Chopin Your Favorite Composer? How To Play His Piano Music With Historic Accuracy

If you are a piano player and love the music of composer Frédéric Chopin, you are certainly in luck. He is one of the few composers who wrote almost exclusively for solo piano. Modern pianos, however, do not sound exactly like pianos did in Chopin's time (the first third of the 19th Century). If you want to replicate Chopin's compositions with the greatest historical accuracy, here are some tips.

Use a piano with single escapement

One of the biggest developments in the pianoforte during the 1800s was the addition of double escapement, which improved the action of the hammers striking the strings inside the piano and made repeat notes on the same key easier. Virtually all grand pianos today feature double escapement, but this was not the standard yet when Chopin was composing.

To experience single-escapement action, use an upright or spinet piano when playing Chopin, as these styles of instrument use single escapement. Or, of course, you could try to get your hands on an antique Pleyel piano, which was Chopin's instrument of choice.

Change your use of the damper pedal

Unlike many composers, Chopin often omitted pedal markings in his works, probably assuming the player would know when to use the damper (sustain) pedal to provide greater resonance (but never to "cheat" legato passages!). With older pianos, due to decreased volume and different action, the damper pedal was likely used almost continuously every few beats in Chopin's works. However, with stronger modern pedals, you need to employ a subtler half-pedal technique to reproduce the true Chopin sound.

Think about your fingers differently

Chopin had amazing hands and was renowned for his virtuosity at the keyboard. He was also quite innovative about his fingering and used unique finger sub-stitutions that can be tricky to learn. Many of his compositions were written to help pianists learn his technique, so working through the Chopin catalog in order is a great way to become accustomed to his style. Chopin also stressed a dry, light touch on the piano, demonstrating both his intimate familiarity with what the piano was capable of at the time and the influence of Johan Sebastian Bach on his use of the hands and arms.

Consider an alternative tuning mode

Historians aren't exactly sure about how Chopin tuned his piano. While many top musicians and composers of his time did much of their own tuning, for many years, Chopin had his own tuner who produced exactly the note intervals he desired. Since equal temperament (ET), with equivalent intervals between each note, is a relatively new concept, Chopin may have used well temperament or another tuning mode for his piano, with uneven intervals between the notes.

You can ask your piano tuner to try different tuning modes with your instrument to see how you like them. You may find an alternative to ET suits Chopin's compositions better to your ear than today's use of equal temperament.

There's one thing you probably shouldn't do for historic verisimilitude, though, and that's tune your own piano. You can ask your tuner (like those at Las Vegas Pianos) to help you with a particular sticky note between calls, but you should leave the big tuning jobs to the pros.