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Chopin: the voice of the piano.


I would like to begin by making a proposition that I cannot prove, but believe to be true. Within a 50-mile radius of where I am standing, someone somewhere is either playing or listening to Chopin's music. Nor does this proposition depend on my particular location, which happens to be Albuquerque, New Mexico. If I were to move my podium to Vienna, London, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing or even Sydney, Australia, my proposition would remain the same. Whatever the time zone, the sun never sets on Chopin's music. Millions of listeners are held in thrall to it. Radio stations across the world broadcast his compositions. The sale of Chopin CDs holds firm. The "Chopin recital" remains as popular as ever, a permanent in the concert hall. Chopin competitions continue to spring up across the globe. Finally, and most remarkably, Chopin has come to symbolize a nation. He is Poland's best-known son. Is there any other composer of whom similar things could reasonably be said?

Beginnings In Poland

In 1787, a 17-year-old named Nicolas Chopin left his native France and journeyed a thousand miles across Europe to Poland. We cannot speculate about his reasons. Whatever they were, the youth broke completely with his past. In later life he kept from his children all knowledge of their humble French relations. Nicolas Chopin embraced Poland as if it were his native land and Polish as if his native tongue. He generated a powerful sense of patriotism, which was the single most unifying influence in the life of his closely knit family. It was not until he was 35 that he married a Polish woman named Justyna, who was 11 years his junior. There were four children of the marriage--three girls and a boy. The boy, Fryderyk, who was born on March 1, 1810, was destined to become one of the leaders of the romantic movement in music.

As a child, Chopin was precocious. He was writing verse at age 6 and composing music from age 7. His very first composition was a Polonaise in G Minor (1817). But the most remarkable thing about him was his predisposition towards the piano. It is not generally realized that as a pianist Chopin was mostly self-taught. True, the boy took some elementary lessons from Adalbert Zywny, a local Warsaw musician (who was actually a violinist), but they were abandoned by the time that Chopin was 12. His chief studies were with Jozef Eisner--for composition. In piano playing, Chopin was left to find his own way, and he did so with such a natural aptitude that by the time he was 20 years old, he was fully formed as a pianist. (His Twelve Etudes, Op. 10, incidentally, begun when he was just 19 years old, were mostly composed to give himself new technical problems to solve.)

Chopin's parents were well aware of his unusual gifts, and it is to their credit that they exploited him neither for fame nor for money. Nicolas Chopin insisted that his son receive a sound general education, first at home and later at the Warsaw Lyceum. Chopin was supremely fortunate in having Jozef Elsner as his teacher. Elsner was the director of the Warsaw Conservatory of Music, a man in his mid-fifties when Chopin knew him, and a composer of 23 operas, 30 masses and three symphonies. Chopin revered him. Quickly realizing that an academic strait-jacket was no answer to Chopin's gifts, Eisner allowed him the freedom to follow his natural inclinations. "Let him be!" Elsner would say, "He's straying from the beaten track and the ordinary methods, but his is no ordinary talent."

The Warsaw press was full of references to Chopin. They regarded him as a local wonder-boy. Chopin himself was under no such illusions. He still had to prove himself to the outside world. He left Poland when he was 20, intending to tour Europe and return. Within weeks of his departure, however, the Warsaw Insurrection broke out and was crushed by the Russians. Cut off from his native land, Chopin toured Vienna, Prague and Stuttgart. It was at Stuttgart that he heard of the fall of Warsaw and it was there, according to legend, that he wrote his "Revolutionary" Study. His so-called "Stuttgart Diary" tells of his anguish over the fate of Poland. What words come to mind when we think of Chopin? Fastidious, aristocratic, remote, refined are among the ones that usually present themselves. Now consider the language that he confides to his diary. It flows from a different pen. Chopin was seething with anger at this moment.
 The enemy has reached my
 home! The suburbs are
 stormed--burnt down! My family,
 my friends! Where are you?
 Wilhelm has surely perished on
 the ramparts. I see Marcel a prisoner.
 Sowinski, that good patriot,
 is a prisoner in the hands of those
 scoundrels. And God, are you too
 a prisoner? You are, but you do
 not avenge! Perhaps you too are a
 Russian! And the churchyard
 where my poor sister is buried.
 Have they respected her grave, or
 has it too been trampled underfoot,
 a thousand other corpses
 piled above it? [Chopin's younger
 sister, Emilia, had died of tuberculosis
 when she was only 14
 years old.] Why am I here, and
 why could I not slay a single
 Russian? May the most frightful
 torments seize the French for not
 coming to our aid.

