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Happy Birthday, Frédéric Chopin!

Louvre, Paris/Réunion des Musées Nationaux /Art Resource
Frédéric Chopin; painting by Eugène Delacroix, circa 1838

When Chopin, born two hundred years ago in 1810, died in 1849 at the age of thirty-nine, his work was firmly established as a permanent part of the central musical tradition, his influence felt throughout the musical world of the West. Critical opinion, however, even among his greatest admirers was by no means wholeheartedly favorable. Having devoted himself almost entirely to the piano (along with three works for the cello), and with no symphony, no opera, no liturgical work, he could not be granted the status of a truly major figure. Because of his fragile health and the extraordinary grace and delicacy of some of his compositions, he was labeled effeminate. Indeed, most of the students who took lessons with him were women—but the same was true of Liszt, who did, however, teach some famous masculine lions, like Karl Tausig, Emil von Sauer, and Moriz Rosenthal, who roared interpretively at the piano.

Chopin’s concentration on the genres of salon music considered trivial—nocturnes, mazurkas, waltzes—placed him among the miniaturists. Critics could not grant unqualified approval to his often unconventional forms, and to the disconcertingly modern chromatic harmony of his last pieces. These compositions, they felt, were the morbid work of a sick, dying man—this was even the verdict of Liszt, who wrote a little book on Chopin soon after his death (most of it actually put together by his mistress the Princess Sayne-Wittgenstein). Liszt regretted this judgment soon after, but even in the book he had observed that the sick and morbid works had the most interesting and fascinating harmonies. As an emigrant Pole living in Paris, Chopin appeared to stand outside the main lines of nineteenth-century tradition—German instrumental music and Italian opera. Nevertheless, although he never published a fugue or composed an opera, his work reveals a deep understanding of both traditions.

This reputation of a limited miniaturist remained critical orthodoxy until well into the second half of the twentieth century. Pianists, on the other hand, have never paid any attention to the critical consensus. The most influential writer on Chopin in English before the 1990s, Gerald Abraham, remarked that although Ballade no. 1 in G Minor is impressive, no one could consider it formally a masterpiece. Few pianists have had any difficulty appreciating the mastery of its eccentric form, breaking most of the classical rules with panache, unifying all its different textures into a narrative whole.

The orthodox view of Chopin as a miniaturist is now pretty much obsolete, exploded, discredited. Many of the large works—ballades, scherzi, sonatas, great polonaises, fantasies, barcarolle—are longer than an average movement of Beethoven. Chopin was, in fact, the only composer of his generation who never, after the age of twenty-one, wrote a long piece that was ineffective. Many of Schumann’s larger works (although not, of course, the finest) have uninspired moments that raise problems for their interpreter of sustaining the interest. There are deserts with few oases in a number of works of Berlioz; and there are not many works of Liszt that are completely exempt from some facile and even trashy pages. But the elegance, distinction, and efficacy of Chopin’s large forms are almost unique for the time in their success.

For interpreters, the difficulty of playing Chopin is most often found in realizing his most original ideas, not in covering up or glossing over an occasional miscalculation or lack of inspiration as we have to do with Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Wagner. Even Chopin’s two piano concertos have always worked successfully in public, although they are perhaps his weakest large-scale works; they were written between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one, after which he significantly abandoned the form for the rest of his life, but they are beginning to find new critical favor today (in spite of the orchestration, about which we are not certain how much of it is authentic or the result of later interventions.)1

To accompany another pianist with a reduction for a second piano of the orchestral score of one of these concertos is an interesting experience. When I did this once, I felt as if I were playing the accompanying continuo or figured-bass part for organ or harpsichord of a Bach cantata. Chopin made a lifelong study of Bach, and the results are perceptible in all his work: he knew mainly The Well-Tempered Klavier, The Art of Fugue, and a few keyboard concertos, since Bach, whose educational works were already familiar for many decades to professional musicians, was only beginning to be brought to the attention of a larger public.

Chopin, like Beethoven, Schumann, and Liszt, was raised on The Well-Tempered Klavier. He never performed any of the fugues in public, but when he warmed up for a recital, he always did so by playing a Bach fugue. And he declared that the music education of his time was fundamentally wrong, because it now started with harmony, reserving the study of counterpoint for a following year, instead of beginning with it, as had been the case throughout the eighteenth century.

