Frédéric Chopin

Born: March 1, 1810, Zelazowa Wola, Poland
Died: October 17, 1849, Paris, France

According to Vladimir Horowitz, Chopin was “the only truly great composer for the piano.” Chopin mostly worked in shorter forms, such as the ballade (which he invented), nocturne, prelude, waltz, and Polish dances like the mazurka and polonaise. He was a prodigy, performing private salon concerts and composing his first works at age seven. Later he studied at the Warsaw Lyceum and University of Warsaw. After completing his studies he moved to Vienna and later settled in Paris, pursuing his career through recitals throughout Europe – the twenty-one year old Chopin was the subject of Robert Schumann’s famous remark “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” Composition and teaching took precedence over performing as the years passed. In fact, despite his towering reputation as a performer, he only played some forty to fifty public concerts in his entire life, most in private homes to small audiences. His turbulent, much-publicized affair with the French novelist George Sand extended over a decade. Chopin contracted tuberculosis in the late 1830s, and it was the likely cause of his death at age thirty-nine.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21

Composed: 1828-30
Duration: 32 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, strings, solo piano

Chopin’s two piano concertos both date from his teens. The Piano Concerto No. 2 is actually the earlier of them, begun in 1828, Chopin’s last year as a Conservatory student, and completed early in 1830. It was given its first performance at Chopin’s public debut in Warsaw, on March 17, 1830. (The Concerto No. 1 was begun in 1829 and completed in September 1830; the numbering of the works got switched because Chopin managed to misplace the orchestral parts for the F minor Concerto, and by the time they were recovered the E minor Concerto was already in print.)

Chopin rarely wrote for orchestra, and his orchestration skills are often demeaned. While it is true that Chopin intends for the piano to take the lead, his orchestration is not without wonderful details – note, for instance, in the third movement of the Concerto No. 2, the use of col legno (where the string players hit the string with the wood, rather than the string side, of their bows), or the French horn call that introduces that movement’s coda.

The first movement opens with two themes: a dark, imperious idea for the strings, and a gentler, wind-dominated second subject. The strings briefly take over again before the piano enters, elaborating on both themes. Chopin biographer Frederick Niecks writes that when the piano takes up the first melody, “It is as if we were transported into another world and breathed a purer atmosphere. First there are some questions and expostulations, then the composer unfolds a tale full of sweet melancholy in a strain of lovely, tenderly entwined melody … In the second subject he seems to protest the devotion of his hear, and concludes with a passage, half upbraiding, half beseeching, which is quite captivating – nay more, even bewitching in its eloquent persuasiveness.” The piano’s rhapsody, supported for the most part by gentle string chords, is interrupted only occasionally by outbursts of the orchestra.

The time-stopping beauty of the second movement – described by Franz Liszt as “of a perfection almost ideal, its expression, now radiant with light, now full of tender pathos” – seems to have been inspired by one of the first loves in Chopin’s life: Konstancja Gladkowska, a singer and fellow student at the Warsaw Conservatory. In a slew of letters, Chopin described in some detail which passages were influenced by his dreams of her. When Chopin left Warsaw not long after this concerto was written, he and Konstancja exchanged friendship rings. But she considered their relationship simply a fond friendship, and married someone else the following year. Not until decades later, long after Chopin’s death, did she find out about the important place she had in his heart – by reading of it in a biography of the composer!

The final movement is lively and graceful, with a hint of the traditional mazurka rhythm that so fascinated Chopin. Rhythmically playful passages move easily from duple to triple meter and back. The piano part, once again replete with decorative arpeggios and intricate passagework, is propelled forward by brief orchestral interludes colored by the details mentioned above.

— Chris Morrison

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