CHOPIN:  Concerto No. 2 in F minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 21

Concerto No. 2 in F minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 21

Frédéric Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, Poland, probably on March 1, 1810, and died in Paris on October 17, 1849. He began composing his F minor Piano Concerto in 1829 and completed it early in 1830, prior to his other published concerto for piano, that in E minor (the designation “Concerto No. 2” refers to the publication date). He introduced the work at a concert in Warsaw on March 17, 1830. Sebastian Bach Mills gave the first performance of the concerto in this country, with Carl Bergmann conducting the Philharmonic Society Orchestra of New York, on November 9, 1861. Adele Marcus was the first to play the work with the San Francisco Symphony, with Issay Dobrowen conducting, in October 1931; in the most recent performances, in May 2010, Garrick Ohlsson was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. The orchestra consists of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; bass trombone; timpani; and strings. Duration: about thirty-two minutes.

For much of the past thousand years touring musicians were accorded little respect or social standing. Unlike the Capellmeister types who attached themselves to court or church and reaped the bourgeois comforts of quotidian respectability, the peripatetic troubadours were typically disdained as vagabonds who skulked about the fringes of polite musical society. Well into the modern era, steady employment was considered the touchstone of musical success; the road was strictly for the ragamuffins.

Eighteenth-century opera, having evolved from its courtly beginnings into an international industry, brought about a sea change in the fortunes of one group of belittled roadies. Ever-increasing competition for the services of top singers transformed those erstwhile caterpillars of the musical community into glittering butterflies, ardently pursued, shamelessly pampered, royally privileged, and obscenely overpaid. Consider the castrato Caffarelli (née Gaetano Majorano), who, in 1737 London—where £100 sufficed as an upper-class income—raked in an astonishing £30,000. The old via dolorosa of the poor, wandering player was morphing into a road to riches, albeit for a selected few.

By the early nineteenth century the musical world was becoming democratized. Newly empowered middle classes were imparting a distinctly consumerist spin to traditional musical venues, and as the hold of the aristocratic elite over musical matters weakened, composers and performers came to realize that the future lay neither in court nor church, but in the concert hall, with or without those newfangled orchestras that were springing up everywhere. With Europe aglow with sparkling operatic superstars, hopeful instrumentalists adopted a me-too attitude and took to the roads, each seeking his or her own private Oz of celebrity and riches. Most promptly vanished, no matter how gamely they skipped down the Yellow Brick Road. But there were a few who, by some alchemy of talent, ambition, and plain old luck, found an on-ramp to that superhighway that leads straight to the Emerald City of wealth, status, and swooning fans.

From Beethoven’s era onward such instrumentalists were making their boodles as fashionable artistes who pocketed lucrative returns from their visits to major European cities. Their names are mostly unknown nowadays outside of academia; consider Henri Herz, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Franz Clement, George Bridgetower, Daniel Steibelt, and Ignaz Moscheles. Before too long the first supervirtuoso appeared on the scene in the form of the cadaverous Italian violinist Nicolò Paganini, already considered a force of violinistic nature when his musical star went supernova upon his 1831 Paris debut. The Paganini electricity galvanized the career of a young Hungarian, Franz Liszt, who dedicated himself to becoming the Paganini of the piano and wound up as the über-virtuoso, the pianist to end all pianists.

Even before Liszt repurposed the once-humble clavecinist into a matinee idol, glittering showmanship was all the rage. The piano, newly pumped up with substantial technical upgrades, catapulted into dominance as the virtuoso instrument par excellence. Eager pianists surged into the musical marketplace, many of them heading straight for Paris, the acknowledged musical capital of the era. Any number of them were vapid tinklers at best, crass hucksters at worst. Much like their distant ancestors, the wandering troubadours, they performed mostly their own compositions, in their case typically sets of variations, operatic potpourris, and fantasias that might well have been improvised on the spot. Best of all was the concerto, which treated the audience to the thrill of a soloist engaged in sonic battle with an orchestra. It was all wonderful fun, everybody went home happy, and on occasion even some quality music-making featured in the evening’s entertainment.

The young Frédéric Chopin launched his career as an aspirant to the bread-and-circuses world of the touring virtuoso pianist. He discovered early on that he had little stomach for the life. Not only was he thin-skinned about negative criticism, but he detested sacrificing his privacy to the gaping curiosity of the general public. Happily, Parisian success enabled him to earn a fine living as a highly regarded (and expensive) piano teacher, his income solidly bolstered by his publishing royalties. For him the hurly-burly was done by the mid-1830s; for the rest of his short life his public performances were vanishingly few.

Chopin’s two piano concertos were written within a year of each other, during his earlier days when he still had designs on the home turf of Kalkbrenner, Herz, & Co. They were published in the reverse order of their composition, thus the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Opus 21, is actually the earlier of the two concertos, opus numbers notwithstanding. Chopin first mentions the concerto in a letter of October 3, 1829, to his friend Titus Woyciechowski; in a letter of October 20 he confides to Titus that his teacher Elsner “has praised the Adagio of my concerto. He says it is original; but I don’t wish to hear any opinions on the Rondo just yet as I am not quite satisfied with it.”

