This year is the Chopin Bicentennial. Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born in 1810 near Warsaw to a French father and a Polish mother. Despite his long exile in France, Chopin was Polish above all else. He never quite managed to perfect his French. He was often happiest when the company of fellow Poles. Despite having a relationship with one of France’s most formidable women of letters at the time, Georges Sand, Chopin never set a word of French poetry to music. His only songs are in Polish. Poland has always taken great pride in Chopin. He gave voice to the Polish people’s patriotic aspirations at a time when Poland was under Russian rule. One of the country’s most notable varieties of vodka is named for him. Passengers who travel to Warsaw by air disembark at the Warsaw Chopin International Airport. He and another remarkable Polish pianist and composer, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, continue to be venerated as great patriots today.
When we think of the piano, perhaps the image of Steinway concert grand comes to mind. However, it took quite a while for the piano to arrive at its definitive form. It has changed quite a lot from its original form of the 1720s. Some pianists, such as Malcolm Bilson, specialize in playing pianos patterned after those of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. The piano was still undergoing development at the time when Fryderyk Chopin arrived on the scene. In fact, the piano did not attain its definitive form until well into the 19th century.
The National Frederic Chopin Institute (Narodowy Institut Fryderyka Chopina) is the place to go to for Chopin studies. Any book or article on Chopin you could possibly want is in their vast collections. Many of Chopin’s original manuscripts are there, too. Their website, which may be visited at http://www.nifc.pl, contains audio files of Chopin’s works performed by various pianists. In fact, the entire corpus of Chopin’s work is available there, uniquely played on period pianos. If you ever wondered how Chopin might sound on a period instrument, that is the place to go. The XVI International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition is going on right now in Warsaw. For those who care to follow it, the Chopin Institute is offering live streaming of the competition.
Somehow, the Chopin Institute managed to obtain two instruments of the type Chopin would have known, namely an 1849 Érard grand piano and an 1848 Pleyel. I am in awe of the piano technicians who managed to restore these old instruments. Restoring old pianos is a tricky business indeed. The instruments sound differently from the pianos of today. However, this is not only attributable to their age. The construction of these old instruments was a bit different from the construction of today’s pianos. The piano did not have 88 keys yet, either. The scale length of the strings was also different.
I have posted here three videos of the Argentine-born pianist Nelson Goerner performing on one of these instruments from the 1840s. The first recording is of Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No.1. The second is of his Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 10, No. 4. The last is of the Ballade in G minor, Op. 23.