Fryderyk Chopin

1810–1849

Romantic

Fryderyk Chopin is unusual amongst great composers. Beethoven, Mozart, Bach – they wrote many different kinds of music. But Chopin wrote almost entirely for the piano. Apart from some songs, a cello sonata and two popular concertos, almost everything was for solo piano. Even the two concertos were for the piano, with an orchestra.

Chopin was born in Poland, a child prodigy (someone enormously capable) – which means he was extremely musical from childhood. At 18, he heard the great violinist Paganini play – the clever things Paganini could do on the violin may have spurred on Chopin to write his famous piano studies: they demand similarly clever things of a pianist! Chopin fled revolution in Poland to live in Paris in 1831 and, although he never returned, his works often include Polish dances – the mazurka and the polonaise.

Almost everything he wrote was special. He was quickly appreciated. Robert Schumann said he was a genius and described his music as ‘cannons concealed in flowers’ – a clever description. He became popular with Parisian society and many of his pupils were aristocratic ladies. His music is sometimes passionate, sometimes ravishingly beautiful, sometimes agitated, sometimes peaceful; but it is always superbly written for the piano. Most of his works, like his waltzes and preludes, are short, but he was capable of writing longer works as well – sonatas, ballades and scherzos for example. Most are difficult to play. He was a great pianist himself, though the tuberculosis that eventually killed him left him too weak to give frequent public concerts. These days, only Beethoven’s piano music is played more often than Chopin’s in concert halls.

Chopin was a difficult man – he could be cold, vain and snobbish; great music and being nice don’t always go together! He fell out with his great friend Liszt, perhaps because of jealousy. Liszt was a stronger pianist. His long love affair with the writer, Georges Sand, ended because she found she couldn’t put up with him. Yet whatever his shortcomings as a man, he wrote music that has won the hearts of pianists and piano-music lovers, like nobody else before or since. He died in Paris after a tour of Scotland. Three thousand people turned out for his funeral. At his own request, his heart was returned to Poland, where it had always belonged.

Fryderyk Chopin, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Chopin shines in all the tracks below.

Étude (Study) No. 12 in C minor, Op. 10 No. 12 (‘Revolutionary’)

One of Chopin’s most famous compositions, this piece is wildly passionate and difficult to play. It is the last of his Op. 10 studies and he wrote it thinking, with anger and sadness, of his homeland Poland, and how it was suffering through war. It is commonly known as the ‘Revolutionary’ Study.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554528

Polonaise No. 6 in A flat major, Op. 53 (‘Heroic’)

Another famous work, fiery and valiant. In the middle section, the pianist has to play fast octaves in the left hand, building in excitement (listen from 3:25). You think they stop at c. 3:56, but no, off they go again! Not surprisingly, it is called the ‘Heroic’ Polonaise.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550360

Nocturne No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 9 No. 1

This is one of Chopin’s early nocturnes, or ‘night pieces’. It is much slower than the previous two works, and achingly sad.

Performers: Sándor Falvay, pianist

Taken from Naxos 8.550257

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which instrument was Chopin famous for playing?

a. Banjo
b. Piano
c. Violin

 Which country did Chopin come from?

a. France
b. Scotland
c. Poland

 Which famous Chopin work was inspired by the bad weather in Majorca?

a. The ‘Revolutionary’ Study
b. The Barcarolle
c. The ‘Raindrop’ Prelude

 We think Chopin became jealous of another pianist and composer – who was it?

a. Liszt
b. Mendelssohn
c. Schumann

 Which Chopin masterpiece contains a famous funeral march?

a. Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor
b. Polonaise-fantaisie
c. Piano Concerto No. 1


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Chopin was so often ill that after he left Poland he gave only 30 public concerts across the rest of his life.
  2. Chopin spent the winter of 1838–39 in Majorca with his lover, Georges Sand; the locals wouldn’t give them lodgings and they had to shelter in a cold monastery.
  3. Chopin was very fussy – he loved exquisite waistcoats, hats in the latest fashion, fine wallpapers and expensive furniture. Not a bit like Beethoven!
  4. Chopin was ill with tuberculosis for many years and gradually wasted away – at the time he died he weighed only 7 stone (44 kilograms).
  5. Chopin was such a romantic figure that many films have been made about his life, though they have not always been accurate! Sometimes people like to elaborate a good story…

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Dances – Mazurkas, Polonaises and Waltzes


Waltz No. 6 in D flat major, Op. 64 No. 1 (‘Minute’)

Chopin’s famous ‘Minute’ Waltz actually lasts for a minute and three quarters. Chopin didn’t intend for it to last a minute long: the nickname was supposed to mean ‘miniature’ – small – rather than 60 seconds! But some pianists still feel there is a challenge to play the piece really fast. Its infectious energy is almost funny.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550365


Waltz No. 11 in G flat major, Op. 70 No. 1

The outer sections are fast and full of energy. They contrast with a slower middle section that is tinged with melancholy. A waltz always has three beats in a bar: can you tap ‘1, 2, 3’ at the beginning as you listen?

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550365


Mazurka No. 51 in A minor, Op. posth., ‘À Émile Gaillard’

This mazurka was written late in Chopin’s life and published after his death. Although it’s a springy mazurka with three beats in a bar, it’s not especially lively or cheerful – perhaps Chopin is showing a bit of home-sickness in his old age.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554530


Waltz No. 14 in E minor, Op. posth.

