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Neither symphony, symphonic poem, opera, nor oratorio ever tempted Frédéric Chopin, for here was a composer through whose Polish veins coursed only the purest Romantic blood – blood of a unique and wonderful type classified "P" for Piano. On the few occasions that he wrote for the orchestra, that instrumental body was cast in the secondary role of accompanying companion to the piano. Much has been said regarding Chopin’s pedestrian orchestral sense – with considerable justification, one might add. However useless it may be to pursue the issue at this point, it is worth remembering that: 1) Chopin probably never would have composed for any instrument other than the piano were it not de rigueur in his day for a pianist-composer to present himself to the public with concerto calling cards, and 2) his orchestrations are in any case sturdy if unimaginative, and utilitarian in a basic rule-book way.
After writing his two piano concertos, and before moving to Paris in 1831, Chopin composed a Grand Polonaise in E-flat for Piano and Orchestra, although why he added the skimpy, perfunctory orchestra part to a piano polonaise has often been asked but never answered satisfactorily. (This is the only example of an accompanied polonaise in his catalog, which lists 16 polonaises for solo piano.) At any rate, deciding in 1834 that the piece needed an introduction, he wrote the Andante spianato, and wisely refrained from supplying it with an orchestral accompaniment.
A nocturne like piece gorgeously embroidered with Chopin’s inimitable filigree, the Andante has a dreamy, austerely beautiful lyricism. It is indicative of the mood Chopin had in mind for the Andante that he not only made spianato – smoothed out – a part of the title, but then added the direction tranquillo for good measure.
As for the Polonaise, it may not be Chopin’s most esteemed work in the stately Polish dance style that originated in the 16th century, but it is eminently pianistic and engagingly brilliant. Chopin is known to have played it only once with orchestra – when he introduced it in 1835. In our own century, pianists as often as not bring it to the recital stage, which means that they perform it, as well as the Andante, without orchestra.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.