So far in our venture through the history classical music we have featured the more famous pieces in the repertoire and explored the spectacle that is opera. With these we have fallen into the all to common trap of focusing on the larger, bolder entries. But there is another side of classical music that often falls short of people’s notice. These are works that are smaller in scale and more intimate in nature. They lull you in with their simplicity and dazzle you with their charm. They are also more emotional pieces, but that is not to dismiss them as sentimental musings of melancholic fools.
Whereas J.S. Bach’s finely tuned structures reflect his belief in God as the supreme architect of the universe and Ludwig van Beethoven’s endeavors reveal his desire to mold and control reality to create art, the works of Frédéric Chopin reveal something altogether more bewildering and confounding. His 24 Preludes, Op. 28 (1839), those intimate and fractured gestures, reveal “the soul and the heart of man” and that is by no means sentimental or foolish.
Bach is an astronomer, discovering the most marvellous stars. Beethoven challenges the universe. I only try to express the soul and the heart of man. – Frédéric Chopin.
Chopin – The Poet of the Piano
After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears. –Oscar Wilde
Frédéric François Chopin was born in 1810 in Żelazowa Wola, a small village 29 miles from Warsaw. Even in his youth he was described as small in stature and suffered from poor health, something that would remain with him for all his life. He started his formal piano training in 1816 from the Czech composer Wojciech Żywny. This began his devotion to the piano resulting in a brief (he died at the age of 39 in 1849 from tuberculosis) but brilliant career, producing over 230 works. All feature the piano and only a dozen or so feature the addition of other instruments.
He continued his studies at the Warsaw Conservatory and gave performances in royal courts and eventually ended up in Paris, which was the artistic centre of Europe at the time. There he met the Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt, who was in many ways the antithesis to Chopin.
Liszt welcomed the attention garnered from his abilities, whereas Chopin was the ‘reluctant virtuoso’, as Janet Lopinski argues. This was not due to a limited technical ability, but a personal dislike of public performance. The other piano greats of his time like Liszt were regularly packing concert halls and dazzling the audience like rock stars, Chopin gave only 30 concerts in his life. Instead he made his money from teaching, printing manuscripts of his compositions and giving private performances in salons to a small audience.
These intimate literary salons, in vogue in Pairs during the early 19th Century, provided a venue for Chopin to premiere his works. Some of these were regular each week, and would include readings by authors, musical performances and a host of other enlightening and less refined activities.
Venue did impact the different styles of the musicians. Although Liszt was also a frequent guest and performer at these salons, his great technical contributions to the piano revolved around great accomplishments of dexterity and showmanship, inflicting his physicality upon the piano to produce a sound to rival an orchestra of “100 concerted instruments”. Chopin’s technique was more like a dialogue, listening to the piano, hearing its whispers from under his fingertips, and whispering back. Two key characterizations of playing work involve a prolonged bass line, made possible by the development on the damper pedal on newer piano designs, over which an elaborate melody could be played. The second was the use of heavy ornamentation in his melodies, inspired by Bel Canto opera styles. The resulting effect created “small groups of grace notes, falling like tiny drops of speckled dew over the melodic figure”. The favorite description by critics of his playing was ‘delicate’, often in reference to its unsuitability for concert halls.
His nuance of his technique is further evidence by his use rubato. Tempo Rubato (“stolen time” in Italian) is the performance technique wherein a performer or composer speeds up and then slows down the tempo in order to add expressive shape to a musical phrase. It is a complicated technique to discuss particularly in the case of Chopin where only written accounts exist. Scott Dirkse reveals the assortment of views on Chopin’s Rubato. Hector Berlioz lamented that Chopin could ‘simply not play in strict time’ where as Charles Salaman applauded his precision with time, accent and rhythm.
This is reflected in his compositional style that was based heavily on improvisation. This is not to suggest that his works were entirely spontaneous and redundant, but take simple ideas, themes or even a single figure and develop them within a small composition. This reveals another distinction between Chopin and his contemporaries. Where Liszt, Schumann and Berlioz composed ‘program music’, arranging themes to create a narrative or impressionistic quality, Chopin fell into the category of absolute music, or music for its own sake. The famous titles sometimes attached to his works (Like no. 15 being called the “Raindrop”) are the result of later musicologist or performers, not Chopin, although this does not diminish their characterizations of the work.
The Preludes: “Romantic Fragments”
Preludes as a musical form existed before Chopin. In the case of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier they were accompanied by a fugue. or more commonly as prewritten devices by which a pianist could modulate in-between two pieces during a concert. Richard Taruskin points out that although these collections of preludes existed, they were, in adherence to their definition, introductory. Chopin’s legacy was his invention of the freestanding prelude: preludes to “everything and nothing.”
