Chopin's Genres

-------I am not a person who is educated in music. However, I would like to seek to describe Chopin's many genres in layman's terms, both for my visitors to be able to learn more about Chopin's music in a user-friendly manner, and for those already very familiar with Chopin's music to see how another Chopin fan sees his music. As well, being a Chopin junkie, this is my idea of a good time :-)

The Preludes

-------I begin with the preludes because I find them to be the most poetic of his work, and because I feel that it is here that he achieved the greatest variety of expression within one of his genres. I find them to be almost like a catalogue of human emotions. Bach sought to write his Preludes for the keyboard so as to write something unique in each of the major and minor keys. Chopin and many others who followed Bach did this as well. I think Chopin's are so remarkable, in part, because he also seemed to express so many thoughts, feelings, and emotions in each and every one. No one could capture a mood quite like Chopin, and they all seem to be represented here, and in such an astonishingly new way as to make them a musical milestone. I think they are the most poetic of his work because they are so direct (some only seconds in length). Absolutely not a note is wasted in his effort to convey a thought or emotion directly to the soul of the listener. Many are simple yet sublime expressions of sadness. Melancholy is perhaps the easiest emotion to recognize in music, but Chopin shyed-away from nothing when it came to the expression of his self. The Preludes express so perfectly and succinctly anger, simple joy, confusion, rage, or merely a passing thought. This trait is inherently poetic in nature - the capturing of fleeting moments which might otherwise be forgotten or overlooked, and in such a way that the listener is transported- not to a place, but to a state of mind.
-------When one considers all that came before Chopin, I think one couldn't help but be shocked at the radical leap forward in musical expression and composition that they represent. I think the Preludes, more than any other of Chopin's genres, were a quantum leap in the art of composition. There truly is nothing antiquated about them. I always think that any number of them could have been written yesterday and still be every bit as new and unexpected. Not every one is without some sort of precedent, but many seemed to come completely "out of the blue". The Irish composer John Field wrote Nocturnes before Chopin, and Chopin's can be seen as a tremendous expansion of the romantic, dreamy artform. However, aside from the word, "Prelude", many of Chopin's Preludes seem to be almost completely original in nature.

The Nocturnes

-------The Irish composer John Field first wrote pieces called "Nocturnes" for the piano. He was of course not the first to use a word suggesting nighttime to describe music. But Chopin developed this style of composing to heights which we will never see again. The Nocturne is technically a piece with the melody carried by the right hand, the harmony and tempo carried by the left, and written to evoke a feeling akin to the evening or twilight. Although this is accurate to some extent, Chopin used it more as a style of composition than to restrict himself to any certain mood. Yet there is still a dreamy (or maybe more accurately, "dream-state") quality about them. These are perhaps his most "romantic" pieces, and most cantabile or "singing" in nature. Many are relaxed and dark - a slow and melancholic mood is common. I think they are unlike the Preludes in that the "target" of the piece is less a specific mood or feeling, but they are more free and expansive. Many of his most beautiful melodies are found here. Some seem to exist sheerly to carry-away the listener to a rapturous state of delight and wonder. I think some of them might be seen as a more developed form of Prelude - a longer glimpse into Chopin's state of mind. I think "dream-like" describes some of the Nocturnes well. These pieces are perhaps the perfect music to doze-off to, or at least listen to in a very relaxed frame of mind. This is so because this free and open state of mind is can be a good way to let the Nocturnes creep into ones consciousness. If only all our dreams were like Chopin's Nocturnes... Besides this, how can music be evocative of nighttime? The nocturnes have generally a slower pace and a darker 'feel' about them. This darkness is akin to melancholy, but not necessarily sadness. There is a state of mind one might reach in the waning hours of the day which might give rise to a kind of quiet contemplation. I think Chopin's Nocturnes are the embodiment of such a state of mind.

