Chopin Waltzes

Dedicating my birthday to Chopin!

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I’m often asked to name my favorite composer, and nearly always, it’s the one whose music I’m currently studying and teaching.

In this case, Chopin’s posthumous Waltz in A minor, discovered by musicologists in the 1950s, is the CHOSEN.

Not cluttered with reams of intricate runs and fancy ornaments, it’s a good first Waltz to teach among the composer’s rich collection. And students can separately piece out the melody, fundamental bass notes, and after-beat chords before a synthesis is made in baby steps. I always have pupils explore pedaling last.

One of the big challenges in this composition is PHRASING. One must shape lines like a singer, with curves and contour. Third beats should be lightened, and dynamics need to be varied. Rubato playing gives character and nuance to the Romantic era style and is a vital ingredient of interpretation.

It’s a challenge to immerse oneself deeply in this music, so a layered learning process is worth the investment of time.

CONTOURING and Phrasing Chopin’s A minor Waltz

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Harmonic Rhythm, melodic twists, and emotional shifts in Chopin’s B Minor Waltz, Op. 69, No. 2 (Video)

The harmonic flow of a piece is one ingredient of phrase shaping, along with melodic contouring that springs from the human voice and its natural breath. All have emotional consequence as music pours out of the heart and soul of a performer.

So getting below the surface of a piece of music, means delving into its harmonic and melodic outline, to say the least.

A pianist only begins to arrive at decisions about interpretation in this exploration, besides examining a composition’s historical context and attendant performance practice.

In the Chopin vernacular, tempo rubato (or flexible time) is central to the music as it plays out. A sense of improvisation must be captured though hundreds to thousands of notes in a score are carefully notated with specific directions about dynamics and articulation.

Evelyn Glennie, world-famous percussionist, no less, makes the point that all the dizzying notes in a manuscript tell very little about how a piece will spring to life in the act of playing it.

I can’t agree more.

In fact what’s noted on paper is a small clue to a world of musical magic and illusion.

Ironically, today’s video that I prepared as a second supplement for a Skype student was in response to footage he sent me of his latest playing. (Chopin Waltz in B minor)

From that point of departure, we kicked ideas back and forth through e-mails.

On my third mailing, and third video supplement, I decided that I needed to more clearly emphasize the interaction of harmonic rhythm and emotional poignancy–not to mention how a twist or turn in a melody can invite a change in nuance and color.

All part of the learning process…

As I’ve said before video supplements in a two-way exchange are valuable adjuncts to web cam transmitted lessons. They allow both teacher and student necessary breathing room to absorb the score, and then evolve with varying thoughts about it.

For sure, there are no absolutes in music-making, just ideas that acquire support in harmonic threads, and melodic twists and turns.

By this time in our musical growth process, we shared opinions about Kissin, Lisista, and Rubinstein’s interpretations of the B minor Waltz. I discovered my affinity with Rubinstein and Kissin’s readings which both reflect the somberness of the b minor key without getting too morose.

In any case, the video I offer, explores harmonic changes and emotion, along with unexpected shifts in melodic contour.

I have to agree with Leonard B. Meyer, musicologist, that what’s unexpected triggers an emotional response, though there’s a great deal more to say about the nature of the unexpected event.

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Playing through Chopin’s B minor Waltz with its sighing motif (Video commentary)

Last night I sat myself down at my imperfectly regulated Steinway M grand and managed to sigh several times through torrents of phrases crafted by design and inspiration to tug at the heartstrings.

And in the video below, I journeyed in baby steps through this intensely emotional landscape pinpointing how I could flesh out the SIGHs that spill from recurrent tied notes in Chopin’s somber Waltz in B Minor, Op. 69, No.2. (The singing tone–molto cantabile-is intrinsic to this music)

It seemed natural to draw a comparison to the violin in the execution of such repetitive figures. If I had a bow in my hand I would delay entry into the string and follow through with a deliberate broadening of the tone. (I spent six years of my life studying violin noting its carryover to the keyboard)

No doubt it’s easier to draw a slow bow than to translate this effect to the piano, but a pianist can accomplish the same by entering a note from below using a dipping wrist.

The permeating tied notes that seek relief in a curve down, dissipating motion flow into a contrasting middle section in D Major, marked con anime, with animation. Here the notes are lifted and configured in groups of three leading to a longer note.

To realize the vibrancy and unique character of the dotted-quarters springing from the shorter eighths, still another delayed entry into these longer ones is suggested. But just as conspicuous is the circular motion of the phrases that move the composition along. To best flesh out these shapes, I enlist the right elbow to swing in and out in counter-clockwise movement.

In measures where there is a sudden note-wise build-up in passion and intensity (forte outpourings, along with a staccato, or PORTATO) I find that broadening these streams of notes thwarts a tendency to crowd them. And allied to this more relaxed, freedom of expression is a tasteful application of rubato.

