Warsaw. 12th Febuary, 1830. Gazeta Polska writes:
Chopin is leaving for Italy. His departure is felt by everyone. Surely he won't depart before performing in the Polish capital...
3rd March. Kurjer Warszawki (the most popular Warsaw newspaper at the time, with a circulation of 2000 copies) publishes a description of a rehearsal of the F-minor concerto that took place in the Chopin salon. "Young Chopin outshines all other pianists. He is the Paganini of the piano."
16th March. Kurjer Warszawski again writes: "Boxes for Chopin's concert tomorrow have sold out". Altogether, the National Theatre could hold 900 people. Chopin performed there a couple of times, and each concert was sold out. He would play the F-minor concerto every time, plus other shorter pieces and the centrepiece: the improvisations.
Chopin at the source, Chopin among the country folk
Fryderyk, a teenager at the time, described his holiday in the countryside of the Kujawy region to his parents with these words:
People started to jump, waltz, spin, twirl and stamp their feet. To encourage those that stood by the wall and the farmhands that danced around their own axis, I asked Miss Tekla to dance with me. She and I were at the front of the line of dancers. I also danced with Ms Dziewanowska. Everyone became so enthusiastic that they danced in the courtyard till they dropped dead; literally, till they dropped dead, because some couples found themselves on the floor after the lady from the first dance couple stumbled over a stone with her bare foot.
The lively Polish folk dances shaped the 15-year-old Chopin. He carefully studied the harmony, impressionism, colour, expression and rubato of the music. He was inspired by but critical of the people's music. He was irritated by the out-of--tune musicians and imperfect instruments which pained his musically sensitive ears.
One could hear the out-of-tune choirs of descants from afar. Women honking through their noses, high-pitched girls singing half a note higher than the three chord violin [...].
Many musicians have explored Chopin's folk roots, such as Maria Pomianowska and her band Zespół Polski. Three of their albums bring out the folk in Chopin (Chopin Roots, 1998 – which featured the suka biłgorajska, an ancient Polish string instrument, for the first time; Chopin folk. U źródeł muzyki Chopina, 2010 and Chopin et la musique traditionelle, 2010, a recording of a concert in Nantes during the La Folle Journée festival). Pomianowska's brand of traditional music is polished: no out-of-tune voices, none of the discord which the young Fryderyk complained about.
'''This violin is as old as Chopin would be now," said Kazimierz Meto, a violinist from Mazowsze Rawskie who passed away in 2001. The region has been a safeguard of the mazurka dance. Chopin knew the dance and its musical form very well and introduced them to the world. The Art Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences also explored the folk origins of Chopin. Their mix tape is composed of archaic pieces which the researchers managed to dig out. Not to forget Janusz Prusinowski, who delves into Chopin's sources.
Chopin [ʃo.pɛ̃] in 21st-century Paris
Searching for new ways to interpret Chopin, Maria Pomianowska explored the Polish countryside and Paris. Chopin spent the last 18 years of his relatively short life in the Ville Lumière. Pomianowska expresses her fascination with the great artist's music and life:
What would it be like if Chopin was alive and emigrated not 180 years ago but today? How much has the world changed over the last two centuries? Would the composer come into contact with the music and instruments of other cultures? Which ones would inspire him? Now, in the early 21st century, when Paris is a melting pot of cultures. There are concerts of Persian, African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, South African, Australian Aboriginal and Eskimo music.
Pomianowska's album Chopin On 5 Continents is a mix of Balkan, Andalusian, Siberian, Chinese, African, Brazilian and Armenian music. If Chopin lived in 21st-century Paris, would he attend world music concerts? Would he rejoice in the sounds of French rap, lounge around crowded techno and house clubs or attend concerts of contemporary electronic music at the IRCAM studio, where, possibly he would get to know another young Polish composer – Marcin Stańczyk?
Chopin is played not only in concert halls. His music was played in society, at balls, in restaurants, by local pianists and orchestras. Their interpretation of Chopin corresponded to the tastes of the people of the time.
Chopin also inspired jazz musicians, a genre played by veritable virtuosos who bask in improvisation. American jazz pianist and composer, Erroll Garner (1921-1977), known for his swing playing and ballads, took note of Chopin in his work. He recorded the album Chopin Impressions in the early 50s.
The New Orleans band led by drummer Idris Muhammad played Prelude No. 4 in E minor. The music had a James Brown-esque feeling to it. The Prelude is subtitled "Suffocation". In Muhammad's music no one is suffocating; on the contrary, the music is flowing, and Chopin's suspensions and rhythmic to-and-fros turn into one flowing groove. The Prelude was inserted with the rhythm of soul. But the disco rhythm didn't wipe out the melancholy of Chopin's sheet music which he wrote down in Mallorca. This is what Franz Liszt wrote about Chopin:
Thanks to an intrinsic sense of humour and acumen, he immediately played up every ridiculousness. He saw things others didn't. He could imitate and caricature diverse musical forms with great verve and humour, he could parody gestures, behaviour and facial expressions so well that the observer felt as if the impersonated artists were standing right in front of him.
Perhaps that's why his music was played on the crowded dance floors of New York...
Chopin was played, Chopin was danced. In 1971 the band Novi Singers recorded the album NOVI sing Chopin, where Chopin was sung. The pieces were not improvised but sung according to the musical score (to the extent that that was possible, some pieces were slightly altered; after all the laws of voices are different than the laws of the piano).
In 1971, 122 years after the death of Chopin, Polish musicians began to read his music anew. The first "big league" jazz re-interpretation was the Prelude in C minor performed by Mieczyław Kosz. Krystian Brodacki, Polish jazz historian, wrote in the sleeve notes to the album Reminescencje:
The composition is so well-knit and masterful that the attempt to give it shape is almost sacrilege. It requires culture and intuition and respect for the extraordinary prototype to not lose one's distance, especially when paraphrasing jazz.
Kosz is not the only Polish jazz musicians who was prompted to compose music inspired by Chopin. Others who did include Andrzej Jagodziński, Zbigniew Namysłowski, Leszek Kułakowski, Leszek Możdżer, Grażyna Auguścik, Ewa Bem, Artur Dutkiewicz and Adam Makowicz. As a matter of fact, re-interpreting Chopin and referring to his music became a standard procedure among Polish jazz musicians.
Honey, I shrunk Chopin
Originally from Wrocław, the band Małe Instrumenty (Small Instruments) specialises in... small instruments; toy pianos for example.
Some of Chopin's pieces seem to have been written for the toy piano, although of course that's impossible. When we listen to the toy piano duo and the Prelude in A minor at the same time it seems as though we managed to create a "premonition of death", expressed in the composition's subtitle. That is one of many examples where the morose and drone-like sound of Barbie's piano makes it easy to disassociate the instrument from a toy that makes sounds.
Rewriting the classical music for the midget instruments, the toy piano players bring up an important and often forgotten question: ''what would Fryderyk Chopin say if he heard his music played on pianos fabricated nowadays?". The instruments of Chopin's time sounded entirely different. To our ears they seem pleasant and natural, but perhaps if he attended the present-day Chopin Competition it would be torture for him: ''What are these strange sounds?'', he might have asked.
Author: Filip Lech, translator: Marta jazowska