Music was an important part of Chopin’s life from his very first years. His parents are reported to have recognised the profound effect that music had on Chopin. At the age of five, Chopin began to seriously learn how to play the piano and in only a few years became well known in Warsaw as a child prodigy.
Chopin had begun to compose by the age of seven and it seems that this played a significant part in his musical development and probably his piano technique. Following an attempt to gain notoriety in Vienna that did not bring the results the young Chopin had hoped for, he set his sights on Paris where after much hard work composing and performing he made his way into the circles of influence that would ensure his name would be remembered.
Chopin is frequently described as a musical poet. It is in the poet that we perhaps find our first clue in how to approach the works of this extraordinary composer and pianist. Whilst often compared to Franz Liszt, Chopin, in my opinion, was a very different composer whose intentions both compositionally and pianistically, were worlds apart. This is not to claim one was better than the other but that their musical aims need to be understood before we embark on performing their works.
How to Play Chopin
One element of performance that needs careful thought is the balance between the hands. The aim is to allow the seamless flow of the melodic line in the right hand of the piece without losing the gentle rhythmic momentum and harmonic subtleties inherent in the left-hand. Often Chopin includes counter-melodies or melodic reflections in the left-hand that must not be overshadowed. It is also vital to maintain suppleness in the wrists and allow the free movement of the elbows. Feel the transfer of weight from the arm to the fingers to the change of notes and listen to the tone each hammer stroke makes.
Another important general point is that of pedalling. There is a tendency to over pedal when playing Chopin and blur the nuances of the pieces; especially in those technically more demanding passages. This must be avoided. Instead, all pedals require sensitive use that supports the phrasing and enhances the natural resonance of the instrument. Further suggestions are to use the middle pedal to sustain deep bass tones and to employ a half-pedal sustain where possible to avoid blurring passages. An error that is commonly heard is in Nocturne No.1 (bar 23), where semi-quaver rests that are in the middle of a phrase are pedalled over losing the intentions of the composer. Avoid pedalling simply to the bar lines but if the harmony dictates, sustain it across the bar lines. One story tells of Chopin’s pupil Mikuli remarking on how the Finale of Chopin’s Op.35 (B flat Minor Piano Sonata), should be performed without any pedal at all.
The Italian word Rubato (temps dérobé), is a common feature of many Chopin manuscripts. A blunt translation into English would give us ‘robbed time’ but this hardly conjures the truth of the term. What effectively happens in performance is that there is a flexible ritardando and accelerando that gives the impression of a brief suspension in the strict time of the bar. In the 18th Century, it was considered really to be an ornament, all be it an expressive one. What is to be avoided at all costs is a metronomically flawless delivery that is uncharacteristic, or lacks expression or individuality at the cost of the music. As Paderewski rightly states, “Tempo Rubato softens the sharpness of tones, blunts the structural angles without running them because the action is not destructive.”
The second Nocturne from Op.9 can fall victim to excessive employment of rubato. It is perhaps one of the most performed of Chopin’s Nocturnes and yet often his intentions are ignored. Chopin himself is reported to have played this Nocturne without this distorting rubato instead favouring a clear, singing tone in the right hand quietly accompanied by the left hand. In this Nocturne it is suggested that close attention is paid to the fingering for the left-hand to achieve the clear voicing of the chords.
Perhaps one of the most popular of Chopin’s works is the Op. 66, or Fantasie Impromptu in C# minor. One of the key challenges in this wonderful work is being able to play semi-quavers in the right hand against triplets in the left hand. One tip offered to students for this is to gently accent the notes that align. In this case, it’s the first note of each group. This helps establish the rhythmic emphasis without clouding the separate rhythmic figures. Take the tempo of the passage down considerably and build speed over time, taking care, not to over pedal. When there are awkward accented notes turn you hand more towards the direction of those notes and give extra weight to them, allowing them to sing out from the texture. Thinks about allowing tiny pauses at the end of phrases to let the music breathe and highlight the changes in mood that permeate the piece.
Turning towards Chopin’s ever-popular Ballades we encounter even greater demands on the pianist. Taking into account the phrasing, the intimate textural details or the carefully considered structure is not sufficient to ensure a competent interpretation of these pieces. The Ballades are a reflection of Chopin’s mature style and encompass the full gamut of heroic, lyrical, dramatic and ultimately tragic elements that challenge and delight performers.
What then becomes vital to the preparation and performance of these works is to try to capture the essence of the entire composition taking great care to plan the cumulative climaxes thought-out the piece. This is not to overlook the technical demands of this collection of compositions. Working with separate hands initially is often a strong suggestion, ensuring that each and every note and rhythm is fully under the fingers. Allowing the character of each of your fingers to play their part in the delivery of the music but taking care of the different colourations between long and shorter tones.
Ultimately, there is far too much to consider in the works of this great composer to cover in such a brief article, but I hope that these few pointers may encourage you to adopt a new view of Chopin’s wealth of compositions.