Barely had the applause died down following the presentation of the first of his two concertos, the F minor, in the early spring of 1830 at the National Theatre in Warsaw, than the twenty-year-old composer began sketching his next concerto, the E minor. By Easter, the Allegro maestoso (first movement) was already written. Chopin was more pleased with it than with the Allegro from the first concerto. In May, he completed the Larghetto, which he wrote in a particular mood. Mid-way through the month, he confessed to Tytus Woyciechowski: ‘Involuntarily, something has entered my head through my eyes and I like to caress it’. Biographers are in no doubt that Chopin was still under the spell of Konstancja Gładkowska, the ‘ideal’ to whom the Larghetto from the F minor Concerto had been ‘erected’. This young singer is present in some way in each of Fryderyk’s letters to Tytus: ‘Little is wanting in Gładkowska’s singing’, he reported following her appearance in Paer’s opera Agnese, ‘She is better on stage that in a hall. I shall say nothing of her excellent tragic acting, as nothing need be said, whilst as for her singing, were it not for the F sharp and G, sometimes too high, we should need nothing better’. In the Kurier Polski, however,Maurycy Mochnacki reviewed Gładkowska’s performance with rather different words: ‘Perhaps Miss Gładkowska did have a voice, but today, alas, she has it no more’.
In that same letter written to Tytus in May, the singer’s presence can be discerned in the words Chopin uses to describe the character of the middle movement of this work, which he had just composed: ‘The Adagio for the new concerto is in E major. It is not intended to be powerful, it is more romance-like, calm, melancholic, it should give the impression of a pleasant glance at a place where a thousand fond memories come to mind.’
The Concerto’s last movement, a Rondo, was written with some difficulty. It was a time of hesitation, procrastination and presentiment in Chopin’s life. Discussed throughout the summer of 1830 was the question of Chopin going out into the world, to test himself. ‘I’m still sitting here – I don’t have the strength to decide on the day […] I think that I’m leaving to die’. Before his departure, his new concerto was to have been completed, tried out and then presented to the Warsaw public. So in August, he finished the Rondo. In September, over three trial runs in private, he tested the sound of the whole work – first with a quartet and then with a small orchestra. He was able to declare, calmly, and not without some pride: ‘Rondo – impressive. Allegro – strong’. Finally, in October, he presented his new concerto to the public at large, at the National Theatre.
The E minor Concerto – rather unfortunately called the First on account of its being the earlier to be published – followed the path beaten by Chopin’s actual first concerto, the F minor, with which it shares both form and texture, and above all that poetical, youthful, romantic aura. The difference is that it seems to be written with a surer hand and a more experienced ear.
The character of the Allegro was clarified with the word ‘maestoso’, so frequent in the polonaises. It also conducts its narrative proudly and distinctly, with élan. It is suffused with the spirit of poetical animation, which in the times of Chopin’s youth was called ‘enthusiasm’. All three themes presented in the orchestral exposition climb or soar upwards, where they burst into song.
The first theme opens the work with a particularly vigorous gesture, taken up by the orchestral tutti. The principal theme, in the main key of E minor, is presented espressivo through the sound of the singing violins. The contrasting theme – even more tuneful, and brightened by a change of mood (from E minor to E major), was also entrusted by Chopin to the stream of sonorities in the strings. He did not forget about the wind instruments, but gave them a particular role: firstly, to transform themes already shown once; secondly, to accompany the piano with a discreet melodic counterpoint.
Yet before that can happen, the piano appears, backed only gently by the orchestra. The themes that the orchestra presented earlier are given a wonderful pianistic form. The opening theme is characterised by a spirit and flourish of which Beethoven might have been proud. In the principal theme, we hear the very distant, but distinct echo of a polonaise. The contrasting theme brings the aura of a nocturne.
First and foremost, Chopin’s concertos constitute a field of interplay between the themes, shown in their pure, flawlessly beautiful form, and the waves of sonorities of the pianistic figurations – breathtaking at times – that are derived from those themes.
