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Chopin the Poet of the Piano-Forte

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BY EDWARD BAXTER PERRY.

 
EDGAR ALLAN POE, writing of Tennyson, says: “No poet is so little of the earth, earthy”; and declares he would be willing to rate anyone’s poetic instinct and perceptions by the impression made upon him by certain of Tennyson’s lyrics. Similarly it would be perfectly safe to rank the musical taste and susceptibility of any person by his ability or nonability to appreciate the compositions of Chopin.

There is a refinement and delicacy, not merely of form and finish, but equally of emotional content, in every period of his;and at the same time a rich, fervent glow of tone-color, intense, but never garish, which appeals instantly and irresistibly to the sensitive artistic temperament and the developed taste, but are wasted upon coarse and crude natures.

The Poetic Element Dominant in Chopin’s Works.
That subtle, nameless something, indefinable yet unmistakable, which in default of a better appellation we designate “the poetic element,” is a dominant and omnipresent characteristic of Chopin’s productions. Like the odor of the rose, which strictly appertains neither to the form, the texture, nor the color of the flower, yet in our minds is indissolubly associated with them all, and represents for us the essence of its individuality, instantly distinguishing the living blossom from the cleverest artificial counterfeit, so this poetic aroma, this intangible, Un-analyzable, yet all-important essence or spiritual individuality of the real art work, consists neither in form, content, color, nor structural details, but is compounded of them all, plus an elusive something more. Its presence marks the difference between the true and the false, the living and the dead, in all forms of art;and it is this element, felt if not intelligently recognized, in Chopin’s creations, that has endeared him to so many hearts above all other composers, and has earned for him his title of “The Poet of the Pianoforte.”

Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Hiller, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner, all were born within a period of five years, all were champions of what was known in their generation as “Modern Romanticism,” and all appeared in the rival splendor of mature powers upon the world’s horizon at approximately the same time. Among these brilliant names, none shone with purer luster Or challenges more affectionate admiration than that of the French-Polish composer, Frederic Chopin, at’ once the most impassioned and the most ideal, the most fiery and the most tender, the most dramatic and the most lyric, the most intensely subjective yet the most versatile, of all writers for the piano.
 
In his unique and peculiarly fortunate endowment were blended to a singular degree the best attributes of the two widely dissimilar races from which he sprang;the grace, elegance, and refined yet sparkling vivacity of the French, their keen discrimination, finesse of detail ‘ and delicate finished workmanship; combined with the warm, sensitive, emotional nature; the wild, often somber, passions;the fiery impetuosity and the boundless soaring enthusiasm of the Poles. Such an inheritance could not fail to make of Chopin’s genius a thing at once strikingly individual, yet singularly complex;a texture of varied hues and woven of many diverse threads;of intricate pattern, yet unimpeachable unity, coming from the loom of fate a finished whole, in spite of its variety a perfect master-web, with a satinlike gloss and shimmer, an exterior finish too soft and bland to offend the most fastidious feminine taste, yet strong to resist the stress of life’s warfare and the attacks of time, and to preserve its tints undimmed through many an age to come.

It may be urged that I am claiming the impossible for our favorite, that intense subjectivity and broad versatility are not, cannot be, coexistent in the same individual. Notwithstanding this generally truthful principle, it is just here that Chopin’s genius displays the wonder of its dual nature. There is scarcely a tone in the whole chromatic gamut of human emotion, from the deepest despair to transcendent hope, from frenzied passion to playful tenderness, from the noble courage of vainly heroic patriotism to the arch coquetry of the French salon, that has not served him as the keynote for some exquisitely finished and intrinsically beautiful composition. Yet, however widely different these works are one from another, and however well sustained from an objective standpoint, each bears the characteristic stamp of the mint where it was coined. It would be impossible to mistake the origin of any of them, or any fragment thereof, if no name were affixed, or to attribute it to any other pen. So that not only musicians, but amateurs and diletantti who are susceptible, will recognize a detached strain from one of Chopin’s works on hearing it for the first time, more readily and infallibly than one from any other tone master. Each of his creations has received a subtle warmth, an idealized and indefinable sheen, from the touch of his personality, that is as plain as his signature for all those who have ears to hear and hearts to understand.

The Pole Conceived, the Frenchman Executed.
In Chopin’s compositions it was usually the Pole who conceived;and it was always the Frenchman who executed. In the choice of his themes, musical and poetic, his Slavonic nature predominated, as well as in the prevailing character of the moods which he expressed;while the Frenchman in him kept jealous watch over the perfection of the form, and elaborate yet always logical development of the ideas, and the careful finish of every minor detail. To the Pole is due that unfailing fount of emotion, varying in kind but never in degree, not spasmodic and fluctuating, but always at flood tide. To the Frenchman we owe that matchless musical diction, fluent yet forceful, avoiding to a nicety the two extremes of laconic angularity and excessive elaboration.

His Strength that of Steel.
A very frequent error among superficial judges of Chopin is that of mistaking his refined elegance of manner for effeminate weakness of matter. They ignore the familiar fact that the greatest strength is often combined with supple grace. Since when has polish been a real detriment to power? Since when has tempered steel been of less strength and value than crude iron? Chopin’s genius in this respect reminds us of one of those famous Damascus blades, potent et pliant, trusty and trenchant, despite its gold-leaf tracery, its jeweled hilt, and its velvet scabbard.

Earnest, whole-hearted patriotism, tender sympathy for the woes and burning indignation for the wrongs of his country, were omnipresent, well nigh omnipotent factors in his creative activity as they were in his personality. And though in many of his smaller pieces he gives utterance to his purely personal feelings and fancies, most of his greatest compositions may be directly or indirectly traced to national episodes and experiences, and embody some great moment, or vital sentiment, taken from the life of his once glorious, but now down-trodden nation.

Notable among these are the heroic polonaises, with historic origin and feudal pomp, the great sonata with the “Funeral March,” which may justly be called a national tone-epic, and the four ballades founded upon poems of the Polish bard, Mickiewicz, who like Tennyson in his “Idyls of the King,” crystallized some of the vague, floating, half-mythologic traditions of the early days of his country into modern verse.
 
When we consider how closely Chopin’s interests and sympathies were linked with his native land, when we contemplate the history of that land, so bright with rosy hope and golden promise in the beginning, so stained with tears and blood as we proceed, so polluted with infamy, so torn and violently defaced at the close, when the strength and perfidy of three allied powers of Europe united to write the one word Finis, how can we wonder at the undertone of hopeless sorrow, of black despair, that sounds so frequently through the harmonies of this Polish patriot, and which has often brought upon him the criticism of those who seek in art only a comfortable optimism or a pious resignation, and who forget while they censure as morbid and sickly the depth and delicacy of moods which they are incapable of understanding, that every great poet, whether in tone or words, since the world began, when he would sing his best of truth and beauty, has tuned his lyre to a minor key?

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