CHOPIN Prelude in C sharp minor Op.45 (5′)
BACH English Suite No.2 in A minor BWV 807 (15′)
CHOPIN Waltz in A minor Op.34 No.2 (6′)
CHOPIN Fantaisie in F minor Op.49 (13′)
CHOPIN 2 Polonaises Op.26 (13′)
CHOPIN 3 Mazurkas Op.63 (6′)
CHOPIN Polonaise-Fantaisie Op.61 (5′)
For this latest instalment in Tim Horton’s series focusing on Chopin’s music for solo piano, he brings together a range of the composer’s most personal and beautifully intimate works, together with a piece that influenced his music. Johann Sebastian Bach was the composer whom Chopin revered above all others, and his English Suites are works of incredible virtuosity.
CHOPIN Frédéric, Prelude in C sharp minor Op.45
Composed in 1841, the Prelude Op. 45 is quite different from the short pieces that make up the famous collection of Preludes Op. 28. It’s a more extended rather dream-like piece with an unusual and very chromatic cadenza just before the end. According to the Chopin scholar Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, this is an example of Chopin exploiting ‘colouristic effects unrelated to the thematic material’. Chopin was not known as a great lover of paintings, but he was a close friend of the artist Eugène Delacroix, who was himself passionately interested in music. According to Chopin, Delacroix ‘adores Mozart and knows all his operas by heart; he also spent many hours discussing music with Chopin, a subject about which the composer was famously reticent. Delacroix confided to his journal that Chopin ‘talked music with me … I asked him what establishes logic in music. He made me feel what counterpoint and harmony are; how fugue is like the pure logic in music.’ Eigeldinger has proposed in a fascinating article that the Prelude Op. 45 is a kind of reciprocal gesture: an attempt by Chopin to apply Delacroix’s theories of colour to music. The warm respect these two great creative artists had for each other is demonstrated by an extraordinary account by George Sand of Chopin improvising for Delacroix – the piece that, perhaps, became the Prelude Op. 45:
Chopin is at the piano … He improvises as if haphazardly … ‘Nothing’s coming to me, nothing but reflections, shadows, reliefs that won’t settle. I’m looking for the colour, but I can’t even find the outline.’ ‘You won’t find one without the other’, responds Delacroix, ‘and you’re going to find them both.’ ‘But if I find only the moonlight?’ … Little by little our eyes become filled with those soft colours corresponding to the suave modulations taken in by our auditory senses. And then the note bleue resonates and there we are, in the azure of the transparent night … We dream of a summer night: we await the nightingale. A sublime melody arises.
Nigel Simeone 2010
BACH Johann Sebastian, English Suite No.2 in A minor BWV 807
Curious listeners may wonder what is ‘English’ about Bach’s English Suites. Composed in the 1720s, they seem, on the evidence of early sources, to have been called ‘Suites with Preludes’ by Bach. It was his son, Johann Christian, who had a manuscript with the annotation ‘faites pour les Anglois’ (‘written for the English’). Whether this was a dedication to an English musician, or perhaps reflects parallels with Handel’s keyboard suites remains a mystery. The Suite opens with a Prelude that is mostly in two parts (a third voice occasionally enriches the texture), notable for its effortless momentum. The Allemande, a dance described by Bach’s contemporary (and cousin) Johann Gottfried Walther as ‘grave and ceremonious’ is followed by a flowing Courante. The Sarabande is unusual in having a written out embellishments by Bach himself, while the two Bourées provide the work’s only change of key – the second is in A major.
Nigel Simeone ©2014
CHOPIN Frédéric, Waltz in A minor Op.34 No.2
Chopin’s three Grandes valses brillantes Op. 34 were published in 1838. The second waltz in the set suggests that the collective title was a misnomer. Chronologically, it was the first to be composed, probably in 1831, and rather than ‘brilliant’, the mood is lacrymose and melancholic. Marked ‘Lento’, it opens with a melody in the left hand that seems to wander disconsolately, before giving way to an idea in the right hand, at first halting but eventually taking wing. Two brief episodes in A major hint at something more hopeful, but at the end, Chopin returns to the left-hand melody from the opening, and the piece fizzles out in a state of despair.