We cannot fail to notice that the "fastidious" Chopin utters three curses: against Russia, against France and against God. Does not some of this suppressed fury come out in the "Revolutionary" Study?

Listening Recommendation: "Revolutionary" Study, Op. 10, No. 12, played by Ann Schein.

More by accident than design Chopin wandered into Paris in the autumn of 1831, in a mood of dark despair. Aside from some brief excursions, he was destined to remain in the city for the rest of his life.

Chopin In Paris

When Chopin arrived in Paris, it was the center of the pianistic world. Dozens of steel-fingered, chromiumplated pianists lived and worked there, each one wing with the others for a place of supremacy in the keyboard hierarchy. The roll-call included Kalkbrenner, Henselt, Dreyschock, Pixis, Herz and Thalberg--affectionately referred to as "the flying-trapeze school." They were obsessed with technique. There was Kalkbrenner with his pearled passage-work, Dreyschock with his powerful octaves and Thalberg with his trick of making two hands sound like three. We smile at such antics nowadays, yet these pianists created a breakthrough in the development of piano playing. Meyerbeer ruled the operatic stage; Heine ruled the press. Heine was renowned for his wit, expressed through his widely read column Berichte aus Paris (Reports from Paris). He once heard of Meyerbeer's phobia against cats. "That," declared Heine, "is because in a previous incarnation he was a mouse!" Of Kalkbrenner, a widely respected pianist, he remarked, "He is like a sweet fallen in the mud. There is nothing wrong with it, but people leave it where it lies." On another occasion Heine observed of Dreyschock (a rather noisy player) that when he played his octaves in Cologne and the wind was in the right direction, you could hear him in Paris. Thalberg's claim to fame was his trick of bringing out a melody in the middle of the keyboard and surrounding it with delicate cascades of arpeggios, mystifying his onlookers as to how he had acquired a third hand. These pianists have been well described as "the gladiators of the keyboard," and the concert halls of Paris as the "Coliseum" in which they fought their duels.

What distinguished Chopin from the acrobats was his complete lack of interest in technique as an end in itself--a saving grace that he might never have possessed if he, too, had had a formal piano education. He belonged to no school, he subscribed to no dogma. While his contemporaries--the gladiators of the keyboard--were fighting it out in the open arena of the concert hall, Chopin quietly lay siege to the instrument in his own way, by composing a series of compositions that broke fresh ground, which are absolutely typical of the piano, and which have dominated the repertory ever since.

Aside from the piano, Chopin's favorite instrument was the human voice. He often attended the Paris Opera House, where he heard some of the greatest singers of the day, including Adolphe Nourrit, Maria Malibran, Giovanni Rubini and Louis Lablache. His admiration for the operas of Bellini and Donizetti was boundless. Do not their arias shine through his nocturnes especially? Listen for a moment to that most famous of Bellini arias, "Casta Diva" sung by Maria Callas.

Listening Recommendation: Casta Diva (from Bellini's Norma) by Maria Callas

This beautiful example of be/canto singing leaves its mark on the Chopin Nocturnes. Any one of them could be described as "bel canto" for the piano. Indeed, if someone were to come along and transcribe "Casta Diva" for piano solo, you would have a readymade Chopin Nocturne. (1) And now consider the Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 55, and you hear at once how the be/canto style has so penetrated the right hand (the singing hand) that it is almost as if Chopin had stolen it from Bellini or from Donizetti. As if to clinch the operatic connection, you will hear a contralto voice start to accompany the soprano about eight measures into the piece, and you suddenly find yourself listening to an operatic duet.

