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Chopin and Attention Deficit Disorder

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Over at The Hudson Review I came across In Search of Chopin by Alexandra Mullen (Volume LVI, No. 4 Winter 2004) and I did have to plow through it.  I couldn't help myself.

Mullen tries to answer the question of why we find the music of Fryderyk Chopin, still, so appealing.  Here in Los Angeles, and I suspect in most other American cities, we have these classical radio stations that do sort of "sound bites" of real music - the third movement of this, the middle of that, and aria ripped out of some opera or other sandwiched between the advertisements for the new Mercedes wagon or a sale at Bloomingdales.  It is kind of infuriating.  But Chopin works in the format - all those short pieces.  Matches our short attention spans. 


Oops.  I'm supposed to say Chopin is "intimate."  Mullen asks the question that way - "... of all the great composers, surely Chopin is the most intimate.  Professionals, connoisseurs, amateurs, and just-plain-audiences all agree here.  But it is nonetheless worthwhile to pause to think why so many of us find it to be so."


Fine.  And he does hit on the scale of what Chopin writes -


Partly it's the small scale of so many of his pieces.  My local ADD-beset classical music radio station loves to fill its tiny slots with a single Chopin prelude or mazurka or etude or waltz -leaving aside that Minute Waltz, almost all are about two or three minutes long.  Every now and then they stretch to a nocturne (average running time: five minutes) or polonaise (around six minutes), but seldom a ballade (close to ten).  It's possible, I suppose, for these short pieces to get blended into the Muzak of Mozaldi.  But I find that Chopin's works leave a deeper and more intense impression than any other short pieces I know.


Okay.  The works are short, but they actually work.  It's not just what Mullen calls our "scatty-minded Zeitgeist."  Cute.  Mullen alludes to scat singing and scatter-mindedness at the same time.


Chopin seem to have been, well, an agoraphobic, intimate sort of fellow.  He wrote music for the few, or the none, so to speak.  He's everyones private composer.


For one, it seems he hated large halls.  He did write to Listz, "The crowd intimidates me and I feel asphyxiated by its eager breath, paralyzed by its inquisitive stare, silenced by its alien faces."  And he knew it didn't work for his music: "My playing will be lost in such a large room, and my compositions will be ineffective."


Mullen reminds us of something else:


... most of his performances were private, intimate, in the salons of friends and aristocratic patrons.  His dedications to them still appear at the top of his music: musical friends such as Schumann, Liszt, and Liszt's lover Marie d'Agoult; and an international group of Mesdames les Comtesses and Princesses: Mostowska, Rothschild, de Noailles, Thun-Hohenstein.  His performances were often freely given late at night, off-the-cuff, with an improvisatory air.  He gave each private roomful of people the impression of playing just for them, for the evanescent mood their conversation had made.


This really is chamber music.  Of course it is reported that everyone who heard him play commented on the delicacy of his touch, the subtlety and responsiveness he drew from the piano.


Berlioz, no pianist, didn't like Chopins music-making much, but he has left an evocative description of its physical intimacy.  There are incredible details in his mazurkas, and he has found how to make them doubly interesting by playing them with the utmost degree of gentleness, with a superlative softness.  The hammers just graze the strings so that the hearer is tempted to draw near the instrument and strain his ear, as though he were at a concert of sylphs and will-o'-the-wisps.


And like any immediate and intimate jazz pianist (Bill Evans, for example), he improvised.


There is no doubt that Chopin was a brilliant improviser.  At the same time, once he had written his music down for others to play, he detested the superimposition of another taste.  Moritz Karasowski, one of Chopins students and also an early biographer whose Life and Letters of Chopin appeared in 1879, retells a story about the different styles of Chopin and Liszt.


One evening, when they were all assembled in the salon, Liszt played one of Chopins nocturnes, to which he took the liberty of adding some embellishments. Chopin's delicate intellectual face, which still bore the traces of recent illness, looked disturbed; at last he could not control himself any longer, and in that tone of sangfroid which he sometimes assumed he said, "I beg you, my dear friend, when you do me the honor of playing my compositions, to play them as they are written or else not at all."  "Play it yourself then," said Liszt, rising from the piano, rather piqued.  "With pleasure," answered Chopin. ... Then he began to improvise and played for nearly an hour.  And what an improvisation it was!  Description would be impossible, for the feelings awakened by Chopins magic fingers are not transferable into words.


When he left the piano his audience were in tears; Liszt was deeply affected, and said to Chopin, as he embraced him, "Yes, my friend, you were right; works like yours ought not to be meddled with; other people's alterations only spoil them. You are a true poet."  "Oh, it is nothing," returned Chopin, gaily, "We each have our own style."


I had forgotten that story, although I had heard it long ago when I was more of musician.  I like to think of it as Chopin's "Ah shucks, 'twerent nothin.' " moment.


Mullen also spend so time on Chopins dress - Chopin was a bit of a dandy - and tries to connect that to the music.  I'm not sure that works.  His style, like his "somber yet richly figured waistcoats," was the outward expression of who he was?  Maybe.


Then there is a discussion of the Mazurkas, which Berlioz singled out: the Mazurkas music deeply marked with Chopin's personality.  Here we're on more solid ground.


As the melodic line reappears, he fastidiously builds in the illusion of improvisation.  A simple eighth-note turn might become dotted in its next appearance, or the notes might be separated by a sixteenth rest, adding a little air and lift.  A fioritura might first fit eighteen notes in the space, then twenty-three, as the piece gathers impetuous momentum.  A previously neutral note might gain an accent or portamento stress as the mood momentarily wakens into passion or leans into languor.  Chopin's scribal punctiliousness transmits a style of spontaneity.


And that spontaneity is the key element here - the jazz part of Chopin.


Mullen also points out the damned mechanics that played a part in Chopin's music.


This was no easy task, because the piano itself was changing, its customs and language in flux.  Mechanically, the piano's capacities for expressiveness increased, through more powerful and even action, damper pedals, and a full seven octaves.  The piano itself could now generate a greater range of effects, shimmering timbres, singing legatos, striking brilliance.  Technically, piano playing began to shift from the digital emphasis growing out of light-actioned clavichords and harpsichords to working with the strength and flexibility of full arms and even back.  Saint-SaŽns, who was born in 1835 but lived until 1921, remembered the physical changes required by the newly developing piano repertoire.  Liszt's pieces, he recalled, "seemed impossible to play, except by him, and such they were if you recall the old method which prescribed complete immobility, elbows tucked into the body and all action of the muscles limited to fingers and forearm."  Artistically, all heaven and hell seemed to break loose.


This makes sense to me.  Chopin came along doing his new things because, for the first time, he actually could do such things.  Liszt went one way - off into near-bombast - and Chopin took the other route suddenly now available, into the quieter possibility.  Both must have been startling at the time.  I wish I had been there.


And, of course, everyone can actually play a bit of Chopin, not just Jack Nicholson in the film "Five Easy Pieces" clunking out the e-Minor Prelude.  Heck, even I can play that, or I could at one time.


Mullen too! 


Almost everything he wrote still holds a central place in the piano repertoire, and a not insignificant proportion of his work is playable by averagely skilled amateurs, of whom I am a somewhat sheepish member.  When students first learn the language of Romantic pianism, Chopin, not Liszt or even Schumann, is the Muttersprache.  Surely this physical acquaintance with his music also accounts for some of the intimacy we feel. 


That does add something to Chopin's appeal.  He's, at times, doable.


But who did Chopin study?


Mozart was one of Chopin's two favorite composers; the other was Bach.  As a student in Warsaw, Chopin had run out of piano teachers.  He had studied instead with a violinist, Adalbert Zywny, and Bach.  His dog-eared copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier appears in several Chopin anecdotes.  Just as the chief innovation in Bach's day - tuning the clavier to twelve equal halftones - inspired his pedagogical work of paired Preludes and Fugues in all twenty-four major and minor keys, so too the innovations in Chopin's day inspired his twenty-four Preludes.


Chopin rings changes to the harmonic world order of Bach's noble forty-eight, enlarging the piano's language and the pianist's fluency in it.  By nature innovatory but no revolutionary, he builds on rather than rejects the lessons of his teacher.


No surprise there.  Bach inspires a lot of folks.  Think of Heitor Villa-Lobos and the Bachianas Brasileiras.  Think of the Swingle Singers.


Much of Mullen's comments of course are an analysis of the works - too technical for most readers here.  But you do get nuggets like this.


Quite a few of the Preludes in "easy keys" also have very manageable tempos - moderate (andante) to slow (lento) to very slow (largo) - and appeal to intermediate piano students for that reason alone.  But they appeal to intermediate teenaged pianists for the additional reason that their deep engagement superficially mirrors back adolescent angst.  The surprising harmonic progressions of the block chords in Prelude #20 in C Minor (originally only 9 measures long, now 13) tempted Barry Manilow to pen "Could It Be Magic" and a whole new generation of schoolgirl pianists to swoon.  I hope we've all outgrown Manilow and grown into Chopin - I myself now prefer the mobile polyphonic chords of #9 - but no matter how silly we were, we were at the same time definitely responding to something real in the piece, even if it's hard to say what exactly that is. 


Barry Manilow?  Yeah, he used Chopin.  Heck, Chopin used Bach.  At least Barry learned something in all those years at Julliard.


So Chopin lives on.  Good stuff, and short, intimate and immediate.  Music for our times.  Put on the CD of Liszt to scare yourself or impress your friends.  Put on Chopin when it's raining, no one is home but you, and you need music close to you.