Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Chopin - Piano Concerto No. 1 In E Minor

The natural gifts of any musician need to be formed around a solid technique. The very few who are extremely gifted in composition also need plenty of room to develop their personal voice. Chopin was one of the few that was born with genius, and he also had the good fortune of having as his first professional piano teacher a man that understood his pupil's gift straight away. Wojciech Żywny was a Czech pianist, violinist and teacher that guided Chopin through the basics of music and piano practice but also gave the young boy plenty of opportunity to learn for himself and develop his already unique talents according to his own desires.  The boy soon passed the teacher in skill and knowledge as he absorbed everything rapidly.

Chopin studied at home until he was thirteen and then entered the Warsaw Lyceum, but he continued to study piano under Zywny until 1826. Chopin never forgot his first teacher and was ever grateful for not only what he had taught him, but what he didn't teach him.  In 1826 Chopin began a three year course of study with Józef Elsner, another teacher that recognized Chopin's gifts and allowed him to develop in his own way.  With the guidance and teaching of these two selfless men, Chopin was acknowledged as the best pianist in Warsaw by the time he was 15 and developed into who many musicians think is the greatest piano composer that ever lived.

Under Elsner's tutelage, Chopin composed two piano concertos when he was about 20 years old. The concerto in E minor was actually the second one written but it was the first one published, hence the designation as Concerto No. 1.  Chopin had already made his brilliant debut in Vienna in 1829 only three weeks after graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory when he premiered his Piano Concerto No.2   in Warsaw later that same year, and the premiere of  Piano Concerto No.1 in 1830 in Warsaw during a farewell concert.

The star of both Chopin's concertos is quite naturally the piano.  Despite a long-held tradition that Chopin was not much of a composer for the orchestra, keeping in mind Chopin's spot-lighting the piano, the orchestration is neither too much nor too little. Chopin has the orchestra support the piano where it needs it, gently accompany it when it needs it, and be silent altogether when it doesn't need it.  The concertos, like any work of genius, are best judged within the confines of their own content and technique. Chopin was not trying to be formally perfect or heaven-storming like Beethoven. He was trying to express himself as best he could within his own genius. And in that task he was completely successful.

The first concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro maestoso - Chopin always used the confines of sonata form in his own unique way. He has been criticized for his lack of skill in using the form, but he more than makes up for it by his sheer imagination and creativity. He uses unexpected modulations in this first movement and while this goes against 'classic' sonata form, it does make for interesting listening.   

II. Romance - Larghetto -  Chopin himself explained this movement in a letter to a friend:
“The Adagio of my new concerto is in E major. It is not meant to create a powerful effect; it is rather a Romance, calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.”
III. Rondo - Vivace - This movement is a tuneful Polish dance set in the traditional rondo form.

Chopin is one of the most original and unique composers that ever lived. That needs to be taken into consideration when listening to the piano concertos. His two piano teachers recognized his genius and did all they could to allow that genius to develop in its own way. The music that Chopin wrote serves as proof that his teachers knew what they were doing.


  1. Un concerto de génie certes...mais Johann Nepomuk Hummel n'est pas loin.
    Comment ne pas reconnaître la révérence de Chopin envers Hummel et son propre génie ? écoutez le concerto en la mineur d'Hummel et celui en si mineur...que de ressemblances !
    Chopin est plus nostalgique dans son écriture, plus personnel peut-être mais il ne nia jamais l'influence d'Hummel sur ses propres oeuvres.

    Alain Mathevet

  2. Très bonne observation. Je suis d'accord.

  3. The natural gifts of any master musician need to be formed around a solid technique.

    Chopin Etudes