A Farewell Waltz

On this day, October 17th, in 1849, Frédéric François Chopin passed away in Paris.

“He had no predecessor and no successor…. Chopin came and departed like a comet from remote space,” said Australian pianist, Ernest Hutcheson.

He is remembered as a morose and anxious man, one who composed a song to cope with his sorrows of believing his friends had all been lost to a storm. Yet, his contemporaries write of him being quite the jokester as well.

Many of Chopin’s waltzes are nicknamed these decorous names like “The Grand Waltz” or “The Minute Waltz,” but “The Farewell Waltz” is as intriguing as the man himself.

He wrote this waltz for Maria Wodzińska, to whom he was once engaged. When his health began to fail, however, her parents forced the two to break off the engagement. Chopin said his farewell to her through this waltz.

 

Most of Chopin’s works are held together by a single recurring melody. Sometimes the recurrences are masked within decorated accompaniment, sometimes the melody develops with each sounding, and sometimes it simply returns as it originally was.

In this waltz, it is the last of these. The piece can be broken into three major sections: A, B, and C. The A section contains the melodic binding:

The waltz begins with two iterations of this theme, with a slight alteration of the polyrhythmic run in the eleventh full measure of the melody.

The B section follows. Marked “con anima,” we might guess that this section refers to joyful memories.

It bounces along with a lovely registral accent in the right hand every other measure. Most interesting about this section in particular, however, is how the left hand accompaniment pops out of the texture during the second half of each measure. The accent on the weaker beat in the measure hearken to the Mazurka for which Chopin is most prominently known. The focus on the left hand here also characterizes much of Chopin’s style.

Charles Rosen, noted pianist and writer on music, attributes this to Chopin’s exposure to 16th-century counterpoint (through studies of J.S. Bach). Romantic composers and 16th-century counterpoint don’t always seem to fit together, so Rosen explains that Chopin’s version of counterpoint mimics the aural experience of listening to J.S. Bach. Certainly, many voices independently sound to create a cohesive whole, and one can listen to each individual voice through repeated listenings, but the experience of hearing Bach live is that of a prominent voice with the other voices fading into more of an accompaniment role. The voices take turns being the most important.

Such is it with Chopin. Rosen writes that Chopin does not achieve “the constant independence of the voices in classical counterpoint, but a latent independence of each voice, consistent and continuous, which could break into full independence at any moment.”1

This B section in particular exemplifies that idea in this Waltz. After the first iteration of the B section, the A them returns, and then a repeat of the two lead into the C section:

Again, we have an accent on a weak beat, this time on beat two, which references the Mazurka rhythm. Perhaps Chopin is remembering happy days with his formerly betrothed as he says his farewell. This section repeats without the A theme interfering and ends with a grand crescendo on a figure that emphasizes beat two even more.

And then this crying out of love or sadness falls back into the whimsical, yet somehow also melancholy A theme.

There is so much to unpack in all of his pieces, and I hope to do many more on this blog. The common thread running through them all is the use of a melodic thread to hold together each of his works. Listening to that thread interacting with the rest of the notes creates layers and expectation and is perhaps why Chopin is still so popular today.


1. Rosen, Charles. The Romantic Generation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

How to Practice Like a Prodigy

Were you a child prodigy? Did you have to suffer through the same courses of practice and lessons as people obviously not as gifted as you? Then this post is for you!

Presenting How to Practice Like a Prodigy: A guide for those incredible geniuses who only ever excelled at their craft.

  • Play through your pieces from beginning to end. That’s it. Just do that. Us amateurs never do that. Ever.
  • Never, I repeat, never listen to a professional play your piece. Don’t listen to multiple recordings. You’re better than them, and your rendition will shed new light on classical composers’ true intentions.
  • Who needs scales and arpeggios? You mastered those in your sleep. And don’t get me started on Hanon
  • Forget about warm ups altogether. You need to be able to play your pieces cold, 100% of the time. You never know when a piano is just going to show up needing to be played.
  • Leave your phone on the music stand. That way, you’ll be prepared for emergency phone calls…or you know seeing when your crush likes your status about practicing…
  • Take lots of aesthetic photos for your blog. You’ve got to build your personal brand; the road to success is full of marketing! Bonus points for extra-complicated looking music.

