Frédéric Chopin composed a great deal of music during his short life. Much of his creative energy was directed towards writing for solo piano; only on a few rare occasions did he compose for orchestra (always as accompaniment to a piano soloist) or chamber ensemble. On Sunday’s NOVA concert, we will hear two of Chopin’s chamber works (there exists only one other piece of chamber music by Chopin: the cello sonata of 1846). This program pairs these works with music of Chopin’s contemporaries along with a work by a gifted Polish composer of the early 20th century, Karol Szymanowski. (One could mention here that if you want follow up and hear a more recent Polish composer, the Utah Symphony is performing Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4 in Salt Lake City on March 7 & 8.)
Chopin composed the Polonaise of his opus 3 (the Introduction was written in Vienna several years later) and the Piano Trio, opus 8, during 1828-9 while he still lived in Poland. These works are among the few published compositions from Chopin’s Warsaw years; in 1830, he left for Vienna and then Paris, never to return home. Both the trio and polonaise suffer from a certain amount of ignominy. Biographers and critics, rather than marvel at the unique and beautiful qualities of these scores, tend to focus on what they perceive to be Chopin’s “mishandling” of sonata form, or his “inept” writing for the string instruments. The opus 3 Polonaise, for example, exists in various adaptions with the sole purpose of transferring virtuosity found in the piano part to that of the cellist. This treatment of the piece arises from the myth that Chopin wrote the piano part for himself and the cello part for an amateur cellist. Chopin in fact wrote the piano part for the daughter of the intended cellist, Prince Radzwiłł. While she was in fact Chopin's student, there are no accounts of her playing being far superior to that of her father, which means that Chopin’s division of labor- melodic material played by the cello, ornamental virtuosity played by piano- is entirely intentional. Chopin’s unique approach to instrumental chamber music in this instance creates a beautifully vocal line for the cellist; the color achieved by the two instruments sounds unlike anything else in the chamber repertoire.
Chopin’s Piano Trio also treats the string instruments in a vocal manner. The melodic lines of the violin and cello are often heard in conversation with each other and/or with the piano. As in the Polonaise, little effort is made to give the strings virtuoso writing that competes with the piano. Rather, the violin and cello almost always present unadorned lyrical lines that encourage the players to impersonate the human voice. The dialogue between instruments found in the Adagio is particularly operatic. The instruments are treated like characters in a drama, with each voice presenting melodic material from a differing perspective.
To further highlight the lyrical elements heard in Chopin’s chamber music, two important vocal repertoires of Chopin’s period, bel canto aria and German lied, are represented on this concert. Chopin’s approach to lyrical writing for the piano was largely shaped by his exposure to Bellini and the bel canto style of Italian opera. Simple accompaniment and extreme musical focus on the expressive qualities of melody were a hallmark of bel canto and are found in Chopin works like the Nocturnes. Also, a work such as the opus 3 Polonaise is indebted to the slow introduction/fast cabaletta form of many bel canto arias. Robert Schumann greatly admired Chopin’s music and was influenced by his highly personal approach to the piano. While it is clear that Chopin may not have reciprocated Schumann’s adulation, both composers were masters at delivering an intensely vivid portrayal of mood and affect in miniature.