Sunday, January 22, 2012

Michael Brown: Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert with a Side of Snow

If you chickened out because of the weather or had other commitments on a busy weekend's calendar, you missed a wonderful performance by a young pianist who's just entering the difficult and often treacherous world of the touring classical musician.

Last night's performance by Michael Brown was one of the more memorable recitals I've attended in years, especially the way he was able to draw me in to this personal sound-world to forget I was sitting in a concert hall and not, say, somebody's living room listening to Schubert himself play for a handful of friends.

Normally, I don't write reviews - if I'm representing an organization through a blog, one could claim a conflict of interests and lose credibility with a steady stream of positive reviews so as not to offend, avoiding negative comments which would be considered bad marketing.

As Private Citizen Dick Strawser, I posted my review at Thoughts on a Train.

And feel free to offer your own comments about the performance here. What did you think?

After the concert, Michael told me he had just redesigned his web-site, so if you've found links from past posts not working any more, try this one. And you can also check out his blog or follow him on Twitter. There are audio clips of some of his performances and of some of his compositions here.

After music written between 1801 and 1826, he offered a brief encore - one of his own works, an homage to Aaron Copland written in 2007 and full of reminiscences of an influential voice, particularly Copland's wonderful 1941 sonata. I was amused that, after playing this entire program from memory, he walks out on stage carrying the piano's music rack (often removed in concert) so he could play his own piece with the score.

At the moment, he's working on a suite for solo cello for a friend who's to perform it in New York next month. As he tweeted this morning, "composing on Amtrak is the way to go these days."

Michael Brown at Friday's Soundscape
This photo was taken by Ya-Ting Chang at Friday afternoon's Soundscape presentation for students at Whitaker Center, part of Market Square Concerts' educational outreach program.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Beethoven & Schubert, Together Again

Schubert in 1825
This Saturday evening, Michael Brown brings sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert to Whitaker Center.

This post is about Schubert's changing view of Beethoven. You can listen to both sonatas here and take a "walking tour" of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Sonata here.

At my other blog, you can read more detail about the summer holiday in 1825 when Schubert composed his D Major Piano Sonata, D.850, and another work that most likely became the "Great" C Major Symphony which he was working on at the same time.

In 1816, Schubert – all of 19 years old – wrote about a celebration in honor his old teacher, Antonio Salieri – yes, that Antonio Salieri – surrounded by students, many of whom had composed works specifically for the occasion (the 50th Anniversary of his arrival in Vienna).

“It must be fine… to hear in all [his students’] compositions the expression of pure nature, free from all the eccentricity that is common among most composers nowadays, [which] is due almost wholly to one of our greatest German artists; that eccentricity which combines and confuses the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, heroism with howlings and that which is most holy with harlequinades…”

This was a not too thinly veiled reference to Beethoven who, at that same time, was working on what’s considered the first of his late piano sonatas, the A Major Sonata, Op. 101. The 7th and 8th Symphonies had been written 4-5 years earlier, and the “middle quartets” completed 6 years earlier. The 9th Symphony and the other late works – sonatas and quartets – were around the corner.

But by 1823, Schubert had started writing a symphony in B Minor in which, following Beethoven’s example, he sought to expand the forms he had been working with – sonatas, quartets and especially symphonies. Several incomplete symphonies attest to his struggles with these “expanded forms.”

His last quartet – the G Major Quartet written in 10 days in June, 1826, when he was 28 – was clearly influenced by Beethoven’s most recent quartets. The 1st movement was even premiered by Schuppanzigh’s Quartet, closely associated with premieres of Beethoven’s music. This work should have been part of Schubert’s “Middle Period” but since he died at the age of 31, we must consider this “Late Schubert.” It’s all relative.

In 1827, Schubert would be a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral.

Five days before his own death the following year, Schubert requested friends play Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131, for him during which he became so “overcome by such transports of delight and enthusiasm,” he was in such an emotional state by the end of the performance, his friends feared for his health. The story he began hallucinating about Beethoven’s grave may be a fabrication of his brother Ferdinand’s but in the end, he was buried in a grave close to Beethoven’s.

Mozart's Memorial; Beethoven's & Schubert's Graves

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Walking Tour through Beethoven's "Pastoral" Sonata

If you’ve heard any Beethoven piano sonatas – and there are 32 of them, all together – you’ve no doubt heard at least the 1st movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata. The sonata Michael Brown will be opening his Market Square Concerts recital with this Saturday - 8pm at Whitaker Center - may not be as famous but it was written right after the “Moonlight” and right before another well-known one, the “Tempest.”

