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Work / Monographic outline



Monographic  outline of Chopin's works

Pianoforte-WerkeChopin restricted almost his entire creativity to the piano but his significance and impact went far beyond the boundaries of piano music. He remains one of the greatest, most original and pioneering composers in history. The strikingly distinct style represented by Chopin, immediately distinguishable after a few chords, possesses an inner richness and variety. It developed from the virtuoso brilliant style, represented in the piano music of J. N. Hummel, J. Field, F. Ries, and K. M. Weber, who introduced to classical forms greater richness of rhythms, changes of tempi and moods in the movements of the cycle, and, predominantly, new, effective pianistic and ornamental figures. The "brilliant" style, rather superficial in its original model, assumed in the works of the young Chopin an exceptionally noble and spiritual form as exemplified by his two piano concertos (in F minor and E minor) and the Grand Polonaise in E flat major (Grand Polonaise brillante op. 22) for piano and orchestra. The form of the two concertos retained features typical of their model: the piano part is assigned the foremost role and the orchestra is reduced to a modest accompaniment, or interludes between parts of the composition when the pianist falls silent. Already the early compositions revealed Chopin's subtle lyricism and his unique cantabile melody.

Chopin's mature works were created after about 1831, when the Etudes op. 10, were written, and are characterised by strong dramatic expression, bold imagination and the construction of new Romantic forms. Virtuoso brilliance evolved into a new, inventive piano technique, shaped with great precision, and serving both modern instrumental colour and the purposes of expression. Chopin turned the piano into an instrument with an unforeseen range of sound and expressiveness, and revealed its new technical and coloristic possibilities. The technique and effective brilliance of his music are dominated, however, by profound feeling and a varied, extremely subtle and sophisticated melodic-harmonic content.

We can distinguish the so-called "late Chopin style" in the last years of the composer's life, after 1840. At this time, he abandoned strong effects and violent, direct emotional statement in favour of greater concentration, the moderation of outer gesture, and the inclusion of profound expression, endowed with reflective and intellectual traits. Simultaneously, his tonal language became even more elaborate and distant from traditional patterns. Characteristic examples of the late Chopinesque style are the Scherzo in E major, the Sonata in B minor, the Barcarolle in F sharp major, the Polonaise-Fantaisie op. 61, Nocturnes op. 55 and 62, as well as the Sonata in G minor for piano and cello.

Chopin is a great master of melody, both in its simple, mellifluous form, and in the more complicated, ornamental and figurative melodic lines. He is also one of the most subtle and innovative masters of harmony. He considerably eased or modified classical tonal principles, developed new ways of joining chords, applied bold modulations and rapid and unexpected changes of keys, introduced new scales, some of folk origin, and made novel use of dissonances. These changes influenced the further progress of music. The lush chromaticisms of Chopin gave rise to the novel Wagnerian music language of Tristan and Isolde, which is regarded as the last, extreme consequence of the major-minor system. To an unprecedented degree, Chopin drew forth the colour of harmony, and by treating dissonances and chords not only in a tonal manner but also in a purely sound mode, he inspired the impressionism of Debussy and a modern comprehension of twentieth-century harmony in the 20th Century.

Chopin exerted an enormous impact on the further development of piano music. His rich pianistic methods, as well as his new expressive, colour, and virtuoso effects, provided a foundation for the original style of Liszt's later period and for the more modern piano works of Skryabin, Debussy, Ravel, and Szymanowski. Chopin's daring innovation also involved him in enclosing almost his entire oeuvre within the sound of the piano, proving that this instrument could transmit musical fantasy, and stir emotion and drama on a par with the symphony orchestra or songs. Never before, or afterwards, was the piano elevated to such a high artistic rank and excellence as in the works of Chopin.

The inventiveness of Chopin also encompasses the emotional statement. His compositions broadened the horizons of musical expression by demonstrating profound experience and tragedy, and also new energy, states of heroic euphoria and romantic fantasy, as well as grotesque and humorous features; at the same time, they disclosed subtle nuances of moods, going far beyond the expressive conventions of his time.

