Chopin’s Pianos – Part Two
By George Bozarth
Co-Artistic Director, Musique du Jour Presents
Last weekend we encountered Pleyel pianos of the period during when they were favored by Frédéric Chopin. Pleyels were his choice when he was feeling “alive and strong enough to find [his] own sound.” Today I would like to introduce you to the Érard pianos that Chopin played when he was “feeling indisposed” and easily found in them “a ready-made sound.”
Frédéric Chopin, 1835 (by Maria Wodzinska)
Let’s begin by listening to samples of Chopin’s music beautifully performed by Alesandro Comellato (love his sense of rhythm!) on an Érard and then a Pleyel, both from 1843, restored by BIZZI – Historical Keyboard Instruments in Bodio Lomnago, Italy. The Érard, which has a “double-escapement” action that greatly increased the ability to repeat notes and was the immediate predecessor of the Steinway piano action, has a lush, full-bodied sound that looks forward to the modern piano. In contrast, the sound of the Pleyel, which still employed the single action derived from John Broadwood’s English pianos, harkens back to the subtlety of the earlier fortepiano. Érard instruments were also distinctive for the range of tonal shadings or colors (which change with dynamic level as well as with register) and for the unusual clarity of their tone, particularly in rapid passages.
(A further performance on the 1843 Pleyel is available at
Our main feature today is Janusz Olejniczak’s interpretation of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 35, on an 1849 Érard piano. You will surely know already the Lento of this four-movement work, the famous Marche funèbre, which Chopin composed first in 1837 and around which the remaining movements grew in 1839, while he was living with the writer George Sand in her manor in Nohant.
George Sand’s House
George Sand’s Garden
(Born Aurore Dupin, Sand was Chopin’s lover, 1837–47. “One of many notable 19th-century women who chose to wear male attire in public,” Sand did so without the required police permit, “justifying them as being less expensive and far sturdier than the typical dress of a noblewoman at the time. In addition to being comfortable, Sand’s male attire enabled her to circulate more freely in Paris than most of her female contemporaries, and gave her increased access to venues from which women were often barred, even women of her social standing” [Wikipedia].) The countryside setting was idyllic, as described by the painter Eugène Delacroix:
The hosts could not be more pleasant in entertaining me. When we are not all together at dinner, lunch, playing billiards, or walking, each of us stays in his room, reading or lounging around on a couch. Sometimes, through the window that opens on the garden, a gust of music wafts up from Chopin at work. All this mingles with the songs of nightingales and the fragrance of roses.
Robert Schumann was on to something when he wrote, “The idea of calling it a sonata is a caprice, if not a jest, for [Chopin] has simply bound together four of his most wreckless children, thus under his name smuggling them into a place into which they could not else have penetrated.” How else might this “peerless miniaturist, unchallenged for the glories of his creations in small forms – preludes, etudes, mazurkas, nocturnes,” as Orrin Howard, longtime program annotator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has crowned him, scale the heights in larger forms? Howard has written a perceptive set of notes for this work, which I’d like to share with you:
The Sonata opens with four attention-grabbing slow measures, the first two descending notes of which are to be very important in the development section. The fast, galloping main theme that follows propels us into a scene of extreme agitation, then of contrasting repose by way of the lyric second theme. In the development Chopin deals primarily with the main galloping theme, but he also ingeniously brings in the introduction’s crucial descending interval, at first gently in the right hand, then forcefully in the left hand. Having developed the main theme at length, Chopin wisely begins the recapitulation with the lyric second theme, binding the movement together at the end by alluding to the main theme in the bass while the treble ascends with chordal thrust to a B-flat-major cadence.
The second movement Scherzo is, in its vitally dramatic main section, compounded of biting octaves, leaping chords, hazardous double notes and, withal, an atmosphere of brilliance under fire. The middle section is a major-key jewel in a Chopin crown studded with such invaluable gems. After a repeat of the main material, Chopin makes a miracle by bringing back a phrase of the lyric theme, with the result that the aggressiveness of the main theme, which was in E-flat minor, is lovingly warmed by this G-flat-major ending.
