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Chopin’s Progress

At first glance the demand for a George Sand “revival” in her country would seem to be about as pressing as one for J. Fenimore Cooper in his. A recent edition of her correspondence has provoked interest, nevertheless, some of her other works have been reissued, and, as I write, the lady herself—in photographs and in a new Pléiade picture book, Album Sand—is the subject of a display in Gallimard’s Boulevard Raspail window. Special attention is also being given to an intimate of Sand’s Nohant circle, Eugène Delacroix, in books (T. J. Clark’s The Absolute Bourgeois, for one) as well as in exhibitions. The Musée Delacroix, in the artist’s former studio on the Place Furstenberg, is currently featuring several of his drawings for Liberty (in Liberty Guiding the People), probably the most famous “topless” female ever to appear in public.

As an observer of a third frequenter of Nohant, Frédéric Chopin, himself well beyond any effect of revivals, vogues, critical reappraisals, Delacroix seems to me a more valuable witness than Sand. His testimony obviously lacks the varieties of perspective provided by Sand’s ten-year liaison, yet he had a rare appreciation of both the man—“C’est le plus vrai artiste que j’ai rencontre“—and of his music, the latter on a level Sand could not reach. But as a “way” to Chopin’s artistic world, the novelist reminds me of a street in Vierzot, near Nohant, called Impasse George Sand.

In truth, Sand differed so profoundly in mind and sensibilities from her paramour—“he was always foreign to my ideas,” she wrote—that one seeks to explain their relationship by such psychological mechanisms as role-reversal. To read her today is to conclude that she should have lived in the Nineteen-seventies. Her independence, activist zeal, and especially her thesis that social equality may be attainable through equality between the sexes (an idea that intrigued another of Sand’s Nohant friends, Matthew Arnold) are more appropriate to this decade than to the century before. On second glance, therefore, the Sand “revival” is not really mysterious. Madame George could be a Charter Sister of NOW.

Shortly before eloping with Chopin, Sand wrote to his friend, Grzymala, whom she looked upon as the composer’s guardian and her judge; and rightly: Grzymala later blamed her for Chopin’s death. A snippet from this letter, in so far as rhetoric of the sort can be snipped, gives a fair example of her style:

… For certain minds the whole question of fidelity is inseparable from possession; this, I believe, is a mistaken idea: one may be more or less unfaithful, but when one has allowed one’s soul to be invaded … the infidelity has already been committed and what follows is less serious…. [Chopin] seemed to fear to soil our love … [but if] this last embrace is not something as holy, as pure and as sacrificial as the rest, no virtue lies in abstaining from it…. A result of this separation of the spirit and the flesh is that we need to have convents and brothels….

If Sand dominated her Nohant soirées with similar proclamations and polemics, and she did sometimes give readings from novels-in-progress, Chopin must have felt the threat of suffocation from his “angel,” as he called her, as well as from his disease. They were incompatible in temperament, in any case, and it is clear that Sand had little sympathy for Chopin. “So many things alarm him,” she wrote before one of his concerts, “that I told him he should play without candles or audience and on a dumb keyboard.”

In her Lucrezia Floriani, Sand is said to have endowed the character Prince Karol with Chopin’s traits, and Heine, recognizing the transposition, said that she had perfidiously maligned “mon ami Chopin,” Not surprisingly, Karol is “unworldly,” and so, no doubt, was Chopin, at least compared to Sand—the “Beatrice” of the same book, described therein as “a nature rich by exuberance,” in contrast to Karol’s “nature rich by exclusiveness.” But in actuality Chopin in his letters is far from lacking in worldly sophistication. He writes of his hosts in the British Isles: “Conversation is always genealogical, like the Gospels, who begat whom, and he begat, and he begat, and he begat, and so on until you arrive at Jesus…. They are stifling me out of courtesy, and out of the same courtesy I don’t refuse them.” Nonfictionally Sand remarked that Chopin did not “understand human nature in any detail.” Yet he understood hers in at least two, as an entry in Delacroix’s Journal, January 29, 1849, shows:

With reference to [Sand’s] Memoirs, [Chopin] told me that it would be impossible for her to write them. She has forgotten all that: she has flights of sensibility and then quickly forgets. I told him that I saw an unhappy old age for her. He does not think so. Her conscience does not reproach her with any of the things with which her friends reproach her.

Chopin was right about her memory but wrong in assuming that it would constitute an obstacle. He was also right about her conscience; preoccupation with her own feelings evidently overrode even the most bothersome considerations for anyone else. How, otherwise, could she have written of Chopin, “J’avais la sensation de coucher avec un cadavre“?