The Mazurkas

-------As you might have gathered by my "handle" (Mazurka), these fifty-odd pieces are very special to me. Chopin wrote more than twice as many of them as any of his other genres. I think they are the most eclectic and distinctive of his works. Originally a folk dance from the Mazur region of Poland, Chopin characteristically made the Mazurka his own. All are set in 3/4 time, like his Waltzes (and Ballades, and Scherzi). The first note, as stated by Chopin himself, should often be lengthened to give these pieces an even more distinctive feel. As one might expect, the Mazurkas are a very diverse set of works. Many, especially the earlier ones, have a "Polish" sound about them (which was intentional), and even dance-like rhythms. But Chopin quickly expanded them to be able to express anything. Chopin not only expressed his native Poland's voice in his music, but I think he gave Poland a voice- his own - through his music. The Mazurkas are the most eclectic of his genres because, through his remarkable expansion of the genre, they became a style with which to express virtually anything. They are poetic in a less literal sense, I think, than the Preludes. Many seem to express an emotion or state of mind, but in a less strict fashion. Many are simply delightful dances of the mind. I can't help but think of the word "spice" to describe the Mazurkas. I think it is the type of harmony he uses to convey a feel for his beloved Poland - a harmony that is difficult to describe, but is recognizable and most distinct. His gorgeous harmonies and melodies also convey a sense of mystery which distinguish the Mazurkas. Perhaps it was Chopin's reverence and longing for the mystical nature of the Polish countryside and its people that makes them so unique. Chopin missed his motherland very much as an exile in Paris, and his devotion to the Mazurka makes this clear.
-------The words I and others often use to describe the Mazurkas are "bewitching" and "'haunting". The unique quality of his melodies and harmonies make an impression on the listener that is unique - unlike anything I've heard before. All of Chopin's music is clever, but the wit and mysterious charm Chopin uses in his Mazurkas are very special - just another of the many things only Chopin could seem to do so well. I think "bewitching" is appropriate because some of them have a way of charming you in a way that is almost unsettling. They simply tickle your heart in a way you don't expect. They are haunting in the way that there is a darkness cloaked in mystery. The Mazurkas are sensual - not romantic in the emotional sense as much as soothing, charming. Perhaps "seductive" is another word to describe the Mazurkas. They draw you in and charm you, at times, to tears. Chopin has a powerful knack of having his way with you.
-------The Mazurkas, being so eclectic, both technically and artistically, can be difficult to interpret "correctly", as I see it. Although mostly technically simple, the nuances of rhythm and tempo can be expressed in a wide variety of ways, and even overlooked. This is of course true for all of Chopin's music, but it is my experience that too often many of the Mazurkas are played more like snappy, little dance pieces and not like the serious works of art that they are. So for me, the very special nature of the Mazurkas makes finding satisfactory interpretations of them difficult .

The Etudes

-------"Etude" is a French word for "study". If taken literally, this would make Chopin's Etudes mere studies in the various "problems of pianism", although to a certain extent this was Chopin's intention. He wrote, initially, 24 of them, one in each key, like the Preludes. Each one explores a different technical challenge, and for an advanced pianist would serve (and still do) as an excellent practice repetoire. So in this sense, part of what distinguishes the Etudes is a rhythmic or textural complexity. This makes the Etudes rewarding and unique, but it is Chopin's relentless pursuit of the sublime which makes them so much more than mere Etudes. These, too, are a very eclectic set of pieces. Again, a wide range of moods, tempos, etc. make the genre defy categorization by any means other than the technical. As a whole, the Etudes are not as "serious" as some of Chopin's other genres, but the Revolutionary Etude is a prime example of the fact that none of his genres are without very serious and beautiful content. Many are simply dazzling and delightful expressions of virtuosity, but all of are the highest possible musical quality. Some are heartbreakingly sad, some are sheer fluff. However, here too can be found some of Chopin's darkest and most furious writing (especially towards the end of opus 25.)
-------Whatever the mood, Chopin could never help but make whatever he wrote fantastic and a reflection of his self. I think the Etudes are also very difficult to interpret. There is a conflict inherent in them between the "message" of the piece and the technical problem each was written to tackle. Often it seems that pianists seek merely to get through these very difficult works as quickly as possible. This temptation is understandable, as their difficulty makes them into potential "show-off" pieces. And even I must admit that there are some of them I just want to hear played really fast. However, much of the beauty of some of these Etudes can be lost in the shuffling of fingers at such a pace. I once heard (on TV) a twelve year old girl play an Etude I always overlooked in such an evocative way as to have me spellbound! Chopin, as a teacher, was adamant about the proper expression of the piece - much more so than technical mastery. I think any pianist would benefit from his advice.

