Happy Birthday Chopin!

Letter from Frederic Chopin to Fontana, n.d., mounted with portrait

Portrait mounted with letter from Frédéric Chopin to Julian Fontana, n.d.

The following post is by Robin Rausch, Senior Music Specialist.

If you have ever been a serious student of the piano, you have likely had the pleasure of playing Frédéric Chopin’s music.  He wrote almost exclusively for the instrument; his ballades, etudes, mazurkas, nocturnes, polonaises, preludes, scherzos, and waltzes count among the staples of the pianist’s repertoire.  Even if you don’t play the piano, you’d recognize Chopin from the movies.  Who could forget Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970) playing Chopin’s Prelude, op. 28, no. 4?  And Chopin’s Mazurka, op. 17, no. 4, provided the haunting backdrop to Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972).  Chopin is one of the few composers whose life has been the subject of popular film:  Impromptu (1991) with Hugh Grant as the composer and Judy Davis as writer George Sand, his lover.

According to birth records, Frédéric Chopin was born on February 22, but Chopin considered March 1 his birthday.  Whatever the day, the year was 1810, making this year the 200th anniversary of his birth.  To commemorate the occasion the Library of Congress has scanned the Chopin manuscripts in its collections:  three letters and three music manuscripts.

The Library is not particularly known for its Chopin holdings, but the few manuscripts in its possession illustrate well one of the challenges facing Chopin scholars.  Chopin used copyists, and one of his favorite, Julian Fontana, wrote in a script that was remarkably similar to Chopin’s own.  Authentication of Chopin manuscripts can be tricky.  The Library’s manuscript of Chopin’s Mazurka, op. 33, no. 4 purchased in 1914, was later discovered to be in Fontana’s hand.  But the Impromptu, op. 51 and the Prelude in A-flat major, op. posth., are genuine.  They offer the opportunity for side-by-side comparison of a Fontana copy and the real deal.

Chopin’s soaring melodies have long appealed to violinists.  While he didn’t write solo violin music, many violinists have transcribed Chopin for their instrument.   As an added bonus, we include online the manuscript of violinist Eugène Ysaÿe’s transcription for violin and piano of Chopin’s Ballade in g minor.

Happy Birthday Chopin!

One Comment

  1. Cait Miller
    May 18, 2011 at 10:51 am

    A further note from Robin:

    The Mazurka was identified as not in Chopin’s hand and “a typical specimen of Fontana’s copying” by Chopin scholar Arthur Hedley in 1960. Hedley also authenticated the Prelude in the Moldenhauer Archives as genuine Chopin. There is further information about the Prelude manuscript in Music from Primary Sources: a Guide to the Moldenhauer Archives //memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/moldenhauer/2428124.pdf. The Impromptu is from the Selden-Goth Collection and its provenance is well documented as authentic Chopin.

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