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Work / The origins of Chopin's output



The origins of Chopin's output


Fryderyk Chopin's personality was shaped in the Warsaw musical and academic tradition. An important factor in the evolution of this background was the gradual improvement, in the 1820s, of Warsaw's institutions of higher musical education. On 13th February 1827 the Home Affairs Commission terminated its contract with Józef Elsner as chancellor of the Warsaw conservatoire; consequently, Elsner moved to the Royal University of Warsaw as a professor and director of the Department of Music (Main School of Music) at the Faculty of Fine Arts. From then on, among Elsner's responsabilities were enrolling new students, taking annual examination, and reporting on the Main School of Music's activities, list of students and examination protocols to the dean of the Departments of Sciences and Fine Arts. When in autumn 1826 the young Chopin graduated from the Warsaw Lycaeum (though without a ‘qualification patent', i.e. A-levels) and enrolled to the Main School of Music, the latter's universitarian status was unquestioned. During the 1826/27 term Chopin was a first-year student, a second-year student in 1827/28 and a third-year in 1828/29.

Why didn't Chopin, an outstanding pupil of the Warsaw Lycaeum, pass his A-levels? It was the result of a failed and confusing reform of the maturity exam (A-levels, baccalauréat) in both provincial schools and lycaeums. Following this reform, it was decreed that on some university departments, students would be enrolled with no need for an A-level certification. At the time, the sixth and last class of secondary education was spread over two years, but it was possible to enroll for some university departments after only one year. We learn of Chopin's enrollment to the university and his professional compositional studies from a letter to his friend Jan Białobłocki form 2nd November 1826: "Learn, my dear, that I do not go to the Lycaeum [anymore]. It would be silly to sit there constrained for six hours per day [...] when I can study something else during that year. Therefore, I go to Elsner for strict counterpoint for six hours daily; I read the classes of Brodziński, Bentkowski and other matters that bear any relationship to music. I go to bed at nine. All those teatimes, evenings and balls are gone" [KCh I: 73]. It is difficult to say today what classes of the three departments of the Faculty of Sciences and Fine Arts Chopin did follow. But we know from Tadeusz Frączyk thorough research that the lectures of Brodziński and Bentkowski partly overlapped with Chopin's music classes, so his participation is doubtful [Frączyk 1961: 209-19].

Yet already as a pupil of the Warsaw Lycaeum, Choopin followed the daily rhythm of the University. Now, he became fully identified with his new academy, as testified by his letters. He reported to Białobłocki in Sokołów on 15th May 1826: "My botanical garden, the one behind the palace, was beautifully revamped by the Commission [of Home Affairs]. Now there are no more carrots which I used to delight in by the fountain, no benches, pergolas, no lettuce, cabbages and off odours but flowerbeds à la manière anglaise" [KCh I: 66]. The university's old Botanical Garden was Chopin's favourite walking ground; no more than a month later the composer wrote to Białobłocki: "If only you knew what changes are underway in the Botanical Garden. They made flowerbeds, paths, bushes etc. It's a delight to walk in there, especially that we have the key to the gate". And later in the same letter: "Ecce femina, non homo: the dean has a daughter. Yesterday they said it was a son, today a daughter - but the latter is true" [letter written between 15th and 22nd june 1826; ibid.: 67-68]. Tadeusz Frączyk indicates that "a pervasive atmosphere was created, so important for the university students of those years. An atmosphere determined by the national spirit, the cult of hard work and responsability, easily established friendships that knew no social or economic boundaries" [Frączyk 1961: 222].

The music composition curriculum at the Main School of Music spanned three years (while other university departments required four). We know Chopin's fellow students through a list of the Music Department's students published by Nowakowski in 1891. But we know little about Chopin's course of studies. From a letter to his family in Warsaw, however, we learn how highly he esteemed the skills and knowledge he received at his alma mater; enthused by his first foreign success he wrote: "Nobody takes me for a student here. Blahetka said he wonders how on earth I learned so much in Warsaw. I responded that with Messrs. Żywny and Elsner, even the dummiest donkey would learn". [19th August 1829; KCh I: 96]. And in another letter: "Although I am worthless, I would be worth even less if I didn't learn from Elsner, who knew how to convince me" [10th April 1830; ibid.: 118]. Throough his studies, the young Chopin took an interest in history, read religion (compulsory for first-year students of the Fine Arts Department] and the spectacular lectures of Professor Ludwik Osiński; he also sang under the direction of Walenty Kratzer, frequented the University Library and the Warsaw Friends of Science Society, and socialised intensely with students from other departments, a fact made easier by Chopin's residence next door to the university.

