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8.578090-92 - Easy-Listening Piano Classics: Chopin
Easy-Listening Piano Classics
Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849) was born in the village of Zelazowa Wola in Mazovia, the son of a French father and a Polish mother. This mixed heritage would weave like a double helix through Chopin’s career as a composer-pianist. Following studies at Warsaw Conservatory (1826–29) and concerts given in Warsaw and Vienna (1829–30), Chopin settled in Paris in 1831. His most famous romantic liaison was with Aurore Dudevant (a.k.a. novelist George Sand), the years 1838–1847 coinciding with his most productive period. Shortly after their relationship ended, Chopin visited Britain in 1848, where his already precarious health deteriorated. Almost 3,000 people attended his funeral the following year at the Madelaine in Paris—though he remained a Polish patriot throughout his short life, he became a French citizen.
Although educated in the tradition of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Clementi, and a great admirer of JS Bach, his music includes works based on both French and Polish models, as well as some innovations. Among the former may be counted his piano sonatas; Bach’s counterpoint found its way (albeit metamorphosed) into his own multilayered music; his many Waltzes are more Parisian than Viennese; his Polonaises and Mazurkas raised these Polish dance forms to unprecedented heights of artistic achievement. Similarly, he transformed the Nocturne, initially popularised by the Irish-born Russian-based John Field, into a form much more closely associated with himself. His Ballades, Études and Préludes were path-breaking and immensely influential. Two piano concertos, some songs and chamber works aside, he composed exclusively for the solo piano and preferred to perform privately at salons rather than in public concerts.
One of his piano students, Friederike Müller, wrote: ‘His playing was always noble and beautiful; his tones sang, whether in full forte or softest piano. He took infinite pains to teach his pupils this legato, cantabile style of playing. His most severe criticism was “He—or she—does not know how to join two notes together.” He also demanded the strictest adherence to rhythm. He hated all lingering and dragging, misplaced rubatos, as well as exaggerated ritardandos…and it is precisely in this respect that people make such terrible errors in playing his works.’
Chopin’s music, let alone his complex personality, in a short note such as this. Indeed, while the technicalities are certainly fascinating (as Charles Rosen shows in his learned and highly readable book The Romantic Generation), Chopin’s music is probably its own best advocate. Who else could write so many melodies that give the lie to Keats’ famous lines from Ode on a Grecian Urn that ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter’? Who else could inflect harmony with such haunting subtlety—Bach? Mozart? Schumann? Rachmaninov? Who else could make such virtuosic demands without sacrificing emotional depth—Alkan? Bellini? Liszt? Paganini? Who else so completely fulfilled Robert Schumann’s immortal salutation of 1831, ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!’?
While Chopin’s tragically early death—from chronic pulmonary tuberculosis or, as has recently been suggested, from cystic fibrosis?—raises the unanswerable question of what ‘late’ Chopin might have sounded like had he lived as long as Brahms, we have no cause for complaint regarding his musical legacy. As pianist Artur Rubinstein remarked: ‘Chopin endures. His music is the universal language of human communication. When I play Chopin I know I speak directly to the hearts of people!’
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8.550358 CHOPIN: Mazurkas, Vol. 1
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