Yet Chopin, not Sand, was the jealous partner. And, Grzymala to the contrary, the composer probably would not have lived even as long as he did without her solicitude. When she finally understood the seriousness of his illness, in that nearly fatal winter in Majorca, the Bohémienne became the devoted nurse (though whether to the extent of cutting down on her cigars I am unable to say!). Moreover, from the beginning of his affair with her, new powers entered his music. He may have preferred Paris to his mistress’s Nohant homestead, where in fact he was a somewhat reluctant guest, but his seven summers there were the most productive of his life.

Nohant n’a plus changé que La Vulgate,” a guidebook says. But its next edition must acknowledge an inn, restaurant, parking lot, George Sand bookstall. Nor can the site now be described as a retreat. During my visit several pianists, to judge by their hand-spreads and keyboard postures, alighted in front of the château, posed for publicity photographs (of such is the contemporary pilgrimage!), swept on. Queues will soon have to form before the shaded walks, gardens, pastures with period-piece—Mademoiselle Bonheur—cows. Of the main attractions, the château and the cemetery, the latter is the more congenial. But then, waxworks—tables set for dinners in 1840, “everything as it was”—strike me as morbid. Nor do Sand’s quill, Delacroix’s umbrella, Chopin’s white gloves do much to replicate the past. The château is haunted not by the great spirits who once inhabited it but by a theater of leering puppets, once the pride of Sand’s children.

How he adores Mozart,” Delacroix noted of Chopin, “and how little he resembles him.” The same could be said of Chopin’s reactions to, and negligible influence from, the biggest of the musical Big Bosses, Beethoven. Therefore the first phenomenon of Chopin would seem to be simply that a Pole, bred on the outer periphery of Viennese Classicism, could succeed in slipping through the German monopoly on musical genius.

In fact Chopin’s musical origins are remarkably obscure. Polish scholars have unearthed the likely Polish precursors, and as much as possible has been made of debts to Italian opera and to John Field. But this adds up to very little. Furthermore, Chopin seems to have been less impressed by the music in the Rossini and other operas than he was by the attractions of the prima donnas—eyes and teeth as well as techniques of vocal embellishment. (It was a flash of exceptional musical insight on the part of the author of Trilby to have seen that the Impromptu in A flat is coloratura in style from the first warble, no matter how superhuman in range and speed.) As for Chopin’s indebtedness to Field, this is beyond question. But to my mind the Nocturne in E minor, written when Chopin was seventeen, already surpasses the dozen best efforts in that form by the nomadic Irish composer.

Thus the second Chopin phenomenon: the musical personality—harmonic predilections, keyboard style, melodic tournure (the greater frequency of the ascending interval at the beginning of the phrase, the dallying and indirectness)—is already unmistakable in this youthful Nocturne, as well as in the A minor Mazurka of the same year. Models were at hand for these pieces, as they were for the still earlier but less readily identifiable Rondos, Variations, Polonaises. But these models cannot have been of much consequence, and in any case do not account for the originality of the Nocturne and Mazurka. Only talent, not teachers and schools, can explain Chopin’s sudden development. The phenomenology of genius has yet to be written, yet it seems safe to say that the crucial factor will prove to be unique gifts for self-learning.

The third phenomenon of Chopin is that he achieves universality in the simplest of dances and wordless songs—forms, in other words, highly limited both structurally and by conventions. Thus his early mazurkas observe the traditional repeats, whereas the later ones avoid them or disguise them with ornaments; yet the classical mazurka form is never drastically altered. So, too, the conventional left-hand accompaniments—undulations, bass notes on strong beats and chords on weak ones—are scarcely modified in the early music, but are varied and transformed in the later, or, in the case of linear and polyphonic passages, dispensed with entirely. Yet the conventional style is nonetheless essential to the music as a whole.

Chopin’s balance between convention and invention is attained largely by confining the two to different spheres. Thus the radical innovator in harmony and rhythm will resort to the tritest formula in ending a piece. “A finish worthy of the start” is, in fact, surprisingly rare in his music, and even a masterpiece such as the Nocturne in D flat is to some extent diminished by its unnecessary and perfunctory final chords, which sound like nothing so much as A-MEN.

Chopin would not admit sonority as a legitimate source of sensation,” according to Delacroix, and was “indignant against those who attribute part of the charm of music to sonority.” As the supreme musical charmer the composer must be heeded, even if only to “do as I say”—for sonorities are subordinate to musical ideas, and colors, ranges, volumes, dynamic shadings are secondary—and “not as I do,” Chopin himself having drawn upon a larger spectrum of sonorities than any other composer for the piano. He uses the pedal to create a Niagara out of the sixteenth notes in the final Etude, for one instance, and, for another, by means of tinkling effects in the treble and a mechanical ostinato in the bass, makes a Berceuse sound like a music box. But, ironically, for his music suggests the orchestra—from symphonic Beethoven in the transition to tempo primo in the twenty-second Etude, to Iberian Debussy in the middle section of the Nocturne in F sharp—Chopin defies orchestral translation. Les Sylphides is a misunderstanding, in this respect, while, conversely, Dances at a Gathering owes a large share of its success to its fidelity to the piano as the musical medium.