During the 1826/27 term, important events took place in Chopin's life: in December he improvised on the choralion, an instrument invented by Brunner; in January, he heard a concert by Maria Szymanowska in Warsaw. In April his younger sister Emilia, aged 14, died of tuberculosis, following which the Chopin family moved to new quarters in the Krasiński Palace, opposite the University. Chopin's first year focused on strict counterpoint and the practice of Classical instrumental genres. He also composed some salon piano compositions (National Edition numbering WN 13-19) but didn't think of them highly enough to authorise publication. This production - which in my view was unofficial, i.e. written without the supervision of Elsner - of such small instrumental genres as the mazurka, polonaise, waltz and nocturne, brought increasingly interesting resuls. While those early examples belong to the current of national sentimental music and betray the influence of Ogiński and other Warsaw composers of the first quarter of the 19th century, and later of the stile brillante, this early stage of Chopin's individual style already shows some characteristics of his more mature output and his Romantic piano writing.

Chopin's inventive but amateur compositions must have been the object of many a discussion with Elsner - although that fact, for a lack of documentation, has hitherto gathered little attention. Chopin's composition classes with Elsner at the University most probably followed an individual course [Nowakowski 1891: 440], and if that was the case, a three-year course of six hours per week can surely be seen as intensive. We do not know, however, if Chopin showed Elsner all his compositions or only some, given that the course also included time-consuming classes such as counterpoint and basso continuo, which did aid the young Chopin's compositional technique but likely did not have a direct influence on his output of that period. It is also difficult to state authoritatively which works Chopin wrote on Elsner's commission and which on his own behalf. Taking into consideration Elsner's authority, the Classical style of his own music and the naturally conservative character of musical education, it can be safely assumed that Elsner inspired Chopin to study traditional large musical genres, and considered instrumental miniatures as educationally of limited usefulness, despite their growing popularity.

I would argue that - apart from compulsory exercises in counterpoint and continuo, belonging to the pan-European educational curriculum of the time - only a small fraction of Chopin's output from the time of his studies at the Main School of Music is strictly academic in character. In this light, Chopin's writing during his compositional studies followed two parallel paths: his prima prattica included Classical musical genres and benefited from the illuminating tutorship of Józef Elsner, while the proto-Romantic seconda prattica (partly originating from the Classical piano miniature) remained unofficial. Tt is a paradox that the most artistically valuable part of Chopin's output from his university studies lies precisely with the Classical genres. Consequently, Chopin's university output remains an aesthetic benchmark for his entire Warsaw period. This is illustrated by the following table:


                     Year of creation

Prima prattica
(works written at the University)

Seconda prattica
(outside the University)

                     1826/27 term

Rondo à la Mazur for piano Op. 5 (?)


Mazurka in A minor WN 13


                     1827/28 term

Variations on Mozart's ‘Là ci darem la mano' for piano and orchestra Op. 2

Sonata for piano Op. 4


Polonaise in B flat major WN 14

Rondo in C major for 2 pianos WN 15


                     1828/29 term

Piano Trio Op. 8

Rondo à la Krakowiak for piano and orchestra Op. 14

Fantaisie brillante on Polish Airs in A major for piano and orchestra Op. 13 (?)      

Introduction and Polonaise brillante for piano and cello Op. 3

Souvenir de Paganini for piano WN 16

Mazur in G major WN 17; Waltz in E major WN 18; Waltz in B minor WN 19

Chopin's earliest student work written under the supervision of Elsner was probably the Rondo à la Mazur Op. 5, although if actually completed in 1826[1], it could have been composed or at least begun before Chopin's accession to the University in the fall of that year. Aged 16 at the time, Chopin shows a good command of the Classical symmetrical rondo form, with its dance-like refrain, two episodes and a coda; in the middle episode, he also shows a somewhat limited development work. While typical of Chopin's early output in the domination of stile brillante virtuoso figurations over the real musical content of the work, this Rondo à la Mazur was quite an achievement not only in the context of other students of composition but also of mature Warsaw composers of that time. Was this the work submitted by Chopin for his end-of-year examination on 17th July 1827? We will probably never learn. It seems likely in the context of Elsner's ratings of Chopin in subsequent examinations and the artistic level of his other ‘university' works. In his examination report, Elsner was still reserved: "Chopin Fryderyk, first year: a special ability", he wrote [Nowakowski 1891: 428-429].

