Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21

Written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

In 1829 Frédéric Chopin was still Fryderyk—a 19-year-old Polish pianist of some acclaim. On November 1 of the following year, he would leave for a concert tour to Vienna and end up exiled after a rebellion against the Russian Empire failed, making a return home untenable. Both his piano concertos were written in his last years in Poland, and became passports to success in Western Europe.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 was in fact the first written, but second published. He premiered it at his first major public concert on March 17, 1839, at the National Theater in Warsaw, before an audience of 800 or 900 enthusiastic listeners. But Chopin’s own piano had to be carted in for the performance, and he was unhappy with its small domestic sound in the large hall. Five days later he repeated the concerto after borrowing a Viennese concert grand. He was met with an even more triumphant reception, but this was followed by a factional debate in the musical press. It almost didn’t matter—Chopin was uncomfortable with both criticism and praise. After establishing himself briefly on the touring circuit, he reduced his concert appearances to about one a year, preferring to play in intimate salons among friends. And for that reason he pursued no more orchestral music after 1831.

A Closer Listen

The first movement of the F-minor concerto is reminiscent of late Mozart with all its stormy elegance. It’s as if Chopin skipped backwards over Beethoven and picked up a dropped thread. But he sews it with his own fabric, a nearly continuous bolt of decorative borders and ruffles. The orchestra acts as an extension of the piano, adding colors, layers, and halos.

The Larghetto moves to the relative key of A-flat major and finds Chopin in nocturne mode. The movement was inspired by Konstancja Gładkowska, a young soprano Chopin said he was in love with, but was too shy to tell. The music’s lyricism reflects her voice, while the yearning restlessness of the middle section might express Chopin’s feelings.

The finale conjures a Mazurka—the iconic Polish dance with a little rhythmic skip. He breezes through a medley of lively salon styles before a “signal horn” calls for a flashy coda. An early example of col legno strings (batted with the wood of the bow) hints at an orchestrational inventiveness Chopin never developed any farther, but Hector Berlioz stole the effect and ran with it in Symphonie fantastique a year later.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.