Chopin is not every music-lover’s cup of tea, nor every pianist’s. A most “romantic” classical style composer, his work, almost exclusively for piano solo, is in a “precious” style, where each little ornamental figure, trill, arpeggiated chord, requires careful attention and precision. In a letter he wrote, as a young man, to his best friend Tytus, he referred to his compositions as “laboured bits of dreariness”.
He was a man of contrasting emotions and temperament, seemingly incompatible in one and the same person. Physically small and frail, he was reserved, even withdrawn, but refined, charming and gracious. However, his inner self was brimming with virility, tempestuousness, violent feelings and struggle.
Chopin lived the first twenty years of his life in Warsaw. This is where the defining elements in his young musical life were to shape his musical genius. His mother initiated him at the piano at age 4. He had private music lessons with two professors; the first, (Zywny), was a violonist with whom he studied Bach and Mozart, both of whom he was to idolize, particularly Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. It is said that Chopin played some of them every day of his life. He also loved Mozart’s operas. His second teacher, (Elsner), was a composer, and was wise enough to have detected Chopin’s enormous creative potential and gave him free reign to develop his own distinctive style.
Chopin loved “bel canto” singing in operas he attended by Rossini and Bellini; the smooth or legato lyrical style of melody and interpretation. He adapted this style to his own sweeping melodies for the piano. He turned Polish dance rhythms into vigorous or graceful piano works as well; polonaises, mazurkas, and after a visit to Vienna, waltzes (not in the Viennese style however).
He basically taught himself the technique of a virtuoso pianist. A real turning point came in 1829 when he heard Niccolo Paganini in a series of violin recitals in Warsaw. Chopin was amazed at the virtuosity displayed, and how Paganini transformed the violin from one of the instruments in an orchestra into an ample solo instrument. He decided to apply this idea to the piano. By developing a virtuoso technique for the piano, he was able to achieve a wider range of sound and greater expressive variety. This decision propelled him into writing the first six of his 24 Etudes for piano, to develop complete finger independence, dexterity and tone control, double notes, sweeping octaves, giant leaps, intricate arpeggiated figures. What makes Chopin’s Etudes unique, in addition to their great challenge to the pianist’s endurance, is their lyrical beauty and extraordinary energy.
Chopin took all these new sources of musical ideas and grafted them on to his rigorous musical structures to forge a style all his own.
When he arrived in Paris at age twenty one, in 1831, he was already a consummate composer, having written some of his major great works (piano concertos, Ballade, Etudes). He spent the next eighteen years expanding on and perfecting his musical output, until his death at age 39, in 1849 of consumption. Chopin had extremely refined tastes, and an extravagant lifestyle in Paris, complete with the finest clothing and accoutrements, home furnishings, fresh cut flowers delivered, a private cabriolet and driver. He spent a major portion of his day teaching piano (often six hours a day) to aristocratic amateurs for handsome fees, which all disappeared for his endless expenses. He was extremely demanding as a teacher, losing his temper with his better students when they didn’t do what he asked – a tyrant for rhythmic precision, with his ever-present metronome. He also quarelled endlessly with his publishers, referring to them as crooks (and worse).
Chopin’s music is an incredible combination of almost mathematical precision and great beauty, enhanced with graceful pianistic embellishments, as well as powerful rhythmic drive. What makes him a most refined romantic classicist is in the fantasy of the transitions from one musical section to the next, and his masterful juxtaposition of harmonies intertwined with melody. Like Bach and Mozart, he knew just how many times to repeat a theme, with minute changes to it. He told his students that at the piano, the wrist is used to make the music breathe. His music “sang”, but with a voice from within, struggling to burst out and be heard, suggesting rather than venting emotions. This quality gives his music an intimate feeling – the listener hears a dialogue with one’s inner self.
A few final words on interpretaion of Chopin’s works. Chopin knew his limits and channeled his energy uniquely to his beloved piano. He refused to discuss any metaphysical or emotional aspect of his life or his music. “It’s all in my music”, he is reported to have said. Herein lies one of the many challenges for the interpreter: how to avoid deforming the perfect balance of the music by becoming too emotionally involved, and losing rhythmic control, but at the same time making the piano “sing”, through suppleness of the wrists and by a very subtle use of “rubato”, quickening the pace for some notes and slowing down for others, but keeping the main pulse perfectly regular. Chopin was said to have been a master of rubato in performances of his own works. Chopin, however, was a master of refined taste and simplicity. The pianist Arthur Rubenstein said to play Chopin with sincerity and simplicity.
These are the ingredients needed to do justice to Chopin’s genius: sincerity, simplicity, refined taste and musical understandfing, a lifetime of work toward technical perfection and, playing from the heart.