The Original Piano Man
January 5, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
I have been teaching music for many years now, and one of the things I teach is music theory. Specifically, I teach beginning music theory to college students. In these classes, I use the piano to help explain important concepts in theory, and it’s a very useful tool, especially for people who have no previous musical experience. It lays out a large range of pitches from the lowest notes on the left to the highest notes on the right; on a keyboard, it is easy to see the whole and half steps that make up major and minor scales; and most chords can use similar fingerings. The same cannot be said about the guitar, for example, which has its frets laid out in only half steps, utilizes different hand positions on the neck of the instrument, and requires a variety of finger positions for different chords. To complicate matters, one pitch can be played multiple places on the guitar. On a piano, A440 (the number indicates how many times a second the piano string vibrates), for example, can only be played in one place.
Piano was my first instrument, and even though I’m a fair pianist at best, it forms a mental construct that I think about when I’m dealing with music theory or performing vocal music. It is simply the lens through which I view music. For many people the piano is their first instrument. They think of high notes being to the right and low notes to the left. People who learn guitar first might think of music in terms of the guitar’s fingerboard; brass players likely have different ways of thinking about music that involve their particular instruments.
The piano has offered many composers their first musical experiences and most of them were more than just proficient. In fact, a fair few composers have made a living teaching piano or playing the instrument in concert. Composers have historically used their skills on the piano to help them compose since they didn’t have a full orchestra at their disposal. They could work out ideas on the keyboard that would later be played by perhaps dozens of instruments. Nowadays, of course, computers have given most composers a reasonable facsimile of orchestral sounds, but the interface is usually a keyboard.
When we think of the so-called “great” composers, we often think about a Mozart or a Beethoven, who excelled at writing symphonic works, chamber works, solo pieces, perhaps opera. We think of diversified talent; we think of a broad sense of experience across genres and instruments. We know most of them were talented pianists, but we expect that they branched out into other things. But this isn’t always the case. One composer who I consider a “great” had a career that was intricately intertwined with the piano, and which never strayed away from this instrument.
The piano was at the center of Frédéric Chopin’s life and career.
Although he made forays into orchestral and chamber music, Chopin did not write any major work that did not include the piano. His education was thorough, of course, and he learned how to write for other instruments, but his heart wasn’t in it. In fact, of the student pieces he wrote for other instruments, it’s hard to discern Chopin’s style at all. It was almost as if he was just going through the motions when other instruments were involved.
Chopin began composing when he was a young man, and wrote two of the largest scale pieces in his output—the Piano Concertos—when he was around twenty. It seems that at the time, young Chopin envisioned himself playing more concert pieces like these, and perhaps saw that he might lead the life of a touring virtuoso. But Chopin’s temperament and fragile health led to a different future. He focused more on teaching than on performing, giving only about thirty public performances over the course of his career. That’s an astonishingly small number considering Chopin’s popularity and status. Chopin lived just thirty-nine years, not as tragically short as Mozart or Schubert, but one imagines he would have done a lot with another decade or two.
The vast majority of Chopin’s output were “character pieces,” short solo works for the piano, and many of these were written for his students. Chopin enjoyed a comfortable living teaching the young ladies and men of Parisian society. He had some very promising pupils over the years, and the music he wrote for them ranges from simple to blisteringly difficult. He also wrote many of these character pieces for his own playing and enjoyment, and they form a record of his growth as an artist and his performance style.
We can separate most of Chopin’s solo piano works into genre categories based on either their function or aspects of their style. The most prominent of these categories include étude, nocturne, prelude, mazurka, polonaise, waltz, impromptu and ballade. Chopin composed some of these character pieces throughout his career, while others came from specific times or circumstances. There are a couple of things we can say about most of the solo piano pieces Chopin wrote, regardless of the genre: his harmonies were often surprising, his rhythms were often flexible (and many times were drawn from dance), and despite a definite feeling of dramatic character in so many of his works, Chopin preferred not to give descriptive or suggestive titles to his pieces.
In works like the mazurkas and polonaises, Chopin displays pride in his Polish heritage. The mazurka is a traditional Polish dance that is quick and in a triple meter. It derives from other Polish forms, the kujawiak and oberek. Chopin helped popularize the dance with the nearly seventy mazurkas he wrote for the piano. Chopin composed his first Polonaise when he was just a child, and his last dates from just a few years before his death in 1849. In his Etudes, Chopin showed supreme dedication to his students. The Nocturnes gave voice to Chopin’s tender and sensitive side. The name suggests pieces about the night, and each of Chopin’s Nocturnes evokes a slightly unique evening. The Ballades and Impromptus are some of Chopin’s most difficult and technically complex pieces, and yet, even with the virtuosic skill they require, that emotional core is still there. Chopin’s dedication to the piano to the exclusion of other forms like symphonies or operas or string quartets doesn’t mean he’s not one of the “greats.” It just means he spent his short life working and writing on his own terms.
Chopin’s solo piano works form the heart and soul of his output. Through these pieces he was able to show his nationalistic pride, give voice to his emotion, and express every mood from melancholy to determined to peaceful. The piano was not just Chopin’s way of thinking; it was his voice. And every time a piano student plays a Chopin Etude or learns a Ballade or a Nocturne, this is the voice that speaks, with eloquence, expression, and passion.