Chopin's legacy: the enduring appeal of the remarkable composer
Chopin remains among the greatest composers for the piano. But how in so short a life did this young Pole win the hearts of performers and audiences alike? Alan Walker, Jessica Duchen and Jeremy Siepmann find the answers by exploring the career that formed his genius.
Musicology devours its own children. Time was when Frédéric Chopin was generally regarded as a ‘salon composer’ of charming miniatures – mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes – unworthy of a place in the pantheon. It never occurred to our forefathers that a small Prelude, for instance, could contain a good deal more musical substance than an entire Boccherini string quartet. One had, so the thinking went, to compose symphonies, operas and oratorios in order to be ‘great’. Today, all that has changed.
Within a 50-mile radius of where I am writing this article, someone somewhere is either playing or listening to Chopin’s music. Nor does it depend on the location of my desk – which happens to be situated near Toronto. Move it to New York, Vienna, London, or even Beijing, and my proposition remains the same.
Whatever the time zone, the sun never sets on Chopin’s music. Millions of listeners are held in thrall to it. Radio stations across the world broadcast his compositions. The sale of Chopin CDs holds firm.
The ‘Chopin recital’ remains as popular as ever, a permanent fixture in the concert hall. Chopin competitions continue to spring up across the globe. Finally, and most remarkably, Chopin has come to symbolise a nation. He is Poland’s best-known son. Is there any other composer of whom similar things could reasonably be said?
Hearing Chopin’s music is a little like coming home. Artur Rubinstein expressed this well when he wrote, ‘When the first notes of Chopin sound through the concert hall there is a happy sign of recognition. All over the world men and women know his music. They love it. They are moved by it. When I play Chopin I know I speak directly to the hearts of people.’
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Of all the great composer-pianists Chopin probably enjoyed the briefest career, appearing before the public no more than a dozen times in his life. He disliked performing to a large audience and much preferred to play to an intimate circle of friends. Contemporary accounts of his playing refer to his infinite variety of shading, his singing tone, and his quiet demeanour at the keyboard.
He was the antithesis of the ‘thunder and lightning school’ of piano playing, which came to dominate the late 19th century and distort Chopin’s own music, and his favourite piano was the silvery-toned Pleyel, with its easy action. How extraordinary to think that Chopin’s passionate music was composed on this relatively simple instrument with a keyboard compass of a mere six octaves.
How did Chopin use nationalism?
Chopin’s life outside his homeland may have altered his lifestyle but, as Jeremy Siepmann explains, his music remained Polish at heart
Chopin’s life was neatly divided between the homelands of his Polish mother and his French-born father. He spent the first 21 years of his life in Warsaw, the remaining 18 in Paris. He was both the greatest of Polish composers and effectively the father of French pianism. Despite his Polish birth and upbringing, both countries have always counted Chopin as their own.
And Chopin himself? Insofar as nationality goes (though his music infinitely transcends it), he was forever Polish. His Mazurkas, Polonaises and Polish songs outnumber his works in any other genre; Polish dances such as the krakowiak crop up, undercover, in works with no outer national references (the finale of the E minor Concerto, for instance); mazurkas in disguise infiltrate altogether different dances (most spectacularly in the trio section of the F sharp minor Polonaise) and even find their way into the Nocturnes.
Nor are the Polish elements in Chopin’s music confined to formal models. There are numerous examples of harmonies, rhythms, melodic types, chromaticisms, syncopations and so on which are characteristically Polish, and mostly derived from folk music, both authentic and popularised. Sometimes the references are specific and potent. The middle section of the B minor Scherzo, for instance, is based on a popular carol, carrying a very special and poignant resonance for native listeners.
A sense of Polishness had been with him from the beginning, fostered not only by his social environment but by the powerful influence both of his father (immigrants often make the best patriots) and his composition teacher Józef Elsner. But he was never a political activist. What’s more, his Polishness was as much musical as national – indeed ultimately more so.
His passionate attraction to the mazurka, in particular (of which he wrote 57 examples, throughout his life), derived not mainly from its Polishness but from its character, potential and multiplicity of styles; its elusive, sometimes almost hypnotic rhythms, its roots in song. If necessity is the mother of invention, the mazurka, in large part, was the mother of Chopin’s originality.
From the mazurka (or rather from its implications as gleaned by the mind of a genius) came much of Chopin’s epoch-making harmony – affecting composers as distant as Wagner, Debussy and Schoenberg – and much, too, of his extraordinary rhythmic sophistication.
It can fairly be said that Chopin put the mazurka on the world musical map, and ensured through the sheer quality of his output that it would remain there. The polonaise, by contrast, with its catchy motto rhythm, had become popular outside Poland well before Chopin’s birth – both JS and WF Bach wrote them. Chopin’s career began with polonaises, when he was seven, but it came of age, as it were, with fateful aptness, when he was 21.
With the conquest of Warsaw by Russian troops in 1831, Chopin, then touring abroad, became an exile. From that time onward, he made his home in Paris. Nowhere was the sea change in his perspectives more dramatically revealed than in his transformation of the polonaise, which he raised to a level of seriousness and emotional power never previously associated with it. Not for nothing did Schumann refer to Chopin’s music (and obliquely to the mature polonaises) as ‘cannons buried in flowers’.
To judge from his output alone, exile was good for Chopin. His flowering in France was near-miraculous. But what of the man? Could he, with the passing of the years, have returned to Poland? More to the point, did he want to? Poland was the land of his childhood and youth. Since leaving it, he had become a famous pianist and composer; he lived and largely enjoyed a life of fashionable luxury in Paris; he hobnobbed with the aristocracy and the cream of European artists, musicians and writers.
He had found himself at the centre of the known universe, and he relished it. Most importantly of all, it was in these circumstances and surroundings that he composed his greatest music. To return to a Poland still dominated by the Russians would have been to imperil his creative powers, the single greatest motive force in his life. Chopin, as noted, was not a political animal – he was an artist, and a great one. Whatever his emotional attachment to the Poland of his youth, or his hopes for her future, it was not in his interests to return, whatever the regime.
Was Chopin a Romantic composer?
Chopin may have lived during the Romantic period but, Jessica Duchen argues, his music was more influenced by Classical and Baroque forms than anything else.
Reflect just for a moment on one often-forgotten factor about the supposed epochs of musical history. We divide them into ‘Baroque’, ‘Classical’, ‘Romantic’, etc – but only with hindsight. To the composers of any era, the music of their own time is new: contemporary and evolving. Boundaries are blurred, if they exist at all. We could argue, for instance, over whether Beethoven is ‘Classical’ or ‘Romantic’, but maybe the question is barely relevant to a composer influenced by Bach and Haydn, contemporaneous with Goethe and ready to break the boundaries more powerfully than any composer before.
When we ask whether Chopin is a Romantic, what exactly do we mean? For argument’s sake, here’s a definition of Romanticism from The Free Dictionary online, which seems reasonably accurate: ‘An artistic and intellectual movement originating in Europe in the late 18th century and characterized by a heightened interest in nature, emphasis on the individual’s expression of emotion and imagination, departure from the attitudes and forms of classicism, and rebellion against established social rules and conventions.’ In this light, it’s not easy to pinpoint exactly on which section of the fence Chopin was sitting.
Chopin was 17 when Beethoven died, but spent more time with the music of Bellini, steeping himself in opera as a student in Warsaw, thanks to his passion for a young soprano. Simultaneously he revered Bach and Mozart above all others. Bach provided the model for his Preludes and Etudes, not just the 24-key structure of the 24 Preludes but also their highly textured workings-out of one affekt-like idea, with voices of equal importance interweaving at all levels.
But then came the impact of Liszt, Chopin’s sometime friend, virtuoso par excellence, musical pioneer and arch-Romantic, along with the free-thinking Schumann and delicate, precise Mendelssohn whose works encapsulated a Goethe-esque ‘Romantic’ spirit yet within comparatively strict Classical structures. Everything mingled, headily so, creatively so; nothing was ever quite as clearly divided as history might like.
Expression of emotion and imagination? Undoubtedly. Take the Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor (on this month’s cover CD). The feverish galloping of Chopin’s opening movement, his demoniac scherzo and the closing movement – that ‘wind across the graves’ moment of harmonic dislocation in skittering unison – is in a spirit that belongs utterly to Romanticism.
Subjective, original, vividly imagined, immensely emotional. And yet it’s still in the context of a sonata, that ultimate Classical form – and the four-movement structure, as opposed to its content, is not particularly unconventional: a sonata-form opener, scherzo with trio, slow movement and presto finale. Chopin is building on the past, without rejecting it.
Heightened interest in nature is not much in evidence. Liszt’s evocations of mountain storms, Mendelssohn’s portraits of Scotland, Schumann’s Waldszenen – none of that leaks into Chopin, who not only didn’t seem riveted by the joys of the outdoors (suffering from TB, it probably did him no good) but also avoided attaching any descriptive monikers to his works, defining them generically.
No ‘Hebrides Overture’ or ‘Vallée d’Obermann’ for him; ‘Ballade’ and ‘Nocturne’ were enough, and his titles grew no more ‘Romantic’ than ‘Fantasie’. If nature enters Chopin’s oeuvre, it is in the form of Poland itself: the inspiration he drew from folk music placed him among the pioneers of musical nationalism – and thus bang into the middle of a very particular type of Romantic ethos.
If there’s rebellion in Chopin, it is subtle and often hidden, existing within his harmonies more strongly than his structures. The chromaticism that sometimes hints at Wagner is often contained in unexpected corners: the heart of the Barcarolle, the violence of some of the Preludes and the Funeral March Sonata, and the Mazurkas, the best of which are among his most sophisticated pieces. These boundary-pushing explorations sprang primarily from his expertise in improvisation, but they helped to build a language that looked far into the future, underpinning the work of composers as far ahead as Debussy, Scriabin and Szymanowski.
So the only overt way in which Chopin is a Romantic is through his astonishing imagination and the intensely personal nature of it. Perhaps it’s best displayed in the Preludes and the B flat minor Sonata, but the passionate outpourings of the Polonaise-Fantasie, the operatic melodiousness and conflicts within some of the Nocturnes, and the dazzling inventiveness of the Waltzes could have come from no pen but his.
We could call Chopin the most Romantic of Classicists, or the most Classical of Romantics. Both are almost true; neither is entirely satisfactory. He was, above all, powerfully himself – an individual standing, with his own voice and his piano, alone in the face of a hostile world: exiled and idealistic, celebrated but lonely. And perhaps that makes him a full-blown Romantic after all.
Was Chopin a good pianist?
He may have been a truly great pianist, but Chopin rarely performed in public. Jeremy Siepmann explains why and examines what made him so admired as a player.
Original, incomparable, unique. The words cropped up, like a kind of verbal holy trinity, throughout Chopin’s life, as critics attempted to describe his unearthly playing. One could, of course, be all of those things and not be great. But the evidence leaves little doubt that Chopin ranked with Liszt as one of the two supreme pianists of the 19th century.
Liszt’s own account of Chopin’s playing is revealing on several counts: ‘Seldom allowing himself to be heard in public, Chopin never competed in any way for first or second place among the horde of pianists surrounding us today. The eminently poetic nature of his talent is not suited to that. He requires an atmosphere of tranquility and composure to yield up the melodic treasures within him. Music is his language, the divine tongue through which he expresses a whole realm of sentiments that only the select few can appreciate.’
Chopin’s hatred of public concerts owed much to chronic stage fright. Accustomed to ovations, both physical and verbal, from the age of seven, he nevertheless suffered agonies of apprehension. ‘You cannot imagine,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘what a torture the three days before a public appearance are to me.’ Or the three weeks afterwards, come to that. Chopin’s attitude to concerts may also have been influenced by his first piano teacher, a conservative (complete with 18th-century wig), who told him ‘Concerts are never real music. You have to give up the idea of hearing in them all the most beautiful things in art.’
Chopin played, essentially, to three audiences (in ascending order of preference): the public, the habitués of the aristocratic salons, who included many of the leading cultural lights of the day, and his students. Of these, it was widely agreed, in the words of Karol Mikuli, that ‘only Chopin’s pupils knew the pianist in his entire, unrivalled greatness’. His pianism was unique in his time.
From the beginning, his concept of technique was centred on sonority. Indeed, a mastery of the piano’s tonal resources was for him the necessary precursor of virtuosity. Accordingly, he was heard by his students to produce 20 distinct sonorities from a single note. Whether playing it or writing for it, Chopin’s approach to the piano was both individual and unfashionable.
He disparaged traditional attempts to ‘equalise’ the fingers, actively cultivating their differences, discovering in each its own very distinct properties and character. This derived in part from his reverence for Bach and accounted, again in part, both for the astonishing range and precision of his colouristic palette.
His technique was preternaturally relaxed. ‘Souplesse avant tout!’ (Suppleness before everything) was his pianistic motto, and ‘facilement!’ (easily!) his trademark call to students. This applied not only to technique but to rhythm, in which barlines and ‘beats’ were transcended to unfurl phrases of exceptional length, breadth and elasticity.
Another feature of Chopin’s playing, and of his music, was a new kind of sound which depended absolutely on the use of the sustaining pedal. ‘The pedal,’ he wrote, ‘is a study for life.’ He was perhaps its greatest master, yet unlike many who have come after him he seems in general to have used it quite sparingly.
The effect was sometimes of a pianist with four hands, but the object was never out-and-out virtuosity; it was colour, contour, singingness – and freedom. Not an arbitrary freedom, but the soaring flexibility of the great bel canto singers. Again and
again Chopin urged his pupils to study the great opera stars and to emulate them.
As observed by the dramatist Ernest Legouvé, ‘Chopin’s personality, his playing and his compositions were so harmonious that they could no more be separated than can the features of one face.’ For evidence, we need look no further than the Op. 27 Nocturnes of 1835, though many other works would do as well.
If ever one could ‘see’ a composer’s – or a pianist’s – face in his music, it’s here: the haunting, dispossessed brooding of the former matched by the sensual melancholy and delicacy of the latter. The subtle, iridescent harmonies, the variety and originality of texture, the masterly integration of contrasts, and most importantly, perhaps, the depth and directness of emotional utterance, all give us as vivid a picture of Chopin the pianist as we could ever hope to find.
Why was Chopin’s music so different from that of his peers?
Chopin, explains Alan Walker, completely revolutionised keyboard writing
When Chopin arrived in Paris, in the autumn of 1831, it was the centre of the pianistic world. Dozens of steel-fingered, chromium-plated pianists lived and worked there, each one vying with the others for a place of supremacy in the keyboard hierarchy. The roll-call included Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Adolph von Henselt, Alexander Dreyschock, Johann Peter Pixis, Henri Herz and Sigismund Thalberg – affectionately referred to as ‘the flying-trapeze school’. They were obsessed with technique. There was Kalkbrenner with his pearled passage-work, Dreyschock with his powerful octaves, and Thalberg with his trick of making two hands sound like three.
We smile at such antics nowadays, yet these pianists created a breakthrough in the development of piano-playing. The poet Heinrich Heine at the time ruled the press. He was renowned for his wit, expressed through his widely read column ‘Berichte aus Paris’ (Reports from Paris). Of Kalkbrenner, a widely respected pianist, he remarked, ‘He is like a sweet fallen in the mud. There is nothing wrong with it, but people leave it where it lies.’ On another occasion Heine remarked of Dreyschock (a rather noisy player) that when he played his octaves in Cologne and the wind was in the right direction, you could hear him in Paris.
What distinguished Chopin from the acrobats was his lack of interest in technique as an end in itself – a saving grace that he might never have possessed if he, too, had had a formal piano education. (Chopin’s only piano teacher was Wojciech Zywny, who was actually a violinist, and the lessons ended when Chopin was 12 years old. Thereafter he was left to find his own way.)
He belonged to no school, he subscribed to no dogma. While his contemporaries – the gladiators of the keyboard – were fighting it out in the concert hall, Chopin quietly lay siege to the instrument in his own way, by composing a series of works which broke fresh ground, which are absolutely typical of the piano, and which have dominated the repertory ever since.
Chopin’s approach to the keyboard was fascinating. His hands were small but they were very supple. Heine was astonished to observe their deceptive span – ‘like the jaws of a snake suddenly opening to swallow its prey’.
Chopin advocated the unrestricted use of the thumb on the black keys, and often used it to strike two adjacent keys simultaneously, much to the dismay of the conservative pedagogues of the day. He would sometimes pass the longest fingers over the shorter ones without the intervention of the thumb if that would secure a better legato; he recommended a flat finger for a singing touch; he employed the organist’s favourite device of finger-substitution to sustain melodies; he favoured a low piano-stool, finding it more comfortable than the high one adopted by the hard-hitting virtuosos who liked to descend on everything from a great height.
Above all, there was his ‘flutter pedalling’, that continuous vibrating of the sustaining pedal which cast a warm glow over everything that he played, yet gave it at the same time its unusual clarity. He reacted strongly against the so-called ‘finger-equalisation’ schools of Czerny, Kalkbrenner and others, maintaining that each finger has individual characteristics which are there to be enhanced, not equalised away. ‘The third finger’, he would tell his pupils, ‘is a great singer’, and he would then go on to unfold entire phrases with this finger taking the major share of the work.
Aside from the piano, Chopin’s favourite instrument was the human voice. He adored Italian opera and was particularly fond of the arias of Bellini and Donizetti. Their treatment of melody shines through his Nocturnes especially.
It is often said that a major influence here was John Field. There is truth in this idea, but Field’s influence is surely confined to externals. The inner spirit of Chopin’s nocturnes, indeed of his melodies generally, comes from opera and the bel canto singing style. Hans von Bülow delivered the best aphorism on that topic: ‘Whoever cannot sing, however poor the voice, should not try to play the piano.’ It remains a great piece of advice for Chopin players. Take singing lessons.
Chopin's legacy and influence
Chopin’s spirit is evident in much of the great piano music written after his death. Alan Walker looks at the effect on his successors.
By common consent, Chopin’s influence on posterity has been enormous. Scriabin, Debussy, and Prokofiev all proclaimed a debt to him. Scriabin’s famous Study in D sharp minor, Op. 8 would be unthinkable without Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude lurking in the inspired background. As for Debussy, the polite inscription on the title-page of his Twelve Studies (‘to the Memory of Frédéric Chopin’) acknowledges their myriad attachments to the Polish composer’s keyboard textures.
Prokofiev confessed that the bizarre-sounding Scherzo of his Third Symphony was directly inspired by the Finale of Chopin’s B flat minor Piano Sonata. Nor should we forget to mourn those countless composers whose creative drive was so overwhelmed by Chopin’s powerful personality that they ended up producing compositions cloned in the master’s image. They are perhaps best symbolised by Felix Blumenfeld (chiefly remembered today as the teacher of Heinrich Neuhaus and Vladimir Horowitz) whose music, which is not without charm, earned for him the title of ‘the Russian Chopin’.
For the rest, Chopin’s anticipation of modern composing techniques is remarkable. At times his advanced chromatic harmony carries him to the brink of atonality (witness the opening of the C sharp minor Scherzo, or the Finale of the B flat minor Sonata. What keys are they in?). Then there is his attitude to music itself, which goes beyond his time. He was interested only in music for music’s sake.
Unlike other Romantics, particularly his great contemporaries Liszt, Schumann and Berlioz, Chopin was not interested in ‘programme music’. It is almost unthinkable to link his music to a poetic or pictorial content. And then there is a kind of artistic asceticism in Chopin, a cool controlled approach to musical creation which sets him apart from other Romantics, and gives his music its unique feeling of colossal force – contained. The description by Schumann cited earlier in these pages – that Chopin’s music is a ‘cannon, buried in flowers’ – expressed it best.