The Waltzes

-------The Waltzes are undoubtedly the most frivolous of Chopin's creations, on the whole. This is so for mainly two reasons. Firstly, many of his earlier Waltzes were written in the "brilliant" style, which was en vogue at the time. This "brilliant" style involved much decoration and frills. Secondly, (similar to his piano concerti) many were aimed at the mainstream sensibilities of the time (for purposes of making money and advancing his public career - which he later more or less abandoned). As well, many were written as gifts to certain ladies, and were never meant for publication. However, many are profoundly beautiful and very serious works. As usual, the term "Waltz" refers more to the style of writing and other technical aspects of the music, such as the 3/4 time. The Waltz is obviously a dance, but it is hard to imagine anyone dancing to any of Chopin's. (Well, maybe a few of them...) Many are very much the most lighthearted and "fun" of Chopin's music, with some rather striking exceptions. Heck, even Chopin had to have some fun every once in a while! ;-) It is here that Chopin felt the most free to indulge himself with free and playful abandon, which he mostly forbade himself in his other genres.
-------The Romantic era in music is roughly akin the Victorian era in the West. I can't help but liken many of Chopin's Waltzes to the Victorian sense of style of the time, like architecture, clothing, etc. The style was rich, elaborate, ornate, highly decorated, even gaudy. Many of Chopin's Waltzes are most definitely "ornate". Chopin was a relentless perfectionist - he left no aspect of his compositions unperfected, but never exercised virtuosity for its own sake, except with many of his Waltzes. Some might find Chopin's music a little to ornate in general. I surely felt this way at first. I shudder to admit that I first found Chopin a dandy and a show-off. ("...too many notes...") However, after much listening, I found this quality to be merely more of a good thing. There is certainly plenty of artistic restraint to be found in much of Chopin's music (especially the Preludes and Mazurkas). However, Chopin allowed himself the freedom to do what he abhorred, and "waste" a few notes on the Waltzes. Besides "ornate", the word "charming" seems to describe the Waltzes, even "handsome". Any good composer can write something beautiful, but it is Chopin's magic that makes this music actually charming. He used the most of his wit, grace, elegance, and incomparable style to create sparkling gems of amazing ingenuity. Of course, not all of Chopin's waltzes are trifles. Many are brilliant compositions of the highest order. Some are even heartbreakingly sad. Yet they are still laced with charm. Charm was just another vehicle through which Chopin could move the listener - sometimes to tears. Charm, grace, elegance - these are perhaps the only reliable descriptions of Chopin's Waltzes.

The Polonaises

-------As the word "Polonaise" suggests, the genre has Polish origins. Although the Polonaise had been popular in European music well before Chopin's arrival, he once again redefined yet another genre. This transformation began with elaborate and more light-hearted works, and evolved into Nationalistic tone-poems. And as the "nicknames" of the two most famous of Chopin's Polonaises suggest ("Military" and "Heroic"), many of the Polonaises are patriotic and turbulent in nature. These works tend to be longer than any of the aforementioned genres. They are similar to perhaps a Fantasie in that they are technically without much in terms of defining characteristics. Yet they still have a common feel about them. They are characteristically elaborate pieces, but with generally a more serious tone than the Waltzes, for example. Chopin constantly amazes me in the way he was able to create such distinct and original forms, almost as if he were many different people. I think the Polonaises tend to be a little more serious, a little more sad and defiant, even angry at times. The reasons for this should be clear in light of Chopin's homesickness for Poland, and his heartbreak over Russia's cruel domination of his homeland. Perhaps it is useful to look at the Polonaise as a cross between a Mazurka and a Ballade. They have a distinct ethnic sound to them, like the Polish Mazurkas, but are more narrative, like his Ballades. Many of them seem to tell the tragic story of 19th Century Poland. However, true to the mark of a genius, none of them are without sweetness and redemption, like the bravery and will Beethoven showed in the face of his deafness. Like any great author, Chopin tells a rich and moving tale, full of not only the prevailing sadness, but also of heroism, beauty, hope, and even triumph.

