Master of the small statement

At the age of eight he was playing piano and composing music that your high-school music teacher could only dream of doing.

It was only a matter of time before Frederic Chopin would join the ranks of Mozart and Beethoven and be composing symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and opera, in effect, be a master of the grand statement. No less an authority than Robert Schumann, after hearing Chopin perform, declared, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.”

As it turned out, Chopin became a master of the small statement. After writing two piano concertos, he decided composing for orchestra was not for him, and devoted his talents to composing only for the piano, and relatively short piano pieces at that.

The piano pieces Chopin wrote were called preludes, scherzos, mazurkas, nocturnes, polonaises, fantasies, rondos, impromptus, and the like. Most of them are intense, poetic, and filled with feeling--and many are delicate, as is to be expected of a Parisian, though some are fervently patriotic, as is to be expected of a Pole. (His father was French, his mother was Polish).

At age 20, Chopin gave three farewell concerts in Warsaw, visited various German cities, considered moving to the United States, rejected the idea because culture was a bit primitive there, and settled in Paris. Shortly thereafter, he gave up public performances for composition, and a couple of years later set up housekeeping with author George Sand, aka Mme. Aurore Dudevant.

Sand was a political activist, opposed to monarchy, tradition, and convention. Chopin was a musician, not deeply concerned with social injustice. Her objective was to remake an unfair world. His objective was to “create a new era in art.”

Observing Chopin at work, Sand wrote: “His creative power was spontaneous, miraculous. It came to him without effort or warning . . . But then began the most heart-rending labor I have ever witnessed. It was a series of attempts, of fits of irresolution and impatience to recover certain details. He conceived a melody as a whole, but when he tried to write it down he analyzed it too much, and his regret at not recovering it in clear-cut form plunged him--by his own account--into a sort of despair. He would shut himself in his room for days, pacing up and down, breaking his pens, repeating and modifying one bar a hundred times. . . . He would spend six weeks over a page, only to end up writing it out finally just as he had sketched it in the original draft.”

After ten years together, she ended the relationship. Two years later, after a long illness, Chopin died. He was 39.

Two pianists are noted for bringing out the poetry of Chopin’s music--Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Should you prefer more firmness at the keys, try Vladimir Horowitz or Van Cliburn, who are also noted for their Chopin.

On the list of 50 greatest composers, Chopin ranks 14th.


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