COMPOSITIONS compositions


Chopin became acquainted with Auguste Franchomme in the spring of 1832, through Hiller or Liszt. Their friendship would last to the very end. It was to Franchomme that Chopin would dedicate the last work published during his lifetime, the wonderful Sonata in G minor. Their collaboration began with the joint composition of a Grand Duo in E major on themes from Robert le diable. The results cannot be said to be particularly splendid. On the contrary, the Grand Duo is one of the most marginal works in the Chopin oeuvre. It was composed in the Parisian variety of the brillant style. Within the milieu in which the two artists moved, it was greeted with applause. Franchomme once recalled that shortly after its publication he played it often with Chopin, most frequently at the end of a soirée. Schumann treated the Duo rather favourably, emphasising in his review its ‘grace and refinement’, but calling its style ‘low’ and ‘salon’. At the same time, he wondered how much Chopin there was in this music and how much Franchomme. He arrived at the conviction that the latter’s role was mainly to nod at the former’s suggestions. In the extant manuscript, though the piano part is written in Chopin’s hand, the cello part is in the hand of Franchomme.

At the head of the work – in line with the canons of the genre – stands an introduction. It is perfectly representative of that Parisian style brillant that Chopin was attempting to master. When listening to this music – employing a series of supremely banal phrases and trite textural devices – we cannot believe our ears. Is this the same composer who has already written his first sets of etudes, mazurkas and nocturnes? And the music of the two concertos? Well, on arriving in Paris, ‘blown by the wind’, the composer of the F minor Concerto considered it essential and appropriate to master the style that held sway there. That is how Kalkbrenner and Herz, Moscheles and Henselt, Liszt and Thalberg all wrote. It is hard to imagine, but Thalberg composed over sixty operatic fantasies. All written in a similar way.

But let us get back to Chopin and his Grand Duo. After the introduction, we hear music that may be defined as fantasy or paraphrase. The three themes taken from the music of Robert le diable are first presented, and then paraphrased.

The first to appear is the theme of Alice’s romance from the opera’s first act. In the Grand Duo, Meyerbeer’s theme is heard in E major – singing and graceful, between dolce and grandioso. The next theme (Allegretto in A major) was taken from the introduction to Act II. In the opera, it is sung by a choir. In the Chopin-Franchomme version, the choir retains the lightness and nimbleness of the operatic original, and even surpasses it. Finally, the third theme comes from the fifth (and last) act, part of a trio sung to the words ‘O, mon fils, ma tendresse…’ In the Grand Duo, it is played andante cantabile, in the key of B minor, The cello is to sing con sentimento.

Each of the themes taken from Meyerbeer is developed or paraphrased. Unfortunately, this is done in a highly conventional way, by means of diminution, and so fragmentation and ornamentation, through sequential repetition or by having the cello sing against a purely operatic tremolando in the piano.

It is hardly surprising that the Grand Duo remained in the margins, from which it only occasionally peeps out. It has also failed to win the approval of Chopin monographers. One of them, James Huneker, a sworn enthusiast of Chopin’s music, characterised this work – certainly too harshly, though not far from the truth – as follows: ‘It is for the salon of 1833, when it was published. It is empty, tiresome and only slightly superior to compositions of the same sort by De Beriot and Osborne. Full of rapid elegancies and shallow passage work, this duo is certainly a pièce d’occasion – the occasion probably being the need of ready money.’

The Grand Duo Concertant was dedicated to a sixteen-year-old young lady, Miss Adèle Forest. She was the daughter of an amateur cellist friend of Franchomme’s and a pupil of Chopin.

Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
[Cykl audycji "Fryderyka Chopina Dzieła Wszystkie"]
Polish Radio, program II


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Grand Duo Concertant in E major on themes from Meyerbeer's opera Robert le diable, Op. 16 A
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