The Ballades

-------"...if Tolstoy wrote romance novels..." This is how I often describe Chopin's incomparable Ballades. The mere mention of a romance novel might seem to trivialize these awesome works, but it is the mention of Tolstoy that I hope lends credence to this characterization. I think the Ballades have obvious romantic overtones, especially the first, opus 23. It is often written that the Ballades were inspired by the poetry of Chopin's friend and fellow Pole, Mickiewicz. This seems impossible to authenticate. Whatever the case may be, the Ballades are "huge" enough to be almost completely beyond description. It is useful to point-out that Chopin rarely named his pieces. As was the custom of the time and that of previous times, he merely assigned them a technical demarcation, like Scherzo, and an opus number. Chopin was the first to title his pieces, "Ballade". As much time as I spend trying to describe it, Chopin wanted his music to be pure, without any direction from the composer or the publisher. However, the symbolism in many of his pieces seems inescapable, and it is obvious what Chopin was trying to say on occasion. However, in the case of the Ballades, the music is so powerful and dynamic that in the end, it seems that no words are fit to represent what Chopin has created. The music must simply speak for itself. At least I think this is the case with his fourth and final Ballade, opus 52. Myself and many others consider this to be his greatest work. As distinct and overwhelming as the Ballades are, there are defining characteristics. They are among the longest of his genres. They are also all very difficult to play. They all start-out with almost Waltz-like simplicity, and finish in a flurry of passion. Finally, they are all absolutely awesome - the only one of his genres I find to be so utterly perfect. I think Chopin put more into these masterpieces than any of his other works. As great as he was, they almost seem to transcend his person, or any other earthly thing. Chopin said himself that his first Ballade almost killed him - it took him many years to finish - thank God he did!

The Scherzi

-------The term "Scherzo" generally refers to a movement of a larger work, such as a sonata or a symphony. Chopin was the first, however, to title a single, freestanding piece as such. Chopin wrote four of them, like the Ballades. The Scherzi, like the Ballades, are difficult to define. They are large, virtuoso works, in 3/4 time like the Ballades, and all awesome. They are similar enough to the Ballades (and different enough from everything else) that it is perhaps most useful to describe them by contrasting them with the Ballades, although even this is difficult and problematic. They are different from the Ballades in that they are a little more abstract, a little less narrative. (By "narrative" I mean music which seems to tell a story, instead of being poetic or simply musical.) They are also different from the Ballades as they follow more of a sonata-like form (in this case, the introduction of a theme, a slower part in the middle, then a restatement and resolution of the initial theme). The Ballades were more free in structure. These admittedly vague distinctions are the only way I have to describe the Scherzi. All eight of the Ballades and Scherzi are unique enough that the only place they belong is together. They are similar in that they are all distinct enough to necessitate the evaluation of each as an individual piece to do them justice.

The Sonatas

-------The sonatas may mark the high point of Chopin's compositional powers. I compare them to Beethoven's "Late Quartets" as they comprise the highest expression of a man's genius. Chopin wrote three piano sonatas, and only the last two were truly great (the first, Opus 4, although a piece written more or less as a homework assignment, is nonetheless very enjoyable and a remarkable work of originality and ingenuity for such a young composer.) The piano sonata was in its dying days by the time Chopin was writing his, so it wouldn't be surprising if he had never even written one (but thank God he did!) But to be sure, these weren't just any piano sonatas, they were Chopin's. Chopin had great respect for Mozart and Beethoven (as well as Bach), so it is possibly somewhat out of respect for those who went before him that he did write these massive works, if only three of them. But being as deep and complex as they are, far more so than any piano sonata before them, it is possible to look at them not as three sonatas, but twelve Ballades or Scherzi, grouped in fours. This is not so because the movements are somehow unrelated, but they are remarkably distinct. Although he only wrote three Sonatas, I believe that no one else developed what Beethoven had already revolutionized to such a remarkable extent.
-------The sonatas are easily the most "thick" (texturally rich) of Chopin's creations. Chopin uses every trick in the book to overwhelm the listener's mind and ears. Never before had so many notes been spent getting from 'point A' to 'point B'. The left hand is furious and frantic throughout, while the right hand is spitting out whole chords where individual keys would otherwise suffice. But this is not excess- just more of a good thing. Chopin used the whole range of the keyboard to create these "pianistic operas" on a Herculean scale. If ever a composer outdid himself (like Beethoven did with his Late Quartets), Chopin did with his sonatas. Except for his few piano/orchestra works, all of Chopin's work was for solo piano and in the form of freestanding, individual pieces. So it is fitting that when he challenged himself to write multi-part pieces for solo piano, it was going to be something special.

