Every so often, someone will ask me who my favorite composer is, and I always answer that it’s impossible to narrow it down to just one, because there are so many I love. But I can say that Frédéric Chopin has long been my favorite composer of piano music, specifically. I have always felt that his music just fits the instrument so well, and fits the hands so naturally. That’s not to say that it’s easy — far from it! But it is possible to be fiendishly difficult yet still idiomatic to the instrument, taking advantage of what the instrument does best, and making it shine.
On this day, Chopin’s 200th birthday, and I’m inspired to think back on the his pieces I’ve played (or attempted to play) over the years. You could call it My Life in Chopin.
I believe the first piece I ever sank my teeth into was the Waltz in D flat major, Op. 64, No. 1, a.k.a. the “Minute Waltz”. I was young, maybe 7, I don’t remember exactly. And yes, I probably got the idea from watching Bugs Bunny cartoons — I admit it! 😀
My education began at about 2:30:
Not an easy piece to start with, for sure! But I was a stubborn, precocious little cuss. I remember sitting at the piano for what seemed like hours, obsessively poring over the music for pieces that were way beyond my level — I got them from my older sister’s piano books. I would painstakingly play one note or chord at a time, not making much musical sense, but totally transfixed by just being able to translate the black dots on the page to keys on the piano.
Suffice it to say that it took me far longer than a minute to play the Minute Waltz!
The first piece I played for real was the Nocturne in E minor, op.72 no.1. I was a senior in high school, and I was quite the little emo kid. Could I have chosen a more perfect soundtrack for that? 😉
One of the first pieces I ever wrote was in a similar form and style. You could say I had a one-track mind!
A little later on, in college, I took on the more ethereal, contemplative Nocturne in B♭ minor, Op. 9 No. 1.
Practicing those roulades — the long chains of undulating, cascading notes in the right hand — rocked my world.
During my second year of undergrad, I got the crazy idea to take on the Ballade in F minor, Op. 52. Was I on drugs or something? I honestly don’t remember what possessed me… but I did go to Berkeley, after all. 😉
That opening melody just slew me… Well, actually, the whole piece slew me. I practiced that bad boy for hours on end for an entire summer. That’s the kind of thing that changes your brain forever, I can tell you — in a good way, though!
Toward the end of my undergraduate career, I reveled in the much sunnier Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47. At some point, even an emo kid has to smile! Speaking of which, here’s a performance of the piece by Sergei Rachmaninoff, who could use a little sunshine:
While in my master’s program in New York City, I went back to the Nocturnes. The one in B major, Op. 32 No. 1 has a truly wacky, out-of-left-field ending, uncharacteristically fiery for the Nocturnes. And I needed to get a little fiery in order to make it in the big, bad city!
By the time I got to my PhD program in San Diego, my composition studies, teaching assistant duties and all the rest kept me from having much time to add to my piano repertoire. But I remember very clearly one afternoon, when I decided to dust off the ol’ 4th Ballade for old times’ sake. It took a fair bit longer than real performance time to get through it after the intervening years, but I didn’t mind, because I found myself as transfixed as I had been way back as a seven-year-old. Remember how I said that practicing a piece of music intensely for a long time changes your brain? Going back to that piece unlocked a flood of memories for me — vivid mental images and sense memories from the whole span of my piano-playing life. It was quite a trip.
Who needs drugs? This is your brain on Chopin! 😀