Monday, February 22, 2010


She had learned in her childhood to fondle and cherish those long sinuous phrases of Chopin, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by reaching out and exploring far outside and away from the direction in which they started, far beyond the point which one might have expected their notes to reach, and which divert themselves in those fantastic bypaths only to return more deliberately -- with a more premeditated reprise, with more precision, as on a crystal bowl that reverberates to the point of exquisite agony -- to clutch one's heart.
-- Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (1913-27)

Frédéric François Chopin, a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist was born on this day in 1810 in the village of Żelazowa Wola, in the Duchy of Warsaw, to a French-expatriate father and Polish mother. He was considered a child-prodigy pianist, and at age twenty, he left Warsaw for Austria, intending to go on to Italy. The outbreak of the Polish November Uprising seven days later, and its subsequent suppression by Russia, led to his becoming one of many expatriates of the Polish Great Emigration.

In Paris, Chopin made a comfortable living as a composer and piano teacher, while giving few public performances. Though an ardent Polish patriot, in France he used the French versions of his given names, and traveled on a French passport, possibly to avoid having to rely on Imperial Russian documents. After ill-fated romantic involvements with Polish women, from 1837 to 1847 he had a turbulent relationship with the French novelist Aurore Dupin, better known by her pseudonym, George Sand. For the greater part of his life Chopin suffered from poor health; he died in Paris in 1849, aged thirty-nine, of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Chopin composed solely for the piano, primarily as solo instrument but also two concertos and a sonata for cello and piano. Though most of his works are technically demanding, they emphasize nuance and expressive depth rather than sheer virtuosity. Chopin invented musical forms such as the instrumental ballade, and was responsible for major innovations in the piano sonata, mazurka, waltz, nocturne, polonaise, étude, impromptu and prélude. One of my personal favorites is the Fantaisie in F-minor, a single-movement work for the piano. This work belongs to the Fantasy form, and takes from it certain salient elements, such as unpredictability (sudden changes in volume and key), contrasts of texture, rhythm, and the use of formal invention, that is, the form of the piece will not easily be placed into any pre-conceived or well-known patterns (such as "Sonata"), and will give the impression of an improvisatory style.

The opening section and the music that follows it illustrates this best. It opens with a dark, march-like section of some length, which never re-appears. We are, however, introduced to the "motive," or "musical idea," of a descending scale of four notes which will provide something of a thread throughout the work. This opening section is firmly entrenched (with some deviation) in the key of F-minor and its rhythmic regularity will provide contrast for what immediately follows, which is a wildly unpredictable and "free" almost improvisatory section, moving quickly through temporary key areas, creating a sense of mystery and instability. This is a relatively late work by Chopin and suggests the direction in which he may have gone had he lived a somewhat longer life. A beautiful performance of this work by Kristian Zimerman may be found on You Tube.

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