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

Krakowiak: Grand Rondeau, op. 14 (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 Krakowiak, or Cracovienne as it is known in French, is a large-scale concert rondo based on a quick duple-meter dance that also forms the basis of the final movement of the E-minor Concerto, op. 11. The dance emerged as an instrumental form in the early nineteenth century, at the same time as the polonaise, and is characterized by a two-plus-two bar structure with a syncopation on the weak beat of the bar. For both the Krakowiak and the op. 11 concerto Chopin specified a tempo of quarter-note = 104.

Chopin finished the score of the Krakowiak by 27 December 1828, when he announced its completion to his friend Wojciechowki. The Vienna première in 1829 caused the nineteen-year-old composer no end of difficulty at the orchestral rehearsal:

“I began the Rondo several times, and the orchestra muddled it frightfully and complained of the bad script. All the confusion was caused by pauses written differently at the top and bottom of the score, although I explained that only the top numbers count. It was partly my own fault; but I had thought they would understand. But they were annoyed at the inaccuracy, and … played so many tricks that I was just ready to fall ill for the evening. But Baron Demmar, the stage manager, seeing that it was a little want of goodwill on the part of the orchestra … proposed that instead of playing the Rondo I should improvise … and I was so annoyed that in desperation I consented.”

Chopin duly improvised on themes from Boïeldieu’s opera La dame blanche, which he had heard only a couple of weeks previously. Such was the success that the concert was repeated later that week, at which time Chopin “insisted on playing the Krakowiak Rondo, which ravished – forgive my saying it – Gyrowetz, Lachner, all the local celebrities and even the orchestra.” The Krakowiak was no less successful when Chopin performed it at his farewell concert in Warsaw on 22 March 1830. It was first published in 1834 by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig.

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