From Improvisation to Composition

Guido Kraus from the RISM Central Office has written the following to mark the 170th anniversary of Frédéric Chopin's death: 

What was Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) thinking of when he improvised and composed? He probably found new ways to creatively combine what he had just heard in his improvisations with what he composed, thereby inventing new musical details almost by chance that fit into a whole. He probably also considered how this could be communicated later. He thought about his audience, about his listeners, how they might be emotionally affected, and how they would listen. For Chopin, however, composing meant exerting a very great, almost agonizing, effort at a time when improvisation received much more attention, and the emphasis was on the moment and not on committing one's final artistic thoughts to paper for eternity. In this way, Chopin moved between the two extremes of free playing and precise notation, and he endured this tension because he also had to earn money.

Chopin left us about 230 works, some of which were printed relatively soon after completion by the major European music publishers and reprinted several times. It was precisely the circulation of his music in print that made him very well known, while his activities as a piano teacher and concert pianist plus his appearances in salons gradually expanded his circle of supporters in the places where he was active in Warsaw and Paris. The great recognition of Chopin that continues to this day came early. He was in the right place at the right time–Paris–when he arrived there in 1831 as a completely unknown young man. He stayed in the most influential European musical city of the time and died there on 17 October 1849 at the age of 39 from tuberculosis. Soon after his death, the first collected editions of his works were published, such as the Oeuvres de piano de Fréd. Chopin from Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig beginning in 1852. These volumes contain many first editions of Chopin's works which had been published by Breitkopf during his lifetime.

RISM has almost 1,900 records for printed music editions by Chopin, most dating from the 19th century. Most of them are held by the Chopin Institute in Warsaw, which is steadily cataloging its holdings. Collecting activities of the Chopin Institute focus on Chopin first editions and they are cataloged for RISM. The records are identified accordingly to make the first editions searchable in the RISM catalog. You can search the Chopin items in the RISM catalog by simply searching for Chopin as the composer. Use the filters on the left to refine your search.


Image: Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) in a photograph by Louis-Auguste Bisson, around 1849, from Wikimedia Commons.

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