Recently I was asked to write a brief article aimed at non-musicians who are interested in exploring the works of major composers. The hope is that it will ultimately develop into a series of articles covering a wide gamut of styles, periods, and composers. Here is my first installment in the series, focusing on the works of Chopin.
Frederick Chopin (1810-1849) was a Romantic composer of Polish nationality. Chopin began studying piano at an early age, showing signs of great promise from his earliest performances. Chopin deeply loved his homeland, but found himself relocating to Paris due to the Russian suppression of the November 1830 Polish uprising. Chopin would spend the rest of his life in France. While in Paris, Chopin would engage in several relationships with various women--most notably his affair with Aurore Dupin, better known by her pseudonym George Sand. Despite his passion for life and his native Poland, Chopin was frail and ill throughout much of his adult life. His death in 1849 was due to complications with tuberculosis.
As a composer, Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the solo piano. His writings demand total mastery of the instrument technically while exploring emotional depths through the various sounds of the piano. Composers living at the height of the Romantic era (1820-1900) were attempting to express themselves in ways that had not been heard before, and Chopin was no exception. To begin understanding the works of this giant of Romantic music, let us consider three basic characteristics: Chopin's Polish pride, his short compositions, and his legendary technical abilities at the keyboard.
Many composers of the 19th century were nationalistic. Their pride in their native land was expressed in their music by using folk melodies and dance tunes of the people. Chopin's nationalism can be seen in his Polonaises and Mazurkas. The Polonaise was a slow dance of the Polish people in 3/4 time. Because of its characteristic sharp rhythms, the dance is militaristic in sound. In contrast, the Mazurka is a fast Polish dance, also in 3/4 time. The difference here is that an accent (playing a note louder than the others around) is placed on either beat 2 or 3. This is unusual because we expect the accent to appear on beat 1. By basing his compositions on the dances of Poland, Chopin was introducing all of Europe to the charm of his beloved Poland. As you listen to the dances, you cannot help but feel a sense of pride emanating from the piano. Personally, I adore both of these dance forms, but have a special place in my heart for the Polonaises. For an introduction, listen to the Polonaise in C minor (Opus 40, No. 2) or the amazing Polonaise in Ab major (Op. 53). (Opus numbers--abbreviated Op.--are given to pieces to help catalogue a composer's works. Often the numbers are assigned in the order the compositions were originally published. Don't worry if you don't remember all of them or completely understand how they work; many professional musicians have trouble remembering them as well.)
Most of Chopin's compositions were written for piano solo and are in miniature forms. This is great news for the neophyte to classical music. These pieces are often shorter than 5 minutes in duration and are very satisfying without the complexity of a long sonata movement. As we have already seen, Chopin composes multiple works within a single musical genre (like the polonaises above). Another dance that is popular with Chopin-lovers is the waltz--also in 3/4 time. To get a feeling for the light, lilting quality of the waltzes, listen to the Minute Waltz (Op. 64, No. 1). As another example of Chopin's miniatures, the Nocturnes are beautiful short pieces that evoke images of nighttime; you'll want to make sure you listen to the most famous Nocturne in Eb major (Op. 9, No.2). Continue by exploring others in this genre as most of them are easily approachable without any prior knowledge of the music.
Chopin was a virtuoso of the piano and respected by his peers. A virtuoso is a performer who has incredible technical skills at the instrument. You might think of a virtuoso as "the best of the best!" This level of skill is not something with which a person is innately born; years of preparation and devoted practice are required. Chopin composed a series of etudes, or technical studies, to continue to develop his own pianistic skills as well as those of his students. While we normally do not get excited about listening to piano exercises, the etudes are much more than mere finger exercises and something not to be missed. I recommend listening to at least two of the Chopin etudes: the majestic Revolutionary etude (Op. 10, No. 12) and the Black Key etude (Op. 10, No. 5).
Most of Chopin's music for piano is easily accessible by any audience and is readily available in most record stores. Enjoy the adventure and begin the exploration!