Now, this sonata became known as the “Pastoral” (not to be confused with his 6th Symphony he’d write a few years later), one of many nicknames that did not originate with Beethoven. In fact, it was a critic who later christened the Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 “The Moonlight” because the first movement reminded him of a moonlit night on a boat on a lake, but he could have listened to the last movement and heard a terrific storm and called it “The Tempest” except there already was a “Tempest” Sonata. And supposedly that one was inspired by Beethoven reading Shakespeare’s play though since the last movement of the “Tempest” Sonata was actually inspired by watching a man ride by on a horse (Beethoven immediately transcribed into a galloping rhythm that permeates the movement), that could have earned this sonata the alternate nickname, the “Rider.”

Well, whatever…

But the “Pastoral” Sonata’s nickname seems to be deserved. The whole sonata is more relaxed if not outright bucolic. But underneath that simple exterior, the work is very cleverly crafted as any abstract work earning the title “Sonata.”

If you’re wondering what a “sonata” is – even if you weren’t – it originated in the days of Mozart and Haydn and is usually a three-movement work for solo piano or an instrument plus piano with an opening movement in “sonata form,” a contrasting slow movement that could maybe be a set of variations, and a final, usually lively movement to conlcude. Four-movement sonatas became more typical in the 19th Century, adding a scherzo or some faster contrast between the slow 2nd Movement and the finale. In the 18th Century, the weight of this multi-movement piece was in the first movement, but this began to shift with Beethoven, particularly in his later works, so that very often the last movement became more significant.

(Incidentally, a symphony is basically a “sonata for orchestra” and follows the same general evolution as the sonata.)

Now, the fact that a sonata opens with a movement in “sonata form” can sound confusing – I tell my students the study of music is called “musicology” but musicologically speaking, it can often seem “music-illogical.”

The Sonata Form is basically a three-part form.

There’s a 1st Theme in the tonic key (let’s say, D Major), then a modulation to the 2nd Theme which is usually (but not always) in the dominant key (A Major). (Sonatas in minor tonic keys could have a 2nd Theme in the “relative major” – D Minor to F Major.) This is called the “Exposition” where the themes are presented (exposed). It isn’t really the Themes that define the form – it’s the keys, the tonal conflict of presenting the tonic and then moving away from it which is then resolved by returning to the initial tonic key.

(My apologies if your eyes glazed over while you were reading that paragraph. I have to admit to a sense of Geek's Revenge after having to deal with people talking about computers or cars or sports without ever feeling the need to explain their own jargon to me, but I digress...)

In the middle is the “Development” Section where the themes are taken apart, varied, changed, “developed” and the key area is very unsettled. The point is, it’s not supposed to be in the Tonic Key at all. The whole point is, having taken everything apart, to put it all back together so the third section, the “Recapitulation,” arrives back in the home tonic (D Major, in this case).

As the themes are “recapped,” everything is now (basically) in the home key – no modulations to the Dominant or whatever the Exposition did. The idea is to stress this dramatic return to Tonic. Of course, the more complicated these movements became, the more complex the key structure became with it, but that’s the generic principal. What a composer does with it may not always agree with what the textbook says it should. Any composer worth his salt knows that rules are made to be broken: it’s how you break them that counts.

So, let’s go back and listen to that performance by Daniel Barenboim as we walk our way through the sonata and listen to how it's put together:

--- --- --- ---

CLIP ONE – 1st Movement (Part 1) --- --- --- ---

Normally, textbooks tell you music should move by four-bar phrase units but this sonata, rather than being “four-square” with 4+4+4+4 bar phrases, begins [0:15] with a 1-bar intro as if it’s played on the timpani (reminds me of the Violin Concerto’s opening, written 5 years later) + 9 bars (repeated), then [0:38] 8-bars repeated and expanded to 11 bars; [1:00] 4-bars repeated and expanded) which gives it a sense of forward motion – like playing long notes followed by increasingly shorter notes (if that is “rhythm,” this use of shorter and shorter phrases in a kind of “macro-rhythm,” rhythm on a higher structural level).

Also notice how the very first chord [0:17] wants to pull us away from the tonic D Major – that C-natural wants to resolve to a G Major chord which it does but which, as it continues, stays in the D Major tonality. It gives us a feeling of harmonic “fluidity,” chords wafting on nature’s breeze, if you want to think pastorally.

