Jed DISTLER: Reflections on Chopin

Reflections on Chopin

Photo of Jed DISTLER


Composer, pianist, writer and music popularizer based in New York.

other articles by this author

Some composers develop their styles over time, while others make their mark early on. Among those who evolved step-by-step include Haydn, Wagner, Janacek, Scarlatti, Liszt, Phillip Glass and Elliott Carter. Other composers, by contrast, seemingly emerged fully formed, like Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, Saint-Saëns, and Pierre Boulez. Frédéric Chopin undoubtedly belongs to this latter group.

Both as pianist and composer, Chopin’s genius pronounced itself from the start. At eight, the budding prodigy already had first composition published (a polonaise), and had made his debut as a piano soloist with orchestra. Even early on, Chopin preferred to concentrate on smaller forms, as opposed to large-scale symphonies, choral works and operas. Fortunately, Chopin’s composition teacher at the Warsaw Conversatory Joseph Elsner had the foresight to let his pupil follow his own path.

At 21, Chopin left Warsaw, never to return. He settled in Paris, where he found himself swept up in a thriving intellectual and artistic scene dominated by Balzac, Hugo, Delacroix, Rossini, Berlioz, Auber, the young Liszt, and other luminaries. Piano building was coming into its own, with dozens of manufacturers vying for attention. The instrument’s construction had evolved into something close to today’s modern concert grand standard, spawning, in turn, virtuoso pianist/composers like Henri Herz and Friedrich Kalkbrenner dominated the scene, wowing the public with glittery operatic paraphrases, potpourris, battle pieces, and other easy to digest salon fare.

Naturally the young Chopin tried his hand writing crowd pleasing finger twisters, yet they were informed by an entirely new level of pianistic ingenuity, where new sonorities, figurations and modulatory patterns intermingled to unprecedented, often startling effect. Even in Chopin’s earliest works with opus numbers, the essence of his keyboard style is fully formed. Take, for instance, the astonishing bravura of the seldom played First Piano Sonata finale’s cruelly demanding double notes. In the Variations on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni Op. 2, notice the piano writing’s utter fluidity and naturalness, and how Chopin deploys the instrument’s registers in the manner of a great orchestrator, along with novel harmonic ideas. Robert Schumann first encountered Chopin’s music through this work, which led to his famous review declaring “Hat’s off, a genius.”

Yet for all of the novelty and innovation that Chopin brought to piano writing, a strong classical streak steadfastly prevails throughout his oeuvre. You can tell that alone from his sticking with absolute forms for his titles (Waltz, Ballade, Etude, Nocturne, Mazurka, Polonaise, Ballade, Scherzo, Sonata, Impromptu, and the like), rather than descriptive or programmatic concepts, as his colleagues Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt and Mendelssohn were apt to do. Perhaps that’s why he favored Bach and Mozart over Beethoven. On the other hand, Chopin adored the operas of Bellini, and it shows. Simply slow down the Impromptus or the faster Waltzes, sing the glittery passagework out loud, and you’ll discover Bel Canto cavatinas. Focus intently upon the Fourth Ballade’s thunderous coda, bring down the volume, and concentrate on the top melodic line: behold, an instant, previously undiscovered Bellini aria!
Perhaps Nocturnes provide an ideal starting point for listeners wishing to understand Chopin’s aesthetic and sound world. Indeed, the genre owes much to the development and standardization of the sustaining pedal, which meant that sustained figurations could exceed the normal left-hand span. It was the Irish composer John Field who first applied the word “Nocturne” to lyrical pieces with long, dreamy melodies supported by lilting, broadly spanned accompaniments. However, Chopin begins where Field leaves off. In the B Major Nocturne Op. 32 No. 1, for example, the lyrical simplicity characterizing Chopin’s opening theme comes to a sudden halt at its first climax, only to resume in tempo with another idea. Remnants of the original theme reappear like signposts, while embellishments and decorations intensify the melodic discourse. Without warning, Chopin shatters his wistful mood with an abrupt, almost violent recitative in B minor, an ending that “defies analysis, but compels acceptance,” according to composer Lennox Berkeley.

It’s a short step from Chopin the poet to Chopin the poet/virtuoso and his Etudes Op. 10 & 25, which many rightly consider the cornerstones of Romantic piano technique. Each of these gems addresses a specific technical challenge, without giving the pianist much respite. At first hearing, the A-flat Op. 10 No. 10 and E Minor Op. 25 No. 5 offer catchy, operatically inspired themes within a basic ABA song form structure. But notice the slight shifts in texture and phrasing when the tunes repeat, not unlike viewing an object from different perspectives and at different times of the day. Reduce the opening C Major Op. 10 No. 1 and closing Op. 25 No. 2 etudes’ taxing arpeggios to their harmonic essence, and you get the bedrock security of a Bach cantus firmus. One wonders if Bach’s organ chorale preludes had any bearing on the E-flat Minor Op. 10 No. 6, where a plaintive right hand cantabile is supported by a chromatically undulating tenor commentary and long, sustained bass lines. The refinement of Chopin’s amazing harmonic imagination here is something to behold, and if you want more where that came from, take a detour towards the coda of the Barcarolle Op. 60, where imitative lines gently topple over one another to form a gorgeous textural labyrinth.

Before discussing elements of power and drama throughout Chopin’s compositions, we have to remind ourselves that Chopin the performer channeled his pianistic gifts towards the intimate dimensions of salons and small venues. His playing mainly was about nuance, subtle effects, refinement of touch, and perpetual singing, and he left flamboyance and audacity to his friend Liszt. What we’d give to hear Liszt wrap his paws around Chopin’s C-sharp Minor Scherzo, where musical substance and high-octane virtuosity triumphantly fuse. The angular, declamatory introduction – kind of a compressed opera recitative – dives into a demonic main theme spelled out in stamina-testing octaves. The central, major key Trio features a chorale-like motive answered by delicate descending filigree. When the coda arrives, Chopin works all of the piano’s registers in seeming simultaneity. Chopin’s other principal larger-scaled compositions include the three remaining Scherzi, the four Ballades, the F Minor Fantasy, the Second & Third Sonatas, the Cello Sonata (his only mature chamber work), and, of course, the Préludes Op. 28.

One cannot talk about Chopin’s style without acknowledging its deep-rooted nationalism, as borne out in the Polonaises and Mazurkas. Polonaises mostly were lightweight entertainment before Chopin pushed the form into emotionally charged, dynamically volatile keyboard epics (in scope more than size). The swaggering immediacy of the famous A Major Op. 40 No. 1 and “Heroic” A-flat Op. 53 stirs up Polish pride in the same way that Americans respond to Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” However, the F-sharp Minor Op. 44 Polonaise digs deeper, and, in the right hands, sends shock waves when the sudden, fortissimo upward scales kick in, right after a central episode in the form of a Mazurka. The 57 Mazurkas proper date from Chopin’s tenth year up until his final illness. Their basic rhythms and phrase scansions embrace traditional Polish dance forms such as the Mazur, the Oberek and the Kujawiak, while giving free reign to some of Chopin’s quirkiest notions. They constantly veer between simple, complex, charming, and audacious, usually within the same opus number.

Consider the four pieces encompassing Op. 41. A dark sensibility colors the C-sharp minor Mazurka’s main theme, only to give way to raucous abandon, huge sonorities, and a sudden dying away. The E minor Mazurka consists of a plaintive melody intoned over a restrained, chorale-like accompaniment. Nothing seems to happen in the central episode, yet it gradually builds up to a startling key change twelve bars before the end. The A-flat Mazurka is wistful, lyrical and uncomplicated – more like a Waltz, actually. By contrast, the B Major’s veiled, opening figure hardly hints at the rising melodic unisons and whirling, giddy passagework lurking around the corner; this is one of Chopin’s briefest and Mazurkas.

For whatever reason, few commentators discuss one particular Chopin trait that might be too obvious to notice, and that is his frequent use of repeated notes, either for rhythmic emphasis or to generate melodic intensity. Think of the quick kicking repeated notes in the Tarantella Op. 43, the E-flat Op. 18 Waltz’s second theme, the A-flat Op. 34 No. 1 Waltz’s introduction, the E Minor Waltz’s main theme, or the C-sharp Minor Op. 64 No. 2 Waltz’s plaintive chromatic ascending scales. There’s the Op. 9 No. 1 Nocturne’s first theme, the more famous Op. 9 No. 2’s second theme, the Fourth Ballade’s first theme, and the folk song quoted in the B Minor Scherzo’s Trio? What about when Chopin repeats the same note with shifting textures or harmonic movement underneath, such as in the Op. 25 Etudes Nos. 1, 4 and 11?