The order of the Preludes also suggests a different approach. All previous composers arranged their preludes in a sequence of semitones (C Major, C Minor, C# Major, C# Minor, D Major, etc.). Chopin progressed more harmonically, in a circle of fifth’s, where each prelude was accompanied by its relative minor and then followed by its dominant (C Major, A Minor, G major, E Minor, etc.). This has led some such as Jeffrey Kresky to suggest that the pieces were meant to be played in sequence, them being preludes to each other, even though Chopin himself never played more than four preludes together. Even if not originally intended as a whole single work, Kresky makes a strong case for the emotional involvement listeners experience when hearing the works as a single whole.
It was not just the stand-alone nature of the individual preludes or the arrangement of keys that made the works unique. What made them revolutionary was their fragmented nature. They were short (the longest is 90 bars and the shortest a mere 12) and they lacked any apparent structure and certainly lacked the development of themes of traditional forms like sonata-allegro. They were by no means immediately well received. Robert Schumann was particularly critical, considering them “sketches, beginnings of études, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions.” Liszt was more supportive emphasizing that “they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams…”
Taruskin explains how two such distinct characterizations could be formed of the works by reference to the most controversial of all the Preludes, the no. 2 in A minor. Vladimir de Pachmann recalls that “the second is, I think, somewhat poor and I remember that Liszt himself once told me that he thought it a little weak.” Taruskin refers to it as “grotesque” (as in fancifully ugly or absurd utterance). This is not an outright criticism, but rather reveals that it is “at once academically impeccable and poetically fractious”. It perplexes those looking for academic structure within the music with its grotesque shape and puzzling those of the poetic persuasion with its “cool ‘aristocratic’ control”. It is a perfectly formed nightmare, the heaviness of consumption driving the composer deeper into the despair of his piano, struggling to complete the work with scattered gestures ending in a resonant exhale of a last breath.
Chopin’s lover, George Sand, emphasized this image of Chopin in her writing, and those wishing to preserve this image of Chopin as an ailing musical poet of the Romantic era, with its dark fanciful, fatalistic tones are further perplexed by the more joyous, fluid of his works. It is a casting Chopin within limitations if people only focus on his ‘moody’ and ‘brooding’ composition. The no. 2 is by far the darkest, but the breadth of emotion contained within the rest negates this caricatured and sentimental image some have of Chopin.
The 24 Preludes: Whole Fragments
The listening sample for this article is somewhat unusual. Ordinarily I provide a single movement or section of a larger piece to wet your appetites for the larger piece discussed. For this I am siding with Jeffrey Kersky providing all of the preludes in a single recording, performed by the celebrated Martha Argerich.
To end I would like, with the aid of Alfred Cortot and Hans von Bulow’s descriptions, to guide you through these glimpses of the human condition. From the anticipation of love (no. 1 00:00), followed by the painful meditation of the second (00:32) resolved by the soothing singing stream of the third (02:24). The suffocation ( 03:32) and uncertainty (05:24) of the fourth and fifth, ceased by the ominous bell toll (no.6 05:54). The nostalgic sway of the Polish dancer (no.7 07:40) transformed into the desperation of the eighth (08:25). The prophetic ninth (09:55) that heralds the night moth (no.10 11:24-11: 49) and the dragonfly (no.11 11:49). The catastrophic duel in the twelfth (12:22) leaving one crippled between loss (no.13, 13:19) and fear (no.14, 16:04). The harrowing raindrops of the fifteenth, providing both reprieve and foreboding (16:33). The descent into the abyss (no.16 21:23) before hearing those sweet words “I love you” (no.17 22:23). Divine curses leaving their mark in the eighteenth (25:13) abolished by heartfelt happiness (no.19 26:00). The funeral march (no.20 27:04), signaling not the end, but the solitary return to the place of confession (no. 21 28:36). The impatience of no. 22 (30.10) to witness the water fairies that inhabit no. 23 (30.44). And finally the storm of blood, of earthly pleasure, of death (no.24 31:28). This is not the universe, this is the “the soul and the heart of man”, in all its brief, frail, and fragmented glory.
If you now find, that you would like to learn more about Chopin, bear in mind that he is also known and loved for his waltzes, nocturnes and polonaises. Here are 4 great pianists playing various Chopin pieces – enjoy.
Scott Dirkse, “Demystifying Chopin’s Rubato”, American Music Teacher. June-July, 2013. Vol.62 (6). p.27.
Jeffrey Kersky, A Reader’s Guide to the Chopin Preludes, Greenwood Press. 1994.
Janet Lopinski, “Frederic Chopin: The Reluctant Virtuoso”, American Music Teacher. Dec, 2009, Vol.59.
Richard Taruskin, “The Chopinesque Miniature”,The Oxford History of Western Music: Music in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 333–338.