No matter where you go around the globe, people will be listening to and admiring Frédéric Chopin’s piano music. There is something at the heart of this composer that makes his pieces speak with great force to almost  anybody. It stirs emotions in people from all kinds of societies and of all ages. I remember listening to a recording of Lili Kraus playing Chopin’s Waltzes when I was about seven, together with my father. And I remember very well how this music touched something deep inside. I am sure some of you have similar experiences.

What is it then that gives Chopin’s piano music its great power, to make us want to listen to it over and over in the entire course of a lifetime? I will give a few ideas about what the kinds of things are that add upp to Chopin’s particular style: his obsession with his home country, his love of the human voice, and his regard for Bach and Mozart.

Chopin was born and brought up in Poland, but happened to be on tour when during an uprising against the Russians, who were then occupying the country. It would have been too risky for him to return, and his friends adviced him to go on to France, where he remained for the rest of his life. He stayed devoted to the cause of Poland for the rest of his life, and made use of genres like the Mazurka and Polonaise to honour his suffering countrymen.

This music remains the pride of Poland until this day, but is also a touching picture of the longing, nostalgia, anger, hope and resignation that always accompany a forced exile. In that sense, it speaks to anyone with a memory to cherish – and who hasn’t got that?

Chopin made the piano sing like nobody before him. In part, this is just because he understood its capabilities better than anyone else, but it is also the result of a true fascination with the human voice, and opera singing in particular. The bel canto singers of his time had developed a technique that allowed them to achieve a perfect legato and an incredible flexibility of the voice, which they used to fire off dazzling scales and cadenzas in an improvisatory fashion.

Chopin listened to this and went home and did something similar on the piano, mixing long and beautiful legato lines with sudden bursts of finger dexterity.  But certainly, Chopin was no mere emulator of the opera styles of his day. Bellini and Donizetti may be very talented, accomplished and respectable composers, but neither of them possessed a genius comparable to Chopin. He aspired to learn from the best composers of the past, and turned to the music of Bach and Mozart to develop his craft.

It’s actually quite funny how the person that we all think is the perfect romantic genius, should have had such great a regard for the music of the past. The simple and perfect form of Mozart found a 19th century equivalent in Chopin. From Bach he learned to put the vertical element in music first, and let the individual voices create the harmony, and not the other way around. Priorities like that were actually rather conservative among the Romantics, but this didn’t prevent Chopin to become one of the dominant figures of his era. Chopin’s piano music is the eloquent result of deep and noble emotions combined with a perfect knowledge of his craft.