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

Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, op. 22 (1830-31)

“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 Grande Polonaise has suffered somewhat from the fame of its solo introduction, the Andante spianato, one of the most magnificent of Chopin’s early nocturnes. Although the term spianato has not entered standard musicians’ parlance, it denotes one of the composer’s supreme achievements in the art of piano playing, a manner of handling long-breathed phrases that ultimately derives from bel canto singing. A contemporary explained it as follows: “After the vivid and brilliant graces, the glittering colours and the sometimes overloaded ornamentation of Rossini’s method, the composer of Norma and I Puritani [i.e. Vincenzo Bellini] introduced a new style of tender cantilena, moving and palpitating – in short, spianato playing, as it is called in Italy, in all the eloquence of its expression.” Applied to the piano, the term referred to a smooth and graceful delivery over long periods aptly captured by its literal meaning in Italian, “levelled.” Chopin was not the first to adopt this style to instrumental music: in 1829 in Leipzig (and probably in Warsaw), Paganini had played a Cantabile spianato e Polacca brillante that probably has a direct bearing on Chopin’s juxtaposition of these two styles in his op. 22. The Andante spianato and Grande polonaise was first published by Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig, in 1836.

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