During the 1827/28 term, Chopin heard and met Johann Nepomuk Hummel on the occasion of the latter's visit to Warsaw. Chopin's works begin to draw the attention of foreign publishers; he also suffered the first attack of tuberculosis. Undoubtedly, it was an even more intense and fruitful year of his compositional studies. Not only did he work on large cyclic forms such as variations and sonata, but he also begun studying orchestral instrumentation. We know with certainty that the 1827/28 term saw the composition of the ‘Là ci darem la mano' Variations for piano and orchestra Op. 2 and the Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 4. In these two works, derived from Classical musical genres, Chopin for the first time tackled new issues of form and compositional technique. While he successfully mastered the variation form, he was a bit less thorough in his command of the Classical sonata form.

In the Variations Op. 2, the young Chopin showed a good mastery of the cyclic variation form and successfully contrasted the different sections of his cycle while avoiding their total separation (as happened in the Variations in E major on a German song WN 4, composed before he enrolled for the Main School of Music). If the coexistence of textural contrast and organic development are the prerequisites of a Classical variation cycle's artistic coherence, Chopin successfully reached this objective in his Op. 2. Although the range of his technical and formal means remained roughly within the boundaries of the Classical tradition, he also introduced two new elements in this work: virtuoso stile brillante (Brillante appears as a performing indication in the first variation; Chopin showed interest in this style already in his earlier rondos), and the emphasis (similarly to the Rondo à la Mazur Op. 5) on the national Polish tradition in the Alla Polacca extensive final variation: the quadruple metre of Mozart's theme is transformed into the triple metro-rhythmic pattern of an energetic polonaise, preannouncing the glory of Chopin's later compositions in this genre.

Chopin's other major work composed during his second year of studies at the Main School of Music is the Sonata in C minor for piano Op. 4, dedicated to Elsner. The controversy surrounding this work continues to this day. Initially, it was considered a failed attempt at sonata form, but since its reappreciation operated by Józef Chomiński [1960: 11-14], some artistic value is now identified in this work. The Sonata's eventual assessment depends on our value scale; in the light of Classical sonata form and its principles, the ‘formal shortcomings' of this Sonata seem evident [Rosen 1988: 392], yet in the context of Elsner's own piano sonatas, Chopin's work is surely worthwhile. Let us simply state that compared to Chopin's later sonatas, the one in C minor surely shows some weaknesses both in the structure of the themes (monothematicity, homogeneity of expression), thematic work and development (which is actually limited to simple sequential technique), a simplified tonal plan and a primitive chromaticism [Gołąb 1991: 104-108]. Chopin's two major works from his second year of university studies, however did, represent a considerable improvement over his earlier efforts. After his examination on 22nd July 1828, Elsner wrote in his report to the Department's dean: "Chopin Fryderyk. Considerable abilities, second year; he left to improve his health" [Nowakowski 1981: 429].

The 1828/29 academic term was directly preceded by Chopin's trip to Berlin, under the eye of Feliks Paweł Jarocki, a friend of the Chopin famil, professor of zoology, author of the work On Yarn Spiders. In Berlin, Chopin attended a ‘nature researchers' symposium' and admired Alexander von Humboldt. "So far, I have seen nothing apart from a zoological cabinet", he complained in a letter to his family on 16th September 1828, "I would prefer to go to Schlesinger's in the morning rather than walk 13 rooms of the zoological study. It is beautiful indeed, but I would have used the above-mentioned's musical store better" [KCh I: 82]. These Berlin letters to his family show Chopin's intelligence, humour and sense of observation to the best.

Yesterday, a common lunch of these scholars (or rather their caricatures, methinks) took place [...]. At the table, my neighbour looked down on me. He was a botany professor from Hamburg, one Mr. Lehman. I envied his enormous fingers. I had to break my breadroll to pieces with two hands, while he shattered his with just one. His hands looked like the paws of a bear. He spoke over me with Mr. Jarocki, and immersed himself so much in the conversation that he began to put his fingers in my plate. He's a true scholar - he also has a large, clumsy nose. I was on pins and needles, and had to clean him with my napkin. [KCh I: 82-83].

