Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Happy Birthday, Chopin!

Frederic Chopin

Piano works are
What he’s known for, but there’s more
That you need to hear:

Concertos, duets,
His versions of Polish songs,
A stirring trio.

Get to know Chopin
In a whole new dimension
In non-solo works.

Now let us all say
Happy birthday to the great
Frédéric Chopin.

It is Chopin’s birthday today! Church records list his birthday as February 22, 1810, but since Chopin and his family celebrated his birthday on March 1, it is considered the correct date.

Where does one begin to write about Chopin?  He was brilliant.  His works revolutionized the piano repertoire, and enriched the world of music forever.  His mazurkas and polonaises captured the soul of Poland, his nocturnes and preludes plumbed the depths of human emotions.  Countless words have been written about his piano solo works.

So I’m going to write about his other works.

Did you know that Chopin didn’t write solely for the piano?  Certainly, there is a piano present in all his works (and he wrote a piece for two pianos, Rondo in C for Two Pianos, Op. 73, Op. posth.), but lesser known are his compositions that include other instruments.

Chopin wrote two concertos for piano and orchestra (Op. 11 and Op. 21).  There are many wonderful videos of the concertos performed at the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, and you can find them here.  You can also hear and see Piano Concerto No 1 performed by Evgeny Kissin (Zubin Mehta conducting) or Martha Argerich (Jacek Kaspszyk conducting)Here is a link to Piano Concerto No 2 performed by Arthur Rubinstein (conducted by Andre Previn).

Cello fans will enjoy this video of Chopin’s Cello Sonata (Op. 65) performed by Natalia Gutman and Sviatoslav Richter, or this performance of the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major (op. 3) performed by Daniil Shafran and Anton Ginsburg.

Here is Chopin’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano (Op. 8), a wonderfully stirring piece of music.

Chopin also set several poems in Polish to music.  Here is one of his Polish songs for voice and piano.

And now, since it is Chopin’s birthday, here is a fun tribute to him, the song Happy Birthday in the style of Chopin, with some added improvisation.


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Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words for Cello and Piano: Beauty Without Words

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

I was originally going to write about Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words for solo piano (and I will at some point), but then I found this gem.

It is believed that Mendelssohn wrote this piece for cello and piano, titled Song Without Words, sometime around 1845.  It was published after Mendelssohn’s death and given the designation Op. 109.  The sheet music may be found here.

It was with great delight that I found this video of cellist Jacqueline du Pré performing Op. 109 (Iris du Pré, piano).  I listened to other performances, but I kept coming back to this one.  Perhaps it was the richness and sweetness of tone, or the expressiveness of the playing.  I hope you will enjoy it as well.


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A Little Monday Music: Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale

Tchaikovsky

The Valse Sentimentale is the last movement in Tchaikovsky’s work Six Pieces (Op. 51) for solo piano, composed in 1882.

You can read the history of the creation of this set of six pieces here (if you’re a Tchaikovsky fan, this website is a wealth of information; here’s the main page).  Here you can see the manuscript of the pieces in Tchaikovsky’s own hand (click on the book icon in the middle of the page).

Here is Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale performed by pianist Lucas Debargue.

There’s an interesting story behind the solo piano video presented above.  The French pianist in the video, Lucas Debargue, was awarded fourth place by the judges in the 15th International Tchaikovsky Competition.  Of six finalists, there was one gold, a joint silver, a joint bronze, and fourth place.  Yet his performance was widely acclaimed, leading some to question the judges’ decisions (first place was awarded to Russian Dmitri Masleev).

Conductor Valery Gergiev, chairman of the competition, made the bold move of insisting that Debargue play at the concert showcasing the winners of the competition, and that is the performance presented above.  You can read more about the competition and the controversy here and here and here, from one of the judges.

I’m not going to get into that debate.

But I suppose if you disagree with an interpretation, any interpretation, it makes you think about how you believe it should be interpreted.  It makes you think about the music.  And that is always a good thing.  I can’t help but recall Leonard Bernstein’s disagreement with Glenn Gould over the Brahms Piano Concerto No 1, in which the two had widely differing opinions about how the piece should be played.

Interested in hearing more from the International Tchaikovsky Competition?  Want to be an unofficial judge?  The performances of participants in the piano, cello, violin, and voice competitions can be found here.  This might be the soundtrack of your Monday!

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Image attribution: Photograph of Tchaikovsky [public domain] from book Tchaikovsky by Edwin Evans.  London:  J.M. Dent & Co., New York:E.P. Dutton & Co., 1906   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATchaikovsky_1906_Evans.PNG