Listening Recommendation: Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 55, No. 2. played by Ignaz Friedman

It is often said that a major influence on the nocturnes was John Field, who actually invented the genre. There is truth to this idea, but Field's influence is surely confined to externals. The inner spirit of Chopin's nocturnes,

and his melodies generally, comes from opera and from that style of singing we call bel canto. Hans von Bulow delivered the best aphorism on that topic. "Whoever cannot sing," he once declared, "however poor the voice, should not try to play the piano." It remains a great piece of advice for Chopin players. Take singing lessons.


That performance of Ignaz Friedman reminds me of an unusual story. Friedman gave almost 3,000 recitals during his lifetime. In 1940, shortly after World War II had broken out, Friedman found himself in Australia, unable to get back to Europe. He settled in Sydney and gave many broadcasts for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Some of these recitals were recorded and placed in the ABC sound archives in Sydney, including Chopin's two sonatas, the Liszt sonata and much else more--32 hours of music. When Friedman's biographer Allan Evans made some inquiries about this legacy he learned that the ABC's archives had been "updated" in the 1960s, and more than 500,000 vinyl records had been thrown out as landfill for the highway being built close to the ABC's own studios. So if you are ever in Australia and driving in and out of Sydney, you may well be travelling past, or even over, some of the best Chopin recordings ever made, by one of Poland's greatest pianists.

The Paris Salon

The liberal atmosphere released by the July Revolution of 1830 acted like a catalyst on French creative thought. Writers, painters, musicians and social reformers converged on Paris, which teemed with artistic and intellectual activity. Among the writers and poets were Sainte-Beuve, Victor Hugo, Balzac, George Sand and Heine. The painters included Delacroix, Deveria and Ary Scheffer. This volatile mixture was enriched by a flood of refugees from Warsaw, and Paris suddenly became the adopted home of a number of distinguished Poles, including the Polish nationalistic poet Mickiewicz. Merely to list the names is to call the roll of the very leaders of the romantic movement itself.

Musicians, too, appeared in these salons, including Liszt, Rossini and, of course, Chopin himself. What kind of music would Chopin have played? Probably something light, but elegant; a nocturne perhaps, or even a mazurka, and possibly one of the waltzes he had recently composed in Vienna and brought with him to Paris. How best to describe Chopin's waltzes? In a letter to his parents, Chopin himself observed that he had just composed a set of waltzes, but added: "They are not for dancing." And this gives us the clue. It would demean such pieces to use them as background, actually to dance to this music. They are waltzes about waltzes--reminiscences of the Viennese ballroom itself. The waltz in Chopin's hands is raised to a high art form. Even the dancers stop to listen to this music. Let's hear a performance of the Grande Valse brillante, Op. 18, in a performance by Dinu Lipatti, whose early death at the age of 33 robbed the world of one of the all-time great Chopin players.

Listening Recommendation: Waltz (Grande Brilliant) in E-flat Major, Op. 18, played by Dinu Lipatti

The Requirements For Good Chopin Interpretation

When we hear piano playing of such a high order, we inevitably ask the question: What are the requirements for correct Chopin interpretation?

There are four that can be easily identified.

1. A beautiful sound. The piano may be capable of brutal, percussive effects, and the music of such composers as Prokofiev and Bartok occasionally demands them--but not Chopin. It is true that the piano is a percussion instrument, that its sound starts to die the moment it is born. But the piano is also the great master of musical illusion; it has learned how to sing despite its hammers, its greatest achievement. We throw out the baby with the bathwater when we reduce the instrument to the level of a drum!

2. A classical approach to his music. Do not forget that Chopin's ideal composers were Mozart and Bach. The 48 Preludes and Fugues were Chopin's daily companions. There is more counterpoint in Chopin than one might suppose. Inner voices lie buried within Chopin's textures longing to be discovered and brought out. The great players know where they are and bring them out accordingly. Not to be outdone, there are other players who discover inner voices that do not even exist, but insist on bringing them out anyway. As for Mozart, it was his aristocratic poise and coolness under fire that Chopin admired.

3. Subtle nuancing, especially of dynamics and rhythm. Chopin himself was a restrained pianist. He did not produce the large volume of sound so common today. All his contrasts were scaled down accordingly. Remember that the distance between pp and f, is exactly the same as the distance been mp and fff. Why strive for the latter when the former offers the same results?

