Sunday, August 19, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Chopin

The first generation of 19th century composers to break new ground, including Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Mendelssohn, were all born around 1810. Berlioz was slightly older. I'm going to put up posts about each of these composers. My "masterpieces of music" series has been in hiatus for a couple of months now, so it is time to get back to it. These posts take a bit more time to prepare, but I have also been taking the time to re-read Taruskin's volume on the 19th century in the Oxford History. The 19th century is a formidably complex era. It includes not only romanticism, complex enough in itself, but also realism, nationalism and folklore, all of which play important roles. It was also when many of the most important musical institutions of our day were founded such as subscription concert series, the music publishing business, impresarios and agents, touring virtuosos and so on.

Chopin in a characteristic setting: Prince Radziwill's salon

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849), born in what is now Poland (but then part of the Russian empire) to a French father and a Polish mother, is not only a Romantic composer, but also often regarded as a nationalist one. Despite writing almost exclusively for piano, his influence on subsequent composers has been immense. His gifts were recognized very early, by Robert Schumann among others. I don't want to talk much about Chopin's life, but go straight to the music. I have posted on Chopin quite a few times. The most detailed post is this one. A guide to Chopin's aesthetic views comes from his companion, George Sand, who wrote in her Impressions et Souvenirs (1873) that:
The beauty of musical language consists in taking hold of the heart or imagination, without being condemned to pedestrian reasoning. It maintains itself in an ideal sphere where the listener who is not musically educated still delights in the vagueness, while the musician savors this great logic that presides over the masters' magnificent issue of thought.
I think that captures the essence of it rather better than shouting out "Dopamine!" "Dopamine!" as some have done recently. The Baroque genre of the prelude, of which Bach was the particular master, was given new life by Chopin in his op 28, preludes in all the major and minor keys. Bach's first prelude, (from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk 1) is an obvious influence:

And here is Chopin's C major prelude:

I think the more closely you look at that music, the more impressed you will be by the harmonic ingenuity of it. And all in about thirty seconds. But that is more than matched by the even more cryptic second prelude, in A minor. Well, sort of in A minor. The theorists are still arguing about this one...

That is one eerie prelude. It is as if the piece is simply too over-wrought to know what key it is in! The grotesque cross-relations between G and G#, between C# and C double-sharp and the constant chromatic neighbors make for a very uneasy harmonic background. That little chorale at the end that finally lands us in A minor seems, as many have noted, arbitrarily tacked on. This prelude, expansive though it feels, is still only two minutes long.

Some of Chopin's most remarkable pieces and the foundation for viewing him as a 'nationalist' composer, are his mazurkas based on a variety of peasant dances from the area around Warsaw. Here is General Dombrowski's mazurka, a traditional melody from around 1800. Note the heavy accent on the second beat:

Here are two mazurkas by Chopin, composed soon after he became an exile in Paris.

I think I will stop here for today and next time do a more detailed exploration of one of Chopin's longer pieces. Enjoy!

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