The orchestral writing of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), all of which set in the context of a composition for piano and orchestra, has often been criticized as “lacking”. Opponents attack his style of directing most of the spotlight at the piano while the orchestra serves as a “mere background”. But such radical departure from convention is exactly what breathes life into the Polish composer’s timeless masterpieces for piano and orchestra.
Chopin was always an innovator, never ceasing to create something new. He possessed a remarkable gift for the piano, and from a young age carried an obsessive desire to invent his own style of music. Even in his earliest works, such as the Variations on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano” (written at age 17) and the first études for piano (written at age 19), the unique qualities of Chopin’s music were already beginning to manifest. Indeed, it was as if he was born for the piano, and the piano invented for him. Never had piano music in its history witnessed such inventiveness of ornamentations and cadenzas. Never had any pianist produced such subtle nuances from the pedal. And never had the Romantic spirit been more fiery and passionate. At the age of 20, Chopin completed his two Piano Concerti and presented them to the Polish audience. It was the last concert that he would ever perform in his motherland, but the power and national pride that the two works expressed would leave behind an impression in the hearts of his fellow countrymen forever.
The two Piano Concerti by Chopin are milestones in the literature of piano music. In them, Chopin formulated an entirely novel pianistic language, demonstrating the full potential of the instrument. At the same time, he laid down the foundation for his compositional career. The forms and structures employed in the Piano Concerti would foreshadow many of his later, even more renowned pieces, such as nocturnes, scherzi, and mazurkas. The First Piano Concerto featured here contains a potluck of preludes, ballades, scherzi, nocturnes, impromptus, and dance forms. It is a composition for piano and orchestra in three movements, and is an epitome of the Romantic passion, permeated from beginning to end by a ceaseless aspiration to live life to the fullest.
The first movement is a merciless typhoon. The Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) exhibited by the orchestral opening sends shockwaves right down to our cores before we have even had the time to prepare our minds for the music. But this is just the beginning. After several minutes of roaring and howling, it softens down and gives way to the piano, which finally awakens from its slumber. Now, Chopin shows the world what the instrument can really do. Without hesitation the piano reveals itself, unleashing melody after melody of inconceivable beauty that leaves the listener speechless. Its countless ornamentations and elaborations, accompanied quietly by orchestra, are unprecedented and magical beyond comprehension. The first movement centers on the contrast between two themes, one melancholy and the other hopeful, with occasional interjections of fiery ardor. Finally, it consummates in a relentless coda that drives it to a furious conclusion.
The second movement provides a dramatic contrast to the first. It is a serenade, a pastoral idyll. The listener lies in a boundless field, and about her there is only peace, sunshine, and the sweet, fresh scent of flowers. What a perfect dream! How she wishes that it would never end. The delicate piano melody plays on, and the serene accompaniment by muted strings is like a cool summer breeze, gently and playfully dancing across her face. What loving caress, timeless and ethereal… A light rain drops by briefly, then the sun comes out again. How entranced is she, that she does not even know when the dream has quietly left her in the darkness of the night. And in her ecstasy and bewilderment, she finally comes to grasp what had happened. Ah! It was only a dream…
Having experienced the romantic melancholy of the first movement and the blissful reverie of the second, we now hear the finale arriving joyously on the scene. Its thematic content is derived from the krakowiak, a lively Polish dance form with syncopated rhythms. Once again, two opposing musical ideas are presented side by side, the first energetic and flirtatious, and the second grounded and reserved. But regardless of the melodic or rhythmic quality, the piano is in almost ceaseless motion. Indeed, this movement showcases the piano as an unrelenting racehorse, containing some of the most difficult and brilliant passages ever written for the instrument. Its energy cannot be quenched, and with the momentum of sheer resolution it gallops jubilantly to the finish.
Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor, Op. 11