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Quality of Chopin's Genius

If it be one of the surest tests of genius that its possessor has many imitators but no successors, then must Chopin be in the foremost rank of the favored few,—not very lofty, not very profound, yet gifted with that rarest of all gifts—originality.
This hard-worked word, originality, is too often made the scapegoat for all sorts of artistic sins, through forgetting that it does not mean, cutting loose from all that has gone before, but only the power to re-create from the old material some new living form. This real originality is always a personal thing that can neither be communicated nor appropriated. It exists in some degree in every human being, since no two men or women have ever been exactly alike in mental constitution since the world began; but it is only when it is developed to that extreme degree that it can see new ideals behind the familiar things of earth that it gets the name of Genius.

Behind familiar things a Mozart sees deals of flawless, perfect beauty; a Beethoven, the heroic struggle of the soul, that in Carlyle’s words responds with the “everlasting no” to all the solicitations to half measures or weak compliances with the false or ignoble in life. But a Chopin sees ideals of grace, exquisite refinement, and beauty that is warm with human life, not the antique statuesque beauty of Mozart’s ideals.
To one who believes that what we call the workings of Nature are simply the manifestations of the Divine mind, every spark of Genius, even the smallest, is a sacred thing to be accepted with thankfulness. To the giants in music it was given to speak their great thoughts in many ways, the multitude of voices, the masses of the orchestra, were their fittest means of expression; yet the greatness of their thought could make itself known through even the simplest means. But to others it is given to speak through one medium only. This was the case with Chopin. The Piano was his Familiar, and it yielded up to him all its secrets, and enabled him to speak through it a language never heard before nor since.

His Genius was purely lyric; his attempts at large “forms” seem forced and unnatural essays in an unfamiliar tongue. This fact is sometimes stated as a derogation from his genius, but it is as unreasonable as to expect the rose to develop the sturdy stem and spreading branches of the oak, yet, the rose is just as essential a part in the “order of Nature” as the oak. Although a refined sentiment, that occasionally verges on sentimentality, is the main characteristic of Chopin’s music, it is not by any means lacking in sterner stuff; nor does it fail—especially when stimulated by his intense patriotism—to flame out as in the great Polonaise in A-flat with startling vigor.

It is constantly said that he imitated Field in his nocturnes. This seems about as reasonable as to say that, because some early unknown Italian painter painted a Madonna and Child, therefore Raphael imitated him when he painted the Dresden Madonna. In comparison with Chopin, Field’s nocturnes are colorless, evaporated to dryness; but Chopin’s will be played for many a year to come. They possess that chief essential to lastingness in any work of art—absence of Mannerism.

It was because his genius was confined within narrow limits that he performed his work so well. Confine a placid stream between narrow walls and it becomes resistless. He is often said to occupy an unique place in the history of music, but every great composer occupies an unique place; their divergencies are always greater than their similarities, else they are not worthy to fill their places.

Since Chopin no pianist has arisen who has drawn any new secrets from that instrument, nor does such a new Avatar seem possible; but until this new genius arrives—and even after the appearance of that mythical person, Chopin remains and will remain the first who discovered the unsuspected possibilities of this “domestic treasure,” the Piano.

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