Another work published after Chopin’s death, this waltz is part resigned, part heroic. It is though Chopin is torn between resignation and defiance. You can’t imagine anyone waltzing to this – not without looking like a cartoon! This is dance music transformed into art.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550365


Polonaise No. 9 in B flat major, Op. 71 No. 2

The polonaise is usually considered an heroic sort of dance, suitable for carnivals. Here the music is rather dark and strangely wistful.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550361


Mazurka No. 30 in G major, Op. 50 No. 1

Chopin’s mazurkas are not as famous as his other works, perhaps because they are remarkably subtle and not at all showy. This one, the first of three mazurkas published as Opus 50, starts in heroic mood but darkens and ends quietly.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554530


Mazurka No. 31 in G major, Op. 50, No. 2

This mazurka begins wistfully and continues in a similarly serious mood. The mazurka, a dance form popular in Poland, is here turned into a sophisticated piece tinged with regret.

Performers: Idil Biret, pianist

Taken from Naxos 8.554530


Mazurka No. 32 in G major, Op. 50 No. 3

One of Chopin’s most beautiful mazurkas. The tentative theme at the start is contrasted with a more energetic middle section – heroic and scurrying.

Performers: Idil Biret, pianist

Taken from Naxos 8.554530


Polonaise No. 3 in A major, Op. 40 No. 1 (‘Military’)

This famous polonaise is full of defiance. The middle section sounds like an army marching.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553170

Studies and Preludes


Étude No. 4 in C sharp minor, Op. 10 No. 4

‘Étude’ means ‘study’ in French – studies usually focus on the technique of playing the instrument, and help the person playing to improve. Chopin’s studies are special because, aside from doing this, they are attractive pieces too! People had written studies before, but sometimes they were quite boring. Chopin’s are real music!

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550364


Étude No. 5 in G flat major, Op. 10 No. 5 (‘Black Keys’)

A tremendously bustling étude, full of energy and a challenge to play. It’s known as ‘black keys’ because the twiddly fast notes in the right hand (the top part) are on the black keys of the piano.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550364


Étude No. 13 in A flat major, Op. 25 No. 1 (‘Aeolian Harp’)

This is another one of Chopin’s nicknamed studies. The names weren’t his, but they help to identify and describe the pieces quite well.  An Aeolian harp is a harp played by the wind. If you listen here to all the spread chords rippling underneath the main tune, you can indeed imagine the strings of a harp producing the same sort of sound.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550364


Étude No. 22 in B minor, Op. 25 No. 10

No gentle, rippling harps here. This study sets off in a much more thunderous way. It reaches a tremendous climax with cascades of octaves for the pianist to navigate. At just over 1:00, it moves to a contrasting, quieter middle section. Then at 3:40, off we go again!

Performers: Idil Biret

Taken from Naxos 8.550364


Étude No. 23 in A minor, Op. 25 No. 11 (‘Winter Wind’)

The pianist has to have great control and play the opening bars very quietly, before unleashing a torrent of sound. The popular name, ‘Winter Wind’, says it all.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550364


Étude No. 24 in C minor, Op. 25 No. 12

Here Chopin submerges a simple sequence of chords in an avalanche of sound. It’s wildly exciting, and a powerful conclusion to his 24 Études.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550364


24 Preludes, Op. 28

Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28 are amongst his most varied and inventive works – a series of short pieces covering just about every emotion you can think of. Here are all 24.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554536

Larger Works


Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 (‘Funeral March’)

The third movement of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 is called ‘Marche funèbre’, meaning ‘funeral march’; he wrote this bit first and it gives the whole sonata its popular name. Listen to the slow, sombre plod of the chords, like people marching steadily and seriously, all dressed in black for somebody’s funeral. The final movement, one of the strangest things Chopin wrote, sounds like the wind blowing across a graveyard. It is fearfully difficult to play music like this!

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554533


Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60

This most tender and beautiful ‘boating song’ (Barcarolle) is a great panorama of sound, both tremendously strong and delightfully delicate by turns. This Romantic music has delighted music-lovers for generations ever since it was written.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554536


Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52

All Chopin’s ballades are big pieces, covering a variety of moods – mostly pensive and passionate. This, the fourth ballade, ends with an agitated coda (that means a bit on the end!) of fiendish difficulty.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550508


Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54

Like the ballades, the scherzos are big pieces. This one – the fourth and final one Chopin wrote – is like a conversation in places, as if the two hands are talking to each other! The middle section contains one of the most beautiful melodies Chopin ever wrote. At the end, the music explodes with joy.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554538


Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11

The incredibly beautiful melody in the second, slow movement at 1:44 shows the mastery of Chopin. He was only 20 when he wrote this work for piano and orchestra, and although the way he uses the orchestra isn’t particularly exciting the music has delighted generations of listeners. It was actually composed after his so-called ‘Piano Concerto No. 2’, but because it was published first it was called ‘No. 1’.

Performers: Eldar Nebolsin, piano; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.572335


Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65

This Cello Sonata is the only substantial music that Chopin wrote for an instrument other than the piano – it is for cello and piano. Cellists love it for its poignant melodies, and the way Chopin allows the cello to sing. The pianist, of course, is given an important role. Audiences love it too! See what you think.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Bernd Glemser, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553159