It’s not that easy to learn about Chopin’s music style from the Internet. The knowledge is quite fragmented and sometimes even contradictory. Moreover, the most popular performances of Chopin’s music come from concerts, which are not always historically accurate (after all, Chopin hated concerts). In this post I wanted to ‘condense’ what I learned about Chopin’s music style from the historical sources I studied – accounts of Chopin’s contemporaries and books written based on them.
Jan Kleczyński wrote his book “The works of Frederic Chopin and their proper interpretation” based on his consultations with people close to Chopin (his piano students, friends etc.). According to him, the “principle of this [Chopin’s] style is simplicity, avoiding affectations, that is excessive slowing down or speeding up of the tempo”. He mentions that Chopin played in rhythm / in time, and did not like over-sentimentality, dragging, frequent heavy rubatos etc. He also provides examples of the most common mistakes made by people who play with the so-called, artificial “feeling”:
- Too much and tactless rubato.
- “Inverted” expression – strongly accenting weak notes and vice versa.
- Sentimental anticipation of the bass – playing the bass notes before treble (melody), instead of playing them at the same time.
According to him, the use of such affectations reduces Chopin’s music to a “salon sickliness” (“salonowa ckliwość”). Chopin’s rhythmical play is mentioned in many other accounts – the quote below by Friederike Müller is just one example:
He also required adherence to the strictest rhythm, hated all lingering and dragging, misplaced rubatos, as well as exaggerated ritardandos… . And it is just in this respect that people make such terrible mistakes in the execution of his works.Friederike Müller
One fact that may be counter-intuitive is that Chopin did not like concerts – he was in fact a chamber musician. Many people could be surprised to learn this, since the most popular recordings of Chopin’s music come from concerts. Chopin said:
Concerts are never real music. You have to give up the idea of hearing in them all the most beautiful things of art.Fryderyk Chopin
Chopin’s doctrines of “play as you feel it!”, “let yourself go” etc. contradict the formality and ‘rigidity’ of concerts.
Chopin also had a great sense of humour – he liked to joke, impersonate people etc. This side of him (joking, good humour, or “life”) is also present in his compositions, but unfortunately these traits are not visible at concerts. Energy, life or good humour get transformed into something along the lines of aggression, “convulsions” or “wild happiness” (as Kleczyński calls it).
Jan Kleczyński describes this discrepancy between Chopin’s image we have today and who Chopin actually was as a person:
German critics have, it appears to me, completely misconceived the character of Chopin; they represent him as a man of despair, a hero of the minor keys; they forget his early youth, his happy years in Warsaw, his good humour and sprightliness, which he never lost even in Paris.Jan Kleczyński
Also, Ferenc Liszt in his book “Life of Chopin” says the following about Chopin’s performances of his polonaises (indicating the “energy” with which he played):
They [Chopin’s polonaises] never remind us of the mincing and affected “Polonaises a la Pompadour,” which our orchestras have introduced into ball-rooms, our virtuosi in concerts, or of those to be found in our “Parlor Repertories,” filled, as they invariably are, with hackneyed collections of music, marked by insipidity and mannerism.
His Polonaises, characterized by an energetic rhythm, galvanize and electrify the torpor of indifference. The most noble traditional feelings of ancient Poland are embodied in them.Ferenc Liszt
As Liszt mentions in the quote above, Chopin’s music has been introduced to ball-rooms, concert halls etc. – therefore, today it’s regarded as music for ‘higher classes’. There is a belief that Chopin’s music is an ‘acquired taste’ and is enjoyable only to a limited group of people.