The pivotal work of Chopin's university years, apart from the Sonata in C minor Op. 4, remains the Piano Trio Op. 8. Chopin spent several months working on this composition, which occupied him for most of his third year of studies. He made use of the four-movement genre established by Beethoven: an innovative decision that went against the three-movement pattern of the piano trio of Haydn and Mozart, as indicated by Andrzej Chodkowski [Chodkowski 1982: 18]. Another noteworthy characteristic of this outstanding work (though largely eclipsed by Chopin's later output) is its varied instrumental writing: the piano texture acts as an accompaniment for the ‘thematic' violin and cello. At the same time, Chopin felt disciplined by the Classical tradition of the trio genre and put a halt to his virtuoso instinct: the stile brillante flourishes do not overpower the piano part, which comes across as timbrally balanced and dark-coloured. Although the first movement's middle section still shows a rather limited span of developmental means that lack the richness of Chopin's later sonata cycles, the Piano Trio Op. 8 remains, as Chodkowski remarks, not only a fully mature musical composition but also one of the leading Romantic expressions of the genre [ibid.: 20].

The 1828/29 term also produced two works for piano and orchestra: the Rondo à la Krakowiak Op. 14 and the Fantasy on Polish Airs Op. 13, the latter featuring a song to Karpiński's words Już miesiąc zaszedł [The Moon has Set], very popular in Warsaw in that time. It remains uncertain, though, whether the latter opus was completed in 1829. The other major task that occupied Chopin during the last year of his studies with Elsner (notwithstanding a fruitful class in chamber music) was the perfectioning of his orchestral instrumentation. Why this assumption? Chopin addressed the genre of the rondo on earlier three occasions (his Op. 1, 5 and WN 14), so the genre could not have presented a compositional problem on its own. In turn, the fantasy (even if it exclusively filled the last year's curriculum, which is uncertain) by nature of its genre did not possess a ‘verifiable' constructive element to make it suitable for an academic cursus in musical form. Moreover, we have evidence that precisely during that time, Chopin worked with Elsner on the instrumentation of his Op. 14. The autograph score of this work, dated 1829 [Kobylańska 1977: no. 189] includes a short three-bar fragment in the French horn in F, written by Elsner himself, as confirmed by Chopin's inscription in the very same source: "Elsner's hand" [Kobylańska 1977: 99-100]. This source, therefore, indicates that Elsner did not limit himself to a superficial reading of Chopin's finished compositions but actively participated in their shaping.

Chopin's compositional studies at the Main School of Music drew to an end. Chopin's father Nicolas, professor at the Warsaw Lycaeum, applied to the Minister of Religious Creed and Public Education, Stanisław Grabowski, for a foreign bursary for his son. Nicolas Chopin wrote: "He completed all earlier education, as confirmed by the Chancellor of the High School of Music and Professor of the University, Mr. Elsner. Now he needs to visit foreign countries, especially Germany, Italy and France, to continue his education on the best models" [13th April 1829; KCh I: 88]. Chopin did not receive the bursary. But when he formally graduated from the High School of Music on 20th July 1829, Elsner wrote the following memorable words after the final examination: "Third-year [...] Szopen Friderik, special ability, a music genius [etc.]"[2].


It can be stated with no exaggeration that Chopin's university studies in composition fully shaped his artistic personality and closed a period in which, overcoming some difficulties, he made astounding progress in his compositional technique. Moreover, the moment of graduation from the Main School of Music marks a breakthrough in his career. In Chopin research, it is usually assumed that only beginning with the Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 21 (1829/30) and the first set of Etudes (1829-32), i.e. works composed right after his graduation, Chopin appeared as a fully mature artist, having completed the stage of shaping his personal style on the Classical tradition. It was precisely the university cursus with Józef Elsner that allowed Chopin to develop his compositional mastery, and his education at the Main School of Music can be credited with widening Chopin's interest firstly to larger musical genres rooted in the Classical tradition (rondo, variations, sonata), and later to chamber music and orchestral instrumentation. These elements served as a foundation on which he was later able to develop his artistic endeavours (that, interestingly, never exploited such a wide array of technical, compositional and formal issues again). Despite widespread opinions that Chopin really became ‘himself' only after his arrival to Paris, his artistic personality and thorough education were entirely shaped in Warsaw.