At [1:58], the 2nd Theme (in the outer voices, with “whispering forest” texture in the middle) begins as expected in the dominant key of A Major, but it gets there after a build-up that began at [1:42], moving from the very unexpected key of C-sharp Minor to where it belongs!

Speaking of shortening, notice how these sustained chords at [2:12] followed by a scale-like flourish are telescoped at [2:17] rather than repeated verbatim.

The closing section of the Exposition [2:49] is almost bird-like with “hunting horns” in the left hand – notice the falling octaves in the right hand – which then quietly leads back to the quiet opening timpani introduction [3:20]. The exposition is always marked to be repeated so you can familiarize yourself with everything you’ve heard the first time – the themes, the keys, the tension that will continue to build – on the assumption you can always hear something new the second time around. But not every performer always does.

Having repeated the Exposition, we’re now at the “2nd Ending” [6:21] then, starts the Development section by lifting the main theme up into the key of G Major [6:26] (remember what that 1st chord wanted to do at the very opening? Well, here it actually goes to that implied key) but then he takes just the tail-end of the theme and turns it into an ‘almost fugue’ [6:43] with moving 8th notes in the left hand (4+4), switching registers (another 4+4) [6:50] then alternating (2+2) [6:58] then using a phrase that’s only the end “particle” [7:05] of the end of the main theme – the theme is getting shorter and shorter – building up the harmonic tension with accents and louder dynamics, repeating that “particle” in the process 33 consecutive bars – ! – before slowing down and growing quieter, but sounding likes it’s going to resolve not to D Major, not even B Minor but to B Major [7:57] – very serious!

Then, the closing theme (with its falling octave) [7:57] intrudes cautiously, hesitantly, but working itself into the proper chord so it finally does resolve to the expected D Major [8:24]. This is the Recapitulation, the return of the Exposition’s material.

--- --- --- ---
CLIP TWO – End of 1st/ 2nd Mvmt begins at 2:44 --- --- --- ---

Here, the 1st Theme (in D Major) continues through what had once modulated through C-sharp Major to A Major but here, actually sort of putters around until the 2nd Theme comes in in D Major [Clip #2, 0:49], the tonal conflict resolved! After a third repetition of a little scale-like flourish [1:31-1:34] as if crowing “Back in D Major!”, the closing theme with its falling octave [1:40] reinforces D Major as the 1st Theme makes one more appearance [2:08] with four repetitions of that last little “particle” [2:21-2:30] before ending quietly on a standard dominant-to-tonic cadence, V – I. Resolved. The end.

The slow movement, beginning at 2:44, marked Andante (which really means “walking” so it’s not that slow) – opens with the left hand marked staccato (short articulation on the notes) – like pizzicato (or plucked) strings, accompanying a smoothly phrased chorale in D Minor in the right hand.

The 2nd Section [5:26] switches to D Major and returns us to a kind of pastoral sound-image – in this case, as Andras Schiff describes it, horns answered by twittering birds. This then returns [6:56] to the D Minor chorale with the “walking bass” (not to be too jazzy about it, but still…), which Beethoven now varies with a more elaborate right-hand figuration [7:26]. However, before it finally ends (with a straight-forward chorale version, 9:27 or at 0:01 of the 3rd clip, see below], the horns and birds of the 2nd Section return briefly [0:22], now in D Minor – not as bright, giving it a more melancholy tinge – as the left-hand sinks lower into the earth and the bird-call rises quietly higher and higher.
--- --- --- ---
CLIP THREE – End of 2nd Movement; complete 3rd & 4th Movements
--- --- --- ---

The simplicity of this scherzo, beginning at 1:20 of the 3rd clip, is delightful with its very simple 4-bar units. Remember the falling octave in the closing theme from the 1st Movement’s Exposition [Clip #1, 2:49]? Well, that’s where this little movement grows from – four bars, relatively long notes, answered by four bars of shorter, sprightly notes. Whimsical and certainly Beethoven with a smile. A bit of a surprise are the loud chords, just a reminder he did, after all, study with Haydn not too long ago (and Haydn was still the Grand Old Man of Vienna – his oratorio “The Creation” had been written in 1799, two years earlier, and “The Seasons” premiered in April of 1801, just months before Beethoven completed this sonata).

