Saturday, October 25, 2008

Chopin

Last week, when I wrote about my love for Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto, Family Man, in the comments, asked for some Chopin. It's hard to know where to begin with Chopin, I love so much of his work. Since I couldn't identify the piece that Family Man was thinking of, I thought I'd simply choose one of my favorite bits of Chopin - the second movement from his Piano Concerto #2 in F-sharp minor.

Although the entire concerto is dedicated to a woman, she was not the inspiration for the music. The second movement was inspired by the youthful Chopin’s love for a young opera singer named Konstancja GÅ‚adkowska. Later, of course, Chopin entered into a famous long term relationship with Aurore Dudevant (who is better known by her pen name, George Sand).

Unlike my experience of Rachmaninoff, I never have any narrative in mind when I hear this. I just listen and enjoy. I think of it as more than contemplative and less than fantasy. Dreamy, perhaps.

Chopin himself wrote about this movement in an 1830 letter:

It is not meant to be powerful, but rather romantic, quiet, melancholic, should give the impression of a look back at a thousand loveable memories. It is like meditating in beautiful springtime, at moonlight.
Chopin, himself a great pianist, mostly composed for solo piano and not for orchestra. And even in the piano concertos, it seems to me that the orchestra is there less as a partner than as a background to showcase the virtuosity of the pianist. Chopin himself was known for using rubato - a technique where the pianist doesn’t play the notes on the page with their exact tempo, but slows down or speeds up as emotion demands. In the hands of a virtuoso, this gives Chopin’s work an appealing combination of fragility and solidity. (In the wrong hands it just sounds as if the pianist can’t remember what notes come next.)

Sometimes a work that is beloved today was not appreciated during it’s own time. But this piano concerto was praised by Chopin’s contemporaries, including Robert Schumann who commented that it was "...[a concerto] which all of us put together would not be able to reach, and whose hem we can merely kiss". The second movement was especially praised as original and Chopin was called an “exceptional musical genius.” Not bad for a composer fresh out of school.

A Chopin piece will not have the intensity of a work by Rachmaninoff, although they are both considered Romantics. Chopin was among the earliest to compose in the Romantic style (contrast the expression in Chopin's music with the careful formulas of the earlier Mozart or even Beethoven). Chopin was breaking new ground. Rachmaninoff, among the last of the Romantic composers, was taking the genre to it's fullest expression.

This is not a piece that I like to watch played. I just like to listen. So click play and then walk away from your computer and just sit and listen. And think about ... whatever it brings to mind.

Enjoy.