Concerto No 1

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Concerto No. 1 in E Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 11

Frederic Chopin
Born March 1, 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, Poland
Died October 17, 1849 in Paris, France  

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


When Chopin arrived in Paris in September 1831, he was quickly absorbed into the society of prominent Parisian literati, composers, financiers, and intellectuals. They undoubtedly had heard of his successful visit to Vienna in 1829 and his many accolades preceded his arrival. Compounding this good news, Parisians loved their private salons in which the piano was frequently played—not only to hear music written for the instrument but also to learn the latest operatic and orchestral scores.  

Chopin was not only famous but fresh, young, and handsome. He offered a new pianistic voice, eschewing bombast and dazzle for nuance, intimacy, and sensitivity. François Fétis, editor of the Revue musicale noted, “I find in M. Chopin’s inspirations the indication of a renewal of forms which may exercise in time much influence over this department of the art.”

Elegant audiences fit the composer’s comfort zone for his performances and taste—he was not eager to concertize on a big scale. Just before his death, he explained to Liszt, “I am not at all fit for giving concerts, the crowd intimidates me, its breath suffocates me, I feel paralyzed by its curious look and the unknown faces make me dumb.” But he could relax with the aristocracy. 

The socially powerful Countess Delfina Potocka quickly took him under her wing. Another strong contact was Count Luwdik Plater and his wife who entertained every Thursday. Adding to his personal elan he took an apartment at 27 boulevard poissonniere, just below Montmartre­—a chic address. He dined frequently at the best restaurant in Paris, Au Rocher de Cancal. His finances had improved dramatically in Paris not only via concerts, but especially with private piano lessons, given to the most prominent piano maker Pleyel who gave him a wonderful piano for his use and sponsored concerts for him. Finally, he was publicly endorsed by established composers such as Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, and Liszt (whom he did not like). To cap it all off, he changed his name from Frederck to Fryderyk. His transition to “becoming French” was complete, although he did a great deal to help Polish emigres to be settled in Paris.

When Chopin arrived in Paris, he brought his only two piano concerti with him, written when he was twenty-nine years old. Penned mainly for his personal use, the concerti are not revolutionary in form nor are they big thrillers.  The orchestra remains the servant of the piano and, sometimes it has been said that the concerti provided a backdrop for a piano monologue. That role was fulfilled to perfection. Chopin composed exclusively for the piano throughout his lifetime. His lover, author George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), wrote, “Invention came to his piano: sudden, complete, and sublime.”

Chopin premiered this work at age twenty in his third public concert at the National Theatre in Warsaw, the last concert he would perform in Poland. Opus 11 opens with a full orchestra declaiming a vigorous, sturdy theme before the first main idea in E Minor is presented in the strings. Strings also were selected to present the second theme in E major. In preparation for the soloist, the orchestra subsides momentarily moving to a rhapsodic section, subsiding before the piano enters with beautiful flourishes before recapping the orchestral introduction. The soloist  presents the first theme in E minor and then the second theme cast in the parallel  E major, similar in its lyricism to the first—a decision which Donald Tovey called “a suicidal path.” There seemed to be little contrast or opportunity for dramatic development and fireworks. The beautiful wind support and horns add exquisite richness to the melodies. 

Chopin’s development focuses on the first idea, extending by decorative scales and chords to fulfill a new kind of development, a generalized inflation of the idea, rather than motivic examination. The recapitulation begins with the orchestra alone; the pianist focuses exclusively on the second theme, now cast in G major. The movement ends on a sudden unison. 

Regarding his second movement, the composer wrote to his friend Titus Woyciechowski on May 15, 1830, “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 which calls to mind a thousand happy memories.  It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.  Hence, the accompaniment is muted, that is, the violins are stifled by a sort of comb which fits over the strings and gives them a nasal and silvery tone….” The movement is essentially a nocturne: a song-like narrative, delicate and romantic.

The last movement is based on a Polish folk dance, the Krakowiak, set in rondo format. The mood is ebullient, happy, and energetic, ending with an exciting race across the keys in virtuosic splendor. The soloist immediately presents the dance, and for good measure, repeats it with small variations. The orchestra’s responses and participation remain witty and bouncy, standing back respectfully when the pianist assumes unquestioned leadership. At one point, the Krakowiak assumes a reserved presentation, but only for a minute. The orchestra pushes back, urging the pianist to resume his plucky attitude. Notice how Chopin uses the total keyboard, spreading out in fast scales, arpeggios, and rapid–fire sequences. Dynamics are richly colored, ranging from fortissimo to pianissimo. At the end, the soloist soars to the top, and the orchestra immediately provides closing chords. 

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015 

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