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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 5

Chopin: As Seen by a Pianist

by Tristan Lauber / February 1, 2000

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The year 1999 marked the 150th anniversary of Frederic Chopin’s death, by far one of the most famous composers of the 19th century. The son of a refined French emigré and a stout-hearted Polish woman, he was born in a small town close to Warsaw, where he lived until the age of seventeen. The happiness of these early years was extremely important to him, for it was his departure from Poland and subsequent inability to return (due to the Russian occupation) that forever engrained within his heart the ardent nationalism so faithfully expressed in his Mazurkas and Polonaises.

ChopinAfter traveling throughout Europe, he finally settled in Paris to teach, perform and compose. His taste in music was not particularly broad. He adored Bach and spent many hours performing and teaching the great composer’s preludes and fugues (this influence is often felt in the numerous contrapuntal passages found in many of his later works, most notably the two Nocturnes Op.62 and the second from Op.55). Mozart was a favourite, Beethoven less so. His attitude towards his contemporaries was ambiguous at best. He was cool towards Schumann, never reciprocating the latter’s enthusiasm for his own music. And his admiration for Liszt was tinged with jealousy. But perhaps the most important aspects of his personality were his insecurity and his indecisiveness (many letters to his parents in which he expresses his hesitation between going back to Poland to fight alongside his countrymen or staying in his new adopted home attest to this trait). This "folie du doute," his inability to make up his mind, actually permeates many of his works and is even reflected in his harmonic language, making him by far one of the most original harmonists of his time. The second Prelude Op.28 in A minor and the Mazurka, Op.68, no.4 as well as many of his later works are replete with bold modulations into foreign keys, arrived at by a subtle "sliding" from one key to the next. These are perfect examples of his vacillating personality expressed in music. It is as though the composer meanders over the keys not really knowing where he wants to go, changing direction without warning, much as the composer’s own moods tended to do. Musicologists now agree that such harmonic daring easily foreshadows Wagner’s infamous "Tristan chord."

In 1839 Chopin published the 24 preludes, Op.28, which are considered one of the most important works of the Romantic repertoire. Each prelude is written in one of the 24 keys, in a characteristic tribute to Bach. Within each of these musical miniatures, the entire spectrum of the composer’s emotions is represented. From joy and light-heartedness to melancholy, even rage and anger, this is perhaps the greatest variety of moods ever assembled in a single set of pieces.

ChopinAside from a few exceptions, Chopin’s creative output was devoted exclusively to the piano. His works present particular challenges to the performer for he pushed piano technique to a level unsurpassed at the time. The Etudes, Op.10 and 25, are the best example of this, being without a doubt the most difficult sets ever written for the instrument, especially when performed in their entirety. He took the typical figurations (scales, broken chords, trills, double notes…) found in the studies of Hummel and Clementi but brilliantly reinvented them, making them even more pianistically challenging. Nevertheless in this master’s hands, they are tools with which to express musical ideas rather than vehicles for superficial showmanship as had been the case up until then. Because his admiration of the bel canto style (as represented by Bellini) was the backbone of his artistic vision, this made his conception of the piano above all vocal rather than orchestral. This is why, despite the virtuoso nature of the Etudes, he eschewed such flashy devices as the thundering alternating octaves and crashing chords so dear to the Thalbergs and Liszts of his day. Chopin’s Etudes are of great help in overcoming two of the most challenging aspects of performing his works: developing a fluid, powerful and free technique that makes the piano sound as if it were playing itself and creating the singing tone without which his music loses its beauty. It can be said that Chopin originated the form of the concert etude, followed by Liszt, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and many others who wrote their own sets, treating the etude like a serious piece of music worthy of respect.

This leads us to the subject of his playing, considered unique like his composing. Contemporary accounts describe an evanescent and transparent quality to his performances. His great trademarks were pearly scales, subtle voicings and an unsurpassed legato. When asked by his students how he came to develop these qualities, he explained how important it was to listen closely to the great singers of the day in order to discover the true art of singing at the piano. This advice remains just as wise today as it was then.

Nevertheless, after his death in 1849, a very unusual – by present-day standards – approach to his music was perpetuated, mostly by his own students. Because they romanticized the pale, death-stricken figure of the composer sitting weakly at the piano, moving the enraptured aristocrats to tears with soulful renditions of his latest Nocturnes, they mistakenly believed that this meant his music should never be played at a dynamic level above mf. They misinterpreted the fact that this ability to create so many gradations of pianissimi (though undeniably admirable) was an inevitable result of his inability to play forte, because of his weak health. This is why for many years afterwards, they severely criticized anyone (such as Anton Rubinstein, one of the most popular pianists of the late 19th century) who dared to infuse any kind of bravado in his music. Thankfully, things have changed since then, for pianists have come to understand that despite the composer’s physical weakness, his indomitable spirit was thriving with energy and passion. Therefore though a Chopin performance must always be musically logical and stylistically faithful, perhaps one can say that its most important trait is that it must come from the heart.

For further reading, I recommend Alfred Cortot’s Aspects of Chopin, and Jean Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin Pianist and Teacher As Seen By His Pupils. As for recordings, here are some of my personal choices. for the Nocturnes, Polonaises and Ballades, Arthur Rubinstein; for Préludes, Arthur Rubinstein or Martha Argerich; for Etudes, Alfred Cortot and Maurizio Pollini, the former for his unsurpassed imagination, the latter for his unsurpassed technique; for the Waltzes, Dinu Lipatti; for the Mazurkas, Samson François.


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