Think of Chopin and you might consider first his passion for his native Poland while in Parisian exile. Schumann’s remark about Chopin’s mazurkas containing ‘guns buried in flowers’ has much to do with this; besides, the delicate pianist-composer’s first childhood scribbling was a polonaise and his dying notes a chromatic, heartbreaking mazurka. But that’s not necessarily what makes Chopin so Chopinesque. Such forms were simply a springboard from which this musical visionary could launch himself into another world. Perhaps the heart of Chopin’s music lies in his dark side: the subconscious, feverish, often tortured imagination which found its chief release in improvisation. He was a mass of paradoxes and contradictions, and his music blended diverse influences into a musical language that was of its day yet ultimately incomparable.
Born in the Polish countryside in 1810, Chopin was a child prodigy, playing in public for the first time at the age of eight, having written his first polonaises a year earlier. He studied with Jozef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory and composed some enjoyable works for piano and orchestra while in his teens. With emotional maturity, though, as he travelled more widely and as tuberculosis took hold of him, forcing him to live essentially on borrowed time, his music grew in emotional power and daring.
Paradox number one: Chopin was a musician who didn’t like performing. He was in his element not in the concert hall playing preordained concertos for mass audiences, but in the salon (see Henryk Siemiradzki's 1887 painting of Chopin performing for the Radziwiłłs family in 1829, below), improvising for his friends, or alone. During the course of his short, blighted life, he gave only around 30 formal concerts. When he performed in Paris in 1841, his lover, the novelist George Sand, wrote to their friend, the singer Pauline Viardot, about his attitude: ‘He does not want any poster, he does not want any programmes, he does not want a large audience,’ she grumbled. ‘He does not want anyone to talk about it. He is frightened of so many things that I have suggested to him that he should play without candles or audience on a dumb piano.’
In short, Chopin was no easy character. He was fragile, fussy and precious; he was oversensitive about his large nose; and he had a nasty streak of anti-Semitism. But let Chopin sit down at a piano and he was in his element. He was never more his true self than in improvisation, and in those parts of his works where he evokes it: the passage in the Fourth Ballade in which he extends and distorts the timing of its most sensual melody over a shimmering wash of notes, for example, or the reverie in the Barcarolle before the return of the main theme, when the harmonies side-step downwards before the pianist’s right hand flies away into filigree arabesques.
On to the next paradox: underpinning Chopin’s moments of freedom is a fixation with Classicism and the Baroque. His two greatest influences were JS Bach and Mozart. Fans of Schenkerian analysis, exploring Chopin’s music in terms of foreground, middle-ground and background, find it works consistently: Chopin’s construction is meticulous, the proportions near perfect, the magical enharmonic shifts part and parcel of the musical intellect.
Add to this a very different language, the world of bel canto opera, especially Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini (as a student, Chopin fell in love with a young singer, Konstancja Gladkowska and frequented the Warsaw opera house to hear her). The extended, much-decorated melodies that abound in Chopin’s nocturnes; his fondness for writing for two ‘voices’ in thirds and sixths; the dramatic ‘recitative’ passage over tremolando in the slow movement of his Second Piano Concerto – all these originate not in the practice room but in the opera house. In Chopin’s hands, Bachian counterpoint, Bellini-esque melody and the sense of improvisation fuse to unlikely perfection.
The Four Ballades, the F minor Fantasie, the Polonaise-Fantasie, the Four Scherzos and even the Berceuse and Barcarolle all find Chopin taking off into imaginative wonders that far transcend the plain generic titles, but perhaps the apex of Chopin’s fusion of sensibilities is his Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor. On the surface, it’s classically constructed: first movement in sonata form, second movement a scherzo and trio, slow movement in ternary form, presto finale. But Chopin treats all that as a starting point, just as he does the mazurka, polonaise or waltz, filling the sonata with an elemental power that’s taut, fearsome and more dramatic than most operas. A 19th-century writer could easily have read into the first movement the galloping of the consumption in Chopin’s lungs, or into the scherzo and trio delirious visions of an easeful death. The slow movement is unmistakeably a funeral march; and the pianist Arthur Rubinstein famously described the skittering, mainly pianissimo finale with the hands in stark unison as ‘the whistling wind over the graves’.
The prospect of Chopin’s own grave was never far away. He was only 39 when he died on 17 October 1849. Pauline Viardot visited him on his deathbed and reported that ‘the great ladies of Paris thought themselves obliged to come and faint in his room, which was congested with artists hastily making sketches’. The only existing photograph of Chopin, thought to have been taken in the year of his death, shows him ill and suffering. The face is shadowy, hard and ravaged, the expression petulant, angry. It’s a world away from the effete, sensitive portraits by Eugène Delacroix and the other distinguished painters who had surrounded him: there’s no mistaking the nature of those eyes. This, then, was the real creator of the B flat minor sonata and the 24 Preludes: the supposedly ethereal poet unmasked as a creature of fire.