Chopin and the Piano
F. Chopin: the Four Scherzos and Ballades
Except for a few chamber music works, a set of seventeen lieds opus 17,
a few works for piano and orchestra including two marvelous concertos,
Chopin had only the piano as the most intimate confidant.
German pianist and compositor Ferdinand Hiller said: "he opened-up
rarely but at the piano he confided in entirely as no other musician
did. He was so much involved that any other thoughts he may have had
Starting from the very first Rondo op.1 composed on 1825 up to the
Mazurka op.68 N.4, his last composition, penned just before his death
in 1849, Chopin cultivated the piano within many musical forms.
Polonaises, mazurkas, valses, preludes, nocturnes, etudes, ballades,
impromptus, scherzos, sonatas, rondos, variations.
Unlike that other giant piano composer Franz Liszt, Chopin never
composed descriptive or dramatic style of work. His piano music is
never built on a literary basis. Pure music only.
Shaped with the art of Mozart and Bach, he did work on daily, Chopin is
best described as a "classical mind" with a "romantic soul".
No matter how ornamented it is, his musical phrase is always oriented
towards simplicity. He stated it clearly: "The utmost level is
simplicity. After having dealt with any kind of difficulties, after
having mastered notes and notes, the simplicity emerges with all its
charm as the apex of art."
His ornamentation, that he requested to be played as improvised, is an
integral part of the melodic line. Those ornamentations are connected
with both the Italian style of bel-canto and with the French
harpsichordists like Francois Couperin to whom, Wanda Landowska did not
hesitate to tie Chopin's style.
One of his most quoted inspiration sources was the "Theatre Italien",
he did attend shows often and openly admired the style of the
performers in its poise, simplicity and ampleur in this famous theater
of Paris. He often said to his pupils: "you must sing if you want to
play the piano".
He based his interpretative ideas on the analogies between the music
and the language. So he did bring to the piano the Italian vocal
artistry, the bel-canto.
Swiss musicologist Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, author of "Chopin:
Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by his Pupils" states: "he is the only
musical genius of the 19th. Century where the piano does not imitate
the orchestra. He places the piano in the heart of a melodic and vocal
line where the refinements of the touch get the utmost importance."
Chopin was playing with a perfect equality of touch. That was the
result of an impeccable mastery of the fingering. He said: "[resulting]
sounds are as varied as fingers are [different from each other], so the
whole point is to use the fingers appropriately, that is to apply
Another point of his playing which arouse many comments is his rubato.
For one, Berlioz, in his "Memoires" wrote that "Chopin was unable to
play in steady rhythm" yet, many who did listen to Chopin and those who
did work with him stated that his rubato was light, natural, never
At the end, probably Liszt made the best description of the Chopin's
rubato: "look at those trees: the wind makes them undulate [in its
branches and leaves] but the tree itself never moves. That is
A very complex and rich harmonic texture also makes for another key
element in the works by Chopin. The abundant use of keys with many
accidentals and the brilliant and wise employ of enharmonic shifts are
The use of the pedal is essential in the music by Chopin. With him the
pedal is fully an artistic tool, a keystone in the music, creating
light and shadows, smoke and mist. According to Antoine François
Marmontel (1816-1898) a French pianist, teacher and musicologist,
Chopin himself used the pedal with "absolute tactfulness".
in B Minor op.20
Scherzo N.2 in B-flat Minor op.31
Scherzo N.3 in C-sharp Minor op.39
Scherzo N.4 in E Major op.54
Ballade N.1 in G Minor op.23
Ballade N.2 in F Major op.38
Ballade N.3 in A-flat Major op.47
Ballade N.4 in F Minor op.52
The Scherzos by Chopin do not have anything in common with the scherzo
of the classical sonata. They are extensive pieces which have in common
only the 3/4 time signature and the fast tempos: Presto and derivatives.
The four scherzos are extremely rich in inventiveness, often very
passionate, overflowing with a boisterous rush in often dramatic and
tragic music writing. The last Scherzo (op.54) is, however, more sober
and melancholic than the others.
This extensive piece, Scherzo N.1 in B Minor op.20, drafted in Vienna
at the end of the spring 1831 and finished in Paris in 1832 was
published in 1835. The English edition of the work was titled: Banquet
infernal (Infernal Banquet).
It starts with surprising chords whose harmonic audacity was shocking
at the time.
The uncanny precision of the musical notation in Chopin's works should
be noted here. Instead of putting fermatas on those chords, leaving
their length to the discretion of the performer, he exactly notated
them as four entire bars in the tempo.
The Piece then develops as a continuum in mostly eight notes pace
distributed between hands in Presto furioso.
The slower middle section in B major, based on a Christmas song from
Poland, is elaborated in the mood of a Berceuse. At the re-exposition
of the first part, Chopin's pupil Karol Mikuli wrote that Chopin never
stopped accelerating towards the Coda so that the piece "culminated in
a harrowing climax."
The most famous of the four, this second Scherzo in B-flat Minor op.31
was composed in 1837 and published the same year in Paris and in London
with the subtitle "Meditation". Robert Schumann wrote that this was a
very captivating piece which alluded to him the poetry of Lord Byron.
The beginning triplets are like a whisper settling the ground for the
brilliant and grandiose chords which announce the first theme. Baltic
German Russian official and writer Wilhelm von Lenz who was a friend of
many mid-century Romantic composers reported that that Chopin was
uncompromising on the performance of those triplets. He was saying
often "they should be a question [mark]" and he complained that they
were never played "interrogating enough", "soft enough", "down enough".
Chopin also said "They must the like the house of the death", "they are
the key to the entire piece".
