Chopin: different shades of genius


The beauty of Chopin's music, rare and unique, verges - one is tempted to say - on a miracle. Since this opinion runs somewhat counter to the fixed, common ideas about greatness in music, it has often been challenged by asking what sort of a genius would compose (almost) exclusively for piano, and mostly miniatures, dances and poetical fantasias instead of dozens of sonatas, symphonies, operas, oratoria and masses.

Such challenges of an ultraconservative nature have survived to this day, as expressed by Arthur Hedley in his post-war book on Chopin. Writes Hedley: "He [Chopin] does not stand at the top of the hierarchy of musicians. Indeed, nobody would claim that. Yet he enjoyed what few have: he is the only one and towering high above in his own, closed domain."The same line of thinking is encountered in "A History of Music" by Józef and Krystyna Chomiński. This two-volume book published a few years ago has no separate chapter on Chopin, although it does have ones on Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, let alone Handel and Bach.

Well, if that is the case, the question that springs to mind is: what is wrong with this hierarchy? Yet it suffices to free oneself from the manacles of the old-fashioned classification whereby musical genius was judged against the classical standard of German music of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to see Chopin as one of the topmost composers of all times, well deserving the "highest rung" not only for the captivating charm of his music but also for the special role his music has played in history.

True, Chopin did focus on piano compositions, yet he was the first one who could afford to do so. It was him who transformed the piano into an instrument of unheard of potential, extracting from it a rich and new world of sounds nobody had dreamt of before, and creating within this world a plethora of masterpieces eclipsing many a symphony. While seemingly narrowing the instrumental range, Chopin brought to the fore the component of music that would grow in importance until today, namely the sound. Ever since Chopin, music can hardly be any longer thought of as an abstract construct merely conveyed by the instruments. Music is now organically bound with the real sound matter, its colour, register, the sensual nature of the sound and the way it is produced.

The novel and revealing sound of Chopin's music comes as much from the special approach to the instrument and the brilliant piano technique as from the sound language itself: the Chopin's harmony. Listen to just a few first strokes of the Etude in E major Opus 10 No. 3 to realise the significance of change that took place in the sense of harmony. Indeed, there is a true gap between the harmonic sound of music by Beethoven and Schubert and that of music by Chopin. Chopin's chords do not only represent a system of tonal tensions and ideas to accompany the melody, but delight one with their individually coloured sounds. It was Chopin who discovered that alongside its tension-building function, the dissonance may be beautiful by its own virtue and may entice the listener with its uniquely sensual charm. This discovery had wide-ranging consequences: it boosted Debussy's impressionism, its colour and sound driven by the understanding of harmony taken from works by Chopin. It also stimulated more radical changes of the twentieth-century sound language. Chopin compositions feature dissonance which is velvety soft and pleasant to the ear, but also one that is sharp and piercing, such as that in the Prelude in A minor and in a number of Mazurkas, including the first published opuses 6 and 7 (note that extraordinary middle part of the Mazurka in B flat major), the Etude in E minor Opus 25, or the hair-rising culmination before the end of the first and the second Scherzos.

Chopin's opus is, for many reasons, a major step in the history of music and a milestone on its development path. This often extremely buoyant chromatics produced Wagner (Tristan and Isolde). Chopin's unusual modulations and surprising turns of tone in the middle of phrases (to mention, for instance, the introductory part of the Fantasia in F minor) challenge the principles laid down in harmonium textbooks. The new scales Chopin introduced in the Mazurkas and in other works, such as the Etude in F minor Opus 10, Nocturne in G minor Opus 15 and Nocturne in B major Opus 62 abolish the undivided rule of the major-minor system and open up the window to other, broader worlds of sound. Likewise, Chopin seems to have divided the music of the past 300 years into two different parts with regard to expression, phrasing and the structure of a piece of music. Starting from late Romanticism, the art of composing takes a different form, throws itself into a new, turbulent adventure, drills into new layers of extraordinary expression, and this change is most palpable in the works of the one who composed Ballads, Scherzos, Sonata in B flat minor and Polonaise-Fantasia.

This important role of Chopin in the development of music is, however, secondary to what is inherent in his music, to the greatness of his melodic and harmonic ideas and to his distinctly individual style. The originality of Chopin's poetics, so striking to his contemporaries, was completely novel: never had a composer stood so much apart owing to his individual, personal style. Nowadays we feel the same about Chopin's music, too, recognising it - like none other - from the first couple of sounds and chords. Surveying the history of music, we can make comparisons and look for similarities and relationships between composers ages apart, yet fail to find an analogy for Chopin, for there has been no other composer of a similar personality and an akin sense of beauty. The uniqueness of Chopin's genius elevates him to the very top of the creative output of the European culture, alongside Shakespeare, Dante, Michaelangelo and Rembrandt.

Probably the most important sign of greatness in art, individuality coincides with Chopin's workshop mastery. An outstanding improviser with a rich imagination, Chopin did not rely on these two strengths when composing, but saw to the work's logic and every little detail, thus producing pieces which combined beautiful themes with perfect structures. An achievement worthy of the greatest masters of form, it comes through in all of Chopin's composing, though is probably most striking in the etudes and preludes. The listener is enraptured with the brilliance of Chopin's compositions, yet when you take a closer look and start to play his rich virtuoso phrases slowly, you will notice the musical perfection of the structure, the logic of every note, the weight of every sound step - just like in Bach.

Chopin is also a master of transforming themes and motifs - just like Beethoven, who is widely considered the standard of creativity in the so-called transformations in the main movements of sonatas and symphonies. Chopin's sonatas, including his Cello Sonata, reveal no less inventiveness and mastery, and the transformation in the Allegro part of the Sonata in B flat minor is generally one of the most dramatic and fascinating transformations in all sonatas ever composed. Excellent transformation sections can also be spotted in other works, notably in the Ballads, in particular the Ballad No. 3 in A flat major, as well as in smaller pieces, such as in the polyphonic Mazurka in C sharp minor Opus 50. Alongside the interesting ways of transforming and developing motifs, Chopin handles with gusto the various variants of entire subjects, at times changing completely the sound and the mood of the original melody. In the Ballad in G minor, for instance, both of the key themes recur a few times, each time in a different light and in a surprisingly different form, and never reappear as they originally were.

It is in Ballads that Chopin invents a strikingly new form, deviating from the classical standard. Chopin's Ballads, with their transformations of subjects, tell a certain emotional narrative known from dramas or poems, though without words. Unlike in a classical reprise, the narrative has no point of return, for the story develops until it reaches the final end. This way the classical idea of architectural symmetry (A B A type) is juxtaposed with the Romantic idea of a poetic "story"; both, however, are grounded in music. Indeed, it is not only Chopin's Ballads which tell musical stories with clear emotional narrative. The same is true of many other of his works, including the Polonaise-Fantasia, Barcarole, Impromptu in F sharp major, Nocturne in D flat major Opus 27 and Nocturne in C minor Opus 48, some Mazurkas with features of poem, and, in whole, his great Sonatas.

The extraordinary variety of feelings and moods and the way they change as music goes is another great characteristic and value of Chopin's music, setting it apart from other music styles. Compared to Chopin, other great composers of the Romantic age, and, even more so, of the earlier periods, seem much more uniform and limited in the use of means of expression. Chopin's variety of feelings opens up a panorama of unimaginable breadth. Phenomenal in this regard is, for instance, the series of 24 Preludes Opus 28, a sophisticated guide on the human soul down to its deepest layers. The variety of moods and emotional states is discernible even in the nocturnes, a genre that would seem to be associated with only one kind of emotion. Indeed, each of Chopin's twenty nocturnes has a different emotional image, let alone the transformations and evolutions.

Chopin's style is generally rich in emotions of all shades, while leaving some space for personal emotions, freedom to interpret and individual choice to focus on a certain feature of a work or phrase. The composer himself not only allowed for subtle variations in performing his works, but delighted in how Liszt interpreted his etudes in a way so different from his own. Naturally, there is a limit to the freedom, for otherwise there is the danger that the work is made shallow, the characteristics determining its value lost, or the pianist completely failing to understand the composer.

The range of Chopin's thoughts and emotional states seems unbounded. Listeners are easiest captured by his lyrical and melodic side. Indeed, the charm of those floating, lyrical melodies is unique and one of its kind, from the early Concerto in F minor and Nocturne in E flat major Opus 9 to the sophisticated cantilena of the "late" Chopin in the Sonata in B minor or his last Waltz in C sharp minor. However, there are some very different shades to Chopin's lyricism. Of special note is the type of music which is evocative of the specific state of mind bordering on sleep or associated with meditational trance. Novel and bold, this intentionally static and monotonous music contemplating a selected sound or chord, seems to take us to another dimension and state of feeling. Chopin first introduced this expressive effect at the end of the introduction to the Variation on the theme of Mozart Opus 2, and used it later in the beautiful endings of the Nocturne in F sharp major Opus 15, Nocturne in D flat major Opus 27, Nocturne in B major Opus 62, and, most notably, in the Andante Spianato and the Polonaise Grande in E flat major and the Lullaby (Berceuse).

But then Chopin is also - at the extreme end - the raging storms and hurricanes, like in the Ballad in F major, the Etude in C minor Opus 10 ("The Revolutionary Etude"), or in his last etudes: Etude in A minor and Etude in C minor Opus 25 and the Prelude in D minor. He is also the humour, wit, irony and sarcasm audible especially in the early Rondos, the Krakoviak, the Ecossaises, the finales of the two Concertos, the Etude in G flat major Opus 10 and Etude in E flat minor Opus 25, the Prelude in G major and in many of his Mazurkas. Chopin's style is also one of intellectual and deeply philosophical reflection, like in his Prelude in C sharp minor Opus 45 or the great central episode of the third movement of the Sonata in B minor. Equally, Chopin is the emanation of immense energy, vitality and optimism, as evidenced by the finale of the aforementioned Sonata, the Etude in C major, Etude in C sharp minor and Etude in F major Opus 10, and by the Polonaise in A flat major Opus 53.

When talking about the emotions in Chopin's music, one is bound to remember the ones which were born out of the emigree's feelings for Poland and its fate and which are reflected not only in the national style of the Mazurkas and Polonaises, but reach much deeper, too. The strong patriotic feelings expressed by Chopin in his letters and notes are also emblazoned on his music. To recognise and share them is, however, a matter of intuition and sensitivity on the part of the pianist and the listener.

Author: Tadeusz Andrzej Zieliński / "Studio" 1995 nr 5.

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