Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) is one of the most famous and well-loved composers of all time. He wrote almost exclusively for solo piano with his style being influenced by Polish folk music. While he never enjoyed performing publicly in his life, his pieces have lived on for many years after his death with a lot of composers attributing their inspiration to Chopin. This amongst other factors makes him on the most prominent figures of the romantic era in the classical music genre.
Here we are looking at some of his best songs for solo piano and other instruments.
Chopin borrowed the title of Nocturne from another composer, John Field, who created easy-going and free-form solo piano music during his life. Most of the pieces int he nocturne suite are on the longer side, allowing Chopin to explore more ideas to do with the night. Many of the pieces create an almost nightmarish atmosphere.
In total Chopin composed 21 nocturnes, with the last two never intended to be published. They were released after the composer died. Some of the most famous nocturnes include No. 2, 8, 13 & 20. Nocturne in E flat, Op 9, No 2 is perhaps is the most dynamic piece.
Nocturne in E flat, Op 9, No 2
The nocturnes were almost poetic marvels with the tranquil nightscapes that made some of the haunted sounding works. Many are favorites to play at concerts, so what makes this piece stand out from the other 21? The emotional part of Nocturne in E flat, Op 9, No 2 is deeply sophisticated and sensual. It shines from the hands of the composer to anyone who wants to interpret it. The accompaniment dips and plunges and it truly emerges you into the piece rather than just sticking to the surface. Below are a few more of Chopin’s best nocturnes.
- Nocturne in B flat minor, Op 9, No 1
- Nocturne in E flat major, Op 9, No 2
- Nocturne in F sharp major, Op 15, No 2
- Nocturne in D flat major, Op 27, No 2
- Nocturne in E flat major, Op 55, No 2
Any Chopin fan will know that he took a lot of his influence from Bach. In fact, he would recommend his works to his students. You can hear this influence strongly in the preludes from Chopin with a few differences between the two. Bach wrote his preludes in two volumes with fugue and prelude in each key going in chromatic order. Chopin gave us only preludes and change the order so that each of the major key preludes was followed by a harmonic minor key.
The way that the preludes were written by Chopin means that each piece is tighter and has more of a cycle to it. It’s never been known whether Chopin intended this music to be played in full or to look at each piece separately. Many accomplished pianists have found all 24 preludes difficult to play. Some of the most famous preludes include Op 28, No 16 and Op 28, No 4.
The Division of the Preludes
The preludes vary in expression, dynamics, rhythm and tempo. Chopin students divided the 24 into 8 groups which we will outline below.
No 1, No 7, No 11, No 23 – Idyllic
- Are serene in character.
- Have all been written in major scales.
- Each piece has a moderate tempo with gentle dynamics.
- They are based on a single melody which provides the material for the rest of the composition.
- Motives frequently repeat.
No 2, No 4, No 6 – Elegiac
- More dramatic.
- Extremely slow tempos.
- Almost always end with a fade away or a gradual decrease in tempo.
No 3, No 5, No 19 – Etude
- The liveliest group.
- Features up tempos, bright sounds and complicated passages.
- Extremely hard to play.
No 17, No 21 – Cantabile
- Very calm.
- Long compared to the rest of the pieces in the cycle.
- Recognizable and simple melodies.
- Surprising occurrences during the harmony.
- Song like, as cantabile in Italian means singable.
No 8, No 10, No 14 – Scherzoidal
- Fast moving with quick tempos.
- Difficult to play thanks to the incredibly fast tempos.
- Also features overlays of two contradictory rhythms to form a polyrhythm.
No 9, No 20 – Marching/Hymnic
- Solemn and loft.
- Have a lower register.
- No 9 is the shortest of all the preludes being only twelve bars long.
No 12, No 16, No 18, No 22 – Ballad
- Dynamic and explosive.
- Bring fierceness to the cycle.
- They are said to represent Chopin’s struggle with physical and mental illness.
No 13, No 15 – Nocturnal
- Representative of the night.
- Longer and more mellow.
- Prelude No 15 is the most famous of the 24 pieces.
No 24 – The Last Prelude
- The closing gesture of the cycle.
- Has a solemn ambience with explosive overtones.
During his late teens, Chopin composed his two piano concertos, with No 2 being the first of the two. Both of these pieces are charming, showcasing the pianist in an orchestral ensemble. The highlight of both pieces comes in the middle where the music slows. The final movements are both energetic and almost dance-like. It’s not the best of what we know Chopin could produce but these pieces are still captivating and enjoyable with touching lilts throughout. Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor, Op 11 is the piece most people would recognize.