Drafted in Majorca in 1839, first published in 1840, the third Scherzo
in C-sharp Minor op.39 is a powerful piece which starts with an
intriguing figure in unison in a no less intriguing rhythmical
distribution: four quarters tuplet in a 3/4 bar.
The main theme is also in unison but with powerful double octaves
staccato. The middle part appears as a choral where each end of phrase
is extended with a rich harmonic combination of descending eight notes
line in both hands. After the re-exposition of the first part the
choral theme will lead to the brilliant Coda; the choral, this time, is
sustained with large left hand arpeggios.
The last and longest Scherzo, N.4 in E Major op.54, was composed in
1842 and published in 1843. It is much sober and introverted as
compared to the previous ones.
It starts with a delicate theme again in unison at both hands. This is
followed with light and agile chords. That first section is broken with
volubile eight notes lines. Everything is mostly light and gracious.
Elements of a medium paced waltz and reminiscences of a Barcarolle type
of melodies make the slow middle part.
The "Ballade" was never a delimited musical form. The word is from the
Italian "ballare" which means dancing and it can be seen as a "song to
dance with". Originally the Ballade was a vocal piece. It is Chopin who
first gave the title Ballade to a musical composition. With Chopin, the
Ballade became an extended piece without a sharply defined formal
structure and which is, to quote Etienne Rogers, "something of a song,
a rondo, a sonata and a variations set".
In the 19th. century, after Chopin, the Ballade will be a popular form
always keeping with the vocal style and often from legendary and heroic
The four Ballades were composed over twelve years. By the richness of
their elaborations they are among the most accomplished works of the
composer. According to Robert Schumann, the first three Ballades were
inspired by the poetry of Adan Mickiewicz, Polish poet, also in exile
in Paris. However, Chopin never mentioned any literary source of
inspiration and we know how distant he was with programme-music.
Started in Vienna in 1831 and finished in Paris in 1835 the first
Ballade in G Minor op.23, was one of Chopin's favorites.
According to Robert Schumann, this Ballade was inspired by the epic:
"Conrad Wallenrod" a large poetical work by Mickiewicz which narrates
the battle of Teutonic knights against pagans. However, it is very
unlikely that Chopin, always cold to programme music, would have
thought to put to music this kind of epic so foreign to his character.
Liszt, on the other side has a better description: "an odyssey of the
soul of Chopin".
This was one of the composer's favorite pieces. Schumann, in a letter
to his old teacher wrote: "From Chopin I have a recent Ballade in G
minor. It seems brilliant to me and I told him that it was what I
enjoyed most among his works. After a long silence he replied: I am
happy to hear that because it is also what I like most."
The G minor Ballade is a large poem full of passion, feelings and
almost painful melancholy. It may be seen in three parts boxed with a
Lento introduction and a Presto coda. Almost a sonata with two major
themes, their expositions, their development and various intermediary
Drafted in 1836 and finalized in 1839 during the stay of Chopin with
George Sand in Majorca, the second Ballade, in F Major op.38, was
published in 1840.
It is dedicated to Robert Schumann in response to the dedication of
Kreisleriana op.16. This should be looked at a courtesy dedication
since we know how Chopin was closed to art of Schumann which he never
liked the music.
On the other side Schumann liked very much this piece. He wrote:
"Chopin did compose a previous piece with this title. It was one of his
most savage and unusual ones. This one is different. While it is
inferior to the first as a piece of art it is, nevertheless, not less
fantastic and spiritual. The intermediary sections, all passionate,
seem to be put in afterward. I remember Chopin playing this Ballade
with a coda in F major, now it ends in A minor.."
Chopin rarely played this piece entirely. Again according to Schumann,
this Ballade was inspired by Mickiewicz's poem about a legend connected
to the Lithuanian lake Switez: a mysterious woman emerging from it
narrates the struggle of Lithuanians against the Czar's armies and the
transformations of the death into aquatic flowers. That may reminds to
us, in some ways, the "Cathédrale engloutie" by Debussy.
The second Ballade is an alternation of softness and strength. The
first soft part was played by the composer, according to Pauline
Viardot, a leading nineteenth-century French mezzo-soprano, pedagogue,
and composer, without any nuances except where indicated. This part
does invoke the clam water of the lake. Does the following Presto con
fuoco depicts the struggle mentioned above? May be.
The second exposition of the alternating soft and strong parts leads to
a vehement coda which will nevertheless, conclude with a recalling of
the introductory calm.
In the key of A flat major, particularly cherished by Chopin, the third
Ballade op.47, started in 1840 was finished and published in 1841.
"Ondine" a title often given to it, is from a poem by Mickiewicz
relating the story of a young man in love with a nautical creature he
would chase deep into water.
Schumann claimed that this work, quite different from the previous ones
by its character and form is one of the most unique by Chopin.
When first played by the composer at the Pleyel hall in 1842, the
critic Maurice Bourges wrote in the Gazette musicale: "This is one of
the most accomplished compositions by Monsieur Chopin. His souple
imagination is all over with an uncommon magnificence. In all parts of
the composition is a harmonious and melodious unity, a warm animation
and a rare vitality. This is poesy made with sounds."
Some see in its suave beginning an amorous duet between the lovers. The
octave swinging is the base for the second theme which will develop
throughout the work.
Dedicated to the Baronne Charlotte de Rothschild, the fourth Ballade in
F Minor op.52, is a masterpiece by its inspiration, its eloquence, by
the originality of its motives and by the richness of his harmonic
A pathetic work, sometimes passionate sometimes sad where Alfred Cortot
commentated: "harmonically impressive, a refinement in the ecriture
which is very meaningful of some new directions of the style of Chopin.
No doubt, if he had lived longer he would have paved the way for our
impressionism [to come]."