4. The art of musical interpretation was once famously described by Artur Schnabel as "a free walk across firm ground." This maxim is especially valuable for Chopin interpreters. The walk can be free, but the ground beneath it must be firm. Chopin was the first composer in history to write the words "tempo rubato" into his scores. This wonderful tool of interpretation can wreck Chopin's music if used to excess. The time must be bent, not broken. The same objection applies to the agogic accent, tempo rubato's wicked cousin. The agogic accent serves a function similar to italics in a text. If every word is italicized, the device ceases to have meaning. Absolute clarity of texture is also a fundamental requirement. In theory, the listener should be able to take down from dictation whatever a good Chopin player performs and then compare it with Chopin's printed text and find no discrepancies!

Chopin probably played no more than a dozen times in the major concert halls of Europe. This is a paradox that puzzles us still. Here was one of the most sought-after pianists of his time, who disliked performing in public. Chopin much preferred to play to an inner circle of friends, and he only came into his own in the salons of Paris, where the atmosphere was relaxed and informal. Contemporary accounts of his playing refer to his nuanced touch, his singing tone and his quiet demeanour at the keyboard. He was the antitheses of the "thunder and lightning" school of playing, which came to dominate the 19th century and distort Chopin's own music. His favorite piano was the silvery-toned Pleyel, with its easy action. How extraordinary to think that Chopin's passionate music was composed on this relatively simple instrument with a keyboard compass of a mere six octaves!

Chopin And The Movies

The movie-goers in the audience will recall that it was in the Salle Pleyel that Hollywood decided that Franz Liszt must have introduced the unknown Chopin to a larger public. Liszt was already resident in Paris by the time that Chopin got there. In the movie Song to Remember we are invited to witness an unlikely scene. Liszt has just made a little speech from the platform in which he informs his adoring fans that he wants to play a new composition, and he requests that the lights be turned down. As the candelabra are borne out of the hall by the uniformed flunkeys, Liszt begins to play Chopin's Scherzo No. 2, in B-flat Minor in the darkness. The audience thrills to the music and to the playing-all the while in pitch blackness. As the piece reaches its conclusion the candelabra are returned to the hall--to reveal Chopin playing his own composition. Thanks to this wonderful deception, Chopin is now accepted by an appreciative audience. Darkness has been removed; the light shines upon Chopin's genius! Of course, this is nonsense, but there was a grain of truth to this otherwise fictional scene. Liszt did help Chopin to become established in Paris, and as a result of their early friendship Chopin dedicated to Liszt his first volume of piano Etudes, Op. 10. (2)

On all sides the question arose: who was the pianist who played the music of Chopin so wonderfully well? His name appeared nowhere on the first prints of the movie and for good reason. The film was made by Columbia studios, but the pianist was under contract to rival studio MGM, and they only allowed their star player to record the soundtrack on condition that he receive no billing--and a mere $35,000 in payment. We now know that it was Jose Iturbi, who simply played the music, picked up his check and went home. Iturbi was a brilliant pianist, whose connections with Hollywood and show business have tended to obscure his remarkable gifts. Cornel Wilde, the actor who played the role of Chopin, could, we are told, play "Chopsticks" with difficulty, but his pianistic abilities went no further than that. The movie's reviews were lukewarm, both with regards to the acting and the plot, but all the reviewers raved about the music--without knowing who was playing. Cornel Wilde suddenly found himself being invited to parties all over town--and then expected to play the piano. The secret could not remain hidden forever, and it has meanwhile entered the annals of Hollywood anecdotage. When one ecstatic viewer wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune saying, "Wilde is a marvelous pianist. Why haven't we seen or heard of him before? I really think he tops Iturbi!" The editor wrote back dryly, "Mr. Wilde could not possibly top Iturbi, as Iturbi himself was doing the playing."

