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Length: c. 32 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
We customarily view Chopin in terms of the final years of his short life, as Chopin the Frenchman, the hyper-sensitive, physically fragile superstar, engaged in a stormy, often demeaning (to the composer) liaison with the cigar-smoking novelist Aurore Dupin, Baroness Dudevant, better known as George Sand. Chopin, the man with the haunted eyes staring at us from that often-reproduced, mesmerizing daguerreotype photo made only months before his death.
Yet the Chopin who wrote the two piano concertos a few months apart in 1829 and 1830, between the ages of 19 and 20, was a vivacious Polish composer (his French ancestry, on his father’s side, notwithstanding): the precocious Fryderyk Franciszek, as he was christened, not as yet the hyper-sensitive Frédéric François. He had been playing the piano since the age of four, was writing “heroic verses” at age six, and dubbed “the second Mozart” before he was ten.
It may be because Chopin was largely self-taught as a pianist that he was able to compose music of such striking originality for his instrument from the start. Once subjected to formal education and being told what was correct, he had already long mastered technique and dedicated himself now to redefining and extending the expressive, harmonic, coloristic potential of the piano. He would continue to do so with ever-increasing inventiveness.
If Chopin’s performing style was unique from the start, as a composer he was susceptible to outside influences, the most often cited being the bel canto style of Bellini, which inspired him to reinvent the piano as a “singing” instrument (as differentiated from Beethoven’s thunder machine) – his instrumental melodies imitating the lyric suavity, curvature, and dramatic contrast of operatic arias. Less frequently mentioned is the influence of the keyboard technique of J.S. Bach, which Chopin admired for the clarity of its part-writing, and the virtuoso flourishes of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, which Chopin tempered with his own, more refined taste. The Chopin style is finally enriched, completed if you will, by his involvement with Polish folk music, which first manifested itself in the mazurkas he began writing at age 15 and which particularly endeared him to the aristocracy.
None of which is to say that the wealthy Polish families who heaped him with praise and trotted him out as show horse at their glamorous soirées regarded his financial needs as their concern. He was asked to be satisfied with the honor of their attention. Nor was this gifted and charming young man regarding as worthy of one of the traveling grants to France, Italy, and Austria his government routinely awarded to writers and painters.
Chopin’s failure to receive such a grant intensified his determination to try his luck abroad with funds raised from family and friends, resulting in the momentous 1829 visit to Vienna, where his playing of his own Krakowiak and improvisations on Polish folk tunes was rapturously received.
His most ambitious works to date, the two piano concertos, were taking shape at this time. And with the first performance of the F-minor Concerto in March of 1830 – the earlier of the two, but second published, therefore its higher opus number – the youthful pianist-composer became the darling of the concert halls and fashionable salons of Warsaw. It was lack of similar response to the hardly dissimilar E-minor Concerto in October of the same year that prompted him to make his final break with Poland.
The premiere of the F-minor Concerto took place at Warsaw’s National Theater, on a program that also included Chopin’s Fantasia on Polish Airs. And in what we now regard as a barbaric tradition of earlier times, the first movement of the Concerto was separated from the remaining two by a divertissement: an improvisation for solo horn, of all things.
Maybe the intrusion wasn’t such a bad idea, since the audience didn’t quite get into the swing of that magnificently rich first movement. Chopin, in a letter to his friend Titus Woyciechowksi, on the reception of the Concerto, reported:
“The first Allegro of my Concerto – unintelligible to most – received the reward of a ‘bravo’ from a few... But the Adagio [i.e., Larghetto] and Rondo produced a very great effect. After these, the applause and the ‘bravos’ seemed really to come from the heart.”
In these youthful works, above all in their slow movements, we can already glimpse the dreamy-eyed Chopin of Romantic lore: the delicate, sensitive poet of our most ardent imaginings, nowhere more so than in the second movement of the F-minor Concerto, which has become associated with a young singer named Constantia Gladkowska, of whom Chopin was to write to a friend:
“I have...found my ideal, whom I worship faithfully and sincerely... But in the six months since I first saw her I have not exchanged a syllable with her of whom I dream every night, she who was in my mind when I composed [the slow movement].” Shades of Dante and his Beatrice! But Beatrice was nine when the poet was smitten, and they never did speak. Chopin and Constantia did eventually speak and even became friends, but there was no romance. In fact it wasn’t until she was a grandmother several times over and the biography of Chopin by Moritz Karasowski was read to her (she became blind in her mid-30s) that Constantia had any inkling of the intensity of his feelings during the period in question.
Chopin forgot Constantia but retained a lifelong affection for the F-minor Concerto, and particularly the slow movement. It also made a profound impression on other musicians of the time, not the least of them Liszt, who regarded the Concerto as “of ideal perfection, its expression now radiant with light, now full of tender pathos.”
The virtuoso finale, marked “simply and gracefully,” is the most Polish of the three movements, what with its jaunty mazurka rhythms – and the least sophisticated, lacking the harmonic magic of the preceding movements, to say nothing of what Chopin would create in the years to come. But its straightforwardness rounds out the Concerto neatly, the composer’s dreams dispelled by some bracing fresh air and bright sunlight.
What happened in the months between the two concerts and two concertos is a sadly familiar story: that of the idolized artist falling out of favor for no apparent reason other than the whim of a fickle public, eager for new sensations. There were not the tragic consequences, however, that accompanied Mozart’s similar fall in Vienna during the mid-1780s. Chopin, even younger and without the family responsibilities that burdened his predecessor, departed for the hospitable artistic climate of Paris.
With his two concertos, Poland found in Chopin its national composer, and it was widely suggested, by some astute politicians as well as by artists, that everything be done to keep their treasure contented and at home – except for foreign visits to proclaim the glory of “Polish music.” But young Fryderyk had bigger things in mind. He would soon find them, and a far more complicated existence, in Paris.
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.