Why did Chopin who was a “Romantic” compose solely for the piano?

Photo by Ran Himeda

1. The trend of Romanticism

 Since the French Revolution in 1789, the awareness as a citizen=individual spread quickly in Europe, and individual desire was released. While the technology has made great strides both in industry and in the field of art, the inner dark world of the human beings, dreams and yearning for love began to proclaim themselves. Romanticism is a cultural trend that was born around this phenomenon. With the idea of ​​returning to nature and seeking the truth in the past, they advocated art for the sake of art. Goethe, Rousseau and Wordsworth belong to the founding generation of Romanticism. There is a view that Romanticism was a movement against Napoleon’s territorial expansionism and universalism.

    Many literary figures and thinkers such as ETA Hoffmann, Novalis, Schlegel, and Byron shaped the movement, and at the beginning of the 19th century, Romantic trends were already prominent, mainly in Germany.  

   In the history of music, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are regarded as classical composers, but for example, the composer’s desire to reach the greater, the more distant, his and will to move forward even at the cost of traditional sense of balance, are evident in Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Here he pursues the essence of the universe and tries to become one with it with his will, through the subjective way of life of an artist. For the ETA Hoffmann and others, this was nothing but a heroic image of a Romantic artist. And Mozart reveals his personal feelings such as sorrow and pain in his works in minor keys after his middle period, while maintaining the classical proportion (Piano Concerto K.466, K.488 2nd movement, K.491, Symphony No. 40 etc.), We encounter the abundance of romantic expression there.

   Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann, and Chopin were among the group of genius musicians who began their activities around 1830, bearing the fate of studying these great works by their predecessors. Mendelssohn was a German prodigy, whose talent came to bloom after receiving healthy classic education. But Liszt and Chopin, who were stimulated by satanic techniques by Paganini, and along the line of the rapid development of the instrument piano, emerged as a bearer of more euphonic, more intensely emotional romantic piano music. My view is that, unlike the Germans who were at the center of this Romantic movement, these two came from the peripherals, therefore were more conscious of the thrilling technique that can be exhibited by the performers and attract the audience instantly. It is a more objective and universally revered element in music, symbolizing progress; and people were astonished by their pianism. They quickly became stars.

   The piano works I recorded for this CD are mainly Chopin. By the way, Chopin is practically known only for his piano works. However, in his teens, Chopin studied music comprehensively at the Conservatory of Warsaw. By the age of 20, he possessed orchestration technique (some people say it was premature, but he was still able!), and wrote two great piano concertos, both of them in three movements, utilizing fully the sonata form, ternary form, the Rondo form, and the classical variation form. So, why after migrating to Paris, except for writing several songs, did he concentrated almost entirely on piano solo works?  He lived as a piano composer and piano poet and died. In this respect, Chopin is different from Liszt whose works range from symphonic poems, songs to many arrangements of compositions by other composers. Why did Chopin write just for the piano? And is this related to the fact that Chopin is one of the representative “Romantic” composers? In this essay, I would like to answer this question to the best of my ability.

   There is no doubt that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and others left us the treasure of works for the keyboard instruments, but when the viewpoint is reversed, the instrument had to have been completed in its form and structure, with the musical grammar embedded within the instrument, in order for the composers to realize their own musical world based upon the given capacity of the instrument. This concrete musical system, which is the piano, was what enabled Mozart and Chopin to write their great works. I will explain what this means in detail later.

   This is similar to the fact that a great poet is born only when a system of a language is sufficiently developed, and the great athletes will be born only after the rules of a sport are well established and publicly recognized. Therefore, in the following, I would like to explore the process of development in the instrument called the piano which made Chopin’s excellent piano literature possible. And the topic would include the equal temperament tuning system which played a curtail role in the advancement of the Western music in general and with which the instrument piano had developed into perfection.

2. The function of pedal

   First and foremost is the development of the pedal. The role of the right pedal of the piano can be roughly divided into two. The first is perhaps the very original function of the pedal, which is to prolong the sound even after the finger leaves the key. If you sustain the sound in the bass register by holding the pedal, and at the same time play the next chord or notes, it is like adding one more voice to the music. Two voices will become three voices, and three will become four. It can be said that the organ has an extra voice because an additional line can be given to the foot pedals. The phrase “the piano is a little orchestra” sounds truer when the pedal’s function is taken into consideration.   

