Chopin wrote only five large scale compositions for piano – two concertos and three sonatas. All the rest, the Etudes, Preludes, Scherzos, Ballades, Polonaises, Mazurkas, Waltzes, Nocturnes, and Impromptus, the Fantasie, Barcarole, and Berceuse, range from just one minute to fourteen minutes in length.
He wrote three sets of dances in triple meter – the Mazurkas, Polonaises, and Waltzes. His Mazurkas and Polonaises have a clear Polish origin; the Waltzes are more cosmopolitan works that incorporate some of the universal waltz idioms of the first half of the nineteenth century.
The waltz derives from the ländler, which in turn had its roots in a rather bawdy German folk dance. In the second half of the eighteenth century the waltz became increasingly popular in Vienna. By the end of the century it had become an essential feature of court dances and composers like Haydn and Mozart were commissioned to write waltzes for royal balls.
In the first half of the nineteenth century the waltz became the most popular dance of all. Among Chopin’s contemporaries, such composers as Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss were writing waltzes almost exclusively. In 1819, Carl Maria von Weber brought the ballroom into the concert hall with his “Invitation to the Dance.” Chopin used the waltz idiom very skillfully, making it his own; in spite of their traditional form and conventions Chopin’s Waltzes are immediately recognizable as his. Indeed, Chopin may be the most distinctly recognizable composer of all. No matter what the form or idiom, his unique voice comes through clearly.
Chopin’s Waltzes are less dramatic than his Polonaises and more public than the Mazurkas. They are written mostly in a simple standard form – the theme and various episodes alternate and there are plenty of different tunes that come and go. More often than not there is a coda. The Waltzes are clearly salon pieces and ought to be played as such. They include some of Chopin’s most open and publicly oriented works, utilizing ready-made idioms and gestures of which he himself could be very critical; he credited the popularity of Lanner’s waltzes to the “public’s corrupt taste.” However, even when he worked in a well-established musical form, Chopin remained a private man, although he led a public life. In this respect he was the opposite of Liszt. All in all, Chopin played no more than thirty concerts that were open to public (mostly in his early 20s) and he detested the experience. He was at home playing in aristocratic salons surrounded by a small and exclusive invited audience, most of them his acquaintances. Chopin’s orientation was exclusive rather than inclusive. In his art and in his life he was an aristocrat, not a democrat.
The standard Chopin canon comprises fourteen waltzes – thirteen under opus numbers and one posthumous. Only eight of the Waltzes were published during his lifetime. It is said that in 1849 Chopin on his deathbed instructed his publisher and friend Pleyel to destroy ALL of his unpublished works. Luckily for us, Pleyel did not comply and the fourteen Waltzes finally appeared as a collection in 1868.
The set opens with the “Grande Valse Brillante” Op. 18 in E flat major, written in 1833. The very first and last of the Waltzes are characterized by the same rhythmical figure - one long and two short repeated notes. These two Waltzes could be seen as the first and last pages, the matching covers, of the album. The first Waltz is perhaps the most technically challenging of the set. The tempo is fast (vivo) and there are many repeated notes that should be articulated clearly. The formal structure is a typical waltz – plenty of different tunes and moods with alternating episodes, an extended middle section, and a coda. This was the archetypical waltz model that was being used and abused in the first half of the nineteenth century and Chopin simply took it as he found it. He brought very little, if any, formal innovation into the waltz idiom; it is the content and context that makes Chopin’s Waltzes his very own. It is not “how,” but “what,”
The three “Grandes Valses Brilliantes” of Op. 34 were written in 1838. The first (A flat major) and third (F major) are grand and brilliant indeed, but the middle one in A minor is neither grand nor brilliant, but a very subtle and introverted work reminiscent of Chopin’s finest mazurkas.
The single “Grande Valse” in A flat major Op. 42, composed in 1840, is one of the most popular and frequently played. It opens with a trill (this was a common gesture before the waltz proper begins) and follows with the typical waltz rhythm in the left hand (um tsa tsa) and a melody that interacts with the rhythm by singing its line in two with the fast running inner notes – a very effective and witty decision. Episodes and tunes follow each other seamlessly spinning more and more energy until the Waltz ends with an assertive closing gesture. This is a real showpiece in the very best sense of the word.
The three Waltzes of Op. 64 were written in 1846-7. They have no other titles beyond simply “Valse.” The first of the set, in D flat major, is the famous Minute Waltz, which in fact is usually played in a minute and a half or so. As the story goes, Chopin was inspired to write this piece after watching a small dog chasing its tail. True or not, it is a good story. The second Waltz, in C sharp minor, is the most famous of all Chopin’s Waltzes, the most frequently played and recorded. The third Waltz, in A flat major, does not break any new ground, but follows well-established procedures a bit timidly. The middle episode is the most interesting in this rather conventional work.