With Mozart, science is always on the level of inspiration,” Chopin observed to Delacroix. But Chopin’s own inspired science, though constantly renewed, is seldom of long duration. If he could not sustain large forms, however, the F minor Ballade proves that he could successfully expand small ones. (But not always; the loud, in Chopin, is too often also the pompous, and length often leads to grandiosity, a quality not to be confused with exaltation, the mood of the G minor Ballade.) Chopin was not a “sonata composer,” and for all the good music in the one in B minor, its development sections are foreign to his music as a whole. His formal innovations are in other directions, in the new dimensions of some of the Preludes, for example, one of whose heirs, particularly of the elliptical second, is Anton Webern. To measure him by Viennese Classicism, or to evaluate the longer and the larger as the innately superior, is absurd.

Apart from the huge commerce in the “Chopinesque,” the composer’s direct lines of descent are rather narrowly Russian and French. The effects of the Preludes on Moussorgsky, and of Chopin in general on Scriabin, are well known; a less familiar influence on a compatriot is that of the end of the C-sharp minor Nocturne on the pas de deux in Apollo. But Debussy and Ravel are closer to Chopin than that. The Prelude, Opus 45, with its chromatic parallel chords, might have been by Debussy, while a considerable part of Ravel’s idiom is there for the asking in Chopin’s Etude in E major, Opus 10 (cf., the sequences of major thirds in the fifth measure).

The meter of Chopin’s music, like its dimensions and exclusivity of instrument, is another seeming, but not actual, limitation. By definition the Mazurkas, Polonaises, Scherzos, Waltzes, Bolero are in the constricting triple time of dance music. Several Nocturnes, Preludes, Etudes, concerto and sonata movements are also in that meter, while still more music feels as if it might be: sections of the Nocturne in B, Opus 9, for example, despite the written six-eight; of the G minor Ballade, despite the six-four; and of the Nocturne in A flat, despite the four-four, since each quarter-beat of the first theme could be construed as a measure of three.

But Chopin transcends this sameness, by a rhythmic vocabulary enlarged with quintolets, septolets, and still smaller subdivisions; by combining these with other rhythmic patterns, regular and irregular (such as the seven-against-three in the Opus 34 Waltzes); by breaking the symmetries of phrase, pattern, accent (cf., the cross-rhythm of the tenth Etude); by distorting both rhythm and tempo with rubato and with embellishments—for Chopin’s luxuriant ornamentation is a rhythmic element as well as a melodic and harmonic one. Paradoxically, the rhythmic complexities in some of these tiny triple-meter dances are comparable to the intrications of contemporary music, except that the textures of Chopin’s rhythm are always transparent.

What astonishes with its newness is Chopin’s harmony. Above and beyond prodigious skills in modulation, chromatic movement, the handling of remote keys, Chopin had the richest harmonic imagination and the most “modern” harmonic ear of his time—which may help to account for some of his curious aloofness from his contemporaries. Delacroix quotes a remark of Grzymala to the effect that Chopin’s improvisations were “bolder than his written music.” To have heard them, therefore, might have been to fore-audition some very modern music indeed—to judge by the “boldness” of the written ones. Chopin uses dissonances not merely in passing, but for their own sake, and in isolation, to sharpen an accent or rhythm—as in the percussive sixteenths in measures 37 and 39 of the “Notre Temps” Mazurka. Further, most of his embellishments, trills, acciaccaturas, appoggiaturas are a source of dissonance, since they begin, or should begin, on the beat. Harmonic constructions as ingenious and as beautiful as Chopin’s do not appear again until much later in the century, with Wagner, whose own might not have been written but for Chopin’s example. Certain progressions in the Mazurkas, Opus 56, No. 3, and Opus 59, No. 2, however, are startling even today.

Chopin believed that Beethoven was “tormented” by Bach, according to Delacroix, but the thought may be a projection. In spite of aesthetic dissimilarities, Bach, of all composers, made the most profound impression on Chopin. He planned to make an edition of Bach, at one time, and while in Majorca set about expunging another editor’s markings. That The Well-Tempered Clavier was to Chopin what the Bible is to a Fundamentalist is evident schematically in Chopin’s use of the gambit-of-keys in his Preludes and Etudes. More important, much of Chopin’s music is in two voices, and though these are not in the same contrapuntal relationship as they would be in Bach, Bach was undoubtedly Chopin’s inspiration.