   Secondly, the pedal makes the sound quality more “vibrato.” It creates the more singing sound which is often described as ”cantabile.” In addition, the pedal would add the effect of the color: the sound becomes brighter and shining in the higher register when the pedal is applied, and the more heaviness and harshness would result in the low register. I would like to include these effects in the second role of the pedal.

   Russell Sherman, a famous pianist and piano teacher who has been active around Boston, USA, calls the pedal “the soul of the piano”. But if in the 18th century fortepiano era, the performers would not have said so. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a pedal mechanism that could really create beautiful cantabile sound was introduced.

   Playing the bass and subsequent harmony with the left hand and playing the melody “cantabile” with the right hand: this style is typically seen in John Field’s Nocturne; and Chopin adopted this, too. It is possible to see this combination as the opera singer’s solo (or the violin solo) in the right hand and the orchestral accompaniment in the left hand,.

   That said, it was almost impossible to sing like a vocalist with the piano. The piano is a kind of percussion instrument with the hammers striking the strings and it is difficult to achieve a real singing quality. The very fact that the objective is far away and difficult to achieve made Chopin focus on this task, which is truly “romantic” attitude. Morihide Katayama put it in this way (magazine Bungei special volume “Chopin”, “Interview” on Chopin) and I agree with his opinion.

   In addition to that, I feel that what does not exist in reality could become more real than simple facts due to the work of the imagination, For example, the sound of horns and trumpets heard in Chopin’s piano works, or the sound of drone instruments and percussion instruments used in folk dance, of the church organs and the castle bells…, these are only imaginative sound heard from the piano but it could strike one’s heart deeply. By the way, does not this nature, being able to be heard as a voice or other instruments, even though it is a piano sound, indicate the neutrality of the tone color of the piano? Next, I would like to consider what the color of the piano sounds means for composers.

3. Piano sounds for Chopin

My father, Kosaku Toguchi, who was a Western music historian often said that for many great Western composers, to compose was primarily and quintessentially to manipulated the pitch and duration of sound and juxtapose them to create multiple voices, and then repeat this task to form larger parts and build them into the whole piece. They showed only second-hand interest in “color” of the sound. Bach’s fugue (and many other works, too) can be played on various instruments whose color are different one another because no musical instrument is specified by the composer. And in modern times, Baroque music including Bach is often played on the piano, which is generally accepted. And no letter of protest from Bach has been arrived to us. Both Mozart and Beethoven valued melody lines, harmony and counterpoint and all the combination of these, writing them on staves or trying them on the keyboards. If a piano piece is arranged for the orchestra or the string quartet, the piece would still be as good; and conversely the orchestra piece could be made into a piano piece.

   I think my father’s point is interesting. Of course, when looking at the music of the 20th century beginning with Debussy etc., there are various ideas regarding color and timbre of music and we will see the situation is different. But for Chopin who lived in the first half of the 19th century,  I believe composition was essentially to create melody, accompaniment, rhythm, harmony, counterpoint and decide how to combine all these.

   The piano also has its colors in its sound for sure. Brilliant, shining sound in the high register; dark, strong, and sometimes creaking In the bass register. In the 19th century, when the piano began to produce more resonating sounds after the improvement of acoustic plates and pedals, Chopin praised it. Perhaps without this improvement in timbre, Chopin couldn’t continue to write the piano pieces. However, I think that “color” in music has another meaning. It is produced by the given key, the harmony, the way to modulate, and the way in which the notes in the melody are combined (speed, length and strength of each note and how to breathe between the notes etc.). I think the color in music created in this way was the most important for Chopin. This color, if I translate it into poetry, is the tone color of a poem. What it means is not the sound of each syllable, but a kind of atmosphere. I hope you would understand me if I say this tone or atmosphere is created by the meaning (plus the sound) of each line.

