March 5, 2012
Amid tough and painful times we must seek consolation — handholds of inspiration on the cliff beside the abyss. Too many in our culture turn to false and artificial means of consolation. Consumption, for example. It was once the name of a fatal disease now known as tuberculosis; it is now the name of a compulsive illness of acquisition that can be as fatal to the psychological body as respiratory consumption once was to the physical body. And that coincidence leads me to think of one of my primary sources of current consolation.
A little more than two centuries ago, there was born in Poland a man whose life would be dogged and shortened by respiratory consumption; he would not reach his 40th birthday. Yet he was given a genius that allowed him to permanently transform Western music and the history of a single instrument, then still known as the pianoforte. It is probably no exaggeration to say that every single musician of the last 150 years who has touched or studied on the piano has been affected or influenced, directly or obliquely, by the music of Frederic Chopin.
For all that, he is arguably the most dismissed or underrated of geniuses. The New York Times music critic, a failed musician (aren’t all critics failed artists?) named Tomassini, once compiled a “10 best composers” list and left Chopin off it, brushing him aside as “a performer who also composed, not a composer.” It’s a statement that reveals everything about the speaker and nothing about the subject (Chopin, in fact, rarely performed publicly; he lacked strength of both body and public character to do so — thus, as often happens with critics, the facts are as distorted as the judgment).
Among critics and similar intellectual cognoscenti, Chopin is easily written off for having composed little more than candied shorts of great popular appeal but little substance. There are no big works from his mature years: no symphonies, operas, or great chamber pieces; only the two concerti of his youth and two great sonatas from his mature period (Opp. 35 and 58).
Yet when you spend some time with the work of this pioneer, you find depth, strength, and a delicate massiveness in the collected boxes of all that “candy,” viz.:
- The Preludes. The Op. 28 collection is an immense and profound journey unto itself, and would alone have been enough to affirm Chopin’s prominent place in musical history. Many modern pianists, led by Martha Argerich, have taken to performing the Op. 28 set in full as a single concert piece. There is one more, the single Prelude of Op. 45, which deserves far more recognition than it has received.
- The Ballades. These are four of the most challenging pieces of the entire piano repertoire. When played together in succession, they are discovered to comprise a symphony for piano that is as compelling as any orchestral symphony of Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms. Krystian Zimerman is one modern pianist I know of who has done this, and it is an experience to be long remembered when it is done well.
- The Scherzi. Again, four, though these cover a longer arc of time and artistic transformation than the Ballades, which were written over the course of roughly three years. Like the Ballades, they are technically demanding and emotionally draining. Rubinstein said that he couldn’t play anything else for a while after he performed the Op. 39 Scherzo.
- The Etudes. The two sets, Op. 10 and Op. 25, are dramatically different animals, yet equally dramatic in the transformational spirit they brought to this form of small practice pieces for students and performers. The Op. 10 set is largely the product of a boy genius, an annunciation of sorts. Suddenly, the tiresome and dreadful exercises of Czerny and others have become diamonds of pure art, with such depth and texture as had not been seen in such a form since Bach wrote his small practice works for the harpsichord. Some of Chopin’s most famous melodies come from this Op. 10 set. The Op. 25 set is more challenging, mature, and complex. When either set is played as a single concert piece, the effect is enduring.
- The Nocturnes. 21 gems of such polished perfection and haunting beauty have never been wrought into a single body of work. I’ve never heard of any performer attempting them all in a single concert; it could be done but might be more than could be asked of either performer or audience. What pianists should recall, however, is that all but the two posthumous Nocturnes were written in groups of 2 or 3, under a single opus number. To hear the three of Op. 9 or the two of Op. 32, for instance, as a single concert piece is to gain an appreciation for the breadth and reach of Chopin’s voice and artistic vision. Too often, a single Nocturne is set aside as an encore piece, and the context and depth of the Nocturne groupings is missed. This is not to say an individual piece from a set can never be played by itself; but Chopin deserves far better than habitually casual treatment from performers. Any art that is treated like candy will inevitably start behaving like it. Performers who give Chopin the room and time to fully express himself reveal his nearly limitless substance.
I’m leaving out a lot: the Polonaises, a few of which measure up to the Ballades. The Waltzes, which surpass any other music in that genre by any other composer. Chopin reinvented and reanimated the Waltz, gave it emotional life, profundity, and beauty that it had never seen before nor has since. Finally, the Mazurkas, which contain some of the buried treasure of the Chopin oeuvre. But let’s go directly into a deeper exploration of the life and art of this genius, who still both challenges and consoles pianists and audiences today.
Chopin’s Relationship with Death
The most important point to be drawn from Chopin’s life involves his personal and artistic relationship with Death. He suffered from TB, or what was then known as consumption. Thus, from an early age, this man knew his time on Earth was limited. He had all the usual symptoms of his disease: chronic shortness of breath, bloody sputum, deep, agonizing coughs, physical weakness, chronic fatigue, and even certain emotional symptoms related to an oppressive respiratory disease like TB: anxiety, depression, phobias.
What this meant for Chopin was similar to what it meant for another great artist of a century later, with the same medical condition: the novelist Franz Kafka. Both of these geniuses developed, in both their personal lives and their artistic output, a profound relationship with Death.
For Chopin, it was probably the dominant relationship of his life, and certainly of his art. He would actually see demonic figures appear before him; he once interrupted a public performance when a set of these demons leaped at him from inside the piano he was playing.
His illness pervades his musical output: that breathlessness can often be physically felt in the music; it certainly explains the brevity of most of his individual works. He simply didn’t have the physical strength needed for pouring out large works with complex orchestration; and he was self-aware enough to recognize that mass, weight, and length were beyond his physical capacity. So, as I’ve described above, Chopin created groups of smaller works that stood together as greater bodies of art.
This was the artist’s compromise with his body’s illness: he worked in small temporal units, largely for a single instrument. This way, he was able to avoid compromising on the most important matter of all to him: the technical and emotional depth of the work, the supreme quality, the artistic perfection of each composition. I can’t think of a single composer whose body of work is of a more consistently elevated level of quality. You look through the major groupings of work I listed above and can scarcely find a bad or indifferent apple in any basket. It is beyond astonishing.
So here we have an artist who had a strange and agonizing relationship with his body. He poured all his pain, the voices of those demons that visited him, his dissonant rage at this sickly servant that was his physical form, into his work. He wrote, “I wish I could throw off the thoughts which poison my happiness. And yet I take a kind of pleasure in indulging them.” The pleasure, of course, was in how those thoughts became the masterpieces of his art.
For virtually his entire adult life, Chopin was in Death’s shadow, if not its grip. When he visited Majorca with his lover, the novelist Mme. Dudevant, a/k/a George Sand, he became acutely ill. One prominent aspect of Chopin’s intimate relationship with Death involved an arid and sometimes acidic sense of humor. He describes the visits of three doctors to his sickbed in Majorca:
The three most celebrated doctors on the island have been to see me. One sniffed at what I spat, the second tapped where I spat from, and the third sounded me and listened as I spat. The first said I was dead, the second that I was dying, and the third that I’m going to die.
Thus, Death and the black humor he brought to his relationship with Death are present throughout Chopin’s mature work. I seriously doubt you can perform Chopin with any strength and honesty unless you can understand and hear both Death and humor in the music itself. His earliest works already reveal, perhaps unconsciously or semi-consciously, these two forces. Consider the 6th Etude in the Op. 10 collection:
Remembering that Chopin didn’t give his work programmatic titles, meaning, or story lines, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to hear Death in this piece. I call this one “Charon’s Boat”: the left hand plays the waves of the river Styx, across which the dead must travel to reach the other side. The right hand plays the longings and reminiscences of the travelers who are looking back toward the shore of the life they’ve left. The waves continue to rumble softly at first, then rising in tension through the middle section of the Etude. Then, in the last bars Chopin modulates to the major key: the boat nears the next shore, and the dead turn slowly away from the past to get their first glimpse of what lies ahead of them.
A story or scene like that can’t be consciously woven into three and a half minutes of a student piano piece. But it works, doesn’t it? This stuff endures across generations, centuries, and cultures not merely because of one man’s talent, but because of the source of his inspiration, which is the universal harmonic.
Chopin’s next conversation with Death appears in the Op. 25, No. 7 etude in C# Minor. This thing is a world unto itself: it rages, it prays, it whispers, it sings, it pleads, it dances, it paints, it thunders, it despairs and at last fades. It’s one of those pieces of music about which you have to be careful as to when and where you hear it; because it can make ordinary human activity — talking, moving, working, even breathing — kind of difficult for a while.
Among the Op. 28 Preludes we find #6 in B Minor, which is a more straightforward musical painting of a death scene. The cortege winds slowly through the streets, and the right hand plays soft, plaintive bell tolls (thus the Prelude’s popular nickname, “Tolling Bells”).
Chopin’s most famous contemplation of Death is, of course, the Funeral March from the Sonata #2 in B Flat Minor. I know people who haven’t listened to classical music their entire lives yet are familiar with this theme.
Now I have an odd theory about this music. It follows ordinary sonata form: A-B-A, in which the funeral march section is stated and repeated, interrupted by a luminous cavatina middle section. Try and listen carefully to the entire thing and consider this idea: the funeral march that opens and closes the movement is the song that the living on Earth play for, and over, the dead; but that middle section’s tenderly soaring aria is what the dead themselves hear as they cross to the other side.
One footnote on that piece, which would appear to violate my guideline about performing Chopin in context: if I were a concert performer I’d take that cavatina right out of the middle of this movement and try it as an encore piece. It has that kind of beauty and brevity that would make it work at the end of an evening.
The Nocturnes: Genius Conversing with Itself
“Simplicity is the highest goal, achievable when you have overcome all difficulties,” wrote the composer. This is the secret of the 21 miracles known as the Nocturnes. From the very first Op. 9 group, the work of a teenager, the Nocturnes tell the story of genius in conversation with itself — searching, responding, refining, expressing, astonishing. Some of Chopin’s darkest humor and most complex polyphonic experiments, as well as the most intimate exploration of his own deep wounds, occur here. One contemporary German critic unwittingly revealed the greatest strength of Chopin’s Nocturnes in this strange appeal:
Where [John] Field smiles, Chopin makes a grinning grimace; where Field sighs, Chopin groans; where Field shrugs his shoulders, Chopin arches his back like a cat, where Field puts some seasoning into the food, Chopin empties a handful of cayenne pepper… In short, if one holds Field’s charming romances before a distorting, concave mirror, so that every delicate impression becomes a coarse one, one gets Chopin’s work. We implore Mr Chopin to return to nature. – Ludwig Rellstab (in Iris, A weekly periodical for ’sophisticated readers,’ Berlin August 2nd 1833).
Wow, that is one of those extraordinary (and extraordinarily frequent) instances of a critic stumbling upon truth while kicking at genius. John Field was the Irish pianist/composer who is generally credited with the invention of the Nocturne. Chopin admired Field’s work and spent his own career in making this twilight genre permanently his own (it is hard to imagine anyone ever surpassing Chopin with the Nocturne, if even Debussy couldn’t do it).
Chopin’s sublime success with the Nocturne had as much to do with his own disrespect for form as it did with the shimmering inspiration and technical depth he brought to this particular form. Many of Chopin’s Nocturnes can be heard as Ballades (either of the Op. 48 set, and Op. 62, No. 1, for instance); as Fantasies (Op. 55, No. 1); as Waltzes (Op. 32, No. 2); or as Impromptus (Op. 55, No. 2, among many). He wrote Nocturnes in other settings as well, the famous “Raindrop” Prelude (Op. 28, No. 15) being just one example (see performance below).
The Nocturne suited Chopin so perfectly because it was such a loose and undeveloped form: it could fit his genius, his personality, his technical mastery, and his cosmic inspiration, with no limitation upon any of these. In the Nocturne, there are demands made to both listener and performer; yet they are welcome and inspiring demands. The left hand part is generally that of the poet; the right calls for the dramatist; both parts together challenge the technician; and it all happens in a dusk-lit, implosively compressed dimension or universe in which the heart is laid bare in all its depth and fullness. Chopin is unrelenting: he will never allow a performer to hide behind the music, behind its genius. He will have you completely enter his universe, or be exposed trying to play him from outside it.
The Personality Game: Retro-Slamming Genius
I am gay on the outside, especially among my own folk (I count Poles my own); but inside something gnaws at me; some presentiment, anxiety, dreams – or sleeplessness – melancholy, indifference – desire for life, and the next instant, desire for death; some kind of sweet peace, some kind of numbness, absent-mindedness…
On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, many writers came out to remind us of what an asshole this guy really was in life. The most common epithet used against him was “anti-Semitic.” There is no denying that Chopin referred to his low-paying and gouging publishers as “Jews”. For its time, it was as idle an insult as that of modern professional athletes who call one another “faggots”. In other words, a stupid but lazy slur with no particular direction other than base resentment — it evokes moral torpidity rather than turpitude. From the perspective of two centuries, during which generations of Jewish pianists have gratefully and lovingly played Chopin’s music, I suspect that the indignation over the composer as anti-Semitic is fairly overwrought.
But other aspects of his personality are worth attending to, because of how they affected his music. He had a certain self-awareness of his troubled and often muddy character, with its jealousy, petty vanities, bitterness, and black-humored contempt. He once referred to himself as a “mushroom which seems edible but which poisons you if you pick it and taste it.” It is a more apt metaphor than he might have himself been conscious of; for it points again to his illness, that chronic crushing of the breath (we may recall that the word “spirit” comes from the Latin for “breath”) which tormented him all his adult life.
What is known of him from biographical accounts indicates that he had a happy childhood in a good, prosperous home; and that his teachers in music were generally enlightened people who fully recognized his genius and gave it room to find its own natural direction. So to write him off as a “tainted genius” based on his adult behavior is both to distort the reality of his life by holding it up to a moral prism of another time and culture, and to miss what is now meaningful to us about this composer — precisely those parts of his lived experience that contributed to the invaluable gifts of sound and feeling that came through him.
To be chronically ill, in almost any culture, is to be stained, to bear a mark that separates you and that creates dependence. Chopin surely felt this in nearly all aspects of his life — in his relationships with women (most notably George Sand, but he also had to end an engagement with another woman because of his illness); in his incapacity for public performance; in the general isolation that consumption forced upon him with increasing oppression as the years and the disease progressed. During one of his darkest moments, the composer wrote the following:
How strange! This bed on which I shall lie has been slept on by more than one dying man, but today it does not repel me! Who knows what corpses have lain on it and for how long? But is a corpse any worse than I? A corpse too knows nothing of its father, mother or sisters or Titus. Nor has a corpse a sweetheart. A corpse, too, is pale, like me. A corpse is cold, just as I am cold and indifferent to everything. A corpse has ceased to live, and I too have had enough of life…. Why do we live on through this wretched life which only devours us and serves to turn us into corpses? The clocks in the Stuttgart belfries strike the midnight hour. Oh how many people have become corpses at this moment! Mothers have been torn from their children, children from their mothers – how many plans have come to nothing, how much sorrow has sprung from these depths, and how much relief!… Virtue and vice have come in the end to the same thing! It seems that to die is man’s finest action – and what might be his worst? To be born, since that is the exact opposite of his best deed. It is therefore right of me to be angry that I was ever born into this world! Why was I not prevented from remaining in a world where I am utterly useless? What good can my existence bring to anyone? … But wait, wait! What’s this? Tears? How long it is since they flowed! How is this, seeing that an arid melancholy has held me for so long in its grip? How good it feels – and sorrowful. Sad but kindly tears! What a strange emotion! Sad but blessed. It is not good for one to be sad, and yet how pleasant it is – a strange state…
If you are familiar with Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, you will recall the dying Jude’s quotation of Chapter 3 of Job:
Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man-child conceived…Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it. Lo, let that night be solitary, let no joyful voice come therein. Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?…For now should I have lain still and been quiet. I should have slept: then had I been at rest!…There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor…The small and the great are there; and the servant is free from his master. Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul?
Can you see the parallel between those words from the perpetually-dying composer and the dying lover quoting Job? Like many who live in chronic pain, Chopin frequently saw only his abject dependence on others; felt only the agonies of his flesh; heard only the voices of those demons that chased him throughout his adult life. Only in the creative act was he certain, independent, masterful, genuinely self-aware, and free.
“Sometimes,” he wrote, “I can only groan, and suffer, and pour out my despair at the piano!” It is well known, from reliable contemporary accounts — including that of no less an authority than Franz Liszt — that Chopin was the greatest improviser of his day; and his work bears the clear stamp of the greatest of improvisational artists. As for the suffering and its role in his creative process, you only have to listen to appreciate the massive and transformational charge, as between the elements of a Tesla coil, that flowed from his agony into his work.
Chopin transformed the piano as an instrument by extending the process that Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert had begun before him — the process of bringing a holistic vision of musical experience and expression to this single instrument. Particularly in Chopin, the left hand is given fresh life beyond continuo or rhythm; it receives its own voice, its unique poetry, its special technical demands. Chopin also extends Beethoven’s use of dissonance, even (or especially) in lyrical or legato passages. The effect of his use of dissonance is often stunning, even when you’ve heard the same piece or passage dozens or hundreds of times before. These are the moments when, either as listener or performer, you feel as if you’ve put your hand or even your very heart into that dangerous yet regenerative stream of the Tesla coil of art.
Conclusion: The Connection as Consolation
As I listen to this man’s music, so strangely and spontaneously inspiring and anguished, I sometimes find myself turning within and asking, could there be some connection between us, between our lives, that I, who cannot even play the simplest of the Etudes, can nevertheless feel this Chopin do clearly and so deeply? Then I think of the advice that the greatest teacher of music in the century after Chopin once gave to performers. It was Nadia Boulanger, the mentor of Stravinsky, Barenboim, Bernstein, and so many other of the foremost musicians and composers of the 20th century: she asked (using, in fact, Chopin as her example) that a piece be performed so that there is no longer any awareness of it being a particular work of this or that composer, or of there even being a performer playing it. She merely asked that the piece be performed so that there is no division, no separation, between the music and its cosmic Source.
So the answer to my question is that it is another of those questions that have no answer. It needs no answer; for it is in connections like these that the personal and the universal merge, become one, and then lose even that oneness. What remains after the oneness is gone is the natural, the unforced reality of the indivisible. That is what I hear, what I feel, in the music that came into our world through the diseased and tormented being of that Polish genius of the piano; and that is why, with all its darkness of mood and humor; with all its razor-edged challenge and unrequited longing for something that cannot be thought or imagined but only felt amid the twilit space of solitude — it yet brings a refreshing and regenerative rain of consolation.