Orchestral and Chamber Works

-------Chopin wrote exactly six works for piano and orchestra, and none for orchestra alone. His two piano concerti (especially the opus 11) have come to rest firmly in orchestral literature, and the opus 11 concerto is a favorite of many fans of the genre. Lesser known are his Fantasia on Polish Airs op.13, Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise op.22, a set of variations of a Mozart theme for piano and orchestra op. 13, and Krakowiak op.14 (which is basically a two-movement concerto.) Chopin wrote even less chamber music, always involving the piano. It includes a wonderful trio for piano, violin, and cello, opus 8., a Polonaise for cello and piano opus 3, and the final composition published during his lifetime, the Cello Sonata Opus 65.
-------There are several noteworthy things about his limited composition for other than solo piano. First of all, out of 74 opuses (pre and posthumous), only the Cello Sonata Opus 65 was written after opus22 (and therefore early in his career). The common assumption is that this is because Chopin was an inferior orchestrator. It is true that some of his scoring for orchestra is awkward - he was no Mozart in this regard (Chopin was aware of this). I chose to believe at first that the solo piano was simply the best vehicle for his expression. This is also very true. However, the most practical and likely reason for Chopin's abandonment of the orchestra is that it involved not only performing in public, but working with others. Chopin absolutely hated performing in public - it terrified him. He was also notoriously critical of the orchestras with which he would have to perform. In fact, he even snubbed Queen Victoria and doomed his chances for public success in England by refusing to play with the Orchestra in London. He did this, however, because he was very ill, which also prevented many public appearances.
-------The question is therefore, given his aversion to playing in public and working with unruly orchestras, why did he write for orchestra at all? The simple reason is that it was how you made money as a composer in the 19th Century. Chopin at first had aspirations of being a pianist/composer. When he realized that this wasn't possible or endurable for him, he abandoned the idea and supported himself with money from publishing his works, and later even survived on little else than giving piano lessons to wealthy society ladies!
-------So what about this music? The two piano concerti are perhaps somewhat flawed from an orchestral point of view, but are nonetheless wonderful and spectacular examples of the genre. They are definitely not as serious works as, for example his Ballades, but most piano concertos aren't. They are nonetheless sparkling and dazzling, and every bit as revolutionary as the rest of his music. In fact, it is mostly through the performance of these (often played without the orchestra) that Chopin was able to establish himself as a composer. The rest of his orchestral output is less remarkable, but has some brilliant moments (even in the orchestration). And chamber music - Chopin only wrote three such works. These weren't big money makers for him, obviously, but he did enjoy playing it with his friends, and even wrote much of it with them in mind. The Polonaise for cello and piano is in Chopin's own words, "a trifle, for the ladies to play". The trio is however a wonderful and effective piece of chamber music. I am surprised that it is not more well known or performed. Finally, his cello sonata is a work that occupied much of his time and his thoughts towards the end of his life. One is not sure if it belongs with his piano sonatas or with his tiny chamber music output. Unfortunately, it is probably situated uncomfortably between the two. I personally wish that he would have made his last sonata for piano alone, given the genius of his last two. It is a very serious and complex work, and quite wonderful at times, but not nearly as gratifying as his later solo piano work.

The Impromptus

-------This is unquestionably the least of Chopin's genres. Like the Ballades and Scherzi, he wrote four of them (if you include the Fantasie-Impromptu op.66) This piece is among his most famous works, and of unquestionable quality. He wrote one very good Impromptu, and two lesser, more frivolous ones. So much for the Impromptu...


-------Much of Chopin's work does not fit into any other category or genre. Some are masterpieces like the Barcarolle Op.60, Berceuse Op.57, Fantasy Op.49, and Polonaise-Fantasy Op.61. Chopin wrote several very novel Rondos, mostly early in his career. Also some piano variations and several small experiments with dance forms like the Bolero, Tarantella, Ecossaise, and Contredance. He even wrote one fugue of which Bach might be proud. As Chopin excelled at virtually any type of composition he endeavored to take on, every serious Chopin fan should at least be aware of these jewels.