Chopin – Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-minor, Op. 11 B53

by Max Derrickson

Frédéric Chopin   (b near Warsaw, Poland, on March 1, 1810; d in Paris, on October 17, 1849)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-minor, Op. 11 B53
I. Allegro maestoso
II. Romance – Larghetto
III. Rondo – Vivace


Chopin composed this Concerto inWarsawin 1830 at the age of 20.  Though it was published as his first concerto, it is really his second, as the F-minor concerto (Concerto No. 2) was composed slightly earlier (1829-1830). The two concerti and a set of variations for piano and orchestra were written chiefly to gain notoriety as a composer; seldom, in Chopin’s day, were composers championed outside the orchestral realm.


Frederyk Franciszek Chopin (he soon abandoned this original Polish spelling for the French) was, by the age of six, mastering the piano on his own. His talents were so instinctive and remarkable that even through four years of private study, Chopin was considered to have taught himself, and was quickly expected to become “Mozart’s successor.”  By his twentieth year, 1830, and after several successful concert debuts home and abroad, Chopin was searching to further the financial return on his career. And althoughPolandwas divining him as its national composer, financial support was scant. Thus, Chopin set out for “ViennaandEnglandby way ofParis” to seek his fortune.


By way ofParisbecameParisand no farther, as Russian forces suppressingPoland’s “Autumn Uprising” gave the composer little choice of return. Chopin’s reputation preceded him, especially garnished by Robert Schumann’s unequivocal endorsement of him as a genius.  Parisian Romantic culture and its elite circles appealed to Chopin, as did the female author George Sand. He quickly found fame, fortune, romance, and a comfortable place for himself inParis.  His First Piano Concerto was one of the first pieces that the French heard, and they loved it.


Though not particularly prolific, Chopin added many greatly cherished masterpieces to the solo piano repertoire – particularly his exquisite nocturnes and etudes.  His adventurous harmonic innovations held great influence over subsequent composers such as Debussy, Liszt and Wagner.  Although he was an extraordinary pianist and improviser, he chose to abandon his concertizing early in his life, even shying away from private social playing. Tragically, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 39 in 1849.

Two generations ago Chopin’s marvelous Piano Concerto No. 1 was somewhat derided – its harmonic structure thought to be uninspired, its orchestral accompaniment considered weak – and it seemed to stick.  Among others, the beloved musicologist Donald Tovey called Chopin’s harmonic scheme a “suicidal path.”  Those considerations seem ill-warranted today.  Reflecting on its historical context, it’s astounding that such a Romantic piece would have surfaced in 1830 just 3 years after Beethoven’s death, and from such a young composer.

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The second movement is one of those moments when the heart is lost in nostalgic bliss.  As Chopin described it, “… a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.”  It is an archetypal nocturne – song-like, with the quintessential Chopin ornamentation to its simple melodies, and full of romantic pathos.  One of its greatest achievements is how Chopin creates such a dreamy flow without overindulging, always retaining clear simplicity and tenderness.  It illustrates Chopin’s uncanny talent for expressing through the piano, and though the composer said this years later to his lover, George Sand near the end of their relationship, it is apt here: “It is dreadful … not to have a soul to unburden yourself to. You know what I mean. I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.”

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