Prof. Zbigniew SKOWRON: Fryderyk Chopin as a teacher

Fryderyk Chopin as a teacher

Photo of Prof. Zbigniew SKOWRON

Prof. Zbigniew SKOWRON

Musicologist. Professor at the Institute of Musicology, Warsaw University. His research interests include the aesthetic and historical aspects of 20th century music, the works of Witold Lutoslawski’s and Chopin’s biography and epistolography.

Ryc.Fabien Clairefond

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The multitude of interpretations and performances of Chopin’s music forms the backbone of the international competition bearing his name.

.After Fryderyk Chopin came to Paris in the early autumn of 1831, his main source of income was giving piano lessons. Indeed, teaching was soon to become his main activity alongside composing music and rare performances.

For six months – wrote Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger – from October or November to May, Chopin received an average of five pupils daily. … Rising early, he would spend the morning and at least the first half of the afternoon teaching. Each lesson lasted theoretically between 45 minutes and an hour, but would sometimes stretch out over several hours in succession, particularly on Sundays, for the benefit of gifted pupils whom he particularly liked. … Pupils would receive one lesson weekly or more often two or three, depending on their teacher’s availability, their own individual needs and their talents – and, secondarily, on the state of their finances Chopin’s lessons were even more in demand than those of Liszt or Kalkbrenner; they were also expensive, since the fee was invariably fixed at 20 gold francs.

We know about Chopin’s teaching methods mainly from his students. Citing such testimonials has had a long tradition. It was initiated in the second half of the 19th century by Frederick Niecks, who could still get first-hand information from Chopin’s pupils. He included their accounts in his monograph entitled Frédéric Chopin as a Man and Musician. Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger – the author of Chopin. Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils – drew up an approximate list of Chopin’s charges that contains nearly 60 names of young women and men meticulously selected by the composer. Prominent among Chopin’s Polish female students was Princess Marcelina Czartoryska, née Radziwiłł (1817–1894) – the first heiress of Chopin’s performance tradition – whereas the group of his most gifted male pupils included the prematurely deceased Carl Filtsch (1830–1845) and Adolf Gutmann (1819–1882) whom Chopin very much appreciated, dedicating to him his Scherzo in C Sharp Minor, Op. 39.

Chopin’s teaching was based on a hierarchical progression from the issues related to playing technique to the principles of sound articulation, phrasing, a sense of macro structure and dramaturgy, to expression factors mainly modelled on singing. He treated the mechanics of piano playing as nothing more than a point of departure in the teaching process. This can be seen in his Esquisses pour une méthode de piano, where he explained, among others, the principles of hand positioning and fingering. His approach to these topics significantly diverged from the methods employed by the piano schools of that time which emphasised technical dexterity of a purely mechanical nature to be achieved through arduous drills with the use of special equipment designed to improve finger and hand aptitude, disregarding their anatomy. It is clear that Chopin distanced himself from such artificial practices, preferring a natural position of the hands on the keyboard.

Chopin’s technique of sound production brings to mind his legato which depended not only on finger articulation, but also on the involvement of the entire arm apparatus which ensured a continuity of movement from the shoulder all the way down to fingertips. He saw this as the key to the “suppleness” of playing (souplesse) that produced the unique effect of an extraordinarily flexible melodic line. Chopin’s innovations in piano texture are clearly noticeable in the two opuses of his Etudes.

For Chopin, the benchmark of piano articulation and fullness of tone was bel canto. A great opera lover, he got well acquainted with the genre, and in particular the Italian operatic style, when he still lived in Warsaw. He made regular references to singing during his piano lessons, citing bel canto as the unmatched model of the piano cantabile.

We find himwrote J.J. Eigeldinger repeatedly exhorting his pupils to listen to the great dramatic artists, even to the extent of declaring: 'you must sing if you wish to play’. For Chopin, singing constituted the alpha and omega of music; it formed the basis of all instrumental training, and the more piano playing drew its inspiration from vocal models, the more convincing it became.

Among the pieces Chopin recommended to his students the preludes and fugues from Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier held a special place, showing how important it was to him that a student should understand the principles of musical structure and be able to convey that structure through phrasing controlled by reason and a good sense of hearing. He also recommended works by Beethoven, Cramer, Clementi and Hummel, which he believed to be the key to piano playing, as well as a suitable preparation for performing his own compositions. However, he was reluctant to study them with his pupils, suggesting them only to the most gifted, such as the Viennese pianist Friederike Müller-Streicher (1816–1895), whose letters provide a unique record of Chopin’s teaching, even including accounts of the conversations she had with the composer during their many lessons.

Wishing to ground his teaching practice in theory, Chopin planned to write the Method of Piano Playing. Only drafts of that textbook have survived, but they show how innovative his approach to teaching piano technique was, an approach motivated, as he wrote, “by giving some practical and simple instructions that bring … tangible benefits”. These pragmatic assumptions were given their fullest expression in the Treaty on Piano Mechanics (ca. 1850) written by one of Chopin’s favourite students, Thomas Tellefsen (1823–1874), on the basis of the notes Chopin made for his Method.

It was also around that time that the group of Chopin’s closest students began the tradition of performing his music in a way that was faithful to the model he had shown them by playing his own pieces during lessons. Special credit for this should go to Karol Mikuli (1819–1897), who studied under Chopin for seven years, gaining a deep understanding of the composer’s teaching methods and his art of playing the piano. He later used that knowledge in the valuable introduction to his 17-volme edition of Chopin’s works (Kistner, 1880).

.Chopin’s outstanding pupils agreed that he remained open to their own interpretations of his work. “We understand the piece differently,” he reportedly said to Filtsch, “but please go on, continue playing the way you feel; it can also be played this way.” Today, that multitude of interpretations and performances of Chopin’s music forms the backbone of the international competition bearing his name.

Zbigniew Skowron

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