Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Case of Chopin

I avoided getting to know the music of Chopin for a long time, largely because, as a guitarist, I never played any of his music. The Spanish guitarist Francisco Tarrega did a great transcription of one of the nocturnes in the late 19th century and an American guitarist recently did the mammoth job of transcribing all of the mazurkas for guitar, a couple of which I have played in concert. Some composer's stars rise and fall, but Chopin's music has been loved ever since it was first heard and on the occasion of his two hundredth anniversary last year, there were many piano recitals featuring Chopin. For some background, have a look at the Wikipedia article.

I finally got acquainted with his music a couple of years ago when I was asked to give a pre-concert talk on Chopin before a piano recital. I gave myself a graduate seminar in Chopin to prepare. I got a complete recording of his piano music--Chopin wrote almost exclusively for piano--and did a lot of listening. I also got several volumes of the scores and read a couple of books on him, one an excellent collection of essays by musicologists. After all this I realized that I had been missing one of the great composers of the 19th century. Chopin was one of the architects of Romantic music and was a huge influence on later composers.

A very few composers in music history create entirely new forms or genres or so utterly transform existing ones that it has the same effect. Chopin is one of these. He completely transformed the scherzo, prelude and nocturne and more or less invented forms like the ballade and impromptu. In his over fifty mazurkas he took a folk tradition and revitalized it. The polonaises are a greatly expanded version of another tradition.

Chopin is a complex figure—he was born on the periphery of European high culture so was less bound by its forms than composers like Bach or Beethoven who spent their entire lives in the heart of the great European traditions. Chopin absorbed these traditions and made them his own but did so very freely. 

A virtuoso pianist, during his short life Chopin only played some thirty public concerts, nearly all of them with other artists. He preferred the ‘salon’, which refers to the interesting social phenomenon, characteristic of Paris, of intimate gatherings of like-minded people to discuss, banter, socialize and experience things of shared interest which would certainly include poetry and music. Chopin was the great master of the salon. Counted as one of the great romantic composers, Chopin himself had little regard for his contemporaries, reserving his admiration for the great classic masters Bach, Handel and Mozart.

Chopin grew up with Bach’s monumental collection of preludes and fugues in all the keys, the Well-Tempered Clavier—as have all classical musicians for the last 250 years! What Bach did was to go beyond all his models both in quality and in the variety of different styles he used. Similarly, Chopin, while owing much to his models, also went far beyond. The main influences on Chopin besides Bach are the melodies of Italian opera, the music of Poland he heard in his youth and the 'brilliant' piano style popular in the early 19th century. We find Bachian counterpoint lurking everywhere in Chopin's music along with operatic melodic decoration, Polish rhythms and brilliant figuration. But he united these things into an absolutely distinctive musical style.

Chopin was a great harmonist: he left behind the Classical clarity and tension between dominant and tonic, substituting instead more ambiguous relations for the sake of color and atmosphere. Here is a magical example:

But in the Berceuse in D flat major, he takes a different approach, contrasting the 'painful simplicity' (in the words of Charles Rosen) of the accompaniment with the freedom of the right hand:

This is my favorite--quite untypical--mazurka:

Let's close with one of Chopin's larger works, the 4th Ballade in F minor. It combines all the elements I have been talking about: the shifting harmonies (it starts by deceiving the listener about what key it is in), imitative counterpoint, brilliant passages, soaring melodies and even a hint of polonaise texture. The opening creates a dreamlike, floating atmosphere through a harmonic ambiguity that previous composers would have avoided. Themes return almost without being noticed and are varied mysteriously—this is a rare blend of complexity hidden within simplicity. The 4th Ballade is one of the greatest piano works of the 19th century.

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