A second interlude in the B minor Nocturne utilizes the Parallel B Major key, giving the composition a lift. But no sooner than our emotions are plied, we are pulled back to the somber opening theme with its elaboration that closes the composition in sighing despair.

I consider this Waltz a favorite of mine and dote upon Artur Rubenstein’s reading on You Tube. His performance has a disarming simplicity, framed in a relaxed tempo. In all, the master takes about 4 minutes to weave his poetry with the grace and beauty he’s known for.


What Pianists can Learn from String Players

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Claudia’s piano lesson in progress: Preparing the Chopin A minor Waltz no. 19, Op. posthumous and Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” for the MTAC Fall Festival

I returned to the iMac21 for this videotaping in the company of my nifty Yeti mic. (I’m waiting for Y to speak in Star Wars lingo, or double as a cleaning robot)

Everything was definitely effortless this time because I opted NOT to edit. I just let the lesson segment run its course without fussing over those yellow editing squares that derange the sound and video tracks. With my novice exposure to technology, playing with footage on iMovie was a crap shoot.

This time I clicked “new project,” named it, created an “event” and headed for the camera icon, which triggered a capture option, etc.

It all went smoothly.

Backdrop: Claudia just turned 11 and began lessons with me at 6. She had previously studied for a year or so, in Hawaii. After five years of studying piano in Fresno, her musical progress is apparent. Just a few weeks ago, I posted a snatch of her first recital at my home when she was 6. She played for a total of 10 minutes at that recital, while Michael an adult student who had the courage to participate, suffered his ill fated head bump that set his Clementi sonatina back a bit.

In the footage below, Claudia worked on her phrase shaping and melodic contouring in the Chopin Waltz. In a separate clip, she focused on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”

“Fur Elise”


Claudia’s musical memories album:

Chopin Waltz in A minor, played in the company of Aiden cat:

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Rolling arm movements and videotaped slow motion replay of Chopin’s Waltz in C# minor, piu mosso section

I demonstrate a swing or roll of the arms to realize the circular flow of the piu mosso section of Chopin’s Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64, no 2. At the end, I add slow motion frames. Needless to say a state of relaxation is desirable to achieve Oneness with the piano. Mindful practicing and being in the moment are always helpful. Muscle memory and “feeling” the translation of movement into sound are important ingredients of joyous music-making.


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At the piano: Exploring the Chopin Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64 No. 2 (Video)

I finally sat down at “Haddy” (my Haddorff piano that sings like a nightingale) and spun out a few ideas about the Waltz in C# minor. A slow motion journey through the composition underscored the suspensions and harmonic rhythm on the first page, then moved on to the piu mosso, 8ths with their rounded contour, and finally flowed into a reflective Db section. I summed up three sections that constitute the whole work. It’s one of Chopin’s gifts to piano students that they’re acquainted with the content of the complete Waltz in short order because of God given repetitions.

In this reading, I decided to play everything quite slowly with a semblance of a rubato even at practice tempo. (recommended) At least one does not experience an altered consciousness with each and every playing whether in tempo or not.

Ideally, I would start with a separate hands approach and parcel out voices. In this case, playing the Left Hand with great care not to have ponderous second and third after beat chords would be a major focus, along with dealing with those ties across measures in the right hand, where an unintended poke of the thumb would smother the melody above. These tied over measures are both melodically and harmonically poignant.

The 8th–16th rhythms in the Right Hand are also a challenge to be met..They can pop out at any moment or get drowned by pedal. My Haddorff is so resonant, that it appears like the pedal is down when it isn’t, but better than having a sustain-less piano.

Onto the piu mosso eighth notes that need the flowing arms and swinging elbows. I could have done better, but ideally one must patiently practice the Right Hand alone to get the sweep and shape, and then make sure the Left Hand is examined separately for its own color and contour. Chords can be “shaped” too, and not just tacked on to what’s in the treble.

The third section in Db, was my favorite in this video. I believe that it should be being played piu lento, (as noted) with a reflective approach. Feeling the transition from the preceding section in C# minor to the PARALLEL MAJOR but spelled in FLATS was the big event for me, and how that emotional shift was realized affected the course of the musical journey.

Finally, having played through the THREE sections in a slow tempo frame, I felt more prepared to lift the tempo in stages, when ready.

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Comparing performances of Chopin’s Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64, No. 2 (VIDEOS)

Last night I sat down at my Steinway M grand and quickly shuffled over to my Haddorff (known as “Haddy”) fully intending to record some comments on the lovely C# minor Waltz. As I looked at the dotted-eighth/sixteenth figure that permeated the composition making it stand out as unique among Chopin’s Waltzes, I suddenly experienced a wave of uncertainty about how I wanted to play it. Should it be more lighthearted with a short ending, or might it be more appropriate to drag the rhythm in a legato fashion across the measure? Executing the figure in these two distinctly different ways would affect the mood and overall interpretation. Next, I had to consider tempo. Was I going to embrace a slower or faster pace, taking rubato into consideration.

