About this Recording
NA421912 - SIEPMANN, J. : Life and Works of Chopin (The) (Unabridged)

Jeremy Siepmann

Jeremy Siepmann

The Life and Works of Chopin


It’s strange but true that Chopin, while writing some of the most romantic music ever composed, felt himself out of sympathy with almost every aspect

of the Romantic Movement (the only two composers he loved unreservedly were Mozart and Bach). His most notable musical contemporaries, on the other hand —Liszt, Schumann, Berlioz, Bellini, Meyerbeer, and to a lesser extent, Mendelssohn—not only subscribed to Romanticism, they virtually invented it (though that honor, if we’re to be properly inclusive, would probably have to be shared by Beethoven, Weber and Schubert). They all had in common the time in which they lived (though only Chopin grew up on the periphery of the European heartland), but their responses to it could hardly have been more various.

Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Mendelssohn were all born at around the same time—Mendelssohn in 1809, Chopin and Schumann in 1810, Liszt in 1811— and all of them were pianists. The piano stood at the heart of the Romantic Movement. Its popularity was unparalleled. It came in all shapes and sizes, and was cheap enough—at the lower end of the financial spectrum—for almost every middle-class home to have one. And the Romantic Movement was emphatically a middle-class phenomenon. Where classical music, so-called, had once been an adornment of the ruling classes, and a well-manipulated agent of political distraction, it was now taken up by the rising bourgeoisie as a symbol of genteel prosperity and a badge of economic power. To an altogether new extent, music passed out of the palaces and into the marketplace.

Composers were decreasingly dependent on aristocratic patronage. They now relied for their livelihood on the sales of their work, or, more commonly (as in Chopin’s case) on their income as teachers of the well to do.

Music in the Classical era (roughly 1750-1820) was based on preconceived notions of order, proportion and grace. Beauty and symmetry of form were objects of worship in themselves and combined to create a Utopian image, an idealization of universal experience. In the Romantic Age, which lasted roughly from the death of Beethoven to the outbreak of the First World War, this was largely replaced by a cult of individual expression, the crystallization of the experience of the moment, the unfettered confession of powerful emotions and primal urges, the glorification of sensuality, a flirtation with the supernatural, an emphasis on spontaneity and improvisation and the cultivation of extremes— emotional, sensual, spiritual, and structural. Where a near-reverence for symmetry had characterized the Classical era, romanticism delighted in asymmetry.

Form was no longer seen as a receptacle, but rather as a by-product of emotion to be generated from within. While the great romantic painters covered their

canvases with grandiose landscapes, lavish depictions of atmospheric ruins,

historical scenes, portraits of legendary heroes and so on, the great romantic composers, Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner most of all, attempted similar representations —in sound, but not by sound alone. Notes, rhythms, tone colors, melodic fragments were consciously related to specific ideas, to characters and their development. Music took on an illustrative function to a degree never previously attempted. In its cultivation and transformations of folk music, it became an agent of the nationalism that fired the souls of almost every composer of the time. Another feature of the romantic imagination was a taste for extravagance. Grand opera anticipated the Biblical spectaculars of Hollywood, and the symphony orchestra assumed gargantuan proportions.

To all or most of this, Chopin felt implacably opposed. Yet his music, in its overall tone, in its ravishing sonorities and its highly emotional expression, is as romantic as music gets. Chopin has won his continuous and undiminishing popularity through his crystallization of emotions and states of mind which can be recognized and felt by everyone, from whatever background, throughout the westernized, indeed throughout the so-called developed world, whatever its geographical placement. It was a part of his genius to do this, in most cases, without any recourse to exaggeration. In his music, emotions are never caricatured or overblown; the nationalism of his mazurkas, even of the most ‘military’ of his polonaises, is never jingoistic.  There is nothing synthetic about his music. While never without sentiment, it’s never sentimental.  Its sincerity is beyond reproach. His gift for melody was unsurpassed, his gift for harmonic coloration hardly less so. While he was a revolutionary, he was never self-consciously a futurist. He didn’t strive for originality; it was a by-product of his questing, experimental cast of mind. While the work of a man with an altogether exceptional intellect, his music is never self-consciously intellectual, much less academic. Unlike Liszt, he wrote a great deal of very fine music indeed, which could be played by ordinary people. But he never condescended. That he also wrote some of the most difficult and