An important component of the distinctiveness of Chopin's music is its national traits, revealed predominantly in the mazurkas and polonaises, but also in works written for the orchestra, such as the Fantaisie op. 13, on Polish themes, and the Rondo à la Krakowiak op. 14, the finale movements of the two Concertos and in many other compositions. This Polish aspect of Chopin's oeuvre became a model for composers from other countries who wished to create the national style in their music by referring, among others, to native folk music. The outcome of this tendency in European music was the emergence of the so-called national schools during the second half of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The best represented genre is comprised of Chopin's fifty eight mazurkas, which offer an artistic sublimity of three types of folk dances: the mazur, the kujawiak and the oberek, as well as the style of Polish popular songs. They contain traces of authentic village folk music, often foreign to major-minor music, which produced melodic and harmonic effects that startled the listeners of that period, together with the more conventional town mazurka. This second model, albeit devoid of village roughness, also contains specific Polish features and a distinct ethnic colour. Chopin, who deliberately endeavoured to form a Polish national style in music, accomplished in the mazurkas a synthesis of both models, which he transformed in his own fashion by aiming at expressing the Polish spirit. "You know how much I wanted to express the nature of our national music and I have in part achieved this", he wrote to T. Woyciechowski (Paris, 25 December 1831). The mazurkas differ greatly as regards size, character and expression. Next to miniatures of a simple construction we encounter larger compositions with more complex forms and melodic material, comprising a variety of dramatic dance poems. In the majority of cases, they represent music much deeper and more personal and refined than other dances, such as waltzes, écossaises, the Bolero and the Tarantelle, and they constitute an area of the most audacious, novel ideas pursued by Chopin in melody and harmony.

The early polonaises written in Warsaw do not transcend an elegant stylisation of the Polish dance, but the last seven works (from op. 26 to op. 61), already composed abroad, have all the features of great heroic poems, presumably connected with the composer's emotions, stirred by the struggle waged by the Polish nation for freedom. They contain discernible valiant, dramatic, tragic, grieving and triumphal moods. The different expressive contents at times diverge from traditional forms, as in the Polonaise in F sharp minor op. 44, with a mazurka inserted in the central section, and even more in the Polonaise-Fantaisie op. 61, which resembles a dramatic musical tale with a triumphal finale.

Chopin did not recognise so-called programme music whose intention was to present concrete extramusical ideas and images. Nonetheless, he did not disapprove of permeating his works with atmosphere and feelings, in a manner which gave the impression of developing a narration. This is the character of four ballades - a new genre, introduced by Chopin to instrumental music - possibly composed under the influence of the ballads by the poet Mickiewicz. Filled with fantastic, dramatic moods, these works do not illustrate particular literary plots, but develop assorted emotional motifs. Each depicts two themes, which are transformed, made more complex and subjected to dramatic vicissitudes, while the climax is always a turbulent coda, introducing supreme tension and emotional relief, similar to the endings in poetic ballads. With the exception of the first Ballade in G minor, the themes are extended, while in the second Ballade in F major they become almost separate, contrasted movements (calm and tempestuous).

Such a musical tale without a literary programme is also the Fantaisie in F minor op. 49, although it resorts to the motif of a song from the November Uprising. These works demonstrate Chopin's ingenuity in constructing new complex and dramatised forms, which are different from classical patterns. The same inventiveness is shown in the four scherzos, especially the middle two in B flat minor and in C sharp minor, with their particularly composite construction. The first Scherzo in B minor, which contains the melody of a Polish Christmas carol, and the last, in E major, make use of the strong contrast between the melodious middle episode and the outer sections, which are full of motion. Contrary to their name, the scherzos are not light-hearted compositions, and the first three, in particular the one in B minor, disclose a strong dramatic accent. Their name is connected not with light and witty expression but with the rhythmic lavishness of the course of the music, far distant from a simple schematic pulse, and full of constantly astonishing and whimsical changes, restless turns, and sudden pauses and contrasts.