In this respect Chopin, although among the most radical musicians of his time, was deeply conservative and even reactionary. For him, counterpoint was the basis of all composition, and in conversation with friends like the painter Eugène Delacroix, he illustrated this point by citing Mozart rather than Bach. It was not just the learned and ostentatious display of fugues and canons that he thought important, but the hidden contrapuntal mastery—the voice-leading, as it is called—of the different inner and outer lines in all music.

Except for a few very early virtuoso pieces, he rarely used Polish melodies in his work, even in the mazurkas and polonaises. Indeed, in the mazurkas, he draws on, and very often mixes, the radically different mazurka rhythms in a highly original fashion with little regard for the authentic reproduction of the folk elements. He wrote a mazurka in Scotch style with bagpipe effects, and another mazurka quotes an aria from Rossini. In fact, his treatment of Polish folk style anticipated the freedom of Debussy’s Spanish music—Debussy never went to Spain, but used flamenco motifs and rhythms heard in Paris—a freedom that inspired the admiration of Manuel de Falla, who declared that Debussy taught Spanish composers how to write Spanish music. In the same way, Chopin used fragments of melodies, short rustic motifs, harmonic turns of phrase, and guitar sonorities, and produced new forms of music that were sui generis, without precedent in either folk or art music. According to recent research, however, he seems to have been influenced harmonically by chromatic Jewish folk music heard in Poland, which did not prevent him from being offhandedly as conventionally anti-Semitic as many other Poles.

His command of the style of Italian operatic melody was astounding. Most composers were indebted in some way to this most popular of all musical styles of the early nineteenth century, including Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt; but in some of Chopin’s nocturnes—the B minor sonata, and the Barcarolle (modeled on the barcarolle duets for two sopranos that Rossini produced for Parisian salons)—he showed a mastery that brought him very close to Vincenzo Bellini, one of the few contemporaries whose music he genuinely admired. He had already developed his skill in Italian style with the Andante Spianato, probably before becoming well acquainted with Bellini’s works. He did adapt the opening of a cello melody from Norma in an étude, but he transformed it into an imitation of an operatic duet for tenor and soprano.

The spianato style (letting the voice float smoothly and in long unbroken lines over the accompaniment) was typical of Bellini, and it is the foundation of some of Chopin’s most powerfully expressive and idiosyncratic achievements. The style of Italian opera even appears frequently in the most ethnic and folklike of Chopin’s Polish works, the mazurkas, generally in a central lyrical interlude that provides a contrast to the emphatically rustic outer sections.

Not only do his mazurkas incorporate operatic style, but it is also in the late mazurkas that Chopin most openly dared to show off his study of Bach. There are mazurkas that tactfully demonstrate the formal procedures and textures of the fugue, and his last published mazurka even plays the main theme as a two-voice canon at the end. Most editors give an easy fingering for this canon that divides some of the notes between the two hands, but Chopin clearly indicated that he wanted the two voices of the canon played by the right hand alone, making it excessively awkward; it would seem as if counterpoint for Chopin was something to be felt physically, through the nerves and muscles as well as the ear. Gluck was known as the German who wrote Italian music in France: we might call Chopin the Pole who wrote Italian and German music in Paris.

Polonaises had been written by many composers before, including Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven; Schubert, in fact, wrote lots of them. But nothing like the violence of Chopin’s military polonaises, for example the polonaises in A Major and A-flat Major, had been heard previously. Even more original were the tragic polonaises, which reveal a passion and despair unknown in salon music and generally reserved for the operatic stage or the most dramatic sonatas and symphonies. The military polonaises were certainly understood as political statements of patriotism for his country, which was struggling to obtain its freedom. While these military polonaises have a decidedly popular character, the tragic polonaises are too radically personal to be understood as public statements.