Asked if Chopin was “a good composer for the digital age,” I first thought the question rather silly, simply because Chopin belongs to every age, he’s been remarkably impervious to the tides of fashion. However, the more I pondered the question, the more I realized that my questioner might have a point. Because we receive and process information faster than ever, our attention span, in turn, has shrunk over time. Our listening habits are fragmented, chopped, diced and sliced into play lists on our digital devices. One arguably can tell as much about a pianist’s strengths and limitations in the span of a two minute Chopin Etude as over the course of a 25-minute Beethoven Sonata. And with few exceptions, the largest and most substantial of Chopin’s creations make relative modest demands on a busy person’s time: six minutes for this Nocturne, nine minutes for that Ballade. If you’ve got a few more minutes to spare, take in the twelve-plus minute F Minor Fantasy Op. 49 or Polonaise Fantasy Op. 61 while power walking through the park, or cooling down on your treadmill.

I confess that as a busy radio host and classical recording reviewer, I cannot give extensive attention to each and every new piano release that promoters and publicists send me. But if a brief Waltz or Mazurka performance appeals, then I’ll want to hear more from where that came from. And if this release is on Spotify, I can make quick comparisons between new emerging Pianist X in the tumultuous B-flat Minor Prelude and new emerging Pianist Y. And thanks to the magic of online streaming, I often bypass my vast, carefully organized CD and download library in order to instantly assess these young hopefuls’ interpretations alongside established, long held reference versions.

The point is that not a moment on Planet Earth goes by without Chopin’s music being programmed, judged in a competition, streamed, listened to, edited for CD release, or practiced on a piano. Chopin would be flattered by the attention, no doubt. But what would he say about his music being appropriated in popular culture? After all, Bugs Bunny played Chopin, Muzak arrangers smoothed him out, and Liberace strung his themes together as vulgar medleys. Would Chopin have sued the creators of such pop classics as “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (the Fantasie-Impromptu), “Till the End of Time” (the A-flat Polonaise Op. 53), or “Could It Be Magic” (the C Minor Prelude), or cried all the way to the bank? However, since Chopin adored great singers, he would have loved Barbra Streisand’s ingenuous patter song setting of “Minute Waltz.”

Yet on a more serious note, how would Chopin react to all of the so-called “schools” of Chopin playing (i.e., French, German, Slavic, etc.), that have evolved since his death in 1849, all which lay equal claim to “authenticity.” What might Chopin say about the extraordinary, unprecedented proliferation of Asian pianists on today’s scene, all who rightly consider Chopin their own? Would Chopin prefer Lang Lang (born 1982) or Martha Argerich (born 1941) in his F Minor Concerto to Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) or Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)? Would Chopin cringe at or be fascinated by Rachmaninov’s willful dynamic alterations in his recording of the Second Sonata?

Stravinsky famously reviewed three recordings The Rite of Spring back-to-back, ultimately claiming that none of the three were worthy of preservation. I could only imagine Chopin critiquing four wildly divergent interpretations of the Préludes Op. 28 from Maurizio Pollini, Claudio Arrau, Friedrich Gulda and Ivan Moravec. And on the touchy subject of tempo rubato, who would Chopin deem closest to the mark in his Mazurkas: Ignace Jan Paderewski, Ignaz Friedman, Moriz Rosenthal, or Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli? Which of Rubinstein’s three intriguingly different Mazurka cycles would Chopin favor, or perhaps none of them? Then there’s the question of instrument; an 1849 Pleyel feels and sounds utterly different from a vintage pre-war American Steinway or a brand new hand-built Kawai. Would Chopin recognize the sound of his music these days?

Still and all, Chopin remains synonymous with the piano, and what Rubinstein said many years ago is likely to remain true for generations to come: “When the first notes of Chopin sound through the concert hall, there is a happy sigh of recognition.”

Jed Distler

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 26/01/2022