The middle movement transports us into a world of acoustic magic. In the Larghetto – its character clarified in the score, following Mozart’s example, as a Romance – it is the spirit of reverie that holds sway. In a letter to Tytus Woyciechowski, the composer called it romance-like and melancholic, though he then added, to allay any doubts: ‘It is a kind of meditation on the beautiful springtime, but to moonlight’. He went on to explain to Tytus how that mood could be achieved: ‘by the playing of strings, the sound of which is muffled by sordini’, and so, as the composer rather humorously enlightens his friend, ‘a sort of comb, which spans the strings and imparts to them a new, silvery tone’.
We are transported into a world of soft, intimate music. The piano’s narrative drifts along at times on the edge of dream and reality, flowing like free improvisation, not subject to the dictates of specified form. The two themes (joined by the third) intertwine and modify one another. On its first appearance, the cantabile theme sounds against complete silence, simply and with reticent calm. It subsequently returns just the same, and yet not the same, decked with garlands of embellishments. The espressivo theme, reiterated after the strings, casts us into reflection and elation in turn. The mood of this daydream is suddenly interrupted. The third theme, agitato (in C sharp minor), brings a brief moment of perturbation and passion, before disappearing from view.
Then again we witness the magic of sonorities that are ever more subtle and thoughtful. The Rondo follows attacca, without a pause, rousing us from cogitation with the pungency of its dance rhythm, vivace tempo and powerful gestures. It draws us into dancing, amusement and play. The piano dallies with the orchestra, and the themes stand against the piano’s frenzied figurations.
The Rondo’s refrain bears the traits of a krakowiak: its rhythm, distinct articulation, liveliness and wit. The theme of the episode – led in octave unison against the pizzicato of the strings – brings yet more animation into play, despite beginning in a gentle dolce. The closing chase across the keyboard reminds one of the provenance of this supremely Romantic work: it was born of the virtuosic style brillant. Again the whole of Warsaw was drawn to the National Theatre for the premiere.
‘Yesterday’s concert was a success’, wrote Chopin on 12 October 1830 to Tytus Woyciechowski. ‘A full house!’ The Kurier Warszawski reported ‘an audience of around 700’. It was not just Chopin that was applauded, but also the two young female singers who agreed to accompany him in the concert and the conductor, Carlo Soliva.
Though it is hard to imagine such a thing today, the premiere of the E minor Concerto was broken up – as was the custom in those days – by an intermezzo. After the Allegro had been played through and ‘a thunderous ovation’ received, the pianist had to give way to the singer [‘dressed like an angel, in blue’] Anna Wołkow. Only after she had sung an aria by Soliva could the composer return to the piano to play the Larghetto and Rondo.
The other young singer was Konstancja Gładkowska. ‘Dressed becomingly in white, with roses in her hair [Chopin spared no detail in his description], she sang the cavatina from [Rossini’s] La donna del lago as she had never sung anything, except for the aria in [Paer’s] Agnese. You know that “Oh, quante lagrime per te versai”. She uttered “tutto desto” to the bottom B in such a way that Zieliński [an acquaintance] held that single B to be worth a thousand ducats’. That autumn concert, which took place seven weeks before the outbreak of a Polish national uprising, and three weeks before Chopin left Warsaw, was dubbed his ‘farewell’ concert. ‘The trunk for the journey is bought, scores corrected, handkerchiefs hemmed… Nothing left but to bid farewell, and most sadly’. In his trunk he carried an album into which Konstancja Gładkowska had written the words ‘while others may better appraise and reward you, they certainly can’t love you better than we’. Some two years later, Chopin would add: ‘they can’. That was in Paris, following his first public appearance at the Salle Pleyel. The E minor Concerto was enthusiastically received. François–Joseph Fétis, editor of the Revue musicale, wrote the next day: ‘There is spirit in these melodies, there is fantasy in these passages, and everywhere there is originality’.
Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
[Cykl audycji "Fryderyka Chopina Dzieła Wszystkie"]
Polish Radio, program II
Chopin - Piano Concerto No. 1 In E Minor
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.