   Then, is there really a color in the tone of the music in this regard? In a purely physical sense, it can’t be said so. The reason is that even if the pitch of a note with the same note name could be a semitone apart due to the tunings, and in the worst case the difference could be as big as a whole tone, Still the notes must be regarded as having the same note name. Therefore, it can be said that physically there is no color of D major. It is a color that occurs and changes only in the musical language. I think (generally) E-flat and A-flat majors are brilliant and elegant keys compared with the simpler G and D majors, but this impression might have been made in me by knowing certain pieces by Beethoven or Chopin.

   Chopin made great use of the colors created by the keys and harmony. For the black keys, it is easy to read the same key enharmonically (for example, the pitches C # and  D♭ are of the same key). The famous “Fantasy Impromptu” and the Waltz in C # minor (op. 64-2), the music shifts naturally from C # minor to D♭ major in the middle part, and later returns to C # minor again. There, not only the tempo and the musical contents but also the color changes due to agile transposition.

 When we talk about color in music in this manner, the individual tones created by the piano keys lose their meaning. In other words, the tone (or timbre) of the piano becomes transparent and neutral. This is similar to the assumption in Euclidean geometry that the length of a point, the width of a line, and the thickness of a surface are zero. I think that the tone of the piano may be suitable for such a method.

   Next, I would like to talk about the relationship between the black key and the white key and the problem of integration of the two, which I think might answer the following question: “what in the piano inspired Chopin to write his music?”

4. Equal temperament and the role of the black keys

   When J.S. Bach familiarized himself with the equal tempered tuning system or something similar to it, he wrote his “Preludes and Fugues” in 24 different keys (half of them major and half of them minor) which are possible on 12 different keys on the keyboard. It was a great accomplishment. However, at that time, I would say it was still experimental. It is said that what Bach actually used was not the equal temperament system but the tuning system invented by Werckmeister, and his modulation in each piece was limited to the closest key area of the main key.  

   In case of Mozart, he was said to be familiar with the mean tone system most.  

   It was much later that the equal temperament system was generally adopted for the tuning of the piano and totally established its methodology and its undisputed position in practice. It is well known that when Schubert wrote his improvisation op.90-3 in Gb major,” the publisher changed it into G major saying that the key is not suitable for amateurs. The composer must have felt betrayed to hear that. It is obvious that he did not accidentally choose this key of Gb major. Schubert intended to give the black keys the main role, spinning beautifully colored pianistic passages using them (also he carefully considered the key relationships with the other three improvisations he wrote). Furthermore, around this axis of Gb major, he makes bold modulations to other keys.   It can be said that composers’ many attempts to use more complicated keys, and modulation to distant keys, even facing difficulties in the process, led toward the era in which the equal temperament tuning became a standard.

   Let’s examine how five black keys in an octave came into existence from the theoretical viewpoint. In the history of Western music, initially there was only one transformed note allowed in a given scale. That was the note of Bb. If we take C major scale (Ionian scale on the note C), this means to lower the leading tone a half step. As a result, we get the major scale in F (In medieval music, the Ionian scale was not the main one, as is known. This scale occupied the central stage much later). Repeating this operation five times, we get five flatted (=black) notes. The five black keys on the piano are considered to be created this way:  When we cancel the role of the leading tone in a given Ionian scale (adding a flat to the leading tone), we will get a perfect 5th down.

   If, instead, we introduce a new leading tone for the fifth degree (the dominant) of an Ionian scale (let’s begin with the C scale), the note F gets a sharp, and we will have an Ionian scale in G. By repeating this operation five times, we will get the piano keyboard with five black keys. The results are the same. 

   So let’s think about the accumulation of black keys on the # side for now, stacking them upwards at the interval of 5th.The black keys will appear as a new leading tone each time. These leading tones naturally resolve to the tonic notes that are white keys. Here, black keys are “tension” and white keys are “release.” On the other hand, with the exception of the key of F (both the leading note E and the tonic F are in white), the tonics Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb are all in black (the next note Cb is in white). Up to the six flats in the key signature, the leading tones are in white and the tonics are in black. This is the opposite of the # side. This relationship of black and white keys meaning “tension and release” can be easily found even if the keys are in minor. Because the tonic will be the sixth note of an Ionian scale, we just need to see the colors of that note and its semitone lower.

