 in F minor has a long melody of restrained passion, its technical use being three notes in the right hand to be played against four in the left hand. No.2 in A-flat is all sweetness in its polyrhythmic movement. No.3 in D-flat is a wickedly difficult study which asks for the playing of legato and staccato simultaneously in the same hand.

  • ASHKENAZY: London (CD)
  • AX: RCA
The Waltzes

Chopin’s Waltzes are among the world’s most often played piano music. They fall into two styles: gracious and brilliantly decorated, or melancholy. John Ogdon calls them “the brightest jewels in the greatest salons of the time.”

The Waltzes are peculiarly Chopinesque. The Viennese waltzes of the day as exemplified by those of Lanner and the elder Johann Strauss were anathema to Chopin’s rarefied nature, and after his stay in Vienna he reported, “I have acquired nothing of that which is specially Viennese by nature, and accordingly I am still unable to play valses.” The true precursor of the Chopin waltz style is Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. Arthur Hedley wrote, “The Chopin Waltzes were never meant to be danced by ordinary mundane creatures of flesh and blood.”

Grande Valse brillante in F-flat major, Op. 18:
One of Chopin’s most extroverted works. Insouciant, teasing, high-stepping, it is beloved by the virtuoso. Berlioz spoke of its “divine delicacies.”Some of its fetching passages must have inspired Offenbach. Schumann saw it “enveloping the dancers deeper and deeper in floods.”

Valse brillante in A-flat major, Op. 34, No.1:
Chopin composed three waltzes in 1838, under the generic title Trois Valses brillantes. This waltz is akin in spirit to the Grande Valse brillante, Op. 18, but with even more delightful colors. A true ballroom creation, it is marked Vivace, and Chopin is happy and at ease with the aristocratic veneer of the salon. There is such sparkling life throughout that it feels as though it were improvised at a Dionysian revel.

Valse brillante in A minor, Op. 34, No.2:
The composer Stephen Heller related that Chopin called this slow (Lento) waltz his favorite. When Heller told the Pole that he, too, loved it best, Chopin immediately invited him for lunch at a fashionable cafe. Frederick Niecks wrote of this piece, “The composer evidently found pleasure in giving way to this delicious languor, in indulging in these melancholy thoughts full of sweetest, tenderest loving and longing.”

Valse brillante in F major, Op. 34, No.3:
A witty and little-known waltz. Huneker calls it “a whirling wild dance of atoms.” The themes are less distinguished, but the perpetual-motion flavor with its bracing appoggiaturas casts its own spell.

Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 42:
A case may be made for the Op. 42 as Chopin’s most perfect valse. After the first measures of trill, a call to the dance, there is a melody with a rare lilt composed in double time, with the triple time of the waltz in the left hand. Schumann remarked that “like his earlier waltzes it is a salon piece of the noblest kind.” The composition, Schumann feels, should be danced to only by “countesses at least.” This waltz is the most demanding technically of the series.

Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, No.1:
This all-time favorite of Chopin’s waltzes is called the Minute Waltz because of its perpetual-motion attitude. However, it must not be played in that time period. Chopin himself was often compelled to play it, the London society ladies repeatedly exclaiming that it sounded “like water”-a phrase that annoyed the composer.

Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No.2:
Huneker declares, “It is the most poetic of all. The first theme has never been excelled by Chopin for a species of veiled melancholy. It is a fascinating, lyrical sorrow.” Delicate passage-work ensues, followed by a D-flat major section of vocal beauty.

Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 64, No.3:
Seldom performed, because of the popularity of the two preceding waltzes, although it is shapely and finely made. The last of Chopin’s waltzes, it has a deft charm. Niecks speaks of its “exquisite serpentining melodic lines, and other beautiful details.” The middle section in C major is perfectly poised.

Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 69, No.1:
Published posthumously with the B minor Waltz in 1855. The manuscript has the inscription “Pour Mlle Marie.” Chopin wrote this waltz in 1835, while courting Marie Wodzinska. He had fallen in love with the young and beautiful countess and had proposed marriage to her. As a poor musician, however, Chopin was not considered suitable marriage material by Marie’s parents, and he was rejected. His Waltz in A-flat was given to Marie just before his departure for Paris. Marked Lento, this beautiful dance poem has often been called L’Adieu.

Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No.2:
This often played work was composed when Chopin was nineteen. The composer wanted it and others of his early works burned, but they were issued posthumously. The piecehas three themes; the opening is distinctively Chopinesque in its pensive melancholy.

Other posthumously issued works include three waltzes in Op. 70, all attractive pieces. The best known, No.1 in G-flat, is a brilliant specimen, and the E minor Waltz, without opus number, composed in 1829, is deservedly popular.

The Waltzes:

  • CICCOLINI: Seraphim
  • CORTOT: Seraphim
  • LIPATTI: Odyssey; Angel (CD)
  • NOVAES: Vox
  • PENNARIO: Angel
  • PIRES: Erato (CD)
  • RACHMANINOFF (various waltzes): RCA