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 nybooks.test/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.…

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