   I have used the Ionian mode as a model for the explanation just because it became a predominant mode after the Baroque era. Following this way of constructing 12-tone scale, accumulating the perfect 5th intervals each time (either going up or down), the 13th note will not be exactly the same pitch as the first note of this construction. In the Pythagorean system of tuning, this is called the error of a comma. In the equal temperament tuning system, this error will disappear after the amount of the error will be equally distributed among the 12 semitones (proportionally, calculated by logarithm). This way, the circle will be complete and at the 13th note, we will reach the same pitch (an octave higher, that is twice as the number of frequencies of the original note) as the first note. When this circle of the fifth is completed, there are no “transformed notes” or “accidentals” any more. They are all equally treated, and that is the equal temperament. Then, all of them will begin to insist: “I can become the tonic,” “I can become the tonic.” By the time of Chopin, the piano instrument had begun to adopt this equal temperament system.

5. Chopin: the composer of “Black key”

   The black keys are located in the back, that is: they are a little farther from the performer’s body, and they are higher than the white keys. The ideal widths of white and black keys, the length of their gap, their heights, and the measure of the angle of the slope at the edges of the black keys etc. should have thought over through many years of experiment. Now, it is possible to slide the same finger from the black key to the neighboring white key to play legato, and even the vice versa.

   Chopin was aware of the improved mechanism of the piano in his days and certainly made the best use of it. Chopin himself might have contributed to the improvement by giving a piano maker his advice. His hand found that the scale is easier to play if it contains some black keys. He pointed out that the natural position of the hand is not having all the fingers on the white keys like playing C major scale, but to put them on the keys E, F#, G#, A#, C.

   For example, let’s look at the scale in B major. In this, 5 out of 7 notes are black keys. The same thing happens in case of Gb (F#) and Db (C#) majors, but the short fingers, thumb and pinky are never used to play black keys.           

   Chopin tried to use more black keys in various situations; but it was not only for ease of playing. He wanted to fulfill the great possibilities of the equal temperament tuning system. He paid close attention to the mutual relationship of white and black keys and aimed at creating the piano music which truly integrates them. In other words, the complete use of black keys and the use of the equal temperament system to the maximum effect were two sides of the same coin on the instrument piano.

   As can be seen from the structure of the system already explained, piano’s black keys are considered to be arranged at the interval of perfect 5th. So if we take one black key, Ab as a tonic, then the 2nd, the 5th, the 1st, the 4th degrees will be on the black keys (counting from Bb descending each time). In this case, not only dominant but the subdominants (IV and Ⅱ) are on the black keys. If we take Db major, we will get the 6th, 2nd, 5th, 1st and 4th degrees all in black. Putting these flatted notes in the bass as if driving wedges with the left hand, and piling up chords on top of them while the right hand plays melody lines which move more freely: this is the pattern Chopin liked very much. Considering these, I would name him “The composer of Black keys.”

   Let’s take a look at actual examples. In the “valse brilliant” in the key of Ab major (op. 34-1), all the notes in the bass are the black keys for the first 120 bars if we include the introduction and the repeat. On the 121st bar, we see Cb (which is a white key although it is a flatted note) as the passing note between Db and Bb. But it is certain that the entire piece is built on the black key bass lines which are mainly the 1st, the 4th and the 5th degrees of Ab major.   According to my experiences, not only in this piece, but in general, playing successive black notes causes less mistakes than playing only white notes. This is simply because the intervals between black keys are wider than those between white keys. For me, the white key arpeggios Brahms and Schubert wrote are harder to play than Chopin’s arpeggios on black keys. (So, I want them to rewrite!)

   Also, because black keys are located in the back, our physical feeling when we play (that is: our muscle memory) will be different when we play mainly black keys.

   Opus 10-5 is a well-known study, “Black keys.”  Because Chopin selected the key of Gb major, the 5th, the 2nd, the 6th, the 3rd: all these became black keys. However, the 4th degree is Cb and because this is a white key, he avoided using this note for the right hand. And the 7th degree, the note F, was also spared as much as possible.