The two Waltzes of Op. 69 in A flat major and in B minor were written in 1835 and 1825 respectively and not published until after Chopin’s death. The A flat Waltz is a very subtle and sophisticated work that conjures an echo of things past, an echo of his native Poland, an echo of mazurkas. It is known as the Farewell Waltz, written as a parting gift for Maria Wodzinska, to whom Chopin was once engaged and to whom the manuscript was given in 1835. It seems mesmerized by its own beauty, as if unable to part with its theme, which returns over and over. There are two slightly different versions of this Waltz, which are published in some editions back to back (two versions exists also for both Waltzes Op. 70) . The Waltz in B minor has no contrasting middle section – in spite of a change from minor to major, the nostalgic mood remains unchanged.
The three Waltzes of Op. 70, in G flat major, F minor, and D flat major, are the last group that is assigned an opus number. They were written in 1835, 1843, and 1829 respectively. The Waltz in G flat lacks any repeat signs and is quite short because of that. The Waltz in F minor brings us back to Poland in a subtle and understated way; Chopin was a master of understatement and allusion. The Waltz in D flat is a charming, innocent, and unpretentious work written when Chopin was just 19 years old.
The last Waltz, Op. posth. in E minor, is one of the shortest and fastest – the tempo indication is vivace. It is a brilliant and worthy conclusion to the set of Waltzes, the completion of the arch that begins with the very first Waltz in E flat major, which opens the set.
There are three Impromptus and one Fantasie-Impromptu, making a set of four. As its name suggests, an impromptu is a work that is improvised, something that comes about spontaneously on the spur of the moment. Chopin (like Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt) was a master of improvisation; by many reliable accounts he could improvise with ease for a long time. The process of writing down his improvised works and making the text final was not easy for him, however. Chopin was sending his works to three different publishers, and for each of them he produced a separate manuscript, sometimes with the help of an assistant who would insert some changes “desired by Chopin” into the score. There is thus a certain ambiguity concerning the final authentic text. To add to the uncertainty, Chopin himself wrote different, sometimes contradictory, markings (dynamics, fingerings, ornamentation) on the scores of his students. Obviously he was very flexible and fluid with regard to the interpretation of his music. Indeed, improvisation and unexpected changes were integral to romantic aesthetics and to Chopin’s approach to music.
Impromptu No.1 in A flat major Op. 29 (1837) is written in a clear ternary form with a contrasting middle episode. It opens without any hesitation, with a fluid figure of running triplets that is repeated twice. This formula is extended and elaborated further and further, spinning around in a circle that does not want to be broken. The whole process is effortless and stylish. The middle episode is reminiscent of a nocturne with a single theme that is repeated in different ways ten (!) times. The main episode returns through a sequence of trills and repeats itself literally. A short coda puts this Impromptu to peaceful rest.
Impromptu No. 2 in F sharp major Op. 36 (1839) is a masterpiece in concept, form, and craftsmanship. It opens with a singing four bar sequence in the left hand that sounds like a lullaby. The melody enters on top and we have a real duo – the left hand keeps repeating the opening formula and the melody soars freely over this steady background. There is a middle episode with a syncopated rhythm that brings with it some unexpected heroic overtones. The extended reprise is a marvel; the main theme returns in F major instead of the tonic key of F sharp – a very unusual and quite radical move flawlessly executed by Chopin. There is a seamless transition to the tonic key; a marvelous and flamboyant episode (quite challenging technically) follows, filled with scales running up and down on top and the melody in the left hand. This Impromptu ends with the tune that appeared first at the end of exposition. Two chords fortissimo end this amazing work.
The Impromptu No. 3 in G flat major Op. 51 (1842) is similar to the first Impromptu in form and texture, but in this Impromptu the texture becomes thicker as it proceeds. The key of G flat major (six flats) and time signature of 12/8 are not often seen. The tempo indication is allegro vivace (fast), which is a bit odd because of the density of the texture. The middle section is a reversed nocturne – the theme is in the bass and the accompaniment is in the right hand. The recapitulation is literal.
The last and the most popular work in the set is the Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp minor Op. 66 (1834). It is also written in a ternary form, with a rather virtuosic texture in the first and last episodes and a contrasting middle section. This model worked very well for Chopin and he mastered it fully. The theme of the middle section is derived from the main theme that appears at the very beginning – this single thematic material is presented in different guises. A turbulent coda brings back the theme from the middle episode for eight bars and resolves itself into a C sharp major chord played ppp. Simple and understated ending for one of the finest sets of works Chopin ever wrote.