The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat minor, Op. 11

About the Work

Frédéric François Chopin Composer: Frédéric François Chopin
© Peter Laki

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11

by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

Frédéric François (Fryderyk Franciszek) Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, on or about March 1, 1810, and died in Paris on October 17, 1849.  He composed his E-minor Piano Concerto in 1830, and played the solo part in the first performance, which took place in Warsaw on October 11, 1830.  (It was Chopin's final concert appearance in Warsaw, which he left soon thereafter, never to return.)  The first American performance was given in New York on November 21, 1846, with Henry C. Timm as soloist and George Loder conducting the orchestra of the Philharmonia Society.

This concerto runs about 40 minutes in performance.  Chopin scored it for solo piano, plus an orchestra of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, and strings. 

Chopin was barely twenty years old when he wrote his E-minor concerto, having composed the F-minor work, now known as No. 2, somewhat earlier.  Even before his formal education at the Warsaw Conservatory was complete, Chopin was already a star in the city's artistic life.  He was a frequent guest in the salons and played public concerts to packed halls.  He wrote several works for piano and orchestra during this time.  In addition to the two concerti, there are the variations on ?Là ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Giovanni (the work that made Schumann exclaim:  ?Hats off, gentlemen!  A genius!"), a Fantasy on Polish Airs, and a Rondo à la Krakowiak.

Time and again, severe critics have taken the young Chopin to task for what seems like an incomplete mastery of the large forms.  It is true that many of Chopin's greatest masterworks-the mazurkas, nocturnes, and preludes-are relatively short and use simple structures.  His larger works, fewer in number, present idiosyncracies that, in the eyes of the critics at least, are signs of inexperience and a lack of understanding of what a sonata or concerto should be like.  In the concertos, Chopin is said to have committed two great ?sins":  he neglected the orchestra, which (aside from a few tutti passages) does little but accompany the soloist; and he treated classical concerto form in a somewhat cavalier fashion.

During his years at the Warsaw Conservatory as a composition student of Józef Elsner, Chopin received a rigorous training in counterpoint and theory.  There is no doubt that he studied standard models in sonata and concerto writing and was familiar with all the rules.  But his at the time were concertos by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, John Field and Carl Maria von Weber that never challenge the piano's absolute primacy over the accompanying ensemble.  Beethoven's music was still too new and too controversial to be on the curriculum in Warsaw in 1830.

As for the question of form, it turns out that Chopin's departures from the norm make the concerto a different piece than it would otherwise be.  The fact that the opening ?Allegro maestoso" of the E-minor concerto fails to reach the goal prescribed by the rules (the key of G major) until the end of the movement is by no means a flaw.  Instead of leaving its initial state and pressing forward to new horizons, the harmony stays where it is, happily alternating between E minor and E major, without a change in the keynote.  By behaving like this, the music tells a very different ?story" than does, say, a Beethoven concerto.  Significantly, Chopin does eventually reach G major-at the end of the movement, where other composers would be settling back in the home key.  The effect of this modulation, precisely because it has been delayed for so long, is much stronger than it would have been, had it come at the ?right" moment.  The piano writing is so virtuosic throughout that Chopin evidently saw no need for a cadenza.

The second-movement ?Romanze" adds ?insult to injury," in the eyes of the critics, because-at the beginning at least-the keynote still does not budge from the original E.  Clearly, Chopin's intention was not to maximize contrast, but to write a contemplative movement from the perspective of an immobile eye that, as the composer himself wrote in a letter, ?rests on a beloved landscape that calls up in one's soul beautiful memories-for instance, on a fine, moonlit spring night."  And he added:  ?I have written for violins with mutes as an accompaniment to it.  I wonder whether it will have a good effect.  Well, time will show."

In keeping with the idea of a spring night, the style of the music is akin to that of the nocturnes, and when the key is beginning to change, the music moves ?upwards" from the initial E major to B major, a fifth above, and then to the rather unusual G-sharp major, a major third above the home key.  It is a rise that can be easily perceived even without perfect pitch.

The last movement is based on the Polish folk dance Krakowiak (from the region of Cracow), which had already inspired a Chopin work for piano and orchestra.  Here is another rondo of great freshness and vitality.  It has a bouncy main theme and dreamier second melody that gracefully jumps from key to key, making up for some of the preceding tonal uniformity.

At the first performance, the Warsaw audience greeted the E-minor concerto with ?deafening bravos," according to the composer's own account.  Later on, however, Chopin did not perform his concertos very often.  After his arrival in Paris, he played mainly solo recitals instead.  Still, the concertos contributed a great deal to his early fame, and were soon taken up by other pianists, the most notable being Clara Wieck.  The future Mrs. Schumann performed the last movement of the E-minor work in Leipzig as early as 1833, three years after the premiere (she was 14 at the time).  Since then, no matter what the critics may say, the work has had the world's greatest pianists as champions, and never lacked for enthusiastic admirers among audience members.