There's something else to add to this remarkable tale, which almost beggars belief. The director Charles Vidor thought that Iturbi's hands looked too muscular to resemble those of Chopin (it so happens that Iturbi was also an amateur boxer) so they brought the Hungarian pianist Erwin NyiregyMzy into the studio, and put his hands on screen playing the same repertoire. The bizarre result was as follows: Cornel Wilde who could not play the piano was shown playing it; Jose Iturbi who could play the piano was not shown playing it, but did, and Nyiregyhazy's beautiful hands can be seen moving up and down the keyboard in silent synchronization with Iturbi's sound track.

Only in Hollywood!

Incidentally, the Iturbi soundtrack of this Chopin movie was later issued commercially as an LP, and it proved to be so popular that it eventually sold more than 2 million copies.

Unfortunately, the B-flat Minor Scherzo was not included in this compilation, and the version that the movie producers used to fit the scene that I described, have cut and pasted the performance so crudely that I wish to spare my audience the pain of listening to such a travesty. But one work was used complete: the famous "Fantasie-Impromptu." And here it is, taken straight from the original movie soundtrack. As we hear it, we can only regret that Iturbi's recorded legacy of Chopin was not more extensive.

Listening Recommendation: Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66, played by Jose Iturbi CD

The "Fantasie-Impromptu," incidentally, which has become one of the most popular of Chopin's compositions, was among the pieces left in manuscript at his death, with instructions that they should be destroyed because they did not meet his highest standards. We remain grateful to Chopin's sister, Ludwika, for not carrying out her brother's dying wishes.

One pianist who did record the B-flat minor Scherzo was Jorge Bolet.

And I want to introduce his name here for a rather similar reason. He, too, recorded the sound track of a famous movie, this time about Franz Liszt--Song for Eternity--with the hopelessly miscast Dirk Bogarde playing the role of Liszt, whose hands are made to resemble those of a visually impaired driver searching for his car keys. Some years after seeing this movie, I had the pleasure of meeting Bolet at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and told him how much pleasure his playing had given me. He and I had already corresponded, because he had been gracious enough to write to me about my three-volume Liszt biography, so I felt that I could ask him why he would have wanted to take part in such a movie as this. It was well known that Bolet's tremendous talent did not receive the full international recognition that was his due until the last few years of his life, and Bolet told me that he thought this contact with Hollywood would do him no harm. It was dija vu all over again. What happened, as he ruefully put it, was that Dirk Bogarde was asked to give piano recitals. The moral to such sorrowful tales appears to be that if you wish to become a concert pianist you must first become an actor.

Bolet's recording of the B-flat Minor Scherzo remains relatively unknown. It was a performance given before a live audience in New York, in 1973, and you may hear some coughing in the background. Live performances brought out the best in Bolet, as they did with many pianists. As we listen to this music, it is hard to remember that the term "scherzo" is Italian for "humor" or even for "a joke"--the mood that Beethoven's scherzos impart when they turn up in his sonatas and symphonies. When Robert Schumann heard the Chopin scherzos, however, he was struck by their solemnity and their dark passion, and he exclaimed perceptively: "How is gravity to clothe itself if jest goes about wearing such dark veils?"

Listening Recommendation: Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31, played by Jorge Bolet

You may have noticed that all the recordings to which we have been listening are single takes. In the early days, that was all there was. If the first take went wrong, you did the whole thing again. It was only with the advent of magnetic tape that it became possible to cut and paste, edit out the wrong notes and insert the right ones. And in this digital age, it is possible to produce a paradox: the most imperfect of pianists can produce the most perfect of CDs. Given enough time and money anybody can make a CD. I have often said that the record labels should be compelled by law to follow the example of the American Food and Drug Administration and print on the outside of the box exactly what it contains, including the number of edits. I know for a fact that there are recordings of Liszt's B Minor Sonata on the market that took a week to record and were subjected to so much cutting and pasting along the way that the pianist could not possibly duplicate such perfection on the concert platform. The result is that most pianists play worse than their records. Doesn't this amount to musical deception? How much better to listen to music captured "on the wing" so to say, rather than a sanitized version purged of wrong notes and doctored by sound engineers! Here is a vast topic, make no mistake, but it is one that would require an entire conference to confront, and I do not have an entire conference with which to confront it.