   For many of technically challenging studies (op. 25-6, 25-8, 25-10), he chose the keys with many black notes. This way, the fingers move between black and white keys like sewing and the bass lines are predominantly made of black keys.

   Furthermore, when Chopin uses the technique of rotating arms and wrists, he does not hesitate to assign the notes to black keys. The left hand of “Fantasie Impromptu” and “Aeorian Harp (op. 25-1)” are good examples.

   An interesting example on the technique of rotating the arms and wrists can be seen in the left hand of the middle section of “Heroic Polonaise (op. 53).” [ex.2] In the beginning, they are E-D#-C#-B in E major and the hand will rotate counter clockwise, in the order of white-black-black-white. On the other hand, the next passage consists of the notes D#-Cx-B#-A# in D# major (can be read as Eb major too). To play this, the hand moves clockwise in the order of black-white-white-black. Both movements go smoothly, having some black keys in the passage. This juxtaposition is hard to conceive if the composer does not know the relationship between the note patterns and the actual movements of the hand in and out.  [Ex.2] 

   By the way, there is one thing which appears so often in Chopin’s works, with no exceptions of these pieces or some studies (op. 25-11 “Winter Storm” or op. 10-2) which have different purposes on their own as technical studies: that is a chromatic line. Chromatic passages can be used anywhere as long as the tuning is equal temperament. And it shows us “the complementarity” of white and black keys on the piano because they are played alternatively. Chopin also liked using the half-step as a neighbor tone, double neighbor tones, added to any melody. In [Ex 3], the dominant note F# and its upper and lower neighbor notes, G and E# are simultaneously played by the right hand thumb and the effect is very strong.

   If we become familiar with many works of Chopin, we are tempted to call him “the composer of Chromaticism” as well as “the composer of Black keys.” As we have seen, these two are pretty much related each other.

6. The analysis of Scherzo No. 1

    Here, as a kind of summary, I would like to analyze Scherzo No.1 and clarify the fact the piano performer can feel, by how his /her fingers touch the black keys, where he/she is in terms of the tonal structure of the piece during the performance.

   Scherzo No.1 is in a three-part form with introduction and coda. The main key of the main part is B minor, and the middle part which uses the polish song “Sleepless Jesus Lulajze Jezuniu” is in B major. In B major, five sharps are used. And in B minor, when harmonic or melodic minor (ascending) scale is used, there are still as many as 3 to 4 sharps. However, the tonic is B and on a white key. (Omit one sentence here)

  In the 8-bar introduction, two strong chords are struck. [Ex. 4] The first chord is the subdominant, consisting of C#, E, G and B (one black key). The second chord is the dominant chord (three black keys, F#, A#, C#). But what is important here is that the motive G-F# which governs the whole piece is included in this succession of the chords (by the way, this is the movement from a white key to a black key). In the performance, it may be necessary to bring out this motive.   When the main part begins, first, the notes B, D, and F# of the tonic triad appear. But they are accompanied by their neighboring notes A#, C#, and E# (although C# descends). [See Ex. 5] So, we have already seen three black keys being used. There are constituents of the dominant triad in B minor. From bar 17, the pedal tone B will remain while harmony moves to the subdominant area, which is E minor. The new black key used in this phrase is D#, which is the neighbor note of E. The last and the fifth black key that appears in this piece is G#. At bar 29 and it appears as the neighbor note of the triad on D. Thus we have got all the black keys in the first page.

    We see many F#s, A#s, and C#s in the main part. It is natural because this part is principally in B minor. D# and G# are less frequently used: only when sequential modulation occurs.

    The passage in [Ex. 6] appears as many as five times in this piece. For the first and second times, the passage does not include D# and G#. For the third time, and the fourth and the fifth times which come after the middle part, D# (E flat) and G# are used as part of the descending lines. I think Chopin intended to increase the tension with the increased sharps and wanted to lead the way toward the middle part which has five sharps. And after the middle part, not to lose the tension and the flow, the same [Ex. 6b] is used. 

