Chopin and the Piano
Program NotesThe familiar images of Chopin—the melancholy artist, the accomplished melodist and miniaturist, the composer that somehow everyone likes—transmit little of his actual contributions to the art of music. For pianists, his understanding and exploitation of the instrument’s potential is entirely unrivaled, a Parnassian and completely idiomatic pianism. The essential element is not technical difficulty (though that is plentiful) but that his music—his technique, his aesthetic, his sense for sonority—has become definitive of the instrument itself. Though he received excellent compositional training, Chopin was largely an autodidact at the piano. Tonight’s recital program explores the elements of his musical patrimony that he mastered and recombined to create what amounts to a new language of piano writing.
On October 20, 1829, some three months after hearing Nicolò Paganini, the young Chopin wrote to a close friend, “I’ve made a large Exercice en forme [formal exercise], in my own peculiar style. When we see each other, I’ll show it to you.” And to the same friend, a few weeks later: “I’ve written a few exercises; I would play them well if you were at my side.” These offhand comments refer to the early drafts of what became the Opus 10 book of 12 études, the earliest collection of such pieces to remain in universal use today. Until that point, études were, almost exclusively, dull technique builders that remained the piano student’s private—and often depressing—business. Chopin’s pieces reflect the pedagogical intent of the genre by expanding the technique to include the lightning-fast, broadly spread arpeggios in Op. 10, No. 1; the stormy left-hand writing in the famous No. 12 in C Minor, the so-called “Revolutionary” étude; and much else.
Beyond these brutal technical challenges, though, these études—and the second book, Op. 25, which came out some years later—are concert repertoire of the highest order, and are studies in chopinisme, not just dexterity and endurance. Although Op. 10, No. 3 in E Major is ostensibly an exercise in the realization of a melody with the third, fourth, and fifth fingers of the right hand, singing out over a thick texture produced by the other, stronger fingers, Chopin told a student that he had never before written such a beautiful melody. The shimmering effect of Op. 25, No. 1, a study in textural balance, was such that Robert Schumann compared it to an aeolian harp, and in Op. 25, No. 7 Chopin elevates a Bellini melody to a delicate, precariously Olympian beauty, entrusting it to the left hand and adding soft obligati and accompaniment figures. To this day, Chopin’s études remain the pianist’s daily bread for both technique and artistry.
How different the demands of a nocturne such as Op. 27, No. 2 in D-flat Major. Here, a pianistic reimagining of a tragic bel canto love duet elevates every operatic cliché—the sigh, the affective turn to minor, an impassioned inversion of tenor and soprano parts, the last breaths, the liberated soul’s final ascent—to the timeless and universal. Chopin’s evocation of a familiar operatic genre, in other words, becomes its Platonic form, the idealized experience of having one’s heart broken at the opera. In contrast, the ballades for piano constitute a genre first assembled by Chopin from both the traditional elements of oral poetry and the conventions of a contemporary operatic form of the same name. The function of the operatic ballade was to provide an account to listeners and elicit a reaction from them; as such it began to offer a solution to the problem of how to evoke narrative in instrumental music. The ballades are among Chopin’s best, most popular, and most challenging works: they incorporate song, dance, narrative, and descriptive gestures on a large scale that had not been seen previously. Chopin only wrote four of them, but pianists continue to be as drawn to them as to any music in the entire repertoire.
An overlooked gem is the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45, one of the most personal compositions Chopin ever put on paper. Few of his published works approach his visionary improvisations as closely as does this exploration of stunning modulations and the color differences among various keys, which of course would have been far clearer in the subtly unequal temperaments in which pianos of Chopin’s time were tuned. It exhibits no fireworks and little overt drama, but Chopin’s ramble through a series of distant keys, capped with a glistening, prismatically coloristic coda, is one of the single greatest explorations of harmonic color.
Most extraordinary, in both his time and ours, is Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35. By the 1830s, the piano sonata was a hallowed genre; Mozart, Haydn, and especially Beethoven had each composed a large number of masterful ones, and Schubert and other Romantics had made their own contributions. By the late 1830s, though, Schumann noted that there were no longer many noteworthy contributions to the genre, and later described Chopin’s Opus 35 as less a sonata than “four of [Chopin’s] wildest children bound together.” This work truly does stand alone in the genre. In the 18th century, the rhetorical weight in a sonata cycle was on the first movement, while the Romantic era saw that weight shifted to the final movement, as summation of and peroration on this multimovement form. The B-flat Minor Sonata, in contrast to both approaches, seems to consist of three movements built around the third movement, the most famous funeral march in the Western musical canon, which was composed at least a couple of years earlier than the other sections. The first movement has been described as a “titanic étude,” where the roiling early material forms the basis of both development and coda, so its absence from the recapitulation is not missed. The Scherzo could well stand alone; the dark and troubled E-flat minor outer sections frame a dreamy and untroubled barcarole-like middle section, a stylistic juxtaposition that is both odd and extremely compelling, like those of the other scherzos. And after the funeral march, where a finale should be, there is a ghostly unisono episode, disquieting but soon over, which Liszt’s pupil Carl Tausig described as “the wind blowing over my grave.” Schumann was correct in his belief that this was a deeply atypical sonata; it is also, paradoxically, one of the most persuasive 19th-century examples of the genre.
Daringly original technique, a kind of pervasively melancholic beauty, gothic horror, poetic tales on a broad canvas: these are contributions that, however astounding, we as listeners have come to take for granted. Such words as “revolutionary” and “unique” pale from overuse, but they are no exaggerations in Chopin’s case. Ecco il pianismo!
—Jonathan D. Bellman, University of Northern Colorado; Scholar in Residence, Bard Music Festival 2017