Chopin And The Keyboard

Chopin's approach to the keyboard was fascinating. His hands were small, but they were very supple. Heine was astonished to observe their deceptive span--"like the jaws of a snake suddenly opening to swallow its prey." Chopin advocated the unrestricted use of the thumb on the black keys, and often used it to strike two adjacent keys simultaneously, much to the dismay of the conservative pedagogues of the day; he would sometimes pass the longest fingers over the shorter ones without the intervention of the thumb if that would secure a better legato; he recommended a flat finger for a singing touch; he employed the organist's favorite device of finger substitution to sustain melodies; he favored a low piano stool, finding it more comfortable than the high one adopted by the hard-hitting virtuosos who liked to descend on everything from a great height. Above all, there was his "flutter pedalling" that continuous vibrating of the sustaining pedal, which cast a warm glow over everything he played, yet gave it at the same time its unusual clarity. He reacted strongly against the so-called "finger-equalization" schools of Czerny, Kalkbrenner and others, maintaining that each finger has individual characteristics, which are there to be enhanced, not equalized away. "The third finger," he would tell his pupils, "is a great singer," and he would then go on to unfold entire phrases with this finger taking the major share of the work. He once tried to write a piano method, but never got beyond some rough sketches. It was Chopin's misfortune that, unlike Liszt, he had no great pupils to carry on his tradition. His most gifted student was the young Hungarian prodigy Karoly Filtsch. "When that young man sets out on his travels," observed Liszt, "I shall shut up shop." But Filtsch died when he was only 15 years old. Another pupil was Karl Mikuli, who produced his own edition of Chopin's music and left some firsthand observations about Chopin's playing. But these were exceptions. For the most part, Chopin was reduced to teaching the sons and daughters of the French aristocracy, where wealth usually stood in inverse ratio to talent. The outcome might have been foreseen: his tradition died with him.

Enter George Sand

It was in Paris that Chopin began his notorious relationship with the novelist George Sand. Chopin's affairs of the heart have always fascinated his biographers, perhaps because so little is really known about them. He tended to mask his true feelings to all but a small circle of relatives and close friends. But already two women had entered his life. The first, Constantia Gladkowska, he knew as a student in Warsaw. She was a singer, and Chopin idolized her--mostly from a distance. The one-sided relationship quietly expired after Chopin left Poland. In later life Constantia became blind. When, as an elderly woman, Karasowski's Life of Chopin was read to her, she was amazed to discover how much she had meant to the young composer. The other girl, Maria Wodzinska, was also Polish. Chopin was engaged to her for a time, but she broke off the relationship--possibly because her family suspected (rightly) that Chopin was consumptive. Chopin never forgot her. He bundled together all her letters and wrote on the package "My misfortune." The correspondence was only discovered after his death.

George Sand falls into a different category. Married at 18 to Baron Casimir Dudevant, by whom she had two children, she soon became bored with her dull domestic routine. Resolved to cast off her yoke she made for Paris and the independent life in 1831 at age 27. George Sand was the pen name she adopted for the publication of her novels, which soon attracted notoriety for their advanced social ideas--particularly on the emancipation of women. She often wore men's clothing and smoked cigars--outward symbols of equality with the opposite sex.

Chopin met Sand in 1836 when he was 26. Six years older than he, she took the initiative in their relationship and within a few months they were living openly together. Some biographers have seen in her a wholly negative influence. But she gave Chopin exactly the right domestic environment in which to compose. During their long liaison he wrote such masterworks as the Sonata in B-flat Minor, the 24 Preludes, the C-sharp Minor Scherzo, the great F-sharp Minor Polonaise, and many of the waltzes and nocturnes. When the break with her came, eight years later, and Chopin was exposed once more to the vicissitudes of daily life, the fountain of music started to die within him.