virtuosic music ever written, is another matter. But one closely related to the time in which he lived, which was a time of expansion, of aspirations to the superhuman, of a stretching of boundaries. Unlike most of the reigning virtuosos of the day, however, he was not competitive. He was not out to outdo Paganini. He was seized by the dream of infinite discovery, of expanding the boundaries of the known—and first, last and always, with expanding the expressive possibilities

of the piano.

And he was the only piano composer who unwaveringly derived his aural

inspiration from the intrinsic character of the instrument itself. All other important piano composers, especially after the example of Beethoven, have envisaged the instrument as a kind of surrogate (Brahms’s piano music is full of ‘horns’, Debussy’s full of ‘flutes’, Liszt’s of shimmering ‘string’ effects). And Chopin is the only great composer who wrote exclusively for the piano. Beethoven and Liszt, by contrast, repeatedly and deliberately wrote beyond the instrument’s capabilities, thus forcing the course of pianistic evolution. Chopin never does this. But his music is so perfectly conceived for the instrument that there is never the faintest hint of frustration. In a century entranced by transcriptions, arrangements, orchestrations, etc., only Chopin’s music resists. All attempts to orchestrate his music have succeeded in lessening rather than enhancing its quality.


Notes by Jeremy Siepmann



About the Author


Though long resident in England, JEREMY SIEPMANN was born and formally

educated in the United States. Having completed his studies at the Mannes College of Music in New York, he moved to London at the suggestion of Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1964. After several years as a freelance lecturer, he was invited to join the staff of London University. For most of the last 20 years he has confined his teaching activity to the piano, his pupils including pianists of worldwide repute.


As a writer, he has contributed articles, reviews and interviews to numerous journals and reference works (including New Statesman, The Musical Times, Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians), some of them being reprinted in book form (Oxford University Press, Robson Books). His books include a widely acclaimed biography of Chopin (The Reluctant Romantic, Gollancz/Northeastern University Press, 1995), two volumes on the history and literature of the piano, and a biography of Brahms (Everyman/EMI, 1997). In December 1997 he was appointed editor of Piano magazine.


His career as a broadcaster began in New York in 1963 with an East Coast radio series on the life and work of Mozart, described by Alistair Cooke as ‘the best music program on American radio’. On the strength of this, improbably, he was hired by the BBC as a humorist, in which capacity he furnished weekly satirical items on various aspects of American life. After a long break, he returned to broadcasting in 1977, since when he has devised, written and presented more than 1,000 programs for the BBC, including the international-award-winning series The Elements of Music. In 1988 he was appointed Head of Music at the BBC World Service, broadcasting to an estimated audience of 135 million. He left the Corporation in 1994 to form his own independent production company.



About the Readers


ANTON LESSER is one of Britain’s leading classical actors. He has played many of the principal Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company and other leading theaters, including Richard III, Hamlet and Romeo. He is also known for contemporary drama on stage in London’s West End and on television and film.


NEVILLE JASON trained at RADA where he was awarded the Diction Prize by Sir John Gielgud. He has worked with the English Stage Co., the Old Vic Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as in films and musicals. Jason has appeared in popular television serials such as Maigret, Emergency Ward 10 and Dr. Who, as well as playing classical roles such as Orestes and Horatio. Formally a member of the BBC Radio Drama Co., he can be frequently heard on radio.


KAREN ARCHER has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Nicholas Nickleby and as Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan, as well as across the UK in plays such as Ghosts, She Stoops to Conquer and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her television appearances include The Chief, Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Casualty and Chancer and she has been seen in the films The Secret Garden and Forever Young.


ELAINE CLAXTON has worked extensively in UK theater, including London’s Royal National Theatre. She has twice been a member of the BBC Radio Company, during which time she participated in over 200 broadcasts.


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