In Praise of Chopin

The coming of the piano was one of the great leaps forward in western music. There was now a keyboard instrument capable of long legato passages, of crescendo and diminuendo, and of the sustained notes, whether or not prolonged by the use of a pedal, that make the Moonlight Sonata so beautiful. Already employed to good effect by Haydn and Mozart, the piano would be the great instrument of the romantic period, and the one at which composers would sit.

Having said this, there remains a lot of pleasure in listening to music composed for the antecedent harpsichord. Pieces like Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith have a kind of chunky joviality that is immensely enjoyable, while Couperin’s Les Baricades Misterieuses is full of sunshine (by comparison,the same composer’s Le Tic-Toc-Choc is, well, mechanical.) While the piano vastly expanded what could be done at a keyboard, there were some things a harpsichord did better. It seems to me the great achievement of Fryderyk Chopin to have composed for the piano in a way that retains some of the strengths of the harpsichord. His impromptus and polonaises have a kind of brittle brilliancy, and sometimes in his harmonies one can almost hear Bach in the background.   Listz, in some ways Chopin’s successor, seems to steer things in a more gentle direction

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