But the reality is very different. The audience of Chopin’s “farewell” concerts (which he gave when he was leaving Poland in 1830) consisted of people from both the city and “the provinces” (as indicated by M. A. Szulc). The tickets to these concerts were also not very expensive, so many people could afford them. Szulc also mentions:
Both professionals and ignorant of art, educated and simple people succumbed to [Chopin’s music].2)Marceli Antoni Szulc
Chopin would also play on multiple occasions for people to dance. For example, Emilia Borzęcka mentions:
Chopin sat down at the piano. He played whole evening, and the youth were dancing around and having fun.2)Emilia Borzęcka, cited by M. Tomaszewski
When playing, Chopin would frequently change or add fragments compared to the printed versions of the sheet music. He could improvise whole pieces – many of his works are actually results of his improvisation. He would also improvise different music forms (polonaises, mazurkas etc.) “on the spot” when playing for people. According to Julian Fontana (Chopin’s friend):
From his earliest youth, the richness of his improvisation was astonishing. But he took good care not to parade it; and the few lucky ones who have heard him improvising for hours on end, in the most wonderful manner, never lifting a single phrase from any other composer, never even touching on any of his own works – those people will agree with us in saying that Chopin’s most beautiful finished compositions are merely reflections and echoes of his improvisations. This spontaneous inspiration was like an inexhaustible torrent of precious materials in ferment. (…)Julian Fontana
Chopin uses syncopation extensively in both the left hand (accompaniment, rhythm) and the right hand (ornaments, melody). He uses it so frequently that often his music resembles much more modern genres – like swing or jazz. Many people would be surprised to hear that, because this element is completely absent in the concert performances. But when Chopin’s music is played in rhythm (i.e. the way he played himself), this feature is very visible. I prepared some examples in my video. I also recently added a short containing modifications to Nocturne op. 9 no 2 made by Chopin, which he showed to his pupils.
In Chopin’s rubato, the left hand is the accompaniment (the ‘clock’) and keeps rhythm. The right hand can ‘free’ itself from rhythm by speeding up or slowing down of the tempo. This is explained for example by Karol Mikuli (one of Chopin’s students):
In keeping time Chopin was inexorable, and some readers will be surprised to learn that the metronome never left his piano. Even in his much maligned tempo rubato, the hand responsible for the accompaniment would keep strict time, while the other hand, singing the melody, would free the essence of the musical thought from all rhythmic fetters, either by lingering hesitantly or by eagerly anticipating the movement with a certain impatient vehemence akin to passionate speech.Karol Mikuli
A common mistake when applying rubato in Chopin’s music is to play without rhythm. In Chopin’s rubato, the rhythm was constantly respected. For example, Moscheles notes:
(…) Chopin’s playing ad libitum, which in many performers of his works turns into deficiency in rhythm and time, with him is only a charming originality of execution.2)Ignaz Moscheles
According to Jan Kleczyński, Chopin played rubato as an “exception rather than a rule”, which indicates he used it less frequently than today’s typical performances do:
(…) although in his [Chopin’s] pieces we can frequently encounter ‘rubato’, it’s rather an exception than a rule, even though it’s so characteristic.2)Jan Kleczyński
Ferenc Liszt compares Chopin’s rubato to a boat floating freely on undulating waves, or to a tree where the trunk is always stable and the leaves swing with the wind:
(…) impressing the floating, wavy, rocking, undecided motion of a boat without rigging or oars upon the charmed and intoxicated heart! Through his peculiar style of performance, Chopin imparted this constant rocking with the most fascinating effect; thus making the melody undulate to and fro, like a skiff driven on over the bosom of tossing waves.Ferenc Liszt
‘Look at these trees!’ [Liszt] said, ‘the wind plays in the leaves, stirs up life among them, the tree remains the same, that is Chopinesque rubato.’Ferenc Liszt / Frederick Niecks
Lenz also mentions Chopin’s instructions on how to play rubato:
Rhythm and time (he said) should overall be left intact. The left hand is the choir master [Kapellmeister]: it mustn’t relent or bend. It’s a clock. Do with the right hand what you want and can. The piece lasts, say, five minutes. In total it should not be longer than these five minutes, but the internal details can change. And this is rubato.1)Wilhelm von Lenz
Chopin had a light, ‘fluid’ way of playing. He would connect the notes smoothly as opposed to striking them in a more ‘disconnected’ way (in his words: “like a German”). Such way of playing is called legato. He also liked the Italian bel canto singing style and the vocals of the singers of his time (Rubini, Pasta, Malibran etc.). He incorporated certain aspects of bel canto in his music – for example, frequent ornamentations or the cantabile style of playing (meaning his music resembles singing, human voice). According to Friederike Müller-Streicher:
He took infinite pains to teach the pupil this legato, cantabile way of playing. ‘Il (ou elle) ne sait pas lier deux notes’ [He (or she) doesn’t know how to join two notes together] was his severest censure.Friederike Müller-Streicher / Frederick Niecks
Chopin’s playstyle was generally quiet compared to his contemporaries, but as Jan Kleczyński mentions, he would also frequently play loud (or very loud) notes as well – but he never played loud notes only for the sake of playing loudly – they always had a meaning and were in “good taste”.
Chopin’s favourite piano brand was Pleyel. Today not many people have access to real acoustic mid-1800s Pleyel pianos, but virtual instruments (VST plugins) can give some idea of what they sounded like. In the 1800s there were significant differences in sound between piano manufacturers – each brand wanted to have their unique, ‘signature’ sound. This is different to today, when the sound across brands is more or less standardised. In general, Pleyel pianos of the romantic era were characterised by a soft piano and sharp, percussive forte sounds, and allowed for playing with a light touch.
You can listen to both unrestored and restored acoustic old Pleyels (these videos are just examples) to get the idea of the sound. Also some of my videos are made using old Pleyel virtual instruments (VSTs).
It’s worth pointing out that Chopin only started using Pleyel pianos after meeting Camille Pleyel in France in 1831. Therefore, all his works prior to 1831 were composed on other pianos.
“Play as you feel”
Chopin would tell his students to “play as they feel”, “play as if nobody was watching them”, “let themselves go” etc. This means you should always choose your inner feelings over a music style “imposed” by others.
One should also be cautious when trusting “authorities” or “famous” pianists. As M. A. Szulc said:
How many virtuosos do we see, famous by name and widely famous in Europe, who in their performances of Chopin’s works offend with caricature and exaggeration, or do not bring to light the treasures hidden in him!2)Marceli Antoni Szulc
Also, Chopin remarked that e.g. foreigners (quite unsurprisingly) were not able to include the ‘Polish element’ into his music:
Many times, when one of his French students played his compositions and the listeners praised the play, Chopin used to say that he gave everything except the Polish element, Polish inspiration, and this does not only apply to creations which have Polish names, such as mazurkas and polonaises, but also concertos, notturns, ballads and etudes.2)Marceli Antoni Szulc
It’s also worth noting that many pianists (including the top ones) are aware that they play Chopin’s music much differently to the way Chopin played, and do it purposefully. For example in one of the interviews, Garrick Ohlsson, when asked what would Chopin think if he sat in 2021 Chopin Competition’s jury, answered:
Well, if he was the Chopin we know anything about, he would hate everything about the idea. And he would probably not recognise the sound of modern pianos at all, or the style in which we play, because it’s evolved so much since his time.Garrick Ohlsson
It’s interesting to learn that Chopin played in many ways the opposite to how his music is commonly played today at concerts. He played in rhythm (even his rubato was rhythmical), hated ‘over-sentimentality’, had a good sense of humour, and played in a way which was enjoyable to everyone (both educated and uneducated people). One of the most important rules of Chopin’s style are simplicity and “playing as you feel”.
This post is an extended version of my video “Chopin’s Style” – it also contains new information I learned after making this video.
1) I modified the original quote from the book Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by his Pupils based on its another translation from Fryderyk Chopin i utwory jego muzyczne. I think the original English translation can be difficult to understand for foreigners, so I kept the same meaning with different wording.
2) There are some quotes I had to translate myself, because I could not find any English translations of the Polish text.
- O wykonywaniu dzieł Szopena. Trzy odczyty. (Wypowiedziane w Resusie obywatelskiej w Warszawie, w d. 11, 15 i 17 marca 1879 roku) – Jan Kleczyński.
its English translation: The works of Frederic Chopin and their proper interpretation – Jan Kleczyński, translation by Alfred Whittingham.
- Life of Chopin – Ferenc Liszt
- Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by his Pupils – Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger
- Fryderyk Chopin i utwory jego muzyczne – Marceli Antoni Szulc
- Fryderyk Chopin. Szkic do portretu – Mieczysław Tomaszewski