It was in an effort to revive Chopin's failing health that George Sand planned their madcap adventure to Majorca, an island that held a fatal, siren-like attraction for her. She knew very little about the place, its inhabitants, its climate--few people did. But its mystery was all part of the appeal, and once the idea was fixed in her mind she rationalized away every objection. Chopin's first sight of the island enchanted him. "The sky is like turquoise, the sea like emeralds, the air as in Heaven," he wrote. Eventually, they found accommodation in a deserted monastery in Valldemosa, perched on the side of a mountain, which has since become famous as a result of their visit. Part of the monastery is now a Chopin museum, and you can still see the small upright Pleyel piano (especially shipped out for him from Paris) and some of his manuscripts. Among the compositions he completed at Majorca were the set of 24 Preludes--although not without difficulty. Paradise had meanwhile turned into purgatory: the damp winter weather had set in, and Chopin went down with another lung infection. He began to cough blood and doctors spread gossip that he was consumptive. The local community grew hostile and villagers refused to serve Sand essential provisions. She had to make nightmare journeys to Palma pushing a handcart along primitive roads. After 10 weeks the couple left Majorca in the worst of weather, and Chopin was seasick all the way back to Barcelona. What should have been a romantic episode had turned into disillusion. Sand later took her revenge on the Majorcans. She gave a withering account of "this stupid, thieving, bigoted race" in her book A Winter in Majorca. It was one of the most unproductive periods in Chopin's life. Still, we have the Preludes. They are wonderful miniatures, the shortest lasting no more than 40 seconds, the longest lasting five minutes or so. I like to describe them as "outcries and asides," mood pictures ranging from joy to sadness, containing both sunshine and shadow. Although they can be played separately, and often are, they sound best when presented as a set. And we know that this is what Chopin intended because the Preludes unfold all 24 major and minor keys in a rising circle of fifths-a feature that is lost whenever we adopt a smorgasbord approach to these remarkable miniatures--picking and choosing along the way.


Listening Recommendation: Prelude No. 8, in F-sharp Minor, played by Benno Moiseiwitsch

That performance by the Russianborn pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch was recorded nearly 80 years ago, but it sounds as flesh as ever. It reminds me of a story known to few musicians. Moiseiwitsch was one of Sir Winston Churchill's favorite pianists, and one of the pieces Churchill liked was Chopin's A-flat Major Ballade. During the dark days of World War II, Churchill would sometimes get away from the London blitz and its burning buildings, and spend time at Chequers, the official country residence of British prime ministers, where he would sometimes invite Moiseiwitsch to give a post-prandial recital. He would request the A-flat Major Ballade. Churchill called it the "Galloping Horse" music, because the 6/8 canter of the second theme reminded him of the trotting of a horse. As a former cavalry officer in the British army, the rhythm of the piece must have suggested a connection with his military past. After the war, when Moiseiwitsch had been made a Commander of the British Empire in acknowledgement of his role in wartime England, he presented Sir Winston with a bronze statue of a galloping horse, inscribed with this "cantering theme" around the base. Churchill placed it on the mantelpiece of his London home, where it remained a treasured relic. Although Moiseiwitsch recorded this Ballade no fewer than three times, I've chosen the earliest one, made in 1927, more than 80 years ago. We'll join the work in progress at the point where Churchill's "cantering" theme begins.

Listening Recommendation: Ballade No. 3, in A-Flat Major Op. 47, played by Benno Moiseiwitsch

Chopin's Composing Process

Chopin's composing process was slow and often painful. A glance through his manuscripts reveals signs of a continual struggle, with heavy corrections on every page. George Sand tells us that he would sometimes scratch out a phrase half-a-dozen times in his search for the right construction, only to finish with the version he had originally started with. Isolated in his room with a piano as his sole companion (Chopin invariably composed at the keyboard) it was not unusual for him to spend six weeks on a single page, pacing back and forth and breaking his pens in frustration. This quest for perfection was a lifelong characteristic, and it produced a dividend. It can easily be shown that a greater amount of Chopin's music is now alive and well in the concert hall, proportionate to his relatively small output, than that of any other master.