The two great Sonatas, in B flat minor and in B minor, also bring a far reaching modification of the classical model, and create a Romantic sonata with intensified contrasts, and changes of tempi, rhythm and character, even within individual movements. These monumental works are made up of four movements, with a scherzo as the second and a slow section as the third. The movements in question differ from each other more markedly than is the case with consecutive movements in classical sonatas. In shaping their sound and expression, Chopin resorted to the style of his ballades, scherzos, nocturnes, preludes and etudes. The movements of each sonata present the listener with a progressing drama, whose emotional conclusion is the finale. The Sonata in B flat minor has a tragic overtone, emphasised by great dramatic climaxes at the beginning, and reinforced by the celebrated Marche funebre in the third movement as well as by the brief, mysterious finale (Presto), devoid of melody and clear key, which Schumann described as "a jeer, but not music". The more reflective Sonata in B minor tends towards an optimistic, vigorous finale.

The individuality of Chopin was expressed even more vividly in lesser forms. His mastery in building miniatures is shown predominantly in the 24 Preludes op. 28, composed in all 24 keys, both major and minor; each prelude explores a different key, and they follow each other according to the circle of fifths. This cycle, which also constitutes a precisely composed whole as regards the conception of expression, consists of works of various length, technique and different types of expression. The unusually wide gamut of emotions is combined with a refined style and sophisticated harmonic devices.

Slow, lyrical and cantilena nocturnes, although frequently with a turbulent middle episode, reveal, apart from this most general shared feature, a rather varied musical and expressive character: from sentimental, tender early compositions, still close to the style of nocturnes by Field, and more dramatic and passionate works, to the intellectual and reflective nocturnes of the last period. Their opposite is, in a certain sense, to be found in the four impromptus: rapid, fluid arabesques with a slow, lyrical central section (only the Impromptu in F sharp major differs from this model). Two sets of Etudes op. 10 and op. 25, each containing twelve compositions, later supplemented by the Trois nouvelles études, present new, innovative technico-pianistic methods, in a precisely arranged form. This is, however, only their outer feature which conceals poetic masterpieces, belonging to the most beautiful and lasting accomplishments of Chopin in the realm of melody, harmony, and expression. The mastery and perfection of construction, combined with the above mentioned traits, have induced some scholars to place the Etudes on the very pinnacle of Chopin's creativity, and to regard them as the most magnificent products of his genius.

The classical form of a theme with variations occupies a secondary place in Chopin's oeuvre but the ornamental variation remains significant to his style and is used in various compositions - concertos, nocturnes, impromptus, ballades and scherzos. Furthermore, it provides the basis for one of the most interesting of his works: the Lullaby (Berceuse) op. 57, in which a background of the monotonous and unvarying formula of the accompaniment becomes a setting for the right hand to go through a long series of changing, delicate and filigree ornamental figures, endowed with opulent and original shapes.

The most popular compositions, and a favourite of the public, are the Chopin waltzes, based on simple melodies and forms. The eighteen waltzes can be divided into two distinct groups: the brisk and virtuoso type, such as the Grande valse brillante, and the lyrical, melancholy compositions with a slower tempo. In the second group, one of the last Chopin's waltzes, in C sharp minor op. 64 is specially interesting because of its sophisticated melody and harmony as well as their highly personal expression, as in the Valse in C sharp minor op. 64.
Chamber music and songs remain on the margin of Chopin's piano works. Two of his four chamber compositions can be considered outstanding: the Trio in G minor for piano, violin and cello, written during his studies, and the Sonata in G minor for piano and cello, from the last period. Both works reveal original and intense concepts, although different from Chopin's piano style. The Sonata in particular is an outstanding example of the transformations in the composer's style. Minor artistry and a less sophisticated musical language are represented by nineteen songs to words by Polish poets. They were composed on various occasions, for social or emigré events, and the majority are of a light-hearted nature. Their style, although simple, contains the specifically Polish features of Chopin's music, which can be seen in a more developed form in his other works.


Barbara Smolenska-Zielinska
English translation: Aleksandra Rodzińska-Chojnowska

Bibliography (selection)

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