A laureate at prestigious international piano competitions such as Vianna da Motta (Portugal, 1999) and William Kapell (United States, 1998), Richard Raymond has also received the Virginia Parker Award [...]
They spoke about it
Whether short pœms or large musical soundscapes, the waltzes of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) derive their seductive powers from their intimate nature, their sensibility and their fantasy. Chopin entrusted his musical genius almost entirely to the piano, the preferred musical instrument of the Romantic era. A brilliant pianist himself, he was blessed with the ability to perform his works as he heard them in his mind.
Unlike Liszt, Chopin preferred the smaller audiences of salons to those of concert halls, which craved displays of virtuosity. George Hogarth, a commentator of the time, summed up the performance style and works of the composer pianist thus: “His playing exudes the utmost delicacy, a smooth and limpid sonority, with a clear-cut roundness in swiftly moving passages, whereas his music is characterized by a freedom of thought, a whole palette of expressiveness and a romantic melancholy that appears to embody the natural predisposition of the artist’s character.”
Chopin: Patriotic melancholy
Born in Poland, Chopin immigrated to Paris in 1831, but remained deeply attached to his native country. Both a patriotic melancholy and the inherent melancholy of the Romantic century permeate his entire œuvre, as does the vibrant energy of Polish folklore particularly apparent in his mazurkas and the polonaises. These natural inspirations were complemented by Chopin’s great love of the Italian opera popular in the theatres of 19th-century Europe. Giacomo Bellini, whom he befriended, was one of his favourite composers. This source of inspiration may account for the fact that Chopin’s melodies are often compared to singing. In addition to these influences, one should also mention the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which Chopin discovered very early in his life.
A large number of Chopin’s works draw their basic rhythms from dances such as the mazurka, the polonaise or the waltz: “Chopin takes great pleasure in tying his inspiration to a particular rhythm, which may be quite rudimentary as in the case of the waltz, and by letting his imagination soar freely, building constructions of exceptional lightness upon it.” (A. Einstein, 1959). Between 1829 and 1847, he composed 19 waltzes. His opuses 18, 34, 42 and 64 were published while he was alive, while the others were only to appear posthumously. Whether slow and meditative like Op. 34 no. 2 and Op. 69 no. 2, or fast and brilliant, each waltz is characterized by a lush harmonic flow and highly inventive turns, this despite the simple triple time that drives it forward.
Chopin used to tell his students to play the accompaniment in such a manner as to ‘establish’ the movement to support the melody. The following observation by Liszt conveys the subtle relationship between the melodic and harmonic dimensions of Chopin’s music: “Look at those trees: the wind rustles through their leaves and makes them quiver, but the tree remains still. That is the essence of the Chopin rubato.”
The directions given by Chopin for his Grande Valse brillante Op. 18 and his Valses brillantes Op. 34 are vivo and vivace (with the exception of waltz no. 2, marked lento). In the very first bars, repeated notes and wide chords foretell the frenzy that is yet to come, the overflowing energy exhibited by all of his Valses brillantes.
Waltzes Op. 64, 69 et 70
However, the three waltzes from Op. 64, written in 1846 and 1847, have other traits. In the first, referred to as the ‘Minute Waltz’ or ‘Small Dog Waltz’, the melody spirals in on itself, while in the middle section of the second waltz, it unfurls in arabesques. The first theme featured in the last waltz from this opus is ornate with chromatic passages the momentum of which is interrupted at each measure. In the melody from Op. 69 no. 2, the syncopation on the first beat underlines the work’s languid character.
Most of these pœtic miniatures are dedicated to the aristocratic women who surrounded Chopin: baronesses and countesses, faithful amateurs. The composer, who never married, dedicated two of them to women he loved. He composed Waltz opus 70 no. 3 as a tribute to Constance Gladowska, his first love in Warsaw, and Op. 69 no. 1, also called ‘The Farewell Waltz’, for his fiancée Marie Wodzinska. It should be mentioned however that this last piece was written in 1835, while the engagement was only to be broken off in 1837. The two waltzes share an extraordinary delicacy: the first one, composed in 1829, is set apart by its chromaticism and dual melodic voices, evoking an operatic duet; for its part, the second is filled with appoggiaturas and grace notes that Liszt compared to droplets of water. Born out of the spontaneity of his improvisations, Chopin’s writing for piano would not be quite the same without his spirited fantasy and refined sense of ornamentation. As in a game, galloping notes fly thick and fast in Op. 70 no. 1 as well as in his posthumous waltzes in E major and E minor. Finally, a long trill initiates the most solemn Grande Valse Op. 42, a perfect expression of the composer’s mastery at transforming ornamentation so as to bestow upon it, when required, a dramatic role and eloquence surpassing mere decorative artistry. “[Chopin] was the definitive eulogist of love and freedom.” E. Ganche, 1928
“Chopin’s creations are destined to transport to distant lands and eras the joys, consolations and comforting emotions that works of art awake in the souls […] to which they are dedicated, thereby establishing a perennial connection among elevated spirits, from all parts of the earth and all time periods […].”
? Liszt, 1851
© Claudine Caron, May 2001, for Traçantes (writing and translation services of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique). Translation: Marc Hyland