All composers have written works that have fallen into relative obscurity, and often this obscurity is undeserved. One of the joys of performing the complete works of any composer is discovering these little known pieces for oneself and bringing them into the light. In my next installment of the complete works of Frédéric Chopin, I devote much of the program to Chopin's obscure works, joining them with some of his best known works in groupings designed to reveal interesting connections. The title of the program is "Chopin's Hidden Gems and All-Time Favorites," but we could affectionately call the program "Selections from Chopin's 'Top 40' and 'Bottom 40!'" Not "Bottom" in terms of quality, of course, but in terms of familiarity.
At first glance the program may appear to be a grab bag of miscellaneous works, but a closer look reveals organization throughout the program around certain themes. For example, the program begins with two of Chopin's most substantial "hidden gems," the Tarantella and the Bolero, followed by the great Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No. 1, often called the "Military." I call this opening group "Chopin the Traveler." Chopin was not able actually to travel much, being of relatively fragile health for much of his adult life. But he certainly traveled in his imagination to Italy, the birthplace of the Tarantella; to Spain, that of the Bolero; and to Poland, which he left at the age of 19, never to return. When he composed the "Military" Polonaise years after leaving Poland, he may well have been immersing himself nostalgically in the spirit of his homeland. He did make it to the Spanish island of Mallorca eventually, but only after he had composed the Bolero. Hearing these pieces together is revealing indeed: One hears how Chopin uses the polonaise rhythm in the Bolero and wonders whether he simply hadn't researched genuine Bolero rhythms. But it turns out that the standard rhythm of a polonaise is also found in boleros! And furthermore, one hears in the Bolero a gesture that sounds like it was lifted whole and intact from the Polonaise- except the Bolero came before the Polonaise! Did that gesture plant a seed in Chopin's mind that later flowered into one of the most beloved of his polonaises? It's quite possible that it did, and hearing the two works back to back is a revelation.
Another group of works shows Chopin working on his contrapuntal skills in pieces seemingly directly inspired by J. S. Bach, one of Chopin's favorite composers. Many Chopin lovers find it astonishing that he composed a fugue and a canon, as these pieces are virtually never played. I pair Chopin's unfinished Canon in F minor with a mazurka that finishes with a melodic canon (Op. 63, No. 3); and I follow Chopin's thrilling Fugue in A minor with a mazurka that features a great deal of imitative counterpoint, just like a fugue (Op. 50, No. 3). I like to call Chopin's Mazurkas his creative laboratory, and indeed it is not at all surprising that he would apply his refreshed contrapuntal skills to two of these highly personal, deeply original dances.
The entire evening is organized in what I hope are creative and revealing ways: I'll play an early spinning waltz followed by the most famous dizzying waltz of them all, the so-called "Minute" Waltz, which Chopin said was inspired by a dog chasing its tail! I'll play a stately, little known Largo suffused with a spirit of serenity, and follow that with one of the darkest of Chopin's stately marches, the funereal Prelude in C minor, also marked "Largo." I'll play Chopin's two Bourrées, two almost entirely unknown miniatures of charming simplicity, and follow them with another miniature whose simplicity masks the greatest sophistication, the Prelude in A major. And much more! 22 works in all, and all organized into groups that have a thematic connection.
I invite you to join me on February 10 at 8pm at the Music Center at Strathmore. Come and discover Chopin's hidden gems and rediscover his perennial favorites as we continue our journey through the Romantic master's complete works.