   In the beautiful B major middle part of this Scherzo, the scales like passages naturally use a lot of black keys. What was Chopin’s thought when he chose B major for this most Romantic spot in the music when he recalls his childhood by remembering the song of his native country, Poland? The pinky in the right hand keeps playing the note F# like a soft bell, and the right hand thumb plays the melody which begins with D# (the third degree of B major). On the contrary to these, the left hand’s bass note B is a white key. The player may feel this contrast physically. And the player may feel as if what he/she is playing were the typical B major position (or formation).    What is interesting to me in the following part is that there are “Fx” s that go to G# repeatedly (the leading tone of G# minor, and this key also takes five sharps) but at the last time, the Fx goes down to F#. The last Fx is enharmonically G♮. So, in here, too, the main motive G-F# is seen.

   Eventually the two chords from the introduction return and the peace and the quietness of the middle part is destroyed by this.

   Then the stormy main part returns. The coda follows the recapitulation. At bar 585, one of the climactic points in the coda, in the higher register the left hand plays G#s after the intensely repeated Gs. The G# is a note in the Doppel Dominant of B minor. I think the fingers of the left hand strongly feel the transition from the white keys to the black keys. What follow from here are: a waterfall-like passage, high speed trill-like semitone passage that rotates around the dominant note C# (of the key F#), and a stormy cadenza on the dominant chord that resolves to the tonic B minor. The next, the descending passage centered on the main chord of B minor are embellished by three black keys just like the first theme at the beginning. And the moment we think the piece will end, the fast chromatic scale runs for about 4 octaves, played by both hands. All the members of the piano keys are summoned here, like the curtain call at the end of a play.

   After that, six chords will be struck in ff and the piece ends. It is important to pay attention to the G to F# descending line in the final two chords.

   As we have seen through this analysis of Scherzo No. 1, in case of pianists, hands touching the black keys can tell what tonal area he/she is in the structure of the entire composition.

7.  Conclusion

   For those who advocated Romanticism, music was an expression of pure spirit and one’s self deep within, and superior to other arts because of its non-material nature. Even if Chopin loved poetry and opera very much, he did not compose to express anything outside of music. His ballads are said to be based on Mickiewicz’s poems. However, to me they are completely integrated into the music’s autonomous force. In the composition of Mazurka and Polonaise, naturally the rhythms of his motherland are used, and his patriotism is clearly reflected. But dance is not something that tells you about concrete subjects; and coupled with music, it is a form of pure art.

   Chopin, having strong feelings toward his home country, Poland, kept composing only pure music with his original style. (A sentence omitted here). Many of the Romantic composers used the music to express something outside of music in songs, symphonic poems, operas etc. On the other hand, Chopin, chosen by God, became a representative of pure spirit and kept walking his way. He was one of the artists who did not have interest in putting some subjects other than music into music.

   This attitude as a musician, along with the emotional and often stormy nature of his music, makes him very suitable to be called “a child of Romanticism.”

   We could think of social and environmental reasons why Chopin wrote only piano music. First of all, as a musical star, not only had to compose but also play at a high level (maybe he admitted himself to be an idol and took advantage of it to some extent). Also, since he was active only in the salon world, not playing in large halls, piano solo was sufficient.  Also, at that time, the piano was becoming popular among aristocrats and bourgeois families, and piano music was getting popular. So, he was able to earn good income as a piano teacher. Also, he had a personality that favored loneliness and was suited for the work at the piano that he could do all alone. There are many possibilities.

   However, what I would like to say most through my analysis is that Chopin saw the great possibilities in the instrument, piano: its musical grammar and performance potentials (possibilities could mean restrictions and limitations too), and derived so much out of it by crystallizing what the piano can do in the form of musical composition.

   Chopin’s music was enriched, and became more completed by the fact that the piano saw great improvement in the 19th century. This improvement included the widening of its register and the range of sound volume, the quality of sound, and other various elements; and the instrument began to satisfy the composers’ artistic demands.

   Composition for him was identical with what the piano called him to write, and what he found in the instrument. It was no more and no less. He must have thought that he returned fully what he owed to the Goddess of Muse when he finished writing many admirable piano works.


Chopin et Dominique - 戸口純(ピアノ)
ショパンとドミニク / Chopin et Dominique
戸口純(ピアノ)/ Jun Toguchi, piano

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