For some reason, the middle section of dances like minuets or the scherzo movement which grew out of them is always called “the trio” even though it has nothing to do with threes (it’s the 2nd of 3 parts, after all, and it isn’t intended to be played by three players). Anyway, this trio [2:45] consists of a 4-bar bit in B minor answered by a similar 4-bar bit that moves to D Major which then, for its second half [2:54], does the reverse. But Beethoven coyly shifts the accompaniment around to reharmonize each bit slightly differently, giving a subtle hint of variety to the expected repetition. Then it goes back and re-does the A Section again [3:07], ending on those very loud chords after such a gentle, sparkling but understated and very brief interlude.

Even though it was the publisher who came up with the title, “Pastoral,” Beethoven must have had this in mind: the last movement returns to an even more rustic sound-image of the countryside – in the left-hand: bagpipes! Not the big honking skirling Scottish bagpipes of military pageantry, but the more subtle, much smaller musettes of the peasants and shepherds. The simple theme he builds over this moves off into a series of ripples [4:27] to a 2nd Theme in A Major [4:44] that sounds like an inversion of the 1st with a hint of drama at the end before the opening returns [5:20].

This lilting or swinging rhythm of the 6/8 meter permeates the whole movement, even in the Development section [6:07] where it becomes almost Bach-like with its chromatic imitation which then increases in tension – harmonic and dynamic – until, again, we reach a storm-like fortissimo [6:33-7:01] – which then clears out with the quiet return of the opening bag-pipes in the bass [7:01], shortened and ornamented (more birds?), then bringing back the ripples [7:30] and finally the 2nd Theme now back in D Major [7:52] then doing the bag-pipe drone one more time in G Major [8:31] (remember what I’d said about the opening chord of the 1st Movement?) before we reach “the coda” [9:08].

Now, “coda” literally means “tail” as in “tail-end” and in this case, it’s a kind of rush to the last measure which pianist Charles Rosen described as being there “just to annoy the amateurs.” This sonata is not technically difficult – which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to play – but this little coda whips along at a pace few amateurs could do cleanly. It ends with a rousing affirmation of D Major: V – I in harmony-speak, “sol – do” in solfeggio-speak, “so – there!” with a wink from Beethoven.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Beethoven in 1803
Beethoven had recently completed his first six string quartets (written between 1798 and 1800), his 1st Symphony (premiered in 1800), the 3rd Piano Concerto, the Septet Op. 20 (which actually became a big hit), and in 1801, he completed the ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, two violin sonatas including the “Spring” Sonata, as well as four piano sonatas including the “Moonlight” and the “Pastoral.” The following year, he finished three more violin sonatas, three more piano sonatas including the “Tempest,” and his 2nd Symphony.

Now, after you’ve listened to this piano sonata and if you know any of the music I just mentioned, you might be surprised to realize Beethoven was suffering from early symptoms of deafness and at times so severely that, in October of 1802 while staying in the rural suburb of Heiligenstadt, he could write a heart-searing letter that reads sometimes as Last Will and Testament and at other times as a possible suicide note. 

“But what a humiliation for me,” he wrote, “when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life - it was only my art that held me back.”

It should make us appreciate not only the music he left us – especially considering the rustic beauties of this pastoral sojourn – but also what we ourselves, in our world today, can hear and so often take for granted.

– Dick Strawser

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

January's Concert: Beethoven & Schubert

Since I’m running a little behind schedule with… well, reality in general, I’m going to post videos of the Beethoven and Schubert sonatas that Michael Brown will be performing at this weekend’s concert – Saturday at 8pm at Whitaker Center. With any luck I’ll finish and post the articles about the background of each work tomorrow or Thursday.

This is a good time to mention, if you know of any students who’d like to attend this recital, Market Square Concerts offers $5 tickets for any college or university student. School-age students are free and an accompanying adult can purchase a ticket for $5. You can get these tickets in the ground floor lobby of Whitaker Center or at the door at other locations before the concert.

The program opens with one of Beethoven’s less-well-known piano sonatas – the Piano Sonata in D Major, Op. 28, known as “The Pastoral” – but one which has long been a favorite of mine (in fact, when I mentioned to a concert pianist friend of mine this was on the program, he said “Oh, that’s one of my favorite Beethoven sonatas”). It doesn’t have the public relations the “Moonlight” Sonata has been blessed with and it’s not the virtuosic tour-de-force the Appasionata or Waldstein Sonatas might be – nor does it plumb the depths like the Late Sonatas (but then, what else does?) – however, it’s a beautiful and beatific work written in 1801 right after the “Moonlight,” a difficult but very busy time in Beethoven’s creative life. Perhaps the relaxed nature of the piece may have been a kind of creative escape from... well, reality.