Here’s where I was motivated to check some You Tube performances for guidance, though in a previous blog I had stridently opposed the idea of students listening to recordings of a work during their initial baby-step learning process. (I had referred to the CD enclosed in the Palmer edition of Chopin, An Introduction to His Music in my discussion)

Notwithstanding this aforementioned admonition, I sought out the following videos to make life even more confusing for myself. Just the same, I will comment on each performance and what I liked or disliked about it.

Vladimir Ashkenazy: This gets FIVE STARS! *****

This one replaces the you tube previously posted that was no longer available: (Artist is not seen, but heard)

For me this reading had the essence of Chopin’s Romantic style.

The opening theme was played beautifully, perhaps not with consistency in the execution of the pervasive dotted-eighth/16th rhythm but that somehow added to the extemporaneous quality of the performance. The flood of eighths on the second page had a beautifully rounded sweep that I loved, and they moved briskly along but not out of control. The middle section in Db was gorgeously played, and not too slow or fast. All in all I favored this interpretation that also fleshed out inner voices when pertinent adding to its beauty.


Ingrid Fliter (newly added) FIVE STARS!*****

For me this was a beautifully styled performance with an interesting rolled chord in the opening. I liked the pace, and a tempo rubato that was tastefully applied. Fliter played fluidly with lovely shades of color and immaculate phrasing. The middle Db section (piu lento) was in divine contrast to the opening theme and piu mosso 8th notes. She fleshed out the parallel Major tonality without overdoing it. Finally, this was a well-rounded, Romantically inspired reading.


Evgeny Kissin: A bit too slow and somber.

This was a slower approach to the same Waltz. Very loving, lyrical playing but setting a different mood. I found it interesting that my tutorial would have used this tempo in the practicing phase, if not a tad slower, but ultimately I felt that the spirit of the Waltz might have been better reflected at a brisker pace.

The one section of the work that I found disconcerting, was the middle Db section, where suddenly Kissin played with intensity, elevating the dynamic. I was bit jarred by this. It was as if he had intended to exaggerate the transition of C# minor on the first page, to what would be heard as the Parallel Major (brighter perhaps) in the supposedly slower section, but spelled in FLATS (e.g. C# minor to Db Major–an enharmonic relationship) The Db interlude is marked piu lento or “more slowly” suggesting perhaps a feeling of reflection but I didn’t sense that coming through at this point.

Kissin’s stream of 8ths on the second page, had an inherent swirl, beautifully rendered though slower than I would have preferred, rounding out a reading that was more somber than Ashkenazy’s.


Yuja Wang:

I started out embracing the beauty of this performance but was jarred by the last statement of the opening theme. Suddenly the pianist, broke loose and changed her approach. Instead of a melancholy charm that pervaded her playing to that point, Yuja Wang played the theme with an over intensity that seemed quite incongruous to her original conception of the composition and she fleshed out an inner voice with accents that just didn’t seem to fit. I liked her reflective Db middle section more than Kissin’s, but the stream of 8ths on page 2, were rendered a bit too slowly and sadly. The tempo also
seemed to change when this section recurred.

Yuja performing the same Waltz at the age of 11 or 12 (a different approach)
The 8th notes fell into the piu mosso range, and moved right along. (consistently played when the section returned) Although the recording environment could have been better, an intrinsically musical performance came through.


Valentina Lisista FIVE STARS! *****

This was a heart-rending performance. I especially loved the pacing of it, though I might have preferred a slightly slower (piu lento) middle Db section. But otherwise the artist played in the Chopin style with a beautiful rubato. Her stream of 8th notes on the second page and recurring throughout the work, felt lusciously round and at a tempo that moved them along, (piu mosso=more animated) unlike Kissin and Wang’s approach, where these groups of notes were played slowly and gloomily.


Arthur Rubenstein: FIVE STARS: ***** (Excuse the scratchy sound track)

Here again, the celebrated interpreter of Chopin’s music shined! The opening was gorgeously rendered, and the stream of 8ths following were indeed, piu mosso moving along, with lovely, shaped arcs. There were no incongruous shifts in the playing and the Db section was exquisitely rendered. One may perhaps question the very slow conclusion of the Waltz, but that broadening or ritardando was understandable because of the Romantic flair that Rubinstein possessed and how he wanted the piece to have a convincing taper as it fell away gracefully.

I’m sure many listeners will prefer a vast array of performances posted on You Tube but these are just a sprinkling that I chose to compare.

What about Art Tatum’s jazzed up version. “Vladimir Horowitz once said that if Art Tatum ever took up classical music seriously, Horowitz would quit the next day.”

And humbly, here’s my own recent performance: