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…

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