Check this post, where you can take a "walking tour" of this sonata and find out how it's put together.

Here is Daniel Barneboim performing the complete sonata live at a recital in Berlin. Due to standard YouTube editing practices, the clips do not break cleanly between movements for which I apologize.

1st Movement (Part 1)

End of 1st Movement; 2nd Movement, Part 1 (beginning at 2:44)
End of 2nd Movement; 3rd Movement begins at 1:20; 4th Movement begins at 4:02
= = = = = = = = = = = = =

Michael Brown continues the program with an early work by Frederic Chopin which you can hear and read about in this earlier post.

His program concludes with another Piano Sonata in D Major, one that Franz Schubert composed in 1825. He wrote it while on a summer holiday, visiting the spa-town of Gastein, south of Salzburg.

For this, I’ve chosen four separate performers. 1st Mvmt w/Bulgarian pianist, Ivan Donchev
2nd Mvmt w/a classic recording by British pianist, Clifford Curzon

3rd Mvmt w/an unknown pianist (they abound on the internet and the person who posted this has an affinity for the artwork of Thomas Kinkade)
4th Mmvt w/a vintage monaural recording by the great Soviet pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, recorded in 1956.

= = = = = = =

- Dick Strawser

January's Concert, Part 1: Chopin - The Early Years

Chopin at 28, painted by Delacroix
This weekend, pianist Michael Brown will include a work by Frederic Chopin on his Whitaker Center recital – Saturday at 8pm – not that that’s unusual. Chopin is a mainstay of many pianists’ repertoire. But this is a piece not often heard in performance. 

In fact, the whole program for this month’s presentation by Market Square Concerts is “not often heard in performance,” even though the two larger works on the program are sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert. I’ll get to those in later posts. 

Here’s Austrian pianist Ingolf Wunder who placed 2nd in the 2010 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, playing the “Rondo a la Mazur” by Chopin, recorded live during the competition’s 3rd round. 
= = = = = = = 
= = = = = = = 
If A-B-A is a traditional three-part format where the A-Theme makes a sandwich out of B, then a Rondo, where the A-Theme recurs with other alternating themes in between becomes A-B-A-C-A-D-A (or some variation of that) – kind of like those “Dagwood Sandwiches”  – though this particular example is a not so gut-busting A-B-A-C-A. 

'B' at 1:45 
'A' returns at 3:50 
'C' at 5:35 
'A' returns at 7:46 

Here, this recurring theme “A” is based on the Polish folk dance which originated in Mazovia, the region of Central Poland whose history goes back to the 11th Century, where Warsaw is located and where Chopin grew up. 

So, the title basically means “Rondo in the style of Mazovia,” or, basically, a Mazurka.

In addition to the Mazurka’s traditional rhythm, Chopin employs a folk-like scale you wouldn’t traditionally hear in Western European classical concert music: a scale with a raised 4th degree or, in the key of F, a B-natural rather than the expected B-flat. To make sure you don't miss it, he accentuates it rhythmically, not just passing over it.

As you listen to this, if you’re familiar with a lot of Chopin, you may think, “well, yeah, that sounds like Chopin” even if you realize the “Opus 5” means it’s a work published very early in his career. (Opus numbers, usually assigned by publishers, are ways of cataloguing a composer’s works – ‘opus’ means ‘work’ in Latin -- but they’re not necessarily published in chronological order. As it happens, many of the works Chopin left unpublished during his life were published posthumously, meaning several early works look like they were written later than others.)

This particular work was written when Chopin was 16. And if that sounds surprisingly like more familiar works of his maturity, keep in mind Chopin was, after all, a prodigy who spent several years of his childhood improvising before he started writing things down.

It's surprising to realize in 1826, when Chopin composed this, he had just officially started taking composition lessons – more a way of taming these improvisations – and, if you look at the date, also realize that Beethoven was working on his late string quartets at the same time and Schubert, his last string quartet (the piano sonata closing this program was written the year before).

Sometimes, we tend to forget what else was going on in the music world when we listen to a composition “out of context.”

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Chopin’s father, a Frenchman and son of a wheelwright, was 16 when he emigrated to Poland in 1787 before the start of the French Revolution. After fighting in the Kosziusko Uprising in 1794 during the “second partition” of Poland, he became a tutor to the children of local aristocrats and later ran a respected boarding school for the sons of wealthy families. In 1806, he married Justyna Krzyżanowska, a woman he’d met through one of his clients. She was the daughter of a once wealthy aristocratic family which, after her father’s death, fell into debt and lost their estate.

