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Charles Rosen on Chopin

In 2013, The New York Review of Books celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. During the course of the year we will reprint excerpts from some other notable pieces published in the Review over the last five decades.

Charles Rosen, who died on December 9 at the age of eighty-five, published over one hundred articles, reviews, and letters on music, literature, and art in The New York Review between 1970 and 2012, including two on Chopin. The following is an extract from his review of William G. Atwood’s Fryderyk Chopin: Pianist from Warsaw and Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin: Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils, which appeared in the May 28, 1987 issue. It can be read in full at www.nybooks.com/50/Chopin.

The Chopin Touch

Charles Rosen

How Chopin played the piano, though a puzzling question, is not beyond all conjecture. For almost the last hundred years, we have been given an image of the past by records and tapes, but that specious patent from oblivion is generally misleading and always distorted—and subtle distortions are the most difficult to compensate for (no recording will adjust to the acoustics of your living room as a live performer would). Before recording, we have only uncertain memories, twisted by time and prejudice, inaccurately set down, and letters or reviews, dusty, crumbling, and not to be trusted….

As a pianist, Chopin was largely self-taught (his only teachers were a composer and a violinist); he also did not like to practice, as letters from his father tell us. He nevertheless developed into one of the most remarkable pianists of his day, and one of the most innovative as well. Chopin’s most idiosyncratic fingerings are oddly similar: the first is the realization of a soft, chromatic line entirely with the fourth and fifth fingers (or with the third, fourth, and fifth in more complicated passages); the other is the execution of a series of melodic notes entirely with the thumb, or with the third finger alone, sliding from key to key. In addition, he often played parts of delicate melodies with the fifth finger alone. These fingerings are found very early in his work—in the F minor concerto, for example, finished when he was eighteen.

These innovations put Chopin in direct opposition to the reigning contemporary piano pedagogy, the ideal of which was to make all fingers equally powerful and nimble. Chopin insisted that each finger had a fundamentally different character, and that the performer should try to exploit that difference (this is the most interesting point he makes in a series of unfinished notes for a piano method that Eigeldinger prints in an appendix). Delicate passages are played by the weakest fingers; the more emphatic notes of singing, lyrical melodies by strong fingers, often by one finger alone. This sense of the different character of each finger reveals something of the nature of Chopin’s musical thought: what interested him were subtle gradations of color, inflections of phrasing, and it was what he expected from performers.

This conception of technique places contrast of touch at the center of musical interpretation, and it was upon this that Chopin’s style was based. His idea of tone color is pure keyboard writing: he achieves by touch alone the contrast of timbres that other composers achieve by the use of different instruments. For this reason, Chopin’s tone color is as abstract as pitch or rhythm: it is based on the relationship between different kinds of texture realized with the neutral sound of the piano—neutral in that it is relatively uniform from top to bottom, or, better, in that changes of tone color from bass to treble are produced without a perceptible break. The ideal piano—for which every composer writes, not for the imperfect instrument at home—provides a continuum of sound, and the Romantic composer often requires a use of the pedal, which blends the different registers and ensures the partial realization of the continuum on our imperfect instruments; the real differences in timbre between high and low notes will be glossed over.

This use of balance and contrast makes the Etudes supremely difficult—this and the problem of endurance. No doubt the heavier action of the twentieth-century concert grand has made these pieces even harder to play than they were during Chopin’s lifetime, but they were a challenge from the beginning—too great a challenge in some cases, it is said, for Chopin himself, who exceptionally preferred Liszt’s execution of these works to his own.

The challenge comes from Chopin’s ruthlessness: he makes no concession. Like the Preludes of The Well-Tempered Keyboard which served as Chopin’s models, most of the Etudes develop the initial motif without pause until the end. The Etudes generally begin easily enough—at least the opening bars fit the hand extremely well. With the increase of tension and dissonance, the figuration quickly becomes almost unbearably awkward to play. The positions into which the hands are forced are like a gesture of exasperated despair. It would seem as if the awkwardness is itself an expression of emotional tensions. Perhaps this lies behind Rachmaninoff’s reported reaction to Alfred Cortot’s recording of the Etudes, almost the cruelest observation ever made by one pianist against another: “Whenever it gets difficult, Cortot adds a little feeling.”

There is no question that the difficulty in a Chopin Etude generally corresponds to the degree of emotional tension—although this does not mean that slowing down is the most satisfactory way of interpreting such passages. It does imply an intimate relationship between virtuosity and emotional force in the mature works of Chopin. The performer literally feels the sentiment in the muscles of his hand. This is another reason why Chopin often wanted the most delicate passages played with the fifth finger alone, the most powerful cantabile with the thumbs. There is in his music an identity of physical realization and emotional content.

Chopin’s interest in tone color can only be understood in the light of his equal interest in counterpoint and his lifelong study of Bach. He learned The Well-Tempered Keyboard as a child, and he never ceased to play it and teach it. It was the only music he took with him to Majorca on his famous stay there with George Sand; he warmed up for concerts by playing through several of the preludes and fugues. Although he was never tempted by the strict fugue to write one except as an academic exercise, he was the greatest master of counterpoint since Mozart. The sense of the movement of independent voices informs his work from the beginning of his career, and is paradoxically most marked in the Mazurkas, where the popular folk element is also at its most powerful. The late Mazurkas often imitate fugal writing, and the last published Mazurka even has an elaborate canon at the end.

This combination of tone color and contrapuntal line explains a curious entry in Delacroix’s Diary. The painter was a very close friend of Chopin, and a few years after the composer’s death, he noted:

My dear little Chopin used to protest strongly against the school which derives a part of the charm of music from the sonority. He spoke as a pianist.

This may seem odd at first sight because so much of Chopin’s genius comes from his exploitation of piano sonority. The observation worried Delacroix considerably; he wrote a long commentary on it, and then copied the whole page out into the diary again sometime later with considerable revision. Delacroix’s uneasiness springs from his role as leader of the colorist school in the nineteenth-century war between drawing and color. The opposition is largely a false one, as Delacroix himself knew, and as Baudelaire recognized when he placed Delacroix along with Daumier and Ingres as one of the three great draftsmen of the age.

The fusion of color and line was Delacroix’s great achievement, and it was equally essential to Chopin’s genius. He was as great a draftsman as Delacroix. The changes of color in his music—contrasts of texture, spacing, and register—are all governed by a sense of line unequalled by any of his contemporaries. It was what enabled him to achieve a synthesis of different styles—with the piano alone, to combine the lyric melody of Italian opera with the polyphonic richness of Johann Sebastian Bach. Even the virtuoso glitter of early-nineteenth-century salon music is an important element, although this is refined almost beyond recognition in the later works.

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