The Funeral March third movement . . . is powerfully tragic music that receives consolation from a severely simple dry-eyed melody at midpoint. And it follows the Scherzo’s major-key ending with marvelous dramatic logic, just as the swirling, other-worldly wildness of the Finale, all one sweeping thrust of single notes in each hand an octave apart, follows it as a breathtaking, technically formidable stroke of genius.
The power and majesty of the Èrard’s sound seems the perfect match for this noble composition. The slower “decay” of the sound in the Èrard allows Chopin’s long-breathed melodies to sing forth vocally, yet the piano renders his organic filigrees clearly (though not as much so as a Pleyel piano does). “Also, his use of the sustaining pedal,” Howard observes, “greatly amplified the distinctive sonority he sought, just as the judiciously placed slowing down or acceleration of tempo (rubato) he employed contributed enormously to a poetic ambiance.”
By the mid-1800s, Èrards were the choice of virtuosi across Europe, both on the continent and in Great Britain, where Èrard maintained a manufactory in London. (The 1869 Èrard in our collection is from the English plant.). Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann, and Richard Wagner played Èrards in concert. Queen Victoria owned one. When seeking a grand piano on which to premiere his First Piano Concerto, Op. 15, in Hamburg, Johannes Brahms tried (unsuccessfully) to borrow an Èrard from the music publisher August Cranz.
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, 1839 (by James Warren Childe
Franz Liszt (by Henri Lehmann
Johannes Brahms, 1858
Here are a few YouTube clips that may interest you:
Queen Victoria’s Èrard grand piano and its Restoration (The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42dVW7Btjmc (7:57 minutes)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDDI8yJJY-c (Stephen Hough playing Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major; 4:07 minutes)
Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, op.14, Èrard grand piano (1840; 6:03 minutes)
(How sparkling the scherzando section is! 1:50 minutes)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCP7lpdZzMk (Elena Zamolodchikova, pianist)
Franz Liszt, Liebestraume, Èrard grand piano (4:08 minutes)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-lj6g8U4b8 (Giovanni Velluti, pianist)
Johannes Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, op. 15, Èrard (1854)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=by4OebeZZkI (Hardy Rittner, pianist, with L’arte del mondo, all on period instruments, conducted by Werner Ehrhardt)
Entire concerto (46:51 minutes)
Short on time? Then listen just to the Finale: Rondo: Allegro non troppo, the best performance of the three movements on this recording (start at 34:35)
Spontaneous Comments on this Performance:
David Trainer: What a revelation this performance is, totally cuts out the heavy whipped-cream that is modern instruments.
David White: This is why I say hearing a modern orchestra play this music is like hearing it underwater – this performance shows you how shockingly extraordinary this must have sounded at its first hearing with the 25-year-old Brahms as soloist for the premiere in Hanover. No one had ever heard this kind of concert music – not even from Beethoven, who had only been gone for a little more than a generation.
George Bozarth: Love those bursts of natural horns! I prefer, though, the opening Maestoso be performed somewhat faster, with the swing of a manic waltz, as the young Leon Fleisher played it back in 1958: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tHdavyycsE&t=44s. Brahms’s music is full of dance topoi, especially the waltz, then the craze, scared all parents for the welfare of their daughters because the couple held each other in their arms! And remember that Brahms composed this movement in the spring of 1854, in the direct wake of the catastrophe of Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt.
Brahms biographer Florence May recalled that when the composer visited Clara Schumann in Baden Baden the 1870s, although he played duets with her on her Broadwood, it was on her Èrard that he performed the third and fourth books of his as-yet-unpublished Hungarian Dances, “his eyes flashing fire for a while.” Ah, to have heard that!
I hope you’ve enjoyed our feast of Èrards and mid-Romantic piano music! Once our keyboard museum can open again, we hope to present a concert on our 1869 Èrard.