What of Chopin's influence on posterity? By common consent it has been enormous. Scriabin, Debussy and Prokofiev all proclaimed a debt to him. Scriabin's famous Study in D-sharp Minor (Op. 8) would be unthinkable without Chopin's "Revolutionary" Study lurking in the inspired background. As for Debussy, the polite inscription of his Twelve Studies "to the Memory of Frederic Chopin" hides an enormous musical debt, as an inspection of his keyboard textures proves. Prokofiev said that the Scherzo of his Third Symphony ("the Fiery Angel") was directly inspired by the Finale of the B-flat Minor Piano Sonata. Felix Blumenfeld (the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz) fell so completely under Chopin's spell that he was dubbed "the Russian Chopin." Chopin's anticipation of modern composing techniques is remarkable. At times, his advanced chromatic harmony carries him to the brink of atonality. Then there is his attitude to music itself, which goes beyond his time. He was interested only in music for music's sake. Unlike other romantics, especially his great contemporaries Liszt and Berlioz, he had little time for program music and it is unthinkable to link his music to a poetic or pictorial content. (This has not stopped a few misguided commentators from trying.

One famous American critic saw the Barcarolle depicting two lovers in a gondola, with a kiss at bar 78! It was James Huneker: he deserves to be identified.) There is a kind of artistic asceticism in Chopin, a cool controlled approach to musical creation, which sets him apart from other romantics, and gives his music its unique feeling of colossal force--contained. Robert Schumann, an early admirer, expressed it best of all when he described Chopin's music in an immortal phrase, as "Cannon buried in flowers."

Chopin's last years were not pleasant. His health declined as the consumption from which he had suffered for most of his life ate away his lungs. (A recent medical diagnosis has suggested that Chopin suffered from cystic fibrosis, but the evidence is not complete). We know only the following. At the slightest exertion he would hemorrhage, and at times he was so weak that he had to be carried to the piano. Yet, his spirit was as defiant as ever. During the last two or three years of his life, on his favorite Pleyel piano, he wrote some of his most inspired music, including the great Barcarolle, the Polonaise-Fantasie, and the E Major Nocturne, Op. 62. The work that perhaps best symbolizes this triumph over adversity is the A-flat Major Polonaise--quite rightly called "the Heroic." And here to play it is Arthur Rubinstein, who surely sets the gold standard for Chopin interpretation.

Listening Recommendation: Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, played by Arthur Rubinstein


I am sometimes asked what Chopin's music means to me. Quite simply, whenever I hear it, it is like coming home. Without the ballades, scherzos, studies, nocturnes and, above all, the barcarolle, life would be harder to bear. Chopin's music speaks to me of a better place. And I know that I am not alone in this. Surprisingly, the near-universal admiration with which

Chopin's music is now greeted did not arrive overnight. Time was when he was generally dismissed as a "salon composer" of charming miniatures--mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes--unworthy of a place in the Pantheon. It never seemed to occur to our forefathers that a piece lasting just five minutes could contain more musical substance than an entire string quartet of Boccherini. One had to compose symphonies, operas and oratorios in order to be considered great. This mistaken way of looking at things-length rather than depth--is now a chapter in the history of music criticism best forgotten. Our guides led us astray, but they have paid a price. Musicology devours its own children. It is a self-correcting discipline, cruel to those of us who get things wrong. We should have listened to Robert Schumann, who usually got things right. When he heard the first notes of Chopin he exclaimed: "Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!"

Editor's Note: Alan Walker, an eminent Chopin and Liszt scholar, was the keynote speaker at the 2010 Pedagogy Saturday, held at the MTNA National Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This article is based upon his presentation, which included audio clips. A "Listening Recommendation" in the text indicates where the music was heard.


(1.) Sigismond Thalberg transcribed "Casta Diva" for solo piano and published it as his Op. 70--thereby proving the point that the piano was now ready to match the human voice. His transcription is literal and straightforward, however, and it is ultimately boring, lacking in those magical ornamental variations with which Chopin adorns his melodic lines and which are the life and soul of his music.

(2.) It is not generally known that Chopin had originally intended to dedicate his second set of Studies, Op. 25 to Liszt as well, but at the last moment had changed his mind and dedicated them instead to Liszt's companion Countess Marie d'Agoult. For the colorful background to this situation, see my Reflections on Liszt, p. 196, Cornell University Press, 2005.

Alan Walker of music at McMaster University, Canada Before that, he was on the staff of the music division of the Brstish Broadcasting Corporation in London, England He has written 13 published books, including a three-volume, prizewinning biography of Franz Liszt.
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Title Annotation:Frederic Chopin
Author:Walker, Alan
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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