Chopin Could Do His Sums
Why didn't Chopin use literary masterpieces for his song texts, like Schumann did? The answer to that question might at first seem obvious, but doubts soon start to arise. What are the facts?
Schumann wrote almost 250 songs for voice and piano and around 120 pieces for various vocal ensembles. Chopin left behind barely 19 art songs and salon songs. The explosion of Schumann's art-song creativity took place in 1840, when he composed almost half his output in the genre, much of it filled with his passionate yearning for Clara Wieck. Chopin composed his songs between 1829 and 1847 in different circumstances.
Schumann writes and publishes his songs thinking that they will bring him more popularity - and more money - than his piano pieces have up to that point, which is very important to him in his fight for the right to marry Clara. Chopin composes his songs for his friends and acquaintances: he physically writes them onto dedications and in the diaries of his friends, but none were ever destined for publication or intended for concert performance. Schumann's songs quickly find publishers and performances, and are enthusiastically received by both performers and critics. Chopin's songs, collected, edited and published by Fontana as late as 1859, in an otherwise very warm review from Józef Sikorski, are summed up thus: "Chopin has no drive for vocal composition".
Schumann and Chopin had very different attitudes towards their own songs. What one regarded as a personal statement, an artistic creation, the result of inspiration drawn from a poet's word and the longing for his beloved, was for the other a slight form of social politeness, with no more value than a bouquet of dried violets.
The marginal character of this genre in Chopin's output was the reason he didn't see fit to set anything better than the simple verses of his friends Stefan Witwicki and Bohdan Zaleski; however, he also set two poems by Adam Mickiewicz, one by Zygmunt Krasiński and one by Wincenty Pol. In absolute numbers, this seems very modest, but if you look at it as a percentage then two songs (10 per cent) set to Mickiewicz in Chopin's output are equivalent to 38 Schumann songs (10 per cent) set to the words of Heine; and one song to Krasiński's text (5 per cent) is the equivalent of 19 of Schumann's songs (5 per cent) set to the words of Goethe.
Schumann had one advantage over Chopin - he'd been familiar with great literature since he was a child. He'd inherited this passion from his father, whose literary ambitions were channelled into life as a bookseller and publisher. The young Schumann had access to his father's library and, for a time, was more interested in literature than in music. He was a voracious reader and absorbed a variety of texts from Homer to Sophocles, from Latin authors to Schiller and Goethe, and even the younger generation: Hölderlin, Walter Scott and Byron. How apposite are the words of the great Mickiewicz - words that were the complaint of his whole generation - which, even though written in a foreign language, sum up Schumann's own thoughts and attitudes:
"Oh these thuggish books!
The heaven of my youth and my suffering!
They withered my wings
And broke them,
So that I had nowhere to go but up"
We know nothing about Chopin's literary interests or preferences. He was part of the Parisian artistic scene, romantically linked with George Sand, a friend of Heine and other writers - but what did he think about it all? We don't know. His love for theatre was in fact an obsession with opera. Here, Chopin has an advantage over Schumann.
"He visits the stages in Warsaw, Berlin, Vienna, Wrocław, Dresden, Munich, Paris and London," writes Mieczysław Tomaszewski. "There are times when he visits the Théâtre des italiens in Paris almost every night. He listens to the operas of Rossini (he had got to know nine of them in Warsaw only), Spontini, Cherubini, Päera, Bellini and Donizetti, Boieldieu, Auber, Méhul, Hérold and Halévy, Mozart, Beethoven, Meyerbeer and Flotow. He talks about them with the knowledge of a great expert who holds his own strong opinions."
In contrast to Schumann, Chopin not only admired beautiful singing - bel canto - but also knew a great deal about it, transferring the Italian opera style onto piano music. He was acquainted with many opera singers, both male and female, and was constantly surrounded by them.
There must have been a reason for Chopin's unusual restraint in composing songs - if one can even describe this group of occasional pieces as a song output. Perhaps the question should be rephrased: why didn't Chopin, a lover and connoisseur of beautiful singing, an admirer of opera, a friend of the singing élite - ever write an opera or even one serious art song? Was Sikorski right in saying that Chopin lacked a drive for vocal music?
When we compare the situations in which Chopin and Schumann found themselves, the answer is clear. Schumann spent most of his life on his family estate in Saxony; he wrote songs to texts in his native German, aimed at German audiences and performers. Chopin was urged to write music of a nationalistic character. Polish emigrants waited impatiently for him to stop short-changing himself and compose a great national opera. And of course this nationalistic work would have to be set to a Polish text. But, at that time in France, what kind of a publisher or theatre would have been interested in a piece in a Slavic language? Who would have sung and played it, and for what audience? Chopin's restraint wasn't down to a lack of drive. Chopin - the poet of the piano - could do his sums.
Author: Ludwik Erhardt, October 2010
This article comes from the Chopin Express gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Gramophone magazine.
Other articles of interest in Chopin Express No. 19:
"Captured by the Music" - A Conversation with Adam Harasiewicz