The Two Sides of Chopin

Today I am going to share with you etudes by Frederic Chopin. But I cannot talk about Chopin and not mention Schubert and Liszt.

This discussion is a follow-up to previous articles I wrote about two Franzes – Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt.

Schubert lived a very short life: When he was 25 he contracted syphilis, and at the time syphilis was a treacherous, painful death sentence. He died at the tender age of 32.

Just imagine a young man aged 25, his life supposedly lying ahead of him, but instead he is staring death in the face. If that were not enough, imagine living in Vienna in the early 1800s and trying to compose your own music when you have heard the ingenious 7th symphony composed by a fellow (Beethoven) who lives a few blocks down the road. Any sound that comes to your head will seem to pale in comparison, and anything you put on paper will somehow seem insignificant. That is exactly what Schubert felt. Understandably, Schubert was depressed. You can hear this depression in his music; it is full of melancholy.

He was an introvert and not a good pianist – the piano was just another instrument to him, a means to his music. His “Fantasia in F minor” is written for four hands (two pianists). If Liszt had composed the piece, he undoubtably would have arranged it for one pianist. (Read more about Schubert here.)

Liszt is the complete opposite of Schubert. He is the Michael Jackson of his time. He tours all over Europe, giving several performances a day. Women go crazy over him. He is the Paganini of piano, a virtuoso. For Liszt, the piano as instrument is as important as the music he composes. (Read more about Liszt here.)

This brings us to Chopin, who is a year younger than Liszt. He leaves Poland at 20 and settles in Paris. He’s a skinny, sickly-looking man. He’s very shy – he will give only 30 public performances in his lifetime (Liszt gave more performances in a month). He is in poor health; in fact he will die young, just like Schubert, at 39. And where Schubert lives in the shadow of Beethoven in Vienna, Chopin is in Paris, a city completely smitten by Liszt.

It seems there are two Chopins: the one who reminds us of Schubert – first, the one in poor health, the depressed one, the one who wrote deeply emotional, melancholic music. Remember, this is the composer who wrote the “funeral march” – happy people who look toward life don’t do that.

And then there is another Chopin, the one who lives in the shadow of Franz Liszt, who is in the same city and travels in same circles as Liszt. Yes, Chopin the virtuoso, trying to push the limits of the piano.

Chopin’s etudes are the Liszt side of Chopin. An etude is a short piece of music that is composed to improve a player’s specific technique. Before Chopin etudes were mainly composed for musicians, not for listeners. Chopin’s etudes changed that. Chopin’s etudes are very Lisztonian, as they push the then newly evolved piano to new, unheard levels. I want to share this small excerpt from the Polish movie Desire for Love. This scene features both sides of Chopin: the “Revolutionary Etude” (the Liszt side) and his “Nocturne No. 20” (the Schubert side).

Guess-This-Classical Music Game

My family is an avid user of Spotify – every family member with the exception of 3-year-old Mia has an account.  Every time we get in my car, Mia says, “Dad, can you play ‘Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round’?” so my Spotify-suggested playlist also features some odd music for three-year-olds.  Personally, I am a Spotify junkie and listen to it all day long.  Having all this music at your fingertips is mind-boggling.

We recently discovered that Spotify has an interesting feature: it can turn any album into a radio station.  For instance, take Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and turn it into an “album radio,” and Spotify will create a random playlist of tracks by composers who lived plus or minus 50 years (my guess) around the time of Tchaikovsky, and who composed piano music and symphonies etc.

Hannah is a very happy and always smiling eleven-year-old who would do anything to spend time with me, even if she has to listen to classical music.  Coming home from our last skiing day trip at Beaver Creek, Hannah and I created a new classical music game.  We took one of those “album radios,” and each of us had to guess who composed the track that was playing.  Hannah had to guess first.  Every time, we’d discuss the music.  If it was Mozart I’d tell her to notice how happy and light it was.  If it was Tchaikovsky, I’d call attention to the enormous, bigger-than-life melodies.  With Liszt I’d point out how the piano often sounds like the whole orchestra.

My son Jonah is on spring break, so I don’t have to drive him to school at 7 AM.  Instead, this whole week I let my wife sleep in and drove Hannah to school at 8.  We used this opportunity to turn each 20-minute ride into a session of our guess-this-classical music game.  She absolutely loves it – she’s learned a dozen new composers.  In all honesty she just loves the game element of it and is incredibly happy when she gets the composer right (which is now about half the time).  We talked so much about Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin that this weekend we are planning to watch lectures on The Great Courses by (great!) Robert Greenberg about them, and she is actually looking forward to it.

Today I wanted to share with you Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Chopin wrote this concerto when he was only 20 years old.  Though this was the first piano concerto he wrote, it was the second one to be published; thus it is known as his second piano concerto.

Khatia Buniatishvili

Artur Rubenstein

Allegro de Concert

I am really excited to share with you “Allegro de Concert,” by Frederic Chopin. Chopin wrote only two concertos, and both were published in 1830. He started working on a third concerto soon thereafter, but never finished. He published just the first movement of that unfinished concerto and called it “Allegro de Concert.” A concerto is defined as musical composition in which a solo instrument (for instance piano or violin) is accompanied by orchestra. What Chopin wrote was not a “concerto,” as it lacked orchestration and should have been called a sonata. The word concerto has roots in two Latin words: conserere (to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight). A concerto is both a competition and cooperation between a solo instrument and an orchestra.

What fascinates me about this piece is that you can hear it in three versions: the original as it was written by Chopin and in two orchestrations (as was originally intended by Chopin). The first orchestration is by Prussian pianist and composer Jean Louis Nicodé and the second by Polish cellist, composer, and conductor Kazimierz Wiłkomirski. Since Nicode was a pianist, in his version the piano clearly dominates the orchestra and the orchestra provides very little counterbalance (the fight) to the piano. Wiłkomirski was a cellist, and in his version the orchestra (especially the strings) is a very powerful force. Here are all three versions. Enjoy!

Original as written by Chopin – Vladimir Ashkenazy piano

Orchestration by Jean Louis Nicodé

Orchestration by Kazimierz Wiłkomirski

Go to Top

Appreciate classical music like never before

Get unique musical insights in your inbox every Thursday

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Feel free to join our mailing list and get disount, news and updates.

Appreciate classical music like never before. Get unique musical insights in your inbox every Thursday