The Origins of Chopin's Voice
Dazzled by Scriabin's originality, Stravinsky once asked, "Where does he come from, where does he go?" The same might be demanded of Chopin, who hardly grew like Topsy out of the earth
The inspiration of his incomparable art derived principally from song - bel canto in particular - and from the keyboard virtuoso tradition of composers such as Hummel, Kalkbrenner and Moscheles. Singers envy such richness and even complain, "he is too good for you, we should have him". Chopin's lyricism, whether florid or austere, is at the heart of his genius. As for the relative aridity of the aforementioned composers, their limitations were marked by Schumann who branded them Philistines and, declaring musical war in his Carnaval, sent his troops into battle to rout from the field such trivial note-spinners ("Marche des 'Davidsbündler' contre les Philistins").
Chopin too, though keeping his scorn at a less ebullient and more aristocratic distance, understandably took a similar view. Listening quietly to Hummel's Piano Concertos he noted little beyond chandelier music, their sparkle uncomplemented sufficiently by depth or poetry. And so, his two early Piano Concertos (together with, say, the Rondos) transform such limitation into music as memorable as it is scintillating. Conscious of his need to make his mark as a virtuoso pianist in Vienna, Chopin gave his unsuspecting public a novel and startling experience. Certainly the love-poetry, the glamour and insinuation of the F minor Concerto's central Larghetto are inconceivable from Hummel. Again, Liszt may have paid tribute to John Field's Nocturnes, generously finding them like "the morn of life", but Chopin changed their pale charms into "something rich and strange". And like all true pioneers, he paid a heavy if temporary price for his audacity. Ludwig Rellstab found little in them beyond travesty and distortion ("where Field smiles Chopin makes a grinning grimace, where Field sighs Chopin groans... we implore Mr Chopin to return to nature".) Clearly the advance from innocence to experience was too much to bear for musical die-hards and conservatives.
And what of Chopin's dances, his Mazurkas and Polonaises, of peasant and court origins respectively? The Mazurkas are Chopin's most intimate and confessional diary, turning humble beginnings into an infinite range of expression, from simple gaiety and abandon to darkest introspection, while in the Polonaises he creates an epic and nationalist utterance out of a royal and aristocratic foundation. For Schumann, they were like "cannons buried in flowers" while Liszt heard the "hoofbeats of the Polish cavalry" in the octave uproar at the heart of the A flat Polonaise. For Frederick Niecks, outstanding among early Chopin scholars, the Polonaise-Fantaisie "stands outside the sphere of art on account of its psychological content", a comment that captures the shock of the new, of a daring and, initially, confusing voice. And staying with Chopin's poetic range and sophistication, the Waltzes turn a simple three-in-a-bar into music far beyond ballroom considerations, though for Schumann "they could only be danced by countesses".
The 24 Etudes, too, (27 when you include the Trois nouvelle études) turn the pragmatism of thirds, sixths and octaves into purest poetry. For the first time, rudimentary exercises become tone poems, inviting publishers' titles such as Tristesse or Winter Wind. For Schumann, the F minor Etude from Op. 25 was "soft as the song of a sleeping child". Perhaps, most daringly of all, four out of the six Scherzi (I am including the Scherzi from the Sonatas Nos 2 and 3) are far from jocular, their repetitions hammered home with a drama, irony and turbulence light years away from, say, Mendelssohn's gossamer fairy-world. Once more, who would have thought that the simple tradition of the lullaby could become the Berceuse with its "rain of silvery fire" and momentary shift of harmony just before the close?
Finally, there are the mature Sonata No 2 and Sonata No 3 which prompted first listeners to ask, "when is a sonata a sonata?" Once more, tradition is turned topsy-turvy and for Schumann the Second Sonata "binds four of Chopin's maddest children together". Superb critic that he was, even he was blinded to this Sonata's underlying coherence. As for the finale, Mendelssohn shuddered at its modernity, at a stage too far, exclaiming "as music, I abhor it".
Today, the shock remains and, making our own transformation, we have attempted to change Chopin's sinister and enigmatic "gossiping after the march" into "winds whistling over graveyards" or "a network of rooks in the twilight".
In 2010, a tirelessly celebrated Chopin year, the wonder never ceases and, as ever-new facets of Chopin's genius emerge, our awareness of his transfiguration of tired and work-a-day origins increases rather than diminishes. In his own words, "music, rich, full of feeling, not soulless, is like a crystal on which the sun shines, falls and brings forth from it a whole rainbow."
Author: Bryce Morrison ("Gramophone"), October 2010.
The article comes from the "Chopin Express", gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition by Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Gramophone.