Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, op. 11
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, strings
notes by James Keays
I. Allegro maestoso
II. Romanze: Larghetto
III. Rondo: Vivace
Composed 1830. First performance: October 11, 1830, Warsaw. Frédéric Chopin, piano.
Frédéric Chopin was in many ways an enigma. Although born and educated in Poland, he lived his adult life in self-imposed exile as a resident of Paris. He was in many ways the absolute archetype of the suffering 19th-century romantic. Unlike the typical romantic, however, Chopin virtually ignored the orchestra and voice as mediums and concentrated all his energy in the direction of solo piano music. With rare exceptions, his output is universally even in quality. Few composers from the period subjected their works to such careful scrutiny, and virtually all of Chopin’s works were in the standard repertoire only ten years after his untimely death. He was influenced by only a few—Beethoven, Field, and Hummel—but has himself influenced almost all piano music written since his time. It can be said that modern piano technique begins with Chopin.
It would be safe to say that Chopin disliked composing for the orchestra. The two piano concertos written during his youth (before leaving Poland) exist only because pianists of the time were expected to write their own showpieces. Mozart and Beethoven eagerly and easily maintained the tradition, leaving the world with over thirty masterpieces. Others, though perfectly competent at the keyboard, were completely inept at composing for the orchestra. Unfortunately, Chopin falls into the latter category. If he hadn’t been such an influential pianist, his concertos would probably only rarely be heard. There is ample evidence that Chopin left such matters as orchestration and even form to well meaning but not very skilled friends. The use of only a single trombone and the curious fact that the third and fourth horns have absolutely nothing to play in the final two movements of the E minor concerto is unique in the history of orchestration.
The Piano Concerto in F minor, commonly referred to as Concerto No. 2, was written a year before the Concerto in E minor, op. 11, but published later. For that reason, it is perhaps better to refer to them only by their key designations. Chopin was only twenty when he composed the Concerto in E minor. Letters to friends suggest that it was not an easy task. In March 1830, he wrote, “[The last movement] is not yet finished because the right inspired mood has kept eluding me.” In September, he wrote to his closest friend that he had finished the concerto. He added that “I feel like a novice, just like I felt before I knew anything of the keyboard. It’s far too original, and I probably won’t be able to learn it.” On October 11, 1830, he played the premiere at the Warsaw National Theater. He told his friend, “The concert was a great big success!” When listening to the work, it is perhaps best to revel in the glittering technique of the piano part and pay scant attention to the formal structure or accompaniment. It is a concerto with little of traditional dramatic exchange between soloist and orchestra, but with great quantities of beautiful writing for the piano.