Chopin Goes Pop

Discover the great composer's influence on pop-culture

By Google Arts & Culture

Text by Mariusz Gradowski

Frédéric Chopin (2019) by Designed by Adam ŻebrowskiTeatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Chopin's music is not just the preserve of classical aficionados, concert halls, and high culture. In fact, the great pianist has influenced a variety of pop-cultural creations. Scroll on to learn more...

A definition of pop

‘Pop’ is often an abbreviation of the term ‘popular music’. It is variously defined, often by negation: not Western classical music, not traditional folk music conceived ethnomusicologically, not jazz. 

Untitled [Portrait of Fryderyk Chopin] (21st Century) by Edward DwurnikThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Another, more narrow definition of pop, maintains that it is simply mainstream popular music. As such, it is characterized by the qualities of a hit, such as melodiousness, commercial appeal, large role of studio production, and an aim of bumping up the charts.

Miss A by JYP EntertainmentRIAK: Recording Industry Association of Korea

Important are its extra-musical qualities: the performer’s image, video clips, album covers, lyrics, and media gossip. As such, it is perceived by critics, but also listeners, as being the opposite of other popular music currents: rock, metal, and hip-hop.

Chopin Op 2 last page doodle - Variations on Mozart Là ci darem la manoThe Morgan Library & Museum

From transcriptions…

Back in the 19th century, one direction for Chopin’s growingly popular work was set by transcriptions (for violin, guitar, or the organ) that altered the original musical notation. Such popularization of this master goes hand in hand with his music being considered 'pop'.

Since the 50s and 60s, artists have combined classical music with pop jazz, easy-listening, and cocktail music. Such remakes were once accused of being kitsch, but are now being more broadly accepted for their artistic worth.

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here (1975)Bob Moog Foundation / Moogseum

…to the classical crossover

Chopin’s music makes frequent appearances in 'crossover' works, such as AyseDeniz's mashup of the Andante spianato with Pink Floyd’s “On The Turning Away”, or Lola & Hauser's interpretation of the Moonlight Sonata.

Chopin stamp design (20. Century) by Urbański LeonThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

It is difficult to resist the impression that both the performance and presentation of this music already belongs in the pop world.

Singing Chopin

People have sung Chopin since the 19th century, adding lyrics to his instrumental works. The Italians have long sung the Tristesse, the Germans In mir klingt ein Lied, and the French Intimite and Prelude Triste, while the culture of tango knows 'La melodía del corazón'.

Etude in E major, op. 10, no. 3 114339 p2The Morgan Library & Museum

With each lyric, the Étude in E major that is concealed within, spins a new tale. It is worth saying that more than just the arrangements, with the local instruments, rhythms, and preferences, also the language itself, its melody, and the expressed text, exert an influence on each sung version of the Étude in E major;

Chopin (c.1900) by AnónimoMuseum Celda de Frédéric Chopin y George Sand

more than reproducing it, they bring out a nuanced potential embedded in this work. Singing Chopin can mean jazz scat, hip-hop beatbox, or soul ornaments, soloists, vocal ensembles, and choir. Kyoji Ohno using a sampler shows perfectly that Chopin (more precisely the Minute Waltz, aka Valse du petit chien) can be ‘sung’ even by dogs. 

Fantaisie-Impromptu cis-moll [op. 66] (1833 - 1834) by Fryderyk ChopinThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Hits

Some pieces with Chopin in the background have won special popularity. Harry Caroll’s song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”, using the lyric theme of the Fantaisie-Impromptu, was written in 1917, and has since taken not just the jazz world, but also mainstream music, by storm. 

Record album:Bad Girls (1979) by Casablanca Record and FilmWorks, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

It would eventually be sung by Judy Garland, Gloria Lynne, and many others. Another ‘Chopin hit’ is Barry Manilow’s 1973 song, “Could it be Magic”, based on the Prelude in C minor. It would be sung by such artists as Donna Summer, Anthony White, and Take That.

Barbara Streisand by Bill EppridgeLIFE Photo Collection

Let us add to this list of hits the Minute Waltz, sung by Barbara Streisand and later picked up in other langauges locally, for example by Monique Leyrac of France and Marion Rung of Finland. 

Def leppard gig (1990's) by Michael WylieMuseum of Youth Culture

Lyrics mentioning Chopin

Frédéric Chopin makes an appearance in song lyrics, too. He tends to be portrayed as a historical figure, composer, artist, Romantic, piano genius, sensitive human, but also as a symbol of a rejected past, lifestyle, or even boredom, as in Def Leppard’s “Let’s Get Rocked”! 

Harmonica played by Bob Dylan by Mario Brandrock'n'popmuseum

His compositions are recalled as a symbol of many feelings, deep emotion, beauty, nostalgia, pensiveness (Bob Dylan’s “I Contain Multitudes”).

Mina: her voice has an unmistakable texture. (2010) by YOUNG & RUBICAM ItaliaArchivio Storico Barilla

Some apologize for the audacity to remake his music (Mina’s “Chopin Cha Cha”), thank him for the inspiration, or send an invitation for coffee or a beer (Les Bel Canto’s “Si, Chopin”). Chopin’s surname can inspire samplin’ ’n’ choppin’ (Arthuri’s “Chopin Chopan”). 

Flow (2011) by Jin, SiyonKorean Art Museum Association

Synthesizers (keyboard or without)

Mastering piano skills enables us to play other keyboards used in pop music: the Hammond Organ, Moog, and others. The timbres of those 1950s keyboard instruments were part of a large range of styles, such as easy listening, disco, and the avant garde.

From the 1980s, ‘electronic Chopin’ also brought sampling (Vald’s “Elle me Regarde”), remixes (Aysedeniz Gokcin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor), beats (Kassa Overall’s “Darkness in Mind”), synthesizer motifs, and dance genre (Empress’ “Dyin’ to be Dancin’”). 

Dismantle Yourself, curated by Graham Dunning by Graham DunningSomerset House

It also meant a challenge and exploration extending from ambient to noise, as perfectly shown by Polish records filled with electronic interpretations of Chopin’s works: Astigmatic. Inspired by Chopin ('Polish Artists Play for Chopin'), and Variations of Chopin.

There is also another side to it: streaming services are flooded by electronic background music, Karaoke versions, and amateur recordings that attract an audience with Chopin’s name. 

Untitled [Portrait of Fryderyk Chopin] (21st Century) by Edward DwurnikThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

The guitar world

Rock and metal musicians also explore the potential of Chopin’s works: the galloping guitars of Fantaisie-Impromptu covers (Ron Bumblefoot Thal, André Antunes, and Mistheria) are one key example. 

Nocturne (21st Century) by Anna SuwałowskaThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

But the electric guitar is more than just rock: it is also explorative music that works with timbre, as in Alex Dante’s version of Chopin’s nocturnes.

Arcángel en un recital en el Parlamento de AndalucíaInstituto Andaluz del Flamenco

In turn, the classic guitar leads us to connections with other styles employing this instrument (flamenco, samba, bossa nova, tango). From there, it is only a step away from guitar transcriptions of the 19th-century.

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Rock piano

In rock and metal, Chopin’s works are also played on keyboard instruments. Often, they show a different side of the performers. This is because, while we can expect Jordan Rudess (“Revolutionary Étude”) and Keith Emerson (“Memoirs of an Officer and Gentelman”) to play or quote Chopin, the guitar virtuoso Tony McAlpine producing a brilliant paraphrase of Maiden’s Wish can be astonishing.

Rio Funk Ball Rio Funk Ball (2005/2014) by Vincent RosenblattCidade Matarazzo

A panorama

A portion of musical styles have already made an appearance, but the panorama is much wider. Rhythm ’n’ blues (Jesse Stone’s “Who’s Zat”), bluegrass (Bela Fleck), rockabilly (“Rockin’ The Polonaise” by Frankie Bell and the Bell Boys), soul (Anthony White), nu soul (Estelle), samba (“Seu Chopin, Desculpe”)...

...bossa-nova (Hildegard Pohl Trio), reggae (Maleo Reggae Rockers), ska (Shop In PL), funk (Leroy and The Drivers), prog-rock (SBB), electro (Propellerheads), house (House of Chopin), cabaret (Monty Python)...the list goes on!

We have contemporary folk, not only from Poland, that measures itself against Chopin, the Polish traditional music that inspired him, and contemporary ‘world music’: in the latter, it is worth checking out records by Maria Pomianowska (Spirit of The Lowlands)...

...Jorgi (Chopin), Sarakina (Fryderykata), Nils Asheim and Gjertrud’s Gypsy Orchestra (Mazurka. Remaking Chopin) to know the captive power of those inspired currents. 

Szopen - buddy from the band (21st Century) by Paweł PłóciennikThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Why does pop like Chopin?

It definitely helps that Chopin is among the greatest composers in music history. His work is played often — at every educational level and in every kind of artistic life — and is frequently recorded. 

Chopin’s works lend themselves to pop, often being short and compact with clear melodies. Catchy themes, for which Chopin has a hand, can be sung out loud, treated as a jazz standard, or recorded samples. Chopin can be looped, interpolated, adapted, celebrated, and disguised.

Till pianokonsert nr I – F. Chopin (21st Century) by Elżbieta WejsflogThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Surely what also helps is the mood evoked by Chopin’s music. It is probably no coincidence that, most often, the pieces being transformed are reflective, pensive, focused. 

Thus, more the ‘Chopin of the night’ than of the ‘day’. The more accessible Chopin. More emotional than intellectual. Like pop.

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