Chopin took his time kneading that third movement into satisfactory shape, but by early 1830 it was completed, with the first performance on March 17 of that year as part of Chopin’s Warsaw debut concert. Happily the concerto was successful enough to warrant being repeated five days later, with Chopin playing a considerably better instrument. Thus encouraged, Chopin set to work on his second piano concerto, in E minor, completed by the end of August 1830, and premiered on October 11 to slightly less enthusiasm than had greeted the F minor concerto. Chopin went on to play both concertos regularly during his short but impressive performing career.

The F minor concerto is laid out in three movements, fast-slow-fast. The first movement is cast in double-exposition form, a variant of classical sonata form dating back to the eighteenth century, typically employed in concertos. The movement opens with a long orchestral exposition initially characterized by dotted, mazurka-like rhythms. Once the piano enters, the orchestra retreats into the background, the soloist carrying the musical argument from then on. The solo part enthusiastically offers up the full panoply of the virtuoso style yet tempers its razzle-dazzle showmanship with a degree of poetic cantilena atypical for concertos of the day. There is no need for a cadenza, given the nonstop virtuosity of the solo writing throughout the movement.

Early Romantic virtuoso concertos tend to suffer from egregiously banal slow movements, but this Larghetto, kissing cousin to a nocturne, lies at the innermost heart of the work. Chopin intended it as an expression of his first acute love for a woman, Konstancja Gladkowska, of whom he writes: “I already have my perfect one whom I have, without saying a word, served faithfully for a year now, of whom I dream, in whose memory the adagio of my concerto has been put up.” (Apparently this perfect love affair was taking place entirely inside Frédéric’s head.) All of the treasured elements of later Chopin are to be found here in abundance—opulently limber melodies, sensual ornamentation à la Bellini, bewitching harmonies, and glowing pianistic sonorities.

The finale, arranged in a three-part, rondo-like form, offers up unmistakable references to Polish folk music, in the piquantly off-kilter rhythms of the mazurka and its slightly slower cousin, the kujawiak. The entire movement is refreshingly free of the endless figurations and pointless bombast of contemporary concertos, but nonetheless brings the work to an appropriately vivacious close.

Chopin intended to write a third concerto, as witnessed by numerous references in his correspondence throughout the 1830s, but the work was never completed. In 1841 he brought out the Allegro de concert, Opus 46, a strangely regressive, phenomenally difficult piece written in a superheated Lisztian style, quite unlike the two extant concertos. The Allegro de concert is possibly fashioned out of remnants of either that abandoned third concerto or a separate two-piano work, but whatever its provenance, it stands as a bit of a white elephant in Chopin’s published catalogue.

Critics have persistently shied brickbats at Chopin regarding two perceived shortcomings in both his concertos. In the first charge Chopin is accused of treating the orchestra almost as an afterthought rather than an equal partner. In the second charge, Chopin is pelted with indignant tut-tuts over his perceived formal amateurishness.

Both accusations reflect an overall orientation towards classicism on the part of influential critics who revered the concertos of Beethoven and Mozart yet sniffed priggishly at bravura showpieces. Chopin, who scored both concertos with undeniable indifference towards the orchestra, was weighed in the orchestral balance and found wanting, particularly in comparison to Beethoven’s organic, symphonic conceptions. However, Chopin’s paradigms were derived not from Beethoven, but from the fashionistas Kalkbrenner, Herz, Hummel, et al., and his orchestral usage is about par for that milieu. Chopin’s casting these concertos in the current fashion seems to have offended some of those finger-wagging commentators; they wanted Ludwig Wolfgang van Chopin instead of the real-life, gifted-but-greenhorn Frédéric. In the process they failed to notice that there are passages of deft, imaginative orchestration in both concertos, especially in the slow movement of the F minor.

That same classicist bent underlies the accusations about Chopin’s formal incontinence. The early Romantic was a golden era for the study of musical form; in fact, most modern techniques of formal analysis originated with theorists of Chopin’s time. Representative eighteenth-century musical structures were exhaustively dissected, sternly proscriptive manifestos were published, and large-scale forms wound up preserved like flies in amber. Form continued to evolve but formal theorists did not, thus contemporary works constructed with relatively casual frameworks were typically dismissed as being structurally unsound, even if—as is the case with Chopin’s concertos—the works stood quite well on their own merits.

In short, both charges are true enough after a fashion, but only if we insist that Chopin write like Beethoven, which he didn’t so we shouldn’t. Nowadays it is relatively uncommon to present these concertos in re-orchestrated or re-edited “improved” versions. Instead of emphasizing what these works are not, we are coming to cherish them for what they are—sophisticated virtuoso showpieces with ravishing slow movements at their hearts.

Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong, Chair of the Department of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, is a contributing writer for the San Francisco Symphony’s program book and a regular speaker at SFS pre-concert talks.

More About the Music

Recordings: Garrick Ohlsson with Jerzy Maksymiuk conducting the Warsaw Polish Radio/TV Symphony Orchestra (EMI)  | Martha Argerich with Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony (EMI) 

Reading: Chopin: The Reluctant Romantic, by Jeremy Siepmann (Northeastern University Press)  |  The Chopin Companion: Profiles of the Man and His Music, edited by Alan Walker (Norton)