The Great Improviser
Fryderyk Chopin’s true fatherland is the dream world of poetry – writes Prof. Dana GOOLEY
.Julian Fontana, one of Chopin’s closest friends, used the following words to describe the composer’s talent for improvisation: ‘From his earliest youth, the richness of his improvisation was astonishing. But he was careful not to parade it. And the few lucky ones who have heard him improvising for hours on end, in the most wonderful manner, never taking a single phrase from another composer (…) will agree that Chopin’s most beautiful compositions are merely reflections and echoes of his improvisations.’
These are seductive words. The idea of music once rising from Chopin’s piano, exceeding even his written works, is too beautiful to resist. We envy those fortunate few friends and insiders who often had the privilege of hearing Chopin play in private, where he was at ease. The utterance ‘Ah, if only you were there!’ awakens a pleasant longing for an artist whose personality and performances can only be recalled in memory. It also confirms that Chopin was a genius, with an imagination so boundless that the compositions he left behind are only a shadow of his true ability.
In the 1820s, the young Chopin had a compelling reason to practice improvisation diligently. Aspiring to a career as a concert pianist, he was well aware that internationally renowned virtuosos, like Ignaz Moscheles and, most notably, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, excelled at improvising brilliant ‘free fantasies’ based on audience suggestions. So it comes as no surprise that he exhibited such a skill during his first performance in Vienna in 1829. The reviewer of the ‘Theaterzeitung’ noted that in his improvised fantasy the Polish virtuoso found the right balance between pleasing the listener (‘many variations on themes’) and professionalism (‘calm flow of thought’, ‘purity of development’).
But a couple of years later, Chopin moved to Paris, and his ambitions changed. Once he had realised that he could support himself by giving piano lessons, he lost interest in giving concerts. He rarely performed in public, and when he did, he never played free fantasies. He redirected his creative energy into composing highly original, finely detailed pieces, exploring the possibilities of the piano in unprecedented ways. In the process of developing his musical ideas, he inevitably experimented with various iterations on the instrument, shared them with friends and colleagues and made alterations based on their responses. Evaluating and perfecting – that was how Chopin approached composing. And this is what his entourage may have heard and confused with improvisation. No wonder Fontana never heard ‘other composers’ in any of Chopin’s phrases.
Chopin’s perfectionism and the rapidly declining prestige of piano improvisation probably kept him from improvising freely in the manner of his good friend Liszt. Chopin certainly did not lose this ability, but he lacked the motivation to use it. Yet the French Romantics in his circle were eager to perceive his playing as improvisation. George Sand, the guiding force behind this group, believed that this skill must be regarded as the supreme and most lyrical form of artistic expression; a spontaneous elevation of feelings; a manifestation of active genius. She praised the poetic improvisations of Adam Mickiewicz, a Polish poet in exile who was a sensation in the Parisian salons of the time. At her famous ‘château of liberty’ in Nohant, she encouraged poets to improvise against a backdrop of delicate musical accompaniment. Eugène Delacroix, who frequented the place, remarked that quickly executed artistic sketches were more powerful than finished works, thus undermining the traditional importance of composition in painting.
Evidently, there was a strong tendency in this Romantic milieu to interpret Chopin’s rendition as improvisation even when he played his composed works. The word lent a particular charm to attempts at giving a literary name to the unique poeticism and plasticity of his music. Similarly, a German poet in exile Heinrich Heine believed that Chopin’s improvisations allowed him to enter the universal realm of art: ‘Nothing can compare to the pleasure we experience when he improvises at the piano. Then he is neither Pole, nor Frenchman, nor German. He manifests a far nobler descent. We see that he comes from the land of Mozart, Raphael and Goethe; his true fatherland is the dream world of poetry.’
.Improvisation disappeared from concert halls a few decades after Chopin’s death. Recently, however, it has made a triumphant return thanks to pianist Gabriela Montero, winner of the 1995 Chopin Competition. Encouraged by Martha Argerich to share the skills she had always thought should stay hidden, Montero now regularly devotes half of her recital programmes to improvising on audience-suggested themes. The incredible fluidity and variety of her improvisations give hope that other pianists will also soon master an art that Chopin was one of the last to perform.