Chopin (1810 – 1849) was a slender, refined looking man, not weighing more than a hundred pounds, with a prominent nose, brown eyes and a pale complexion with beautiful hands. He was a snob but also a social butterfly. He dressed in the latest fashions, had a precise mind and manner, and could also be witty and ultra conservative with his esthetic taste. He made a great deal of money, but was a lavish spender and always complained that he did not have more. He famously said:
‘You think I am making a fortune? Carriages and white gloves costs more than anything and without them one would not be in good taste.’
Good taste meant very much to him and that went very much into his music too. Chopin was on good terms with the other musicians of his day but abhorred their music. He disliked Berlioz; considered Liszt’s music rapid vapid and empty; told his friend Stephen Heller that Schumann’s Carnaval was not music at all and ignored Mendelssohn. He had no interest in Schubert and Beethoven disturbed him. The only two great composers who meant anything to him was Bach and Mozart. Those were two that he adored as well as Bellini. He was born in the heart of the ‘Romanticism’ period of music but absolutely hated it.
Of all the early romantics, Chopin has turned out to be the most popular as literally everything he composed had become popular repertoire. Any piano recital without Chopin’s music would not be complete.
In his day, Chopin was a revolutionary; many regarded his music as exotic, inexplicable, and perhaps insane. Critics addressed that Chopin’s music was full of ear-splitting dissonances. Even the professional Ignaz Mocheles found Chopin’s music hard to comprehend. Liszt referred to Chopin’s music as having ‘bold dissonances and with strange harmonies’. The only composer who truly understood Chopin was Schumann. Chopin was embarrassed by Schumann’s extravagant view of him.
Chopin’s hand was able to cover a third of the piano ‘like the opening of the mouth of a serpent about to swallow a rabbit whole’. Over a hundred-years later, Alfred Cortot, French pianist wrote prose with jealousy:
‘…. with a skin through the pores of which everything was ignoble has evaporated.’
Mendelssohn, a notoriously meticulous man, was charmed by Chopin’s playing. He even wrote to his sister Fanny a few times stating: ‘I am convinced that even if you or father had heard him play as he played to me, you would say the same. There is something entirely original in his piano playing and it is at the same time so masterly that he may be called a perfect virtuoso.’ Mendelssohn considered Chopin ‘one of the very first’ of all like the accomplished Paganini on his violin that nobody could formerly thought it was practicable.
Joseph Elsner, Chopin’s piano teacher at Warsaw, was a good teacher who pathed his student to write good sonatas and other classical compositions. No musicians could have given Chopin insight to the new school of thoughts. John Field, Sphor and Weber were four musicians who had the seeds of romanticism and Chopin was influenced greatly by them.His supplementary advice from Mendelssohn, Elsner, and his own family kept him away from the Kalkbrenner’s proposal to study with him for three years.
Nobody in Europe could teach Chopin a thing or accept destroying his natural talent. He had come out of Warsaw as a fully developed pianist at the age of 21 and arrived in Paris in 1831. As a child, he would cry when he heard music. At five, he had learned all that his elder sister could teach him. At sixteen all doors were opened to the young genius and at eighteen he had triumphed in Vienna. At twenty, he left for Paris by way of Vienna and Stuttgart.
Up until his arrival in Paris, he absorbed a few new concepts, sweeping Europe from Field and Hummel, keeping his own harmonic structure, his way of treating his instrument, his use of functional ornamentation, his amazing melodies, the use of folk elements in the Mazurkas and Polonaise.
Liszt and Chopin both became acquainted shortly after the Pole arrived in Paris. Liszt, the thunderer, the Paganini on the keyboard. The matinee-idol was envied by Chopin. Liszt’s physique enabled him to play his music as his wished while Chopin, having a frail and fragile figure even as a youth had always admired strength. All Chopin had was finesse in replacement of power and strength. He was prepared for remarks and critics who wrote that `It is being said everywhere that I played too softly, or rather, too delicately for people used to the piano-pounding of the artists here`. In Paris, he confined his playing almost exclusively to the salons, where everyone could hear him without difficulty.
Liszt played his études, transporting Chopin outside of spectacles and thoughts, he wished to steal from Liszt the way he played his own études. There was a love-hate relationship between Chopin and Liszt. Chopin lived for some time at Rue de la Chausée d’Antin while Liszt at Hȏtel de France on the Rue Lafitte, only a few blocks away.
The next blog will discuss about the Treatment of Chopin’s Tempo Rubato.