The Maestro and the Myth; 150 years after his death, the incredible music--and mystic-- of Frederic Chopin endure; Cover story


Five and a half feet tall and never weighing more than 110 pounds, Frederic Chopin looked delicate, almost transparent, and not quite of this world.

Novelist George Sand, whose 10-year love affair with him has become the stuff of legend, called him her "little one." His friend, composer Felix Mendelssohn, not exactly a heavyweight himself, dubbed him "Chopinetto."

He was always suffering from something. "Chopin has been dying his whole life long," said one malicious Parisian lady, and another: "He has the most charming cough."

He was also a bit of a prig. He found foul odors intolerable, noise anathema, and an unannounced visitor could make his hair stand on end.

He possessed a mordant wit. During the notoriously cold and wet winter of 1838-1839 on Majorca, when he had his first serious brush with death, he wrote to a friend: "The three most famous doctors on the island have examined me; the first sniffed what I had spat out, the second pummeled me where I spat, and the third felt and listened how I spat. The first said I was dead, the second said I was dying, and the third -- that I am going to die."

Exactly 150 years ago today, when Chopin finally did die of tuberculosis, he was only 39. A photograph of him in his final months shows a shriveled, pain-wracked man, whose face, swollen with neuralgia, wears a slightly bewildered expression.

But in the less than two decades since his arrival in Paris in 1831 from his native Warsaw, this weak, tubercular man had succeeded, however quietly, in revolutionizing music in general and his own instrument, the piano, in particular. He had anticipated many of the innovations usually attributed to composers such as Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mahler. Without Chopin, it is impossible to imagine either the jagged, almost barbarically powerful achievements of Russian music or the polished urbanity and nuanced sophistication of French music in the 20th century.

He also had the highest batting average of any great composer. Almost everything by Chopin has entered the standard repertory -- a claim that cannot be made about any other composer, and that includes Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

A neglected anniversary

It seems strange, therefore, that this major anniversary is being celebrated with considerably less fanfare -- in the way of performances, recordings and scholarly conferences -- than those of Schubert (in 1978 and 1997), Brahms (1983 and 1998), Bach (1985) and Mozart (1991). "That Chopin should be relatively neglected in so important an anniversary year seems inexplicable," says Vincent Lenti, the administrator of the Eastman School of Music's piano department and one of the foremost authorities on the history of keyboard style. Though perhaps unfortunate is a more accurate term than inexplicable.

One reason for the restraint is that such anniversaries are generally sponsored by large institutions, such as orchestras, performing arts centers, music schools and opera houses. And Chopin wrote almost exclusively for solo piano, eschewing orchestras, chamber ensembles, choral groups and opera companies -- the musical media large institutions are created to support.

Another reason may be that Chopin's ubiquitousness in the repertory of almost every pianist makes anniversary performances of his music superfluous. "Chopin is our daily bread," says pianist Horacio Gutierrez. "Every year is a Chopin year for me and the audiences I play for."

Still, Gutierrez, along with several other noted pianists and music historians, agrees that Chopin rarely receives scholarly and critical attention that accords with his greatness.

"Big festivals are contrary to the way we experience his music and to our images of Chopin himself," says Jeffrey Kallberg, professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania. "While central to our repertory, Chopin nevertheless remains a marginalized figure."

He was indeed an isolated figure. He was a Pole who wrote his most important music in France and who worked in the Austro-Germanic musical tradition of his idols, Bach and Mozart. But Chopin's ears had been filled by the folk songs and dances of his native land, and his music exudes an "exotic" Eastern European appeal (some earlier critics even called it "Asiatic").

Chopin's successful championship of miniature musical forms when other composers gravitated to ever grander musical colossi confounds our attempts to compare him to contemporaries such as Berlioz, Liszt and Schumann.

His music likewise confuses our sense of gender boundaries. He was a male composer who wrote in "feminine" genres, such as the nocturne and the waltz, for the salon, a domestic setting in which his most enthusiastic listeners tended to be women.

And while all pianists study and perform his music during their student days, a surprisingly large number of celebrated musicians -- Alfred Brendel, Glenn Gould, Rudolf Serkin, Radu Lupu, Walter Gieseking and Artur Schnabel among them -- have chosen not to perform Chopin, ignoring his music in a way they would not dream of doing with that of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms. "There are two pianistic lines," Brendel says. "One is the central European tradition that links Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. The other is the more exotic but minor line, in which Chopin is the central figure, that extends to Russians such as Rachmaninoff and Scriabin and to French composers such as Ravel and Debussy. Chopin is a kind of bird of paradise among composers; and he seems to require specialization more than any other."

The myths

The Austrian pianist's remarks represent one of three central myths about Chopin -- some more truthful than others, but which nevertheless distort our image of the man and his music.

The first is that of the sexually ambiguous salon composer, whose relatively insubstantial music was aimed at, as well as partook of, the feminine sensibility. This view (it is essentially Brendel's) was largely disseminated in the 19th and early 20th centuries among English- and German-speaking audiences.

The second myth surrounds Chopin with the aura of the doomed Romantic artist. It was especially, though by no means exclusively, in France that Chopin was regarded as the pianist, par excellence, of the emotions. It was also French audiences who cultivated the image of Chopin as "a composer of the sickroom," for whom musical inspiration, erotic yearning and impending death were inextricably linked.

Finally -- and this comes closest to the truth -- there was the notion of Chopin, the Slavic composer. This idea was embraced by the Russians much more than by the composer's Polish countrymen. It was in Chopin's use of Slavonic folk music that Russian musicians such as Balakirev, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov heard an alternative to the Austro-Germanic tradition that they believed imprisoned them to the musical past.

The first of these myths -- that of the effete pianist-composer, specializing in miniatures -- has been the most pernicious and pervasive. Chopin did write exclusively for the piano, and small (at least in duration, if not in emotional power and musical complexity) forms constitute most of his output: more than 50 mazurkas, 21 nocturnes, 19 waltzes, 26 preludes and 27 etudes. And the persistence of Chopin's reputation as a minor composer has been nurtured by the image of the composer's diminutive, sickly body.

Chopin's small stature and poor health probably contributed to the lack of forcefulness in his playing, about which most of his contemporaries commented. After his first appearance in Paris in 1831, an otherwise admiring critic remarked that "the volume of tone he extracts from the piano is very small."

Early in his career, he was often called the "Ariel of the piano," a reference to the spirit of the air who does Prospero's bidding in Shakespeare's "The Tempest." This otherworldly metaphor resonated powerfully throughout the 19th century and figured prominently in recollections of his playing in the obituaries that appeared upon his death in 1849:

"Perhaps never has any artist more than he had a physique that corresponded to his talent. As frail as he was in body, was he delicate in style: a bit more, he evaporated into the impalpable and imperceptible. One nicknamed Chopin the Ariel of the piano. If Queen Mab had ever wanted to pass herself off as a pianist, it is assuredly Chopin she would have chosen." (Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, Oct. 21, 1849)

It was only a small step from the airy world of the fairies to the soul of the feminine. According to an obituary in The Illustrated London News (Oct. 27, 1849): "Of all the artists of our day, it is Chopin who most took possession of the soul and spirit of women. [They] loved him with a quasi-maternal tenderness; they surrounded him with an enthusiasm mixed with veneration, his music so spoke to them an honest and chaste language. Alas! They have lost him and they cry!"

Such perceptions of Chopin's music persisted long after his death. It was almost certainly to such associations that Arthur Rubinstein reacted, perhaps overreacted, defensively in his youth. In his memoirs, Rubinstein credited himself with steering Chopin interpretation away from what he called the "salon style" to one filled with "manly dignity and strength."

Actually, Rubinstein's Chopin interpretations, at least as represented by his recordings of the 1920s and '30s, closely resembled those of his great predecessors, such as Ignacy Paderewski, Ignaz Friedman and Moriz Rosenthal, whom he disparaged. But Rubinstein was fighting against a late 19th- and early 20th-century outlook that relegated the expression of sentiment in small forms to "woman's work" and granted privileged status to the larger musical genres practiced by men.

This attitude resulted in the commonplace derogation of Chopin's efforts in genres such as the sonata and concerto. Most critics of the time simply found it implausible that the "feminine" Chopin was capable of writing sonatas that measured up against those by the more "masculine" Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Ignoring convention

But the truth is that Chopin was the only composer of his generation who felt comfortable with creating new large forms. Each of the ballades and scherzos, as well as the F Minor Fantasy, the F-sharp Minor Polonaise and the Polonaise-Fantasy, is as long as or longer than an average movement of Beethoven. Moreover, Chopin's two mature piano sonatas are more satisfying in public performance than any written after the late masterpieces of Beethoven and Schubert, including those by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Brahms.

What made Chopin's music hard to understand for his contemporaries, and for critics for more than a century afterward, was its radical departures from conventional form. His poetic genius was harnessed to a professional technique unmatched by any composer of his generation. After he reached the age of 20, there are no miscalculations in his works, even the most ambitious, as there frequently are even in the greatest of his contemporaries, Schumann, Liszt and Berlioz.

The problem -- and this affects efforts to celebrate his music even today -- is how to categorize it. "Chopin made other composers hear things they couldn't have imagined before him," Gutierrez says. "But the forms he created -- like the ballades or the mazurkas or those he completely transformed, like the scherzos, nocturnes, etudes, polonaises and sonatas -- have no predecessors. Put together Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, and you see a family tree. But Chopin, perhaps because he was an outsider from an out-the-way place like Poland, has no lineage. While he possesses Bach's mastery of counterpoint and Mozart's elegance of craftsmanship, his music is nothing like theirs."

Not only did Chopin create new genres, but, having created them, he proceeded to mix them, which resulted in works in which boundaries perpetually break down. The Polonaise-Fantasy, for example, his last (and perhaps greatest) masterpiece, is not only both a fantasy and a polonaise, but also manages to work in snatches of a nocturne, a waltz, a mazurka and a funeral march.

Its freedom and mystery, its impressionistic, shadowy half-remembrance of the dance, makes the Polonaise-Fantasy worthy of being called the "Kubla Khan" of piano literature. As Coleridge's great poem does, it makes one ask what it means. Even Liszt, usually so sympathetic to Chopin, was puzzled, calling it "feverish . . . approaching madness."

Its episodic structure makes it very difficult to bring off in performance. Like other works of Chopin, it looks back to the past as well as forward to the future. The impressionistic opening could have been written by Debussy, yet the remarkable passage of triple trills, which precedes its reprise, recalls Beethoven. But its veiled splendors, its sudden outbursts of doomed heroism, and its withdrawn, almost desiccated, lyricism could not have been written by any composer other than Chopin.

It is this lack of definition that makes the Pole's music harder to interpret than that of any other composer for the piano.

"In Chopin, it's not merely a matter of getting from point A to point B, but of how you get there," says Russian-born and -trained pianist Boris Slutsky, who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

Master of small forms

None of this is to deny that Chopin is the master of exquisite small forms and that his music frequently features feminine and even morbid qualities. But the "feminine" quality that, even today, may make male listeners uncomfortable, even embarrass them, is simply the direct and honest expression of emotions that are otherwise often repressed.

Chopin's so-called morbidity -- no other great composer inserts so many funeral marches into so much of his music -- is what prevents his music from becoming bland, as Mendelssohn's sometimes does, or saccharine, as is occasionally the case with Schumann's. It is what makes it possible for Chopin to express the unspeakable sorrow of the Polonaise-Fantasy. That such morbidity frequently yokes erotic longings with yearnings for the final consummation of death makes Chopin a harbinger of Wagner's mature music dramas and of the music of the future.

If he restricted himself to one instrument, it was his music that liberated the hands of all pianists. No one had ever touched a piano the way Chopin did. He saw the keyboard as an anatomical construction in perfect accord with the form of the human hand. As an older man, he once complained that he had never managed to rid himself of his two arch-enemies, "a huge nose and a disobedient third finger." But as a teacher he never believed in the sort of drill intended to train every finger to the same strength and readiness.

"There are as many different sounds as there are fingers," he wrote. "Everything hinges on knowing how to use them correctly."

His etudes examine and broaden every aspect of piano technique, and no composer since has been able to add very much to it. Chopin also invented and perfected a type of elaborate decoration ("fioritura") functional to the melodic line. Where so many composers of his day (and ours) will indulge in flashy but empty passagework, Chopin, no matter how spectacular and glittering, pinpoints each note so that it has meaning and expressivity.

According to Krystian Zimerman, one of the world's celebrated Chopin interpreters, "All his works demand of the player not only a flawless touch and technique, but also an imaginative use of the pedals and a discreet application of tempo rubato, which Chopin himself described as a slight pushing or holding back with the phrase of the right hand while the left hand continues in strict time."

"Chopin's music has a ghostly quality," adds pianist Gutierrez. "It sounds improvised, but it's not. Take out a single note, and the result is disaster."

While musically revolutionary, there is a classical purity in Chopin's writing; his forms are invariably a perfect, economical vehicle for the content. And though he primarily cultivated small forms, he was a major musical thinker whose work is powerful and passionate.

So, on this 150th anniversary of his death, we salute him. Not only as the Ariel of the piano, but also as its Prospero -- a mighty magician, whose refinement and taste shaped, but did not suppress, the explosive force of the strength and the imagination seething within him.

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