Chopin’s use of strict contrapuntal devices is rare—the two-part imitation near the end of the F-sharp minor Mazurka, the three-part imitation in the F minor Ballade—but the later music shows an increasing concern with polyphonic design. Occasionally, too, Bach’s direct imprint does appear: in the figuration of some of the Etudes, in the recitative ending of the Nocturne, Opus 32, No. 1, in the “hymn” sections in the C minor and two G minor Nocturnes. Finally, at least one entire piece, the Mazurka, Opus 59, No. 3, is inconceivable without Bach.

What constitutes logic in music?” Delacroix asked one day, and Chopin answered the impossibly large question by naming Bach’s fugues. Though Chopin had composed no inconsiderable amount of “logical” music himself, the remark confirms his ideal. What surprises is that he failed to recognize the unsuitability of his own talents for the composition of fugues, the solitary example that he did write being certifiably his only because of the existence of the manuscript and of his corrections on it. Nevertheless, like Schubert toward the end of his life, Chopin aspired to master the academic forms of contrapuntal art and actually labored over Cherubini’s exercises in counterpoint—a spectacle as ludicrous as it is pathetic.

Maurice Brown’s Chopin has recently been revised and republished. * This useful index gives the thematic incipit of every piece, the order of composition, the location of manuscripts (including fragments in autograph albums discovered as recently as 1970), and much information concerning early editions. The importance of this last, in Chopin’s case, is difficult to exaggerate since no thoroughly reliable edition exists. The one published by the Chopin Institute in Warsaw, although its volumes are something of a national monument, does not include all variant readings, and it offers the final Mazurka only in the version by Chopin’s pupil, Franchomme, who, no doubt disbelieving his ears, omitted one of its most amazing passages.

Chronology is important. Shortly after the composer’s death, the highest opus numbers were assigned to the posthumous juvenilia, with the result that even today—in Rubinstein’s incomparable recordings of the Mazurkas, for instance—the latest and the earliest are senselessly juxtaposed. The difficulty in establishing chronology on internal grounds is exemplified in the Waltz in D flat—Opus 70, but a product of Chopin’s nineteenth year!—which anyone with tendentious notions of a “progressive” chromaticism could easily mistake for a product of the composer’s extreme old age (i.e., midthirties). Chopin’s own grouping together of the compositions of different periods is not always successful, and if the second and third Nocturnes of Opus 15 clearly do not belong side by side, the reason may be that he gave birth to forty-two pieces between them. Chopin has traditionally been performed and recorded by category: all of the Waltzes, Scherzos, Mazurkas, Polonaises, Nocturnes, Impromptus, Ballades, Sonatas. But it would be enlightening to hear the compositions of certain years seriatim, even breaking the cycles of Preludes and Etudes to do so.

Incidentally, Mr. Brown’s researches have uncovered new bits of biographia. Chopin dedicated a set of Mazurkas to a “Monsieur Johns de la Nouvelle Orléans” concerning whom nothing else was known. We now learn that this elusive person was born in Austria, emigrated to Louisiana in 1822, and from there, understandably soon after, to Paris, where he died in 1860. Mr. Brown also adds to our knowledge of the malpractices of Chopin’s first English publishers, who not only attached spurious French and German titles to his works—the Nocturnes, Opus 9, for instance, were called “Murmures de la Seine,” and the B minor Scherzo, “Le Banquet Infernal“—but who falsely advertised a Rondo as having been based on the Cavatina in L’Italiana in Algeri.

Delacroix, writing from Nohant, sets the scene for a friend in Paris: “Chopin is at work in his room and every now and then a breath of his music blows through the window, which opens onto the garden, mingling with the song of the nightingales. …” Was Delacroix aware, one wonders, that Chopin may have been thinking as much about death as about music? He had written from Majorca three years before, mocking the verdicts of three doctors: “The first said I was dead, the second that I was dying, and the third that I am going to die,” adding, however, in another tone: “I can only cough and, covered with poultices, await the spring or something else.” A pupil later describes him as “feeble, coughing much,” and taking “drops of opium in sugar and gum water.” He was to write from Nohant that he had dreamed of death, picturing himself dead. The “something else” had been recognized, a reality ever-present, within himself.

The sense of timelessness in Chopin’s music (the Nohant sky: did any cloud ever wander lonelier than Frédéric Chopin?) may be due in part to isolation, both historical—Chopin’s music is not a “step” in a “development” but comes from and goes nowhere—and emotional, an intensity of feeling that may be more competently explained by a respiratory pathologist than by a musician. Whatever the reasons, we do not think of these Mazurkas and Preludes and Nocturnes as having been fabricated but as having always existed. Which is a way of saying that a world without them is difficult to imagine, and that a measure of eternity must be in them.

  1. *

    Da Capo Press (New York, 1972).

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