Chopin as Teacher
An essay by Kenneth Hamilton, a concert pianist and author of After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance
Paris, 1842. No. 9 Place d'Orleans. Every week of the "season", from around the beginning of October to the end of March, a steady stream of piano pupils would come to study with Fryderyk Chopin. It was a fashionably artistic area of the city - Charles-Valentin Alkan also lived there, and a host of lesser luminaries. Chopin was by then the most famous pianist permanently resident in Paris, and accordingly its most exclusive piano teacher. Even Liszt had not charged as much for a one-hour piano lesson: 20 gold francs. At around 4.5 zlotys, this was a phenomenal fee. A bank clerk might earn 250 zlotys a year; a gentleman could live very respectably on 2,500. As Chopin gave up to five lessons per day, piano teaching - and not the modest royalties from his music - quickly became his main source of income, just as Berlioz largely made his living as Librarian of the Conservatoire, and Wagner by sponging off friends.
Piano pupils arriving at Chopin's flat would be greeted by a valet, evidence in itself of unusual opulence; most musicians, then as now, had to open their own front doors. While waiting in an antechamber, the students would unobtrusively place the fee for their lesson, delicately concealed in an envelope, on the mantelpiece. On no account was cash to be handed over directly - Chopin found anything to do with money or sex equally distasteful, and avoided close engagement with either.
Almost inevitably, most of Chopin's pupils were wealthy young ladies with talents in inverse proportion to their social status. Wilhelm von Lenz, an occasional Russian pupil, noted that a steady stream of such students – "each one even prettier than the last" would emerge from the music room and parade haughtily past the next in line. Nevertheless, one or two of these "perfumed ladies in frilly dresses" might actually have pursued professional careers, had such a prospect not been entirely unthinkable. Camille O'Meara in particular was an extremely accomplished player with an instinctive feeling for her teacher's style. Yet, as Liszt said many years later, Chopin was "unlucky with his students". None achieved international fame as performers, though a few of them - such as Karol Mikuli, teacher of Moriz Rosenthal - fruitfully passed on to subsequent generations what they had learned in the Place d'Orleans. Chopin himself had especially high hopes for Carl Filtsch, an astonishingly talented prodigy only 13 years old who came to study with him at the end of 1842. "When this lad starts touring," joked Liszt, "I'd better shut up shop." But Filtsch was already ill. He died of consumption in 1845, a few years before Chopin's own death from the same disease.
Once students had spent the requisite time in Chopin's antechamber, they would be ushered into the music room, which housed a Pleyel grand piano and an upright of the same manufacture. The pupil sat at the former, Chopin at the latter, from where he would demonstrate the correct execution of troublesome passages. Most of his teaching was by direct example - he far preferred to do rather than describe. According to Mikuli, some pupils would "play no more than a few bars during the entire lesson". But listening attentively was unusually valuable, because what one mainly learned from lessons with Chopin was how to play Chopin. The composer would write ornaments or variants into pupils' scores - some of them distinct improvements over the versions originally published - as well as fingerings and friendly admonitions. Playing from the score was a requirement, for in contrast to the prevailing opinion among pianists today, Chopin regarded memorisation as likely to prompt an overly mechanical performance. "I don't want any of this," he snapped, after discovering that a pupil intended to play a piece by heart. "Are you reciting a lesson?"
Especially important to Chopin were the creation of a singing tone and a subtle blending of sonorities. He himself was known not for the speed and power of his playing (on the contrary, audiences in larger halls found his performances verging upon the inaudible) but for its exquisite elegance and refined rhetoric. "If you can't sing, you can't play the piano," he would tell his pupils, while advising them to go to the opera and listen to Rubini, Pasta and other great singers of the day.
Apart from his own music, Chopin was happy to recommend pieces by Hummel and Field, even occasionally Beethoven's Sonata Op. 26 (the only one in his repertoire). He had, however, little time for "avant-garde" music, whether it was Schumann's eccentric effusions (even Carnaval, which was dedicated to him) or Liszt's virtuoso extravagancies. Most favoured of all was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In fact, Chopin prepared for his own concerts not by practising the pieces programmed, but by spending a fortnight playing the 48 Preludes and Fugues. "Play Bach for me," he would say to his students as they left at the end of their lesson…
Author: Kenneth Hamilton
The article comes from the 8th issue of Chopin Express gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition by Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Gramophone.