At that time, the young Chopin wanted to appeal and impress as a pianist. Therefore, the other important element of his student works was the stile brillante, much in fashion in European music of the time. Chopin continued to entertain this style for some time in Paris (e.g. in the Variations brillantes Op. 12, 1833). As an artist, Chopin absorbed the Classical tradition and left his imprint on the nascent stile brillante, but was also a son of the Polish nation: hence the third element of his university output, visible in his interpretations of national dances (a genre that was also popular with other Polish composers of the time). The genre of the polonaise and mazurka became so deeply rooted in Chopin's mind that he continued to compose them for the remainder of his life. In this way, the circle of Chopin's artistic education became closed: defined by European tradition and modernity but also his motherland's local artistic culture.

Maciej Gołąb

English translation: Wojciech Bońkowski



[1] Jan Ekier [1974: insert] states that the Rondo was composed before 1826, while Chomiński and Turło [1990: insert] date the composition to 1826 based on Chopin's correspondence.

[2] Nowakowski writes: "There is an interesting progression in Elsner's opinion of Chopin. In 1827 and 1828, it was a ‘special ability', but in 1829 already a ‘musical genius'. Chopin, therefore, was no child prodigy, but his talent grew gradually, as it should, before it finally reached the zenith of art: genius. Elsner can be trusted, as he recognised his pupil's worth; and the pupil proved worthy of the teacher". See Nowakowski [1891: 440]. A photocopy of Elsner's last examination assessment (from the Public Education Archives) has survived in the work of Leopold Binental
[1930: repr. 27].



Binental Leopold Chopin. Dokumenty i pamiątki [Chopin. Documents and Memorabilia], Warszawa 1930.

Chodkowski Andrzej Kilka uwag o "Trio fortepianowym" Fryderyka Chopina [Some remarks on F. Chopin's Piano Trio], "Rocznik Chopinowski" XIV, 1982.

Chomiński Józef M. Turło Dalila Katalog dzieł Fryderyka Chopina [Catalogue of the Works of Fryderyk Chopin], Kraków 1990.

Chomiński Józef M. Sonaty Chopina [The Sonatas of Chopin], Kraków 1960.

Ekier Jan Wstęp do Wydania Narodowego Dzieł Fryderyka Chopina. 1. Zagadnienia edytorskie [Foreword to the National Edition of the Works of Fryderyk Chopin. 1. Editorial issues], Kraków 1974.

Frączyk Tadeusz Warszawa młodości Chopina [The Warsaw of Chopin's Youth], Warszawa 1961.

Gołąb Maciej Chromatyka i tonalność w muzyce Chopina [Chromaticism and Tonality in Chopin's Music], Kraków 1991; German translation by Beatrysa Hirszenberg Chopins Harmonik. Chromatik in ihrer Beziehung zur Tonalität, Köln 1995.

-- Studia Fryderyka Chopina w Szkole Głównej Muzyki Królewskiego Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego (1826-1829) [Chopin's studies at the Main School of Music of the Royal University of Warsaw, 1826-29], [in:] Ars et educatio. Kultura artystyczna Uniwersytetu warszawskiego [Ars et education. The Artistic Culture of the Warsaw University], ed. J. Miziołek, Warszawa 2003 (full text of the present article).

Kobylańska Krystyna Rękopisy utworów Chopina. Katalog [Manuscripts of Chopin's Works. Catalogue], vol. 1, Kraków 1977.

Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina [The Letters of Fryderyk Chopin], compiled and ed. Bronisław E. Sydow, vol. 1, Warszawa 1955 [abridged as KCh in the above text].

Nowakowski Erazm Dawne szkoły muzyczne w Warszawie [The ancient music schools of Warsaw], "Echo Muzyczne, Teatralne i Artystyczne", 1891.

Przemiany stylu Chopina. Studia pod redakcją Macieja Gołąba [Changes of Chopin's Style. Studies edited by Maciej Gołąb], Kraków 1993.

Rosen Charles, Sonata Forms, New York - London 1988.




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