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How Chopin Played

Interesting Side Lights Upon Chopin and His Methods of Interpretation.
By Wanda Landowska.
[Editor’s Note.—The following is an excellent collection of contemporary opinions upon the playing of the great Polish pianist and composer, Frederic Chopin, whose compositions are more frequently played by students and teachers than those of any of the other great composers for the piano. This article is by a well-known Polish virtuoso, who has attained European celebrity, particularly for excellent interpretations of Chopin. Translated expressly for The Etude from Musica.]
The piano was Chopin’s sole confident. Lacking any ambition for the turmoil of the orchestra, he resisted the temptation, using Liszt’s phrase, to fill a hundred writing-desks with each scrap of melody. He has shown that it is possible to concentrate the highest order of genius into the smallest forms. His imagination abounds with sensuous fairy-like songs, home-sick dreams, with grief restrained by a lofty mind. His work could only have been written by a contemporary of Mickiewicz, and by just such another kind of man. All the misery of exile, suppressed fury, stifled rage, and the deep sense of the misfortunes of his unhappy fatherland, all his high conception of the nobility of ancient Poland are reflected with a richness, and a majestic simplicity that exclude all over-emphasis, and high-flown emotionalism.
The Polonaises martial and chivalrous, suggest the lofty bearing of a plumed gallant; in the Ballades sad phantoms, clad in the national dress of Poland, parade before us, and the Mazurkas suggest the national dances of the country, playful, melancholy, yet full of an air of careless ease and dignity.
The chief characteristics of Chopin’s genius are a sincerity and buoyancy that give his compositions an air of being happily inspired improvisations. One is not conscious of the “development” so dear to the hearts of the great German Masters, who insist on working the theme in and out, tormenting it until it has rendered its last drop of blood. He rarely allows himself to be hidebound by form. His freedom of movement, harshness, brusquerie, capriciousness, make one think of some immense plain, where the spirit is free to move at will with never a boulder nor crag to stop it. It is to these plains that we betake ourselves with our teskuota and zal (words untranslateable in any language) our dim regrets, lassitude, and the tears with which our music and poetry are impregnated.
The works of Chopin give expression to so many of the sentiments that, performed according to his methods, display the most characteristic traits of his race. Dreamily delicate, yet with a refined elegance, he appeals in his elusive contours, indecisions, and uncertainties to what is changeful, and sensual in ourselves.
Played in his own way, the ornamental passages never interfere with the purity of the melodic outline. His characteristic turns, his arabesques, and delicate tracery, are all transparent, and never hide the principle idea. The nocturnes, valses, and impromptus depict for us his most intimate self; his impressionable spirit expresses itself with an ease and spontaneity hitherto unprecedented; they depict his life in society, where “he passionately adored three women at the same soiree, and ran away rather than betray himself to one of them,” and his melancholy return to his own home, where “like a hysterical woman, he gave himself up to a night of insomnia, in a fever of mind” (Georges Sand), Passion with him never descended to prosaic realism; he revolted from bucolic joviality, and brute force.
In spite of his admiration for Beethoven, he resented the length of some of the German Master’s works. Schubert appeared to him too much of the earth, earthy, and the playing of Liszt rarely gave him satisfaction. His favorite masters were Mozart and Bach. For entire days before his own recitals he shut himself in his room and played Bach without ever studying his proper work.
His execution, according to his contemporaries, was perfect, and his touch so beautiful, that at times his audience was moved to transports. Moscheles tells us that Chopin’s interpretations corresponded with his appearance, both being delicate and dreamy. “It was only after hearing him play,” said Moscheles, “that I commenced to comprehend his music, and to understand the enthusiasm he aroused among women. His ad libitum consists of an absolute distortion of the regular rhythm, and is not the most fascinating of his peculiarities; certain qualities of harshness in the modulations did not shock me so much, for his fingers glided over the keyboard with a fairy-like swiftness; his piano is so gentle that he has no need for a very powerful forte in order to obtain the contrast he desires.”
Chopin held the very highest ideals with regard to playing the piano. His pupils tell us that the first few lessons with him were a veritable martyrdom. The touch must always be crisp (sec?) and the least detail that did not correspond with the master’s idea was severely reprimanded. In order to place the hand in a position that was graceful, and at the same time advantageous, he made his pupil place it on the keyboard very lightly. His style always depended on delicacy of touch, and great simplicity of phrasing. He disliked affectation, and, in consequence, all grandiose movement.
“How many of the modern virtuosi offer us that which Chopin dreamed?” writes the famous biographer of the master, Professor Niecks, in his remarkable work: “Chopin als Mensch und Musiker.”
In one of the rooms in Pleyel’s house there is to be seen in one corner, a little old mahogany piano ornamented with simple bronze. It is the piano of Chopin, on which he composed the Fantasie in F Minor, the Funeral March, the Scherzo in D flat major, and some preludes, nocturnes, and mazurkas. The pianists and employés of the establishment regard this relic with reverence not unaccompanied by compassion. “He plays with elegance,” said Felix, after Chopin’s first concert in Paris, “but he gets very little out of the instrument.”
After Chopin’s first concert in Vienna, we read in the “Wiense Theater-Zeitung:” “He played with the lightness of touch that has caused him to be so much talked of in distinguished circles, but without the rhetorical readiness judged indispensable by all the virtuosi.”
Chopin was well aware of this, but believed himself right and never attempted to correct the alleged fault; on the contrary, he did all he could to avoid “piano-fighting.”
“One soon becomes accustomed,” he writes from Vienna, “to the thumping of the Virtuosi; I forsee reproaches in the newspapers, the more particularly as the daughter of one of the editors thumps pitilessly.” Liszt once tried to encourage him to perform in the big salons. “No,” replied Chopin, “a large crowd makes me uncomfortable, but you are well adapted for it, for if the audience is not responsive you can always browbeat it!”
Lenz, the pupil of Chopin, once accompanied his master to the house of the Countess Chérémétiène, for whom he had promised to play the Variations from Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major (Op. 26). “He played it admirably,” says Lenz. “I was forced to marvel, but solely at the beauty of the sound, by the touch, by the charm, and by the purity of the style.—But it was not Beethoven; it was too light, too feminine!” On their return, the pupil frankly told his master of the opinion that he had formed, who replied: “I only indicate, only suggest, and I leave it to my auditors to complete the picture.”
They returned to the house, and when Chopin had gone into a neighboring room to change his clothes, Lenz had the hardihood to set himself to play the same Beethoven theme. The master quietly came into the room in his shirt-sleeves, and approached the piano, listening intently until the end; afterwards he put his hand on his pupil’s shoulder, and said: “I must tell Liszt; it will amuse him; that was well played, but was it necessary to be so declamatory?”
Liszt affirmed that anything in music, literature and life resembling melodrama inspired Chopin with a profound aversion. If his pupils are to be believed, his Tempo Rubato had little in common with that of the modern virtuosi and their “Tempo Epileptic” (the mot is de Willy’s), who play the figurations and arabesques with exaggerated emphasis. The Rubato Chopin wanted was a fine nonchalance, and not disorder; the left hand ought to keep time, while the right hand moves in sympathy with the idea. He used to say: “The left hand is the Kappelmeister.”
All his contemporaries are agreed as to the clearness and evenness of his playing, and to his aversion to a high-flown, emphatic style. His pupil Guttman declares that Chopin’s playing was always very restrained, and that the incomparable poet of the piano rarely had recourse to a fortissimo. ’ In his execution of the Polonaise in A flat major, he most decidedly does not employ the strength and heaviness to which certain virtuosi have accustomed us. He used to commence the famous octave passage pianissimo, and maintain it to the end without any crashing dynamic progression.
He disliked all clamorous effects, and all “fireworks” in general. If Chopin were to rise from his grave to-day, he would certainly be surprised to find that his works have been made the vehicle for precisely such purposes, and that they are a kind of “race-track” (if I may be permitted the expression) for record-breaking in swiftness, and acrobatics of all kinds. He would certainly be more than astonished to find how much useless effort and bad workmanship is expended on his works. And the Couperin of the Nineteenth Century would be surprised to hear one of his valses transcribed for fourteen clarinets, and his preludes and nocturnes set to stupid words, and screamed full-lunged by Italian singers.

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