Tuesday, January 17, 2012

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. 
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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 As it happens, many of the works Chopin left unpublished during his life were published posthumously, meaning several early works look like they were written later than others.)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.”

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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

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