Nigel Simeone, 2021
CHOPIN Frédéric, Fantaisie in F minor Op.49
Chopin completed his Fantasy in F minor, Op.49, in October 1841 and he wrote about it in touching terms to his friend Julian Fontana: ‘Today I finished the Fantasy – and the sky is beautiful, there’s a sadness in my heart – but that’s alright. If it were otherwise, perhaps my existence would be worth nothing to anyone.’ In spite of the composer’s self-doubt, the Fantasy is one of his greatest single-movement works, hailed by Chopin’s biographer Frederick Niecks as ‘a masterpiece’ and among the late pieces described by the English Gerald Abraham as ‘the crown of Chopin’s work.’ Vigorous and passionate, it includes allusions to the Polish revolutionary song ‘Litwinka’, sung by patriots at the November Uprising in 1830. The form evolves with apparent freedom recalling the design of Mozart’s C minor Fantasy. The start is a solemn march which gives way to an explosive Agitato section. A plethora of themes follows, and a notable moment comes with the arrival of a chorale-like section (marked Lento sostenuto) in the extremely remote key of B major before a return of material heard earlier and a triumphant conclusion in A flat major.
CHOPIN Frédéric, Two Polonaises Op.26
Chopin had been fascinated the polonaise, a Polish national dance, since childhood. Both of his Polonaises, Op.26, were published in 1836 and are in minor keys. The first uses polonaise rhythms to fiercely dramatic effect in its outer sections, with a conciliatory and lyrical central Trio. The second is filled with dark passions, whether in the explosive main idea (preceded by fragments of polonaise rhythms) or in the hushed central section in B major.
CHOPIN Frédéric, Three Mazurkas Op.63
No. 1 in B major
No. 2 in F minor
No. 3 in C sharp minor
This group of three Mazurkas was the last set to be published during Chopin’s lifetime, appearing in 1847 with a dedication to the Countess Laure Czosnowska – a Polish friend of Chopin’s who was reputedly very beautiful and certainly much disliked by George Sand. After a visit to Chopin and Sand at Nohant (in company with the artist Delacroix, the singer Pauline Viardot and Chopin’s old friend Wojciech Grzymala), Sand told Chopin that Laure’s conversation induced migraine, and even that her dog had bad breath. By contrast, Chopin was always delighted by her company, and enjoyed the chance to talk to her in Polish.
Composed the previous year, they form a contrasted group: in terms of speed the three are marked Vivace, Lento and Allegretto. The key contrasts are more extreme: from B major to F minor and C sharp minor. In a long letter to his family dated 11 October 1846 and sent from Nohant, Chopin revealed something of his fastidious and self-critical nature in connection with the composition of these Mazurkas: ‘I have three new mazurkas, I do not think that they are too similar to the old ones … but it takes time to judge properly. When I composed them, it seemed that were good – if it were otherwise I would never write anything. But later comes reflection, and one rejects or accepts it. Time is the best judge, and patience the best master.’ Chopin’s biographer Frederick Niecks marvelled at the originality of these pieces, and he is quoted admiringly by his James Huneker, who add some further praise of his own.
Niecks believes there is a return of the early freshness and poetry in the last three Mazurkas, op. 63. ‘They are, indeed, teeming with interesting matter’, he writes. ‘Looked at from the musician’s point of view, how much do we not see novel and strange, beautiful and fascinating withal? Sharp dissonances, chromatic passing notes, suspensions and anticipations, displacement of accent, progressions of perfect fifths – the horror of schoolmen – sudden turns and unexpected digressions that are so unaccountable, so out of the line of logical sequence, that one’s following the composer is beset with difficulties. But all this is a means to an end, the expression of an individuality with its intimate experiences. The emotional content of many of these trifles – trifles if considered only by their size – is really stupendous.’ Spoken like a brave man and not a pedant! Full of vitality is the first number of op. 63. In B major, it is sufficiently various in figuration and rhythmical life to single it from its fellows. The next, in F minor, has a more elegiac ring … The third, of winning beauty, is in C sharp minor … I defy anyone to withstand the pleading, eloquent voice of this Mazurka.
It was also the mazurkas that produced one of Schumann’s most memorable descriptions of Chopin’s music, presenting them not as experiments in a traditional dance form, but as acts of resistance against the Russian Empire that had suppressed Poland in 1830 (precipitating Chopin’s move to Paris): ‘Fate rendered Chopin still more individual and interesting in endowing him with an original, pronounced nationality: Polish. And because this nationality wanders in mourning robes in the thoughtful artist it deeply attracts us … If the powerful Autocrat of the North knew what a dangerous enemy threatens him in Chopin’s works, in the simple melodies of his mazurkas, he would forbid music. Chopin’s works are cannons buried in flowers.’
Nigel Simeone 2010
CHOPIN Frédéric, Polonaise-Fantaisie Op.6
The Polonaise-Fantasy Op. 61 is a magnificent example of Chopin’s late style. In the mid-1840s he was searching for new forms and the Polonaise-Fantasy was only given a title after the work was finished. By combining heroic elements of the polonaise with the freer, more melancholy mood of the fantasia, the result is a glorious poetic vision summarised by the British Chopin scholar Arthur Hedley, as ‘pride in the past, lamentation for the present, hope for the future.’