"Music was his language, the divine tongue through which he expressed a whole realm of sentiments that only the select few can appreciate... The muse of his homeland dictates his songs, and the anguished cries of Poland lend to his art a mysterious, indefinable poetry which, for all those who have truly experienced it, cannot be compared to anything else... The piano alone was not sufficient to reveal all that lies within him. In short he is a most remarkable individual who commands our highest degree of devotion."
- Franz Liszt
Two Hundred years ago today Frederic Chopin, the poet of the piano, was born. For classical music aficionados everywhere, whether they are pianists like myself, this is a red-letter day. Let's celebrate! I have already listened to my favorite recording of his two Piano Concertos performed by Martha Argerich with Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; but my day of Chopin celebration will not end there and I hope yours does not either.
He grew up in Warsaw and entered the Conservatory (1826-9). By then he had already performed in local salons and composed several rondos, polonaises and mazurkas. Public and critical acclaim increased during the years 1829-30 when he gave concerts in Vienna and Warsaw, but his reaction to the political repression in Poland, coupled with his musical ambitions, led him to move to Paris in 1831. There, with practical help from the virtuoso pianist Kalkbrenner and the piano maker Pleyel, praise from Liszt, and a warm welcome in the criticism of Robert Schumann, he quickly established himself as a private teacher and salon performer, his legendary artist's image being enhanced by frail health (he had tuberculosis), attractive looks, sensitive playing, a courteous manner and the piquancy attaching to self-exile (Polish exiles were not uncommon in Paris of the 1830s). He was friends with other famous musicians and artists in Paris at that time including Berlioz, Liszt, and Delacroix. While he was acquainted with Countess Marie D'Agoult, his most notable romantic affair was with the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant) though whether he was truly drawn to women must remain in doubt. Between 1838 and 1847 their relationship, with a strong element of the maternal on her side, coincided with one of his most productive creative periods. He gave few public concerts, though his playing was much praised, and he published much of his best music simultaneously in Paris, London and Leipzig. The breach with Sand was followed by a rapid deterioration in his health and a long visit to Britain (1848). His funeral at the Madeleine was attended by nearly 3000 people.
Chopin devoted himself as exclusively to the piano. By all accounts an inspired improviser, he composed while playing, writing down his thoughts only with difficulty. But he was no mere dreamer - his development can be seen as an ever more sophisticated improvisation on the classical principle of departure and return. For the concert-giving years 1828-32 he wrote brilliant virtuoso pieces (e.g. rondos) and music for piano and orchestra; the teaching side of his career is represented by the studies, preludes, nocturnes, waltzes, impromptus and mazurkas, polished pieces of moderate difficulty. The large-scale works - the later polonaises, scherzos, ballades, sonatas, the Barcarole and the dramatic Polonaise-fantaisie - he wrote for himself and a small circle of admirers. Apart from the national feeling in the Polish dances, and possibly some narrative background to the ballades, he intended notably few references to literary, pictorial or autobiographical ideas.
Chopin is admired above all for his great originality in exploiting the piano. While his own playing style was famous for its subtlety and restraint, its exquisite delicacy in contrast with the spectacular feats of pianism then reigning in Paris, most of his works have a simple texture of accompanied melody. From this he derived endless variety, using wide-compass broken chords, the sustaining pedal and a combination of highly expressive melodies, some in inner voices. Similarly, though most of his works are basically ternary in form, they show great resource in the way the return is varied, delayed, foreshortened or extended, often with a brilliant coda added. Chopin's harmony however was conspicuously innovatory. Through melodic clashes, ambiguous chords, delayed or surprising cadences, remote or sliding modulations (sometimes many in quick succession), unresolved dominant 7ths and occasionally excursions into pure chromaticism or modality, he pushed the accepted procedures of dissonance and key into previously unexplored territory. This profound influence can be seen in the music of Liszt (a personal friend),Fauré, Debussy, Grieg, and many others.*
*Source: Grove's Dictionary.