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Chopin and the Music of Poland

Chopin! these two syllables breathe a magic spell. Whoever has laid his hands on a piano, nay, whoever has listened to a piano, whether it be in a concert hall or in a home, perhaps at twilight hour, with a soul trying to escape the encompassing fetters on the wings of melody, forever remembers and wishes to revert to the web of enchantment in which that magician held him. To analyze the subtle charm, to translate into words the radiance and fragrance, the storm and stress, the alternating grace and depth, the flights and depressions, the ever-changing but eloquent moods of that music, which vibrates like a human heart laid bare, would seem as impossible as to pull down a star from the moon-lit skies or catch a cloud swiftly wandering across space, vaporous yet shining, or thunder-laden.
An eminent Polish writer, Przybyszewski, rightly calls Chopin's musical power "meta-musical." Chopin seemingly reverts to and transports the listener back to that primitive age, when tone and word almost inarticulate and as yet inseparable, were the direct outburst, the one cry of overwhelming human emotion. Since the common birth of man's winged twins, evolution has not only separated music and language, but coiled up both into signs and symbols, terms and forms, differentiated and definite, till they became trivial and meaningless, soiled by common use. It is the privilege of high art, of romantic art in particular, if the term be taken in its emotional and imaginative sense, to create in man the illusion of Paradise Lost. This the art of Chopin achieves through the use of an idiom as novel and original as it is tasteful and refined; of a form where purity almost classical combines with richness unprecedented; through the fusion of spiritual loftiness and sensuous beauty never achieved before nor since at the piano; a blending of the music's message with the instrument's resources, such that Rubinstein well could say: "It was impossible to know whether the master had imparted his soul to the piano or himself embodied the piano's soul."
Chopin's piano style is more than idiomatic, if it be true that an instrument be something more than the outward projection, an aggrandizement of a human organ, as the camera is an unconsciously conceived but faithful reproduction of the eye. The piano has become with Chopin the necessary magnified human organ for an adequate expression of rich inner life, the speaking voice of a poet, the many-hued palette of a painter; hence his limitation to the instrument of his choice was as necessary and voluntary as it was unique in the history of musical art.
A supreme master of tone color and an innovator in that respect, Chopin was, indeed, as much as Wagner, with whom Mr. Finck advisedly compares him. Each of the two worked out the same miracle in his own sphere and with his own particular means: Wagner, in the music drama, in the splendors of his orchestra, Chopin, in the more intimate but not less unique and powerful tone-poems of a "piano bard" and "piano rhapsodist."
Besides the coloristic capacities of instrumental setting, harmony is the most efficient element of expressive tone-color. So it happened that Chopin and Wagner respectively, as they had widened the range of piano technique and orchestral resources, also achieved the most marvellous framework of opulent and startlingly novel harmonic texture. This has become, indeed, the very foundation of the modern harmonic idiom.
More subjective at heart than Wagner, who tried objectively to illustrate the action on the stage, Chopin, lyric poet of the piano, yet was stirred by externals to more or less realistically romantic attempts at portrayal. Some of his pieces seem almost symphonic poems for the piano, to which his letters sometimes give an interesting cue. He did not think fit to burden them with explanatory titles, still less with literary programs; but it is easy in some cases to discern the epic vein in the light of some generating poems or circumstances we happen to know about.
He never wrote an opera, as was suggested to him; but of dramatic intensity his work is full to the brim. The drama of a noble soul, imprisoned in a frail and worn body, of a soul that mirrored the aspirations of a race which was living then, as it is now, the most heartrending of dramas, would necessarily bring forth accents of deep and tragic pathos. Chopin, himself, claimed that his music embodied the soul of his beloved nation; indeed, like Mickiewicz, Poland's greatest poet, he could say: "I am a million, because for millions I love and suffer." One need not indulge in what Mr. Ernest Newman calls "race fallacy" to perceive and discern in Chopin's utterances, impassioned and moody, almost simultaneously sad and joyous, now dipped in the melancholy of our landscapes, now sounding the chivalrous pride and nobility of bygone days or the mournful echoes of dire times—the manifold and compelling chords with which the mysterious harp of the Polish soul is strung.
There are two ways of being national open to an artist: one, in the conscious use of characteristic peculiarities and of folk-lore; the other, through the mysterious and revelatory connection between the individual heart and the collective soul. "Memories of ante-natal dreams, combined with the memories of his young days, carried away from the native soil and its people and music, in those years of the soul's apprenticeship when it is most durably impressed, have made Chopin national in both senses. In an address delivered at Chopin's centennial in Lