This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Polish composer, pianist, and patriot Fryderyk Chopin. Born to a French father and a Polish mother in 1810 in the village of Żelazowa Wola, just outside Warsaw, Chopin managed to leave an incredible legacy of music in his short 39 years of life. While he spent the greater part of his career in France, he never forgot where he came from. In fact, he celebrated his native culture though his piano works in his Mazurkas, his Polonaises, and even in other works such as his Scherzo No. 1 which quotes an old Polish Christmas carol. While he may have been the toast of Parisian salons, he was always happiest when in the company of fellow Poles. Given that many of them, Chopin included, had become expatriates in France rather than suffer under the heavy handed Russian government back at home, there was a Polish community of sorts for him in Paris.
Chopin’s work is very special to me, perhaps because I spent such a great deal of time with it as a teenage pianist. I can’t help but like it. However, you don’t need to be a pianist to love and appreciate Chopin. Some of the most beautiful melodies ever written came from his pen. The great Polish pianist Artur Rubinstein remarked on how audiences feel an immediate affinity with Chopin’s work, even those not tremendously sophistocated.
The Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw is a governmentally-supported institute devoted to studies of Chopin’s life and music. They have a huge amount of music on their website, all of which can be listened to for free. Interestingly enough, many of these recordings feature a period instrument, namely an 1849 Érard pianoforte, the exact same type of piano Chopin would have known and used. Here is a perfectly good example of it. If you click on this link, you can hear Kevin Kenner performing Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66 on this historic instrument. The compositions section lists all of the compositions of Chopin. If you click on a given composition, you can hear the work in question performed on the 1849 Érard pianoforte. This includes the concerti, which are accompanied by the Orchestra of the 18th Century under the direction of the prominent Dutch early music expert Frans Brüggen. Needless to say, the orchestra is also playing on period instruments.
The piano may sound a bit tinny to our ears. However, the piano at the time of Chopin still had not attained its definitive form which we know today. For performances on modern instruments, the Chopin Institute has a large YouTube library which you can access by clicking here.
Here is the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter performing Chopin’s Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72 in 1972 in Prague. The link is courtesy of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute. The website for the institute itself may be found at http://en.chopin.nifc.pl.