One of the greatest composers of the 19th century, Fryderyk Chopin, had an irrepressible creative imagination, and his music experienced continual evolution as a result. Now, a new online resource is bringing the many versions of his compositions together in one place, opening up new possibilities for performers, listeners and researchers alike.

For Chopin there was no single, definitive version: he continually changed his mind

John Rink

March 1, 2013 is the 203rd anniversary of the birth of Fryderyk Chopin. Not only is Chopin still a household name: he is probably the most enduring composer of his age.

For some, this comes down to the ineffable beauty, subtlety and technical refinement of his work. Others point to the fact that unlike many Romantic composers, Chopin rarely tried to convey a specific message or story through his music. Publishing under neutral titles which gave little away, he preferred to leave interpretation to the listener. The result is that even today, audiences tend to find something uniquely personal in each and every piece.

Yet while listeners can simply sit back and enjoy the music, the obscurity of Chopin’s intentions makes understanding his work a challenge for anyone seeking to get closer to the composer himself. Chopin is both fascinating and frustrating in this respect, because he rarely left behind just one version of his compositions. More often, there are three, four, five or more - any number of which might be an “authoritative” representation of how he wanted the piece to sound. Listeners, performers and researchers alike may find this liberating, but also bewildering because there are so many options from which to choose.

John Rink, Professor of Musical Performance Studies at Cambridge, is director of a project which is transforming the way in which we understand Chopin’s work by bringing this compositional cornucopia together in one place. Launched in 2005 with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the “Online Chopin Variorum Edition” ( is still under development, but eventually it will provide digital images of all the available primary sources of Chopin’s music - whether sketches, complete manuscripts (both Chopin’s and those of copyists), first editions, or later impressions. Thousands of pages from these documents are already available, and the entire site is free of charge. Users anywhere in the world can explore, compare and combine elements from the great composer’s music, comment on it as they go, and ultimately construct their own version of the Chopin work to an extent that has never before been possible.

Purists might call that sacrilege, but Rink believes that it is very much in the spirit of what Chopin wanted. In fact, he describes as “indefensible” the notion that a given version of Chopin was necessarily what the composer would have intended for all time.

“For Chopin there was no single, definitive version: he continually changed his mind,” Rink says. “We might identify a particular source as representing his conception of the music at a given moment, but the next day he might well have heard, played or notated it differently.  We therefore need to understand his music as existing in a state of flux, a process involving not only the composer but all those who later come into contact with it – including performers, listeners, editors, critics and so on.”

Contemporary evidence confirms that Chopin’s genius was restless and boundless, in that he continually modified his work on paper while correcting errors, refining the notation, or indulging in other creative possibilities. To minimise the risk of piracy, he also published separate editions in France, England and the German states, usually leading to the release of three distinct versions of his music which might be altered yet again - either by Chopin or his publishers - when a given print run sold out and a new impression was required. Even his rare, sensational public performances were a creative act: according to one of his piano tuners, Chopin never played his own music the same way twice, instead varying his approach to suit the occasion. The numerous variants that he pencilled into the scores of his students hint at the improvisatory character of his playing.

Rink can point to numerous examples already available through the Variorum that prove just how flexible the Chopin work is. The C minor Prelude Op. 28 No. 20, for example, is a notoriously controversial piece precisely because nobody is sure what Chopin really wanted. Remarkably, the debate hinges on the ending of a single bar. Trivial though that may seem, the music sounds completely different depending on which version is played – one is brighter, the other sombre, introverted. Either could be correct, but then again both versions might simply represent what Chopin wanted at different times. Even more striking, perhaps, is the fact that the piece exists in two original versions: one nine bars long, the other thirteen. Only the latter is performed nowadays, but the former – which was not meant for publication – may reflect Chopin’s earliest conception.

In some cases users can see several layers of corrections on the page itself. The Second Ballade Op. 38 is a case in point. Here, Chopin wrote two different endings and then vacillated between them; his manuscript shows the original ending scribbled out and replaced with a second version, which made its way into one of the first editions whereas another conforms to the original. Again, the effect is quite different depending on which ending the pianist chooses to play, as the second version is more imposing than its understated counterpart.

Rink believes that despite this seemingly limitless variety, Chopin’s music should not be altered capriciously. “To make a musically sensible decision about what you put forward as a performer, you need to have sound criteria along with the knowledge and judgement that can accrue only over time,” he says. This last point is critical: “merely having access to the original sources does not in itself allow one to make informed, convincing decisions about how this music ‘should’ be played and understood.”

For this reason, the Variorum provides more than just an archive of digitised manuscripts and printed editions culled from dozens of international libraries and private collectors. Visitors to the OCVE site can browse a full index of the materials that have been uploaded, select a work, then view the different versions on offer. But the main feature of the Variorum is the ability to select and compare particular bars or passages across all the different sources for a given piece, thereby revealing the music’s creative history. Background information is provided at an overview level and on an in-depth, bar-by-bar basis. The site also works as a “virtual notepad”, enabling users to jot down ideas about the music as they work their way through it. They can keep these annotations to themselves, or share them with others.

Despite the growing significance of digital media in the arts and humanities as a whole, no musical resource quite like this has ever before been attempted: the Variorum offers unprecedented opportunities to compare and reconstruct Chopin’s creative process in a way that would not be possible on the printed page - where even the comparison of a few bars in different sources requires a large desk as well as juggling skills. In time, Rink hopes that the Chopin Variorum might serve as a model for “dynamic editions” of other composers’ works.

For now, it means that rather than having Chopin’s musical legacy mediated for us, we can, if we wish, make up our own minds about how to hear or perform his works. Ironically, this seems to have been Chopin’s very intention. “Music does not exist in a single, correct version,” Rink notes. “It constantly changes over time. Chopin reminds us of that because he himself kept changing his music. Whenever we perform or listen to it, our experience is different from the last. By putting his compositions into a digital space, we can model and capture that evolutionary process. In doing so, we breathe new life into Chopin’s music and witness for ourselves his compositional genius at work.”

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