What Makes Chopin Chopin

Today I’m giving you a post on my favorite composer! To me, there is endless inspiration in Chopin’s music, but having played it for years, I’ve become familiar with some of its distinctive characteristics. I’m sure I’ll discover more and more in his music as I progress – I certainly hope so!

I’ve put Chopin’s typical musical traits into three categories: mood, left hand, and melody. 


Mood

The moods in Chopin’s music are highly variable, but there are a couple points I’d like to address about his common musical moods and some emotions he is branded as not having.

Melancholy 

Oh, the melancholy Chopin can evoke! Deep, lonesome melancholy that tugs at your heartstrings. If you’re listening to a piece filled with longing misery while still sounding elegant, that piece could be by Chopin. At the same time, Chopin composed very few pieces that are completely dark and resigned. There is nearly always some lightness in them, somewhere. Even in one of Chopin’s most apprehensive nocturnes, there is a beautiful, almost religious middle section before the theme returns in a fluttering anxiety. This middle section sounds Beethovenian to me. No, Beethoven was not a perpetually furious composer; he did write some lovely melodies. 

One piece which is completely resigned—a favorite of mine— is his E Minor Prelude. Oh, the desperation behind it!

A great example of Chopin’s melancholy would be his Nocturne in B-flat:

And how about this popular nocturne, even with its major key? I don’t even understand how Chopin could produce such melancholy through a major key. It’s Chopin’s magic.

Passion 

My teacher always told me that great artists have a wide range of emotions. They feel sadness, joy, love, even anger. Musicians must be alive to their feelings because that’s a part of their art.

Many people consider Chopin to be a weak composer in music as well as in body. This is an inaccurate stereotype. While Chopin was physically delicate, at heart he was a true Polish composer – even if he was too fragile to seem so in real life. There is passion all throughout his music, appearing in the forms of anger, nobility, love, nervousness, and more. For example, his Scherzo No. 2 is a great example of anger and irritation. (Listen up to 0:27.)

This waltz is a great illustration of nobility, but even better is Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise:

There is overwhelming love in all of Chopin’s beautiful middle sections. I think one of his most loving sections is in his Ballade No. 1. Two words for it: indescribably beautiful.

This waltz is lovely even through the nervousness.

An even better example of nervousness would be Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu.


Left hand 

You wouldn’t think that the left hand would be very distinctive, but there are a couple techniques that Chopin uses over and over again for his left hand accompaniments.

Arpeggios

Oftentimes, you will hear a smooth, elongated right hand melody against arpeggios in the left hand. This is exceptionally common for Chopin, particularly in the parts with beautiful melodies, although he does use the arpeggio pattern all throughout his Fantasy Impromptu.

As an example, here is the Scherzo No. 2 with a beautiful middle section. (Listen up to 1:22.)

Steady left hand with free right hand

This is a signature characteristic in Chopin’s music, particularly his nocturnes and waltzes. In this technique, the left hand keeps a loyal beat while the right hand strays off into whatever digressions it takes a fancy to. This pairing provides a satisfying contrast because the right hand can be as capricious as it wants while the left hand provides a base to hang onto.

Notice how the left hand keeps a steady, albeit quick, 1-2-3 beat as the right hand dances around the keyboard.


Melody

The melody is usually the most noticeable characteristic of Chopin’s music, so let’s begin with a basic description of Chopin’s melodies.

Singing melody lines

Chopin is the king of melodists. He was intrigued with the human voice and you can hear this in his music. His melodies should be played clearly, as a singer would sing them with accompaniment.

Chopin composed so many beautiful melodies that it’s near impossible to pick one to show you! Here are several lovely ones.

The first melody that comes to mind is from the middle section from his 1st Ballade, the section I mentioned above. No one plays it better than Rubinstein. Please relisten to it below from the section I chose until 6:00. Notice how the beautiful theme returns at 5:28, but nobler and with extra bits and pieces added to it. (We’ll discuss these bits and pieces in a little while.) 

Another lovely melody is from the middle section of Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu.

Thirdly, the beginning of his 2nd concerto, 2nd movement. There’s something utterly fulfilling about this movement.

Embellishment and embroidery

Ornamentation is Chopin’s trademark. In nearly every one of his pieces, you will hear a main theme, presented in a relatively simple manner, and then at some point later you will hear that same theme with little adornments that make the melody newer, more impulsive, and more brilliant. Chopin was a master at this! 

Remember that middle section of the Ballade, when the lovely melody returned with extra notes? That was embellishment. Each note in these strings of extra notes doesn’t have any specific length attached to it, so there’s a lot more freedom in how the “embroidery” of the melody is played.

Listen up to 0:58 and note the embellishments. (Interesting side note: The key this waltz is in was supposedly Chopin’s favorite key. He wrote more pieces in A-flat than any other key. Some say it is because A-flat sounds melancholy – even when it’s major, as in this waltz.)

Or this lovely example:

Within 45 seconds, Chopin returns with the same melody, but it sounds completely new! He adds so many little embellishments that while the basic melody remains the same, it’s obscured by streams of other notes.

Or the piece below. Listen to the entire thing closely. You’ll be rewarded. Also note the steady left hand, though the right hand goes off on numerous tangents.


I think this was more of a rave review of Chopin’s works than anything else! I couldn’t help linking to dozens of his pieces because they’re all just so rich and—sorry to be getting so carried away—simply quintessential.

Anyway, I hope you now are familiar with Chopin’s common musical marks and next time you hear a piece by Chopin, you’ll listen for them. 

As a last note, I highly recommend reading Franz Liszt’s book, Life of Chopin, which is great to get to know Chopin from another great artist and composer’s perspective. Liszt includes details on the Polish nation and Polish dances, from which Chopin drew an immense amount of inspiration, and it’s also interesting to read Liszt’s opinion of Chopin as a contemporary.

Thanks for reading!

~ Maggie

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2 thoughts on “What Makes Chopin Chopin

  1. Well Maggie dear, once again you have illuminated a great composer, musician, and artist in a way I had never given so much thought about!
    All Gramps can say is simply that when you and Cammi play for Grammy and I, we “feel” many of the emotions you describe (albeit there is a bias on hearing our granddaughter’s playing), and there are times we might even show a few tears for how beautifully you both play.
    Keep up the excellent educating of we who listen to these great pieces being played!
    Love it, love it, love it!
    Gramps

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! It is amazing to see Chopin’s music come alive just by identifying his musical “traits”. And you grow closer to all classical music when you discover that every composer has his own musical “personality”… And that each personality is unique and inspiring.
      Cammi and I love Chopin, so we’re hoping that soon we can arrange one of his pieces for a violin solo with piano accompaniment!
      Thanks for commenting!
      ~ Maggie

      Like

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