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A Few Words On Chopin's Works.


All great composers for the pianoforte have imbued their music with their own personalities. Great music, however impersonal and objective it may be, is more or less a “human document,” a piece of faithful autobiography. An intelligent person could discover fairly accurately the chief points in the great composers’ characters if he had nothing more to guide him than the works of these composers. This is so because music is the most impersonal of all the arts. A man can not write great music except by revealing to some extent what experience has taught him.

Thus it comes about that the music of all our great composers is very varied, both in style and matter. Bach is as far removed from Chopin as is Mendelssohn from Schumann. And, as a general rule, it is the possession of one particular characteristic in a highly developed state that separates the quality of one man’s work from the quality of the work of another man. For instance; the quality that pervades most of Mendelssohn’s work is best described by the word “sentimentality “; in Chopin we have “poetry”; in Schumann “thought,” and so on. As a natural result, it follows that a pianist will be more successful in interpreting the work of a composer with whom he has much in common than he will be in the interpretation of the work of a musician whose whole mode of thinking and style of expression differ from his own. This explains why it is that so few pianists can play perfectly the compositions of more than one or two great composers. D’Albert is our Beethoven player, and Paderewski plays Chopin almost perfectly; but where is the pianist who can play the works of both these composers as they ought to be played? When a pianist who plays Chopin perfectly attempts one of Beethoven’s sonatas, the result is very often deplorable. The robustness of Beethoven is emasculated; the beauty of thought is turned into mere prettiness, and the general result is as far from what it should be as the interpretation of Chopin by a Beethoven player very often is. A pianist of wide sympathies is indeed a rara avis. Only once in a generation does one appear who is able to achieve the highest summit of musical interpretation.

Chopin demands so much from his would-be interpreter that very few of us can hope to play his music as he himself played it. But some of his shorter pieces are, by reason of the comparative simplicity of their technic, in the repertoire of nearly every pianist, and many advanced students are able to play from memory thirty or forty of the great Pole’s works. But how many of these pianists are able to give anything more than a mere satisfactory account of what they have learned? Very few, indeed. Chopin’s personality was such an extraordinary one, his thoughts so far above the thoughts and feelings of the ordinary man, that a large amount of sympathy is required of him who would interpret his works rightly. Technically, they are not particularly difficult; a large number of them are even quite simple; but their extraordinary originality, their wonderful weirdness and daringness, do more to hinder the student in his interpretation of them than any mere technical difficulty could. It is not that they are particularly remarkable for depth of thought or obscurity of expression; what lifts them so much out of the common is their fantastic delicacy and weirdness.

No hard and fast rules can be laid down for the right playing of Chopin’s music; but one rule can be followed with great advantage, and this rule is: “Play Chopin’s compositions as you feel them.” If you do this, and if you feel them in the same way that Chopin intended you should feel them, you may rest assured that you are playing them as they should be played. But the point to be observed is that you do feel his compositions as Chopin meant that you should. If you do n’t, the result will be disastrous. I well remember hearing a young lady play Chopin’s E-flat nocturne. Her technic was perfect, but her interpretation of the piece was absurd. She played that nocturne as though it was a merry waltz by Johann Strauss.

How, then, may one learn the true nature of Chopin’s genius in order that one may give fit interpretation to his works? First of all, it is quite possible, though hardly probable, that you will, at the very outset, find yourself quite out of sympathy with Chopin and his works. If this be so, the best thing to be done is to abandon all hope of ever becoming an interpreter of his compositions—it is of no use attempting to explain to others what you yourself do not understand. If you have sympathy with him, and if his works attract you and make you wish to know more of them, you must approach him with humility and endeavor to understood his many-sided personality.

Before making a study of Chopin’s works, it is advisable to obtain a good life of the great composer. Read it carefully, and by the light which it will shed on his character, attempt to discover the influence of his character on his works. By this means you will soon come to understand what he has to say to you. What beforehand appeared to be ridiculous idiosyncrasies will now be revealed as charms; what was exaggerated discord will now be the most entrancingly beautiful harmony. But all this will not come about without the exertion of a little study; but the progress will be so rapid that the study will become a pleasure, and the pleasure will soon develop into a delight. When you think you have a proper and fairly comprehensive knowledge of his character, study the rhythm of his dance music, particularly the rhythm of the polonaise and mazurka. Try to enter into the spirit of these dances and take care not to exaggerate Chopin’s poetry. Beware of the tempo rubato ! See that you are not tempted to indulge in it at all times. Study Chopin carefully—i. e., concentrate all your thought on one piece until you have mastered it thoroughly, until you understand what it means, and what it has to say to you. You will do well to leave the more advanced pieces alone until your technic is equal to them. You will accomplish a by no means easy task if you manage to play a dozen or so of his easier pieces perfectly.


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You are reading A Few Words On Chopin's Works. from the October, 1899 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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