Timeline: J.S. Bach's Influence on Chopin

Mar 19, 2019

We are continuing to celebrate the life and music of J.S. Bach and Chopin, listening to excerpts from a recent concert I hosted with pianist Paul Orgel in VPR’s Stetson Studio One while also featuring highlights from an interview I had with pianist and Chopin scholar Marjan Kiepura. You can listen to all of Paul Orgel’s performances from “The Alchemy of Genius” pairing Nocturnes by Chopin with excerpts from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book II here.

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In our last episode, we looked at the word 'genius' as it related to the music of Frédéric Chopin. Today, we'll look at how Bach’s music influenced Chopin directly.

"Johann Sebastian Bach is considered by many to be the greatest composer in all of classical music. His life and death marks the end of the period we call the Baroque. He composed a tremendous catalogue of work over the course of his life, writing for almost every possible combination of voices and instruments. He was a master at counterpoint, canon and fugue. However, during Bach's lifetime he was mainly known as an organist. The vast majority of his compositions were all but forgotten after he died in 1750. But, about 80 years later, through the passion of Felix Mendelssohn, there was a huge revival of Bach’s music and suddenly Europe couldn’t get enough. Chopin was in his 20’s at this time, just making a name for himself in Paris. Unlike Bach, most of Chopin’s music was written for the piano and was met with immediate and consistent popularity."

That was an excerpt from my musings that I shared in our concert, but I don’t want you to just hear it from me. Marjan Kiepura, as I mentioned before, is an expert on Chopin, his music and his life. I asked Marjan how Bach influenced Chopin and he became very animated as he shared…

Marjan: Chopin, even thought he was the quintessential romanticist, was a classicist. If you look at Chopin’s life, he had little use for his contemporaries, I have to say. Strangely, he had little use for Schumann, for Mendelssohn and even less for Franz Liszt. His two models were Johann Sebastian Bach and Mozart and he prescribed them to his students.

James: Chopin had his students practice Bach every day in order to exercise, warmup their fingers and perfect their technique. Many of Chopin’s contemporaries declared just how attached he was to the works of Bach.

Marjan: He was obsessed with the preludes and fugues of Bach. He had memorized the 48. He had played them all the time. He played them at concerts, suwarees and salons. So, Chopin was steeped in the Bach and Mozart discipline, if you will, the style of this music. But, again genius, he went off on his own.

James: You can go off on your own too. Explore the connection and check out pianist Paul Orgel’s recordings, pairing the music of Bach with Chopin here.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.