Scherzos translates directly to jokes in Italian and Chopin saved some of his most compelling composing for these pieces. There are no funny moments to be had in these pieces but the sheer pianist command and technique needed to play this music is clear to see. The scherzos occupy a respectful foothold in Chopin’s piano repertoire and are seen by many as the peak of his composing for the instrument. In total Chopin created four scherzos during his life, with the most famous one being Scherzo No 2, Op 31.
Much like the scherzos Chopin’s ballads are also technically challenging and are also quite lengthy. The character of the pieces is quite fantastical. With his most famous ballad being No 1 in G minor, all four of his ballads were very distinct from one another. It’s rewarding to listen through the entire cycle as the ballads are amongst some of the best music ever written by the famous composer.
Ballade No 1 in G Minor
Chopin was at the tender age of 21 when he composed his most famous ballad, No 1 in G minor. It’s a very dramatic piece that features impassioned and ferocious outbursts of music that transforms the theme entirely. Some have said that Chopin based the song on the epic poem Konrad Wallenrod by Adam Mickiewicz – a romantic tale with a hero who lost his true love and battles ferociously with mental health before committing suicide.
Chopin easily saved some of his most brilliant composing for the waltzes, with each one sparkling in its own way. Each waltz features a 3/4 rhythm making them a popular choice for balls in the 19th century. The most famous of Chopin’s waltzes include the waltz in D-flat major and the C-sharp minor waltz. There are 13 official waltzes in total but there are around 12 more in existence, some that have a dubious authenticity.
For Chopin the Mazurka was a representation of his homeland and Polish heritage. Each piece has influences from ancient polish dances that evoke the composer’s most reflective and deepest memories. You can see this influence most in Mazurka Op 24 and like many of his dance-inspired pieces, the rhythm is a homage to Polish folk music.
Each Mazurka follows an A-B-A format, with the middle sections representing a different atmosphere than the other parts. If you are a beginner listener to Chopin the best pieces to listen to would be opuses 56, 59 and 63.
Mazurkas, Op 24
Choosing just one of Chopin’s Mazurkas as a favorite is difficult because each one is a masterpiece all on its own. We’ve gone for one of the earlier Mazurkas that balances out the rhythm of Polish folk dance music with Chopin’s own poetic voice. The combination creates an elusive and magical piece that should definitely be on your must listen to list.
The Polonaise was similar to the Mazurka, taking dance style inspiration from Polish folk music. In Chopin’s versions, he makes them energetic and uplifting both in the rhythm and in the art of the music itself. Throughout his life, Chopin wrote many different Polonaises but only seven have been published with his blessing. The most famous pieces include the third, also known as the military and the sixth which was nicknamed heroic.
Of the longer pieces from Chopin, the ten-minute Polonaise-Fantaisie was one of the later works published by the composer. It has a unique structure that really packs an emotional punch. The piece seems part lullaby, part love song but at its core, it’s a soft song that is truly haunting for the listener.
Sonata No. 2
Chopin never was too comfortable with long sonatas which may be why he only ever composed four of them. Three of these were solo piano sonatas and one was a cello sonata. From this small array of pieces, the second is the most well-known because of it’s slow, funeral march-like movement. The final part of this song is considered to be the hardest to play by many pianists because both hands have to play an identical melodic line incredibly fast.
Sonata No 3 in B Minor, Op 58
For those who love solo piano pieces, this is by far the most substantial of Chopin’s works. It is designed in four movements that require fast fingers and intensity to keep up with. The structure is atypical for Chopin’s usual style but it’s unique and irresistible sound has made it a favorite for many audiences.
Another piece that was never intended to be bought out for public listening, Fantasie-Impromptu gained its popularity after the composer had passed away. It’s a beautiful piece that deserves all the love it gets from Chopin’s fans.
What is the most famous Chopin piece?
Waltz in D-flat major is probably the most famous and successful piece of Chopin’s.
Which is the best Chopin nocturne?
Chopin’s best-known Nocturne is E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2 that he composed at around twenty years of age.
Why is Chopin the best?
Chopin is seen as one of the best composers due to his tonality and imagination as well as the stunning performances he gave of his pieces.
Chopin is one of the first composers that many classical music fans listen to and fall in love with. His music draws you in and his piano concertos are some of the finest in his entire repertoire. Each time you listen to his music it makes you rethink his works and you will appreciate them all over again.