Frédéric Chopin
(b. Zelazowa Wola, nr. Warsaw, ?1 March 1810 ; d. Paris, 17 October 1849)

Fantaisie sur des airs nationaux polonaises, op. 13 (1828)

“I don’t know why, but I appear to astonish the Germans, and I am astonished at their finding anything to be astonished at.” Thus Chopin, writing to his family on 8 August 1829 from Vienna on his first concert tour abroad. With some allowances for false modesty on the part of the nineteen-year-old genius, we can well understand both the feelings of the Viennese public and his reaction to them: Chopin was a self-taught pianist whose only teachers had been a violinist and a composer. Left to his own devices, he had worked out a novel style of playing that stressed tone rather than brute dexterity, emphasized the differences rather than the equality of the fingers, and cultivated long-breathed phrases and a strikingly delicate pianissimo rather than the bravura effects of his day. Thus equipped, he burst upon the European scene in 1828-31 as a concert pianist of a new species. Yet it was not with his solo works that he captured the public’s imagination – the piano recital had yet to be invented – but with a set of six compositions for piano and orchestra: the two concertos (opp. 11 and 21), the Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” (op. 2), the Fantasy on Polish Airs (op. 13), the Krakowiak (op. 14), and the Grand Polonaise in E-flat major (op. 22), preceded by its introduction, the Andante spianato for solo piano.

Chopin the orchestral composer has never lacked for detractors: Little of his student years with Joseph Elsner in Warsaw were spent mastering the basics of composition for large forces, or even chamber music. As a result, his orchestral accompaniments are conservative and pragmatic in approach rather than inspired. Indeed, they have even been attributed in part to his lifelong friend, Tytus Wojciechowki, which would exonerate him for their obvious lack of brilliance. Whatever their ultimate authorship, he often found it expedient – even in the case of his concertos – to omit the orchestra entirely and play the parts in piano reduction. Yet it must always be remembered that the orchestral accompaniments thoroughly served their purpose, and that Chopin’s early fame was based not on his solo pieces – the nocturnes, études, polonaises, and mazurkas – but on his orchestral works, the success of which allowed him to settle in Paris from 1831 as the piano teacher of choice and freed him of the need to concertize for a living. Without the orchestral works we would not have those solo character pieces that established Chopin’s unique place in music history.

The Fantasy was the second of Chopin’s orchestral works to be composed, following upon his Variations on Là ci darem la mano, which it rivalled in popularity. The piece created a furore when he performed it at a farewell concert in Warsaw’s National Theater, on 17 March 1830, along with the F-minor Concerto, and was enthusiastically received by his compatriots as revealing a perfect understanding of the Polish musical ethos. His pupil Wilhelm von Lenz saw in the piano writing a locus classicus of Chopin’s art of ornamentation. Writing of bar 65, he found that “the small-note embellishment written into the upper part of the 10th bar of the first polonaise theme is characteristic of Chopin’s ornamentation and should be studied by all those wishing to master this aspect of his music…. It looks so simple! Chopin used to say of these ornaments that ‘they should sound as though improvised, the result not of studying exercises but of your sheer mastery of the instruments’. He himself provided the perfect example of this: like Field playing in Paradise!” The latter reference is to the Irish pianist John Field, Chopin’s fabled predecessor in the art of the nocturne. The Fantasy was first published by Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig, in 1834.

Bradford Robinson, 2005
Performance material: Instytut Fryderyka Chopina, Warsaw