(Her brother, incidentally, would later become the father of Włodzimierz Bonawentura Krzyżanowski, Chopin’s first cousin, who fought in the 1848 Revolution against Prussia, then fled Poland to avoid arrest, eventually settling in New York. He became a Union brigadier general during the Civil War and fought at Gettysburg in 1863, helping repel an evening assault by the Louisiana Tigers atop East Cemetery Hill.)

While the Chopin name is French, the composer’s father “polanized” his first name from Nicolas to Mikołaj. The Polish spelling of his surname would have been Szopen but this he didn’t change. As a result, I have been told by several friends who’re from Poland or traveled there, the natives do, in fact, pronounce his name “CHOPP-in” not “SHOW-pah(n).”

Frederic Chopin, the family’s second child and only son, was born in 1810 in a small country town west of Warsaw where the family moved seven months later. Between 1817 and 1827 – the time when Chopin composed the Rondo a la Mazur – the family lived in a spacious second-floor apartment of a building (see photo, above) that was part of the Kazimierz Palace where the Warsaw University had been founded. (The medallion on the 2nd floor central window is, like the car, a more modern touch.)

His father played the flute and violin and his mother, a pianist, was responsible for giving the boys of their boarding school their music lessons. As a child, Chopin was said to have wept when his mother played the piano and so, at 6, once he tried figuring out how to play the piano himself, his older sister began giving him lessons. Then he started studying with a man of limited talents (the student soon bettered his teacher) and at the age of 8, Chopin gave his first public performance at the Radziwill Palace.

Chopin’s first compositions were two polonaises which were said to rival the best of those written by acclaimed local composers, despite the fact Chopin was 7.

He also charmed the Grand Duke Constantine, the brother of Russian Tsar Alexander I (Warsaw was a province of the Russian Empire at the time), and was often invited to the palace as a playmate for the duke’s son.

During two summer vacations, at the home of a classmate north of Warsaw, the 14-year-old Chopin first heard actual folk music, not the stylized courtly dances like the Polonaise which he began “transmuting” into original compositions.

Chopin in 1826
While he had learned the basics of theory early in his studies – both at home and at the schools he attended – he didn’t start studying composition formally until the fall of 1826, around the time he wrote the Rondo a la Mazur. His teacher, Josef Elsner, “observed” rather than guided Chopin’s creativity, preferring not to constrain him with what he considered outdated academic rules, instead letting his talent develop “according to the laws of his own nature.”

Two years later, Chopin traveled to Berlin with a family friend and heard performances by Felix Mendelssohn, for instance, who was only a year older (he would soon conduct the first performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” since Bach’s death). On his return trip, they stopped at the palace of Prince Anton Radwizill, a keen amateur cellist and composer for whom Chopin composed his “Introduction and Polonaise brilliante” for cello and piano, later published as Op. 3. Once back in Warsaw, he heard two of the greatest performers of the day, the violinist Paganini and the pianist Johann Nepomuck Hummel, once a student of both Mozart and Beethoven.

Chopin at 19
At the age of 19, Chopin completed two piano concertos – the F Minor first, followed by the E Minor (they were published in reverse order, as it happened) and began composing the first of his Etudes. When he was 20, he made a successful debut in Vienna performing two separate concerts to generally favorable reviews, though comment was made of the “small tone” he drew from the instrument.

In fact, as it turned out, Chopin was not comfortable with the virtuoso’s world: during his short life, he gave about only 30 public performances.

When the November Uprising began in Warsaw in 1830, initiating a year-long war for independence from Russia, Chopin left his homeland with an urnful of Polish soil with plans to live nearby in Vienna until it would be safe to return. But Viennese life proved incompatible with his sensibilities and rather than go on to Italy, he chose to head to Paris, arriving there having received news the rebellion had been crushed (this is the presumed inspiration for the “Revolutionary” Etude).

He would spend the rest of his life in Paris, the capital of his father's homeland. Ironically, he was never able to master the French language!

A few months after his arrival in Paris, Robert Schumann, writing in his Leipzig journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (The New Journal for Music), reviewed Chopin’s “Variations on La ci darem la mano” written for piano and orchestra when he was 17, and concluded, “Hat’s off, gentleman! A genius.” 

And with that, Chopin’s career reached a whole new phase.

For more on this weekend's recital by Michael Brown, which also includes sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert, there will be subsequent posts.

- Dick Strawser