Frederic Chopin was a French-Polish composer and pianist who lived from 1810 to 1849. Not only was he a well-known child prodigy and virtuoso, but he was considered one of the most important composers of the Romantic period of Western music.
Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu was composed in 1834 and is regarded as one of the composer’s most well-known works for piano. It has been said to be similar to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in that it is written primarily in C-sharp minor and has a very similar chord progression. It also has a quieter, more peaceful middle section in D-flat major, much like the second movement of Beethoven’s piece.
The Fantasie Impromptu is a relatively short piece consisting of three sections. The first and the third are nearly identical, with a melody in C-sharp minor played against fast arpeggios. It’s very fast and a little chaotic, while the softer middle section provides a good overall balance to the piece. It’s a technically difficult piece to play, but it’s easy to see why it’s among Chopin’s most famous and popular works. It is interesting to note that the middle section was used in the song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, which was a very popular song in 1918.
Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2
This is the second in a set of three Nocturnes written by Chopin between 1830 and 1832, and it is possibly the most popular and well-known. This particular nocturne was composed when Chopin was about twenty years old, and despite being written in a major key it, like much of the composer’s work, contains a hint of sadness.
Much of the piece is composed of two themes that are repeated in what is known as a rounded binary form, or A-A-B-A-B-A. The themes become more elaborate each time they’re played, with more trills, cadenzas and quick runs. The last time the “A” theme is played, it is done so with considerable rhythmic freedom. The piece ends peacefully with a third theme that is played quietly as a coda. The coda is played passionately at the end of what has been a quiet and contemplative piece, and the coda almost fades into nothing after a climactic trilling passage.
Raindrop Prelude, Op. 20 No. 15
The Raindrop Prelude is one of the 24 piano preludes written by Chopin. The official title of the piece is the Prelude Op. 28, No. 15, but it’s better known as the Raindrop Prelude due to the repeating A-flat that appears throughout the piece and sounds like raindrops to many listeners. It is also one of Chopin’s longest preludes; performances generally last between five and seven minutes.
The piece itself is very fascinating in the way it changes from a peaceful and serene D-flat major into a more foreboding C-sharp minor. The C-sharp minor section begins rather suddenly about two minutes into the piece, and with it the piece changes from something peaceful and serene into something much darker. Listeners and music historians have likened it to a beautiful dream that turns into an oppressive nightmare, which is a very appropriate description for this work. It makes the listener feel uneasy, a feeling that is made even stronger by the serenity of the first part of the work. The original major key melody is reintroduced towards the end of the prelude, giving it a peaceful ending. Of course, the repeating A-flat never stops throughout the piece. It even adds to the tension when the music becomes darker.
Ballade No. 1, Op. 23
This work is the first of four ballades written by Chopin. These four short solo piano pieces were written between 1835 and 1842, and this piece in particular was dedicated to Monsieur le Baron de Stockhausen, the Hanoverian ambassador to France. It was well-liked in Chopin’s time, although it’s has never been considered his best work. It’s definitely a fascinating piece that deserves a listen, however.
Many listeners consider the majestic A-flat major chord and brief motive that begins the ballade to be unrelated to the rest of the piece, which ends with a dissonant chord as the piece moves into a sad and more contemplative melody. This is not true. In fact, Chopin did something far more interesting than a simple shift in tone. The dissonant chord that ends the majestic opening is left unresolved until much later in the piece, which somehow makes the minor key melodies even more contemplative. It’s as if the piece interrupts a pleasant and simple notion with much deeper thoughts. The piece continues to shift from the majestic A-flat major melody to the minor key melody which is punctuated by dissonant chords. As we said before, this is a fascinating piece that will be sure to give an attentive listener a lot to think about.
Etude Op. 10, No. 12
The twelfth and last etude in Chopin’s set Etudes Op. 10 is also known as the Revolutionary Etude and the Etude on the Bombardment of Warsaw. It was written in 1831 at about the same time as the November Uprising, Poland’s failed revolt against Russia, and dedicated to Chopin’s friend Franz Liszt. Until the time of Chopin and Liszt, etudes were written as educational exercises intended to focus on and improve musical technique, but the etudes written by these composers were intended as fully developed pieces intended for concert performances.
As this etude’s alternative titles suggest, Chopin wrote this piece as a response to the November Uprising, and he poured many of the emotions that he was feeling at the time into the work. This angry, intense piece sounds a little like a chaotic battle, and it perhaps can be looked at as the musical equivalent of a rant. It’s also technically very difficult to play. There are a lot of fast runs, left hand semiquavers and cross-rhythms that add to the chaos and intensity of the piece, but it also makes it one that is strictly for advanced players.