The études of Chopin are a triumph of the ambition of Romantic ideology: to raise an insignificant and despised form of art to the sublime, as William Blake had transformed doggerel moral poems for children into the Songs of Innocence. They had a profound influence on later generations, each étude using only one specific technical difficulty, resulting in a limited, unified, idiosyncratic, and striking sonority in every case. The étude in thirds uses only thirds in the right hand, and this opened up the possibility for later composers to create works in which one sonority obsessively dominated the whole, a possibility exploited later by Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Prokofiev, and Berg.

In the Preludes, Debussy wrote a piece with nothing but thirds (“Les tierces alternées”). Debussy originally intended to dedicate the twelve études, his last great piano work, to Chopin, but substituted Couperin because World War I made him patriotically feel that a French composer should be honored; yet the inspiration of Chopin is evident throughout, even when it is manifested chiefly by the desire to do something different. Chopin’s thirds are all in the high register, for example, while Debussy’s étude in thirds puts the thirds mainly in the bass. Debussy’s étude for eight fingers (using the thumbs would only get in the way of the continually crossed hands in this piece) is indebted profoundly to Chopin, since it is a monophonic piece in rapid perpetual motion like the finale of Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat Minor, an extreme work that shocked even Chopin’s admirers. Schumann wrote that one could be impressed but could not praise it, for it was not music. Chopin retaliated by telling a French publisher not to bother to publish Schumann’s Carneval for it was not music; he probably did not appreciate the parody of himself in the Carneval, which is indeed not like his style except for a passionate, arabesque-like ornament with some Chopinesque fingering.

Chopin’s influence on piano technique was individual. As a pianist, he was an autodidact and did not believe in the current orthodoxy that one should practice to make all the fingers equally powerful. On the contrary, he felt that delicate passages could best be executed only with the fourth and fifth fingers, and that emphatic and eloquent phrases could be realized with the thumb or third finger alone.

His influence is hard to calculate because it appears where one would never suspect it. Wagner, for whom Liszt often played a good deal of Chopin, was heavily indebted to his work (the development section of Chopin’s B-flat Minor Sonata already shows a typically dense Wagnerian texture combining continually repeated leitmotifs, a sequential chromatic phrasing that became typical of Wagner, and powerful rhetorical phrases that remind us of Amfortas in Parsifal). Brahms studied him carefully (but when somebody remarked on his borrowing early on, he testily claimed that he had never heard nor seen a work of Chopin in his life). Later Brahms edited one of the finest and most faithful publications of some of Chopin’s works, including the ballades, sonatas, and mazurkas, almost the only one of its time to reproduce correctly Chopin’s own phrasing and indications for the pedal. He learned from Chopin how to use a strict eight-bar phrase rhythm without monotony, by beginning the melody sometimes on the second or eighth bar instead of relentlessly on bar 1; in other words, he imposed a supple melodic rhythm over a strict rhythmic background.

Liszt and Rachmaninov borrowed openly and extensively from Chopin. So pervasive was his influence that it reached technically into all forms of piano writing and harmonically into the whole of Western style. When I played Elliott Carter’s piano concerto, I remarked to the composer on the originality of some of the figuration, and Elliott peered at the score and said with surprise, “Why, that’s just out of the Chopin études.”

Chopin’s music has no humor, except for a certain elegant wit present in some of the preludes and mazurkas. However, the intensity of most of his works, large-scale and miniature, generally surpasses that of all his contemporaries. It is perhaps not hard to pinpoint the source of this extraordinary intensity. It arises from the strange combination, on the one hand, of the techniques he mastered, the long-breathed sustaining of Italian melody, supported as no Italian opera composer knew how to accomplish, by the contrapuntal texture, and on the other, with the richness and continuous expressive interest of the inner voices that he learned from his study of Bach and Mozart. To this he added his adventurous and radical experiments in chromatic harmony that appalled his contemporaries but were exploited by later generations. Rarely disturbed by the ostentatious virtuoso effects of Liszt, never diluted by sallies of eccentric humor as in Schumann and Berlioz, and never hemmed in by the prudent classicism of Mendelssohn’s art, much of his music has an intense, focused passion hardly ever equaled in the years between Beethoven and Wagner.

  1. 1

    The only one of his large-scale pieces that is somewhat unsatisfactory, the Allegro de Concert, is clearly the draft for a third piano concerto that he never finished, but published years later as a solo piece.

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