#allthefilters #Ravel #howdopeopleevendothis
#pleasedonttakemeseriously

  • Finally, don’t listen to any criticism from your teachers, other musicians, or any of your favorite blogs regarding your practice methods. Only you know what’s best for you.

Fellow musicians, what are your tips for practicing like a prodigy? Please enlighten us by sharing in the comments below. Aesthetic photos of sheet music and/or your instruments are also highly encouraged!

Ravel: Rigaudon from Le Tombeau de Couperin

You made it to the weekend!

I wanted to share one of my favorite pieces as a fun way to start the weekend. The “Rigaudon” from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is one of the pieces that made me fall in love with piano, and it’s just a fun piece to both listen to and play (hopefully I’ll have a good quality recording before too long).

Ravel began work on Le Tombeau de Couperin while he worked as a nurse’s aid in World War I.  Each movement in the work is dedicated to a friend that he lost during the war, thus allowing them to live on eternally through song.  The Rigaudon form stems from a lively, French folkdance that gained popularity in the court of Louis XIII. In the ballet, it was performed with a lot of running and a lot of leaping, which you may also do when you listen to Ravel’s version.

In the future, I’ll do a little essay on Couperin himself and his influence on later keyboard composers (especially Ravel!), but for now, it’s the weekend. Just enjoy this fun one!

And happy practicing!

Song of the Day: Mozart Rondo, K.485

This song will forever remain one of my favorite pieces to play and listen to. In this recording, Horowitz beautifully captures the lightness and wit that Mozart is known for.

In fact, this piece itself is a bit of a musical joke. A Rondo is a form that repeats a theme, in this piece, the very first melody that is played. The theme repeats in different keys throughout. The form is a test to the composer’s creativity in presenting the same material over and over again without boring the audience. This piece certainly fits the rondo form; the theme repeats in all sorts of keys, closely-related and exotic.

Yet, the form also matches that of a Sonata, where two themes, in two keys that have a specific relationship (tonic and dominant–sorry if that’s a lot of music jargon), interact throughout. They exemplify the “push and pull” balance that helps define music. Since it is still a rondo, there is just one theme, but Mozart treats it like two and plays with it in the same way he would in a sonata. Thus, it would be appropriate to call this a Sonata -Rondo.

The best part of this piece, however, is that it sounds similar to an opera overture with “characters” introduced. Meeting each of these musical characters, or ideas, is one of my favorite parts of playing it. There is a definite distinction between heroes and villains, and if you listen hard enough, you can meet them too!

It’s no coincidence Mozart worked on The Marriage of Figaro at the same time he wrote this Rondo. It obviously affected the spirit of it.

Hope you enjoy listening! And join me next week for another song!

Tuesday Tips: Fingerings

One of the first pages of a piano lesson book contains an image of the hand with numbers assigned to each finger. It’s a way to communicate a part of piano technique through text. The next pages include exercises of finger patterns that later move into full songs. For the first few books, finger numbers sit under every note. From the author’s perspective, writing fingerings down is part of the process.

From the student’s perspective, however, these numbers are just a crutch that professionals don’t use.

For as long as I’ve been in the music world, young musicians perpetuate the idea that “real musicians” don’t need these. Perhaps this is due to a flaw in the teaching system, but that’s a discussion for another time. It’s true that more advanced sheet music is not printed with these guides, but they’re still imperative to the musician’s success and leave room for individual hand anatomy to be taken into account.

Frederic Chopin is known for much of his work being in keys full of sharps and flats. These are typically regarded as “more advanced keys” since they’re a little harder to read. Chopin’s work feels good to play, once the work of figuring out all the accidentals is done. His music possesses an innate understanding of the patterns of keys compared to the shape of the hand.

His legacy shows us that some fingerings are better than others. It’s an art form in itself. It’s better to figure out the patterns, write them down, and then learn them than have to puzzle through and learn a multitude of patterns until the “right one” is reached.

A little preparation goes a long way, especially in the professional world.

There are a few books on the art of fingering, but the one most recommended is Natural Fingering: A Topographical Approach to Pianism by Jon Verbalis. This one bases its suggestions in Chopin’s philosophy of proper piano technique. I have yet to read it, but I look forward to checking it out.