One of the more interesting aspects of the piece is its abrupt ending. It ends with a descending sweep in both hands that ends in a C major chord. The chord is considerably brighter and more positive-sounding than the rest of the piece, but it’s so abrupt that the effect is anything but soothing. It’s a nice, unexpected touch to one of Chopin’s more intense works.
Prelude Op. 28, No. 4
Chopin’s set of 24 preludes were first published in 1839 and dedicated to the composer Joseph Christoph Kessler. Preludes are traditionally meant as introductory movements to be played at the beginning of longer works, but Chopin intended his preludes to be standalone compositions that each convey a specific concept. They received quite a bit of criticism during his time for their brief length and lack of any traditional structure. Not only is no prelude longer than 90 bars, but they were seen as more like sketches or brief notes as opposed to fully-formed ideas. The preludes remain popular to this day, and perhaps the most well-known of Chopin’s preludes is this prelude in E minor.
Chopin requested that his Prelude Op. 28, No. 4 be played at his funeral, and even a casual listener can see why. It’s a very sad, mournful piece that sounds not unlike a funeral dirge. With its minor key, descending chords and the fact that it’s intended to “die away” as per Chopin’s notation, it conveys an almost overwhelming sense of despair. It’s a short, depressing yet beautiful piece that sounds like it was all but meant for a funeral.
Waltz in D-Flat Major, Op. 64, No. 1
This waltz by Chopin is commonly known as “The Minute Waltz,” with an emphasis on the second syllable. The implication is therefore that this is a “small” waltz, not a waltz intended to be played in a minute as many people believe. A performance of the waltz typically lasts between a minute and a half and two minutes, although the quick tempo leads many people to believe that it should be played in under a minute. The waltz was written in 1847, and was dedicated to the Countess Delfina Potocka.
Despite the fact that the Minute Waltz was not intended to be played in a minute, many pianists like to challenge themselves by playing the piece as fast as they can. Even if one discounts the slightly misleading name, the piece simply sounds like it should be played very quickly. It’s been said that Chopin was inspired to write this waltz when he was watching a dog chase its tail, and it has a kind of playful quality that would suggest something along those lines. It’s fast and slightly frantic, but it never sounds too chaotic. In fact, it has a very deliberate triple rhythm that signifies it clearly as a traditional waltz.
Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor
Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor was written in 1837 and dedicated to the Countess Adele Furstenstein. It is especially notable for its clever sotto voce opening that was intended to represent a question and answer. A phrase is played so quietly it’s almost inaudible, only to be followed by a loud statement. This exchange happens numerous times before we get to the fast, vibrant flowing melody that is once again repeated with variation throughout the rather lengthy piece. Things become quieter and more contemplative later, as if the original “questioning” voice were returning to speak at a greater length. It slowly transitions back into the main theme before moving back to the restatement of the opening. This is indeed a fascinating piece with an interesting structure. Like much of Chopin’s music, it’s worth a close listen and analysis.
Polonaise Op. 53
The Polonaise Op. 53 was written in 1842, and it has long been considered one of Chopin’s most technically difficult yet most popular works. It remains a favorite among classical pianists not just for the technical challenge it represents, but for its satisfyingly triumphant and heroic tone. In fact, it is called the Heroic Polonaise.
The structure of this piece is in ternary form, meaning that it is primarily composed of two themes played in an “A-B-A” pattern with a brief introduction that sets the majestic tone of the piece. The first theme is by far the more familiar to most listeners. It’s a heroic dance-like theme played in the key of A-flat major. It is then followed by a softer theme consisting of a descending bass ostinato of descending chords played with the left hand and a march-like rhythm and melody. The first melody returns for the end of the piece, thereby tying up the “A-B-A” structure.
Etude Op. 10, No. 4
The Etude Op. 10, No. 4 was first published in 1830 as a study in solo piano. It’s a relatively short piece that is nevertheless technically very difficult to play due to its constant sixteenth note runs in both the right and left hands. It’s a fiery, intense piece that goes nonstop at a breakneck pace until the end, but strangely enough it isn’t nearly as dark or foreboding as many of Chopin’s other minor key piano pieces. In fact, it’s far more vibrant than many other piano pieces. It is intense and energetic, but it’s not too intense. It has an almost elemental sound to it, and when it’s played well it seems to almost play itself. This is a difficult yet fun and satisfying piece to play as well as listen to. It’s short, but it sounds like it doesn’t need to be any longer than it actually is.