Of the well-known composers of the 19th century, Fryderyk Chopin (as his name is spelled in Polish, his native tongue) is the only one whose complete works continue to be played regularly—indeed, without cease. Most of the pianists who had major international careers in the 20th century performed and recorded such staples of his catalogue as the A-flat Polonaise (“Heroic”) and the B-flat Minor Piano Sonata (“Funeral March”). They remain central to the repertoires of the rising generation of virtuosi, just as they have always been beloved by concertgoers. Yet Chopin’s phenomenal popularity was long viewed with suspicion by critics, in part because his compositions, without exception, all make use of the piano; in addition, most of them are solo pieces that are between two and 10 minutes in length. No other important classical composer has worked within so tightly circumscribed a compass.
This fact initially caused Chopin to be depicted, especially in Central Europe and Victorian England, as a figure of lesser consequence than his contemporaries, a miniaturist who turned out salon pieces that were wrought with deftness and grace but nonetheless did not deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as the large-scale masterpieces of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. H.L. Mencken summed up this point of view in a 1912 epigram: “Chopin—two embalmers at work upon a minor poet.”