Treatment of Tempo Rubato in Chopin

Chopin detested  public appearances, and thus he would seldom make appearances outside of the salons. He was fading away due to the onset of his tuberculosis, and his physical strength weakened  to the point that he was unable to play forte. He came to compensate for this weakness by using pianissimo with an infinite degree of shading. This technique requires extraordinary control. Therefore, when he came near to forte, it sounded thunderous. Thalberg once attended Chopin’s recital and shouted all the way home:

‘I need some noise because I have heard nothing but pianissimo all evening.’

It was Liszt who brought George Sand and Chopin together. Their love affair was the talk of Paris. She was separated from her husband and had been mistresses to many men. With Chopin she entered a long-term relationship.

Franz Liszt, Chopin’s Contemporary, Hungarian Composer 1811 – 1886

George Sand, French Novelist, 1804 – 1876

Two things that must be considered with Chopin’s pianistic style:  His dynamic style of playing was restricted due to a decrease in physical strength, but he had developed a completely supple and responsive technique such as imaginative pedal effect, incredible nuances and tone.

Chopin inherited his tempo rubato from his native land, Poland. Rubato, is the delicate rhythmic displacement of tempo which makes the meter sounded awry. Rubato is  used to a great extent in his Mazurkas which reflects his heritage. It is, nonetheless, used less in his non-national music.

Liszt and von Lenz testified to the control that Chopin brought to his rubato. Liszt described that it is ‘a tempo agitated, broken, interrupted, a movement flexible, yet the same time abrupt and languishing…All his composition should be played with this acted and measured saying and balancing.’

Regardless of the temporary rhythmic displacement, the rhythm would fluctuate but never the underlying metrical pulse. Hallé and Meyerbeer both had trouble counting because of the unusual and unprecedented freedom of Chopin’s tempo rubato. Mozart had written tempo rubato in his Adagio and the left hand should go playing in strict time and never lose ground. Liszt famously defined the same thing:

“Do you see those trees? The wind plays in the leave, life unfolds and develops beneath them, but the tree remains the same – that is the Chopin rubato!”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Austrian Composer, 1756 – 1791

Romantic pianists all went wild with tempo rubato  affairs, but Chopin never did. Of all the romantics at the time, his approach was the most classical. Bach was an inspiration to Chopin and often before a concert, Chopin would shut himself up and play only the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Chopin’s Préludes were inspired by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in its key concept. Chopin also love Mozart and have studied both composers thoroughly. He disliked Beethoven and considered him vulgar.                                                                                                               

However delicate Chopin’s playing was, he never ceased to produce the powerful force required to produce contrast, especially in a small room. Chopin never missed the orchestral effects that the German school required. What he most impressed his contemporaries with were his freedom, poetry and nuances.

In 1848, when Chopin was near death, Hipkins recorded Chopin’s super pianissimos and singing legato touch. He said Chopin used a lot of pedal, especially in the  left-hand arpeggio passages, ‘which swells or diminished like an ocean wave’. He only used finger touch, natural position of the hands, adopting the easiest fingering and changed his fingers on  the keys as often as an organ player. Chopin never hesitated to use his thumb on the black key, passed thumb under the fifth finger, slide the thumb from black to the white key or even from white key to white key – a practice frowned upon by many Classicists of the CzernyHummel.

Taking literally that Chopin, who had played only from his fingers, the style is not advisable as it was  during his last days and used due to  his illness. Chopin had to be economical, as his weakness would not have permitted him from using his arm and shoulder movements. He was the least flamboyant physically of all great pianists and the French Pedagogue. Marmontel commented that Chopin had perfect independence of fingers which stemmed from the school of Clementi.

Muzio Clementi, Italian Born English Composer, 1752 – 1832

Taking literally that Chopin, who had played only from his fingers, the style is not advisable as it was  during his last days and used due to  his illness. Chopin had to be economical, as his weakness would not have permitted him from using his arm and shoulder movements. He was the least flamboyant physically of all great pianists and the French Pedagogue. Marmontel commented that Chopin had perfect independence of fingers which stemmed from the school of Clementi.

Chopin’s derived most of his income from teaching and his composing. Chopin had a list of students which could be extended to several pages in length. Some of them went on to pursue music as their career though none appears to have had the outstanding skills to appear as a soloist. As a teacher, Chopin adhered strictly to both financial and artistic professionalism. At 8am, he would usher his student into his studio, which contained two pianos; a Pleyel grand and a small cottage piano (upright) on which Chopin accompanied. The lesson cost twenty franc and the student was expected to leave the money on the mantelpiece. Chopin dressed impeccably and fashionably.

Flying in the face of nature, it has become customary to attempt to acquire equality of strength in the fingers. It is more desirable that the student acquire the ability to produce a finely graded quality of sound

Federic Chopin

Chopin was a modernist of his day, that marvelously controlled original, poetic, nuanced classic-romantic pianist. Chopin was a musician, whose physical resources were small but whose sprit and conception were epic in scale.

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