As a follow-up video to the Life and Times of Chopin, this video discusses the best music of Chopin, in my humble opinion.
Here we’ll look at 6 of his very famous pieces, discuss them a little, and hear some audio clips so you can get a sense of his style.
Chopin wrote over 200 works, the vast majority of which are for solo piano. Chopin loved piano, and he was the only great composer to specialize in one instrument – many composers wrote for many instruments.
And since his music is so utterly pianistic, it doesn’t tend to translate well to other instruments.
All 6 pieces I have chosen below are for solo piano. Though Chopin’s pieces involving other instruments are great too, I wanted to show you what kind of stories he could tell with just one instrument alone.
Chopin’s musical style
Chopin was a Romantic-era composer, meaning he was active in the early to mid-1800s. His music is rich, emotive, and immensely creative.
Here’s what one of his students had to say about piano lessons with Chopin:
“[His] playing was always noble and beautiful; his tones sang, whether in full forte or softest piano. He took infinite pains to teach his pupils this legato, cantabile style of playing. His most severe criticism was “He—or she—does not know how to join two notes together.” He also demanded the strictest adherence to rhythm. He hated all lingering and dragging, misplaced rubatos, as well as exaggerated ritardandos.”
-Friederike (student of Chopin’s)
Aside from writing mainly for the piano, he had other traits that set him apart from musicians of the day.
Since his playing style was so light and delicate, his music was best suited to small gatherings, not concert halls. Chopin didn’t like performing in large halls, and only did so about 30 times in his life.
Instead, he preferred performing in his apartment, or at salons (intellectual parties), where nuances of his light playing style could be heard.
“One may say that Chopin is the creator of a school of piano and a school of preludes on the piano; moreover nothing may be compared to his works full of originality, distinction and grace.”
-Leon Escudier (French journalist/music publisher, 1841)
Chopin’s Musical Influences
His greatest influences were Bach and Mozart. Bach’s collection of 24 Preludes and Fugues, called The Well-Tempered Clavier, was a book Chopin loved, and he even traveled with it to Majorca, Spain in 1838.
Since the Well-Tempered Clavier has a piece for every key on the piano, Chopin used that as inspiration to create his own set of Preludes, one in each key.
Mozart and Chopin shared similarities – for starters, they were both considered child prodigies, with Chopin even being called a “second Mozart”.
Both composers also created highly-developed melodies. Chopin was known to love and respect Mozart’s music, and Mozart’s famous requiem played at Chopin’s funeral.
Like every musician, Chopin had a multitude of influences and inspirations, but ultimately the music he created was uniquely his own.
As to the character of Chopin’s music, Oscar Wilde captures it well:
“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”
The best music of Chopin on piano
Now we’re going to take a deeper look into 6 compositions of Chopin’s. We’ll talk about why they’re awesome, and you can have a look at the videos to see for yourself.
Piano sonata no. 2 in Bb Minor, op. 35
Chopin wrote a few sonatas, but his second sonata in Bb Minor is by far my favorite. It’s so dark and so intense, even terrifying.
I’ve chosen the third movement to show you today, which is the slowest of the three and nicknamed “The Funeral March”, a tune you’ve probably heard at some point, but I urge to listen to the rest of the sonata which I can only describe as feverish.
Helene Grimaud’s performance snippet, seen above, is powerful without being over-dramatic.
The other three movements of the sonata share a similar character, but with speedy tempos. Take a listen to the wild and shimmering 4th movement, the Finale:
The first movement of this piece gives you a sense of Chopin’s melodic genius, as a rather catchy melody is interwoven delicately amidst the turbulent sea of notes.
This sonata is, if you haven’t already figured as much, extremely difficult.
Nocturne in C# Minor, Op. Posth.
Chopin didn’t invent the Nocturne, but he certainly took the genre and ran, to the point where Nocturnes are now basically ubiquitous with Chopin.
His nocturnes take you on an emotional journey full of subtlety and surprise. It was really difficult choosing just one, but since I tend to have a preference for minor keys, I chose my own personal dark favorite: the Nocturne in C# Minor, published posthumously.
I wanted to show you this piece for a few reasons. First, it’s not nearly as outwardly complex as the Sonata (it is ranked a Grade 9 RCM level).
However, sometimes in music, it’s the things that seem simple that are actually very complex to play. This is not a simple piece – it requires a lot of subtlety, fluidity and control. But when performed properly, it should sound simple.
Etude in C minor, op 10 no 12 “revolution”
Chopin wrote some etudes. Etudes are musical exercises, yes, but these are the crème de la crème of etudes, which, unlike many other etudes, are frequently performed in concert halls.
He wrote many of these when he was still a teenager, and the 12th Etude, nicknamed Revolutionary, was written in 1831, around the time of the November Uprising when Poland, Chopin’s homeland, had a failed revolution against Russia.
This piece is pure stormy angst and I love it.
Chopin minute waltz, op 64 no 1
Chopin wrote plenty of beautiful waltzes, and many are among my personal favorites.
Today I’ll show you his Waltz in Db Major, op. 64 no. 1 – it might not be my ultimate favorite waltz of his, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s worth noting that he could write silly music as well.
Even though this waltz is called the Minute Waltz, it’s not intended to be played in a minute – it just means miniature.
Apparently Chopin was inspired by a dog chasing its tail for this piece, because he nicknamed it the “Little Dog Waltz”.
The Minute Waltz is so light and exhilarating! I really enjoy Lang Lang’s carefree performance above. Chopin wasn’t all doom and gloom – his music catalogue contains the full rainbow of emotion.
heroic polonaise in Ab major op 53
Chopin’s Polonaises are worth discussing because they’re awesome, and also because Chopin had a bit of a Nationalistic bent. He enjoyed writing music representative of his Polish heritage, such as the Polonaises (and Mazurkas, which we won’t discuss today but you should definitely check out).
Chopin wrote his first Polonaise at age 7, and his final one just a few years before his death.
His “Heroic” Polonaise in Ab is powerful and hard-hitting, and is also extremely difficult to play.
Vladimir Horowitz really seems to capture the essence and lightness of Chopin, and his recordings are excellent because of it.
Make sure to listen at around the 30-second mark when the main theme begins – there’s a good chance you’ve heard this piece before!
Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52
Chopin’s four ballades are standard repertoire for many pianists, and very difficult as well.
I’m going to show you the fourth ballade in F minor which I find to be particularly beautiful, and a very good representation of Romantic music in general. It is also generally considered the most difficult of the four ballades.
John Ogdon, a pianist and composer, has this to say about the fourth ballade:
“…the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions … It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.”
Where Chopin succeeded here, as with much of his music, is by creating a unique but extremely catchy melody.
Us modern folk are quite used to catchy melodies (the entire design of pop music), so Chopin is generally easy to like for those uninitiated in Classical (or in this case, Romantic) music.
And that concludes our discussion on the best music of Chopin. Is there an amazing piece that I forgot about? Let me know in the comments!