The Financial Times
Reasons we need Chopin
By Harry Eyres [[log in to unmask]]
Published: June 14 2008 01:31
The other weekend BBC Radio 3 held a Chopin jamboree -- two
days entirely devoted to Poland's great poet of the piano.
There was no particular reason, as far as I could see: no
major anniversary, no topical peg; it just seemed a good
idea. And so it was; in our household we listened entranced,
to a succession of wonderful performances and illuminating
live comments by musicians of the calibre of Vladimir
Ashkenazy and Tamas Vasary. As Sunday evening approached,
the normal end-of-holiday blues were intensified: we wished
Chopin Weekend would carry on for days.
Listening to a lot of Chopin felt different from being
immersed in Bach or Beethoven or Bruckner. There was nothing
over-reverent about this experience; Chopin strikes me as
one of the least religious musicians, in the conventional
sense, who has ever lived. There was much sheer delight
and exuberance: the hyper-sensitive, consumptive composer,
so unhappy in love, also wrote some of the most purely
delicious music ever confected -- the two early piano
concertos, the more extravert waltzes, the Berceuse and the
But talk of confectionery doesn't quite explain the appeal
of Chopin. When asked what it was that drew him to the
music of his fellow Pole, the great Chopin pianist Arthur
Rubinstein replied: "I don't know, Chopin just spoke to
Presumably Chopin speaks to very many of us: his voice seems
like an essence of humanity. For that reason his pieces
continue to be the most played and programmed in the piano
repertoire, all over the world, from Taiwan to Tennessee.
One objection to Chopin Weekend could have been simply that
Chopin is too well-known, one composer in no danger whatsoever
of being neglected. But what was revealed, I felt, was
just how little we really know about Chopin -- how ultimately
unknowable he, like all great artists, remains.
How well, for instance, do we know the Funeral March sonata
(apart from the da-da-di-dum tune which opens the slow
movement)? This was where Chopin Weekend began, with a
fascinating comparison, in that cynosure of classical music
programmes Building a Library, of all the available recordings
of Chopin's opus 35 in B flat minor.
Here is an uncompromising, revolutionary piece if ever there
was one. From the strange, violent, truncated introduction
to the whispering, desolate, tuneless finale, this supposedly
familiar work plunges us into the most uncomfortable extremes
of emotion: a travel agent advertising this kind of emotional
journey, from agony, though death, to desolation, would go
out of business in a matter of hours.
Another revelation was that no one has yet been able to
play the piece entirely satisfactorily.
Some of the greatest pianists who have ever lived (Rachmaninov,
Cortot, Rubinstein, Horowitz) failed to deliver technically
flawless accounts, especially of the fiendish Scherzo, while
the experience of listening to a "VorsprungdurchTechnik"
Wunderkind such as Evgeny Kissin was described by Harriet
Smith as "no more enjoyable than facing a firing squad".
Play safe with this music and you may hit all the notes but
you will miss the essence; much better to take risks, like
Rachmaninov and Rubinstein.
The final movement still sounds modern and eerie and
challenging, closer to late Beckett than Lord Byron: a chill
blast from some region we would rather not visit, certainly
not often. In fact I was left wondering when I would have
the courage to face this music again.
Now we are getting closer to what makes Chopin great: a
combination of that human vulnerability and those challenging
extremes. He draws us in, by speaking in the most human of
tones, then challenges us to extend the range of the human,
or our range.
For many musicians, Chopin's greatest work is the 24 Preludes
opus 28. Here you find the coming-together of extreme
concision with grand scope. Some of the preludes last less
than a minute; even the longest, the so-called Raindrop
Prelude, lasts no longer than five. Each is a miniature
world, and their juxtaposition creates a kaleidoscope that
sets out a new philosophy of human emotion: we are not
sensible smiling 18th-century rationalists, but unstable
successions of the most violently conflicting moods, from
the playful delight of the 23rd Prelude to the epic despair
of the 24th. We contradict ourselves, as Whitman would later
confirm; sometimes we may be incomprehensible to ourselves.
One of the shortest and apparently simplest of all the
Preludes is number 7 in A major. A young pianist who has
reached Grade 5 can master this one -- master the notes,
that is. But I have found it takes half a lifetime (I started
playing this piece 37 years ago) to begin to understand
what lies behind the notes. Wordsworth's comment about
"emotion recollected in tranquillity" provides a key. There
is a certain distance between the emotion and the expression;
if you like, a love idyll in the past, recalled not with
bitterness, but with heart-breaking tenderness. Getting the
shading of tone right here challenges not just your technique
but every fibre of your imagination and humanity. This is
why we need Chopin: to cleanse our emotional and existential
filters of all the gunge that keeps clogging up our lives.
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