What is it about Chopin’s piano music that makes it speak to so many people?
Even many of those with no particular knowledge of music would immediately recognise the sound and style of it. This is probably even more true of Chopin’s music than of the music of other great composers like Bach, Mozart or Beethoven.
Of course a lot of people would recognise Beethoven’s fifth symphony, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik or the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg variations. But would they be able to identify the style of these composers in a piece they have never heard before? Perhaps they would, but in the case of Chopin it would be more than likely. So what is the reason for that?
In this article, I won’t pretend to expose all the secrets of Chopin’s magic, but perhaps I can at least point to some of the things that make his music so unique. The way I look at it, it has to do with his unique sources of inspiration, and the way he transformed them, making his music a whole a lot greater than the sum of its parts.
Chopin’s sources of inspiration
First of all, there was his longing for a beloved and suffering Poland. All his life he kept remembering the music he had listened to as a child; during his exile, the memories were infused with nostalgia and nationalism. His countrymen in Paris encouraged him to transform them into his own Mazurkas, Polonaises and so on.
Then there was his love for the singing human voice. Chopin adored the opera, and in particular the brilliant and beautiful style of the bel canto singers of his own time. With his superb knowledge of how to make his own instrument sing, Chopin was able to make constant use at the piano of what he had listened to at the opera house, for instance in his Nocturnes.
As regards instrumental music, Chopin’s tastes were in a way rather conservative. He revered Bach and Mozart and studied the principles of their work very thoroughly. The fact that he managed to remain so true to his Classical ideals, and at the same time become one of the most important Romantics, is really something of a marvel.
This connection to the past is the reason why even his lightest and most entertaining works always differs substantially from mere salon music. The Waltzes, for example, may have quite a lot in common with the popular, glittering and sentimental piano music of the Paris salons of the time; but at the same time, thanks to Chopin’s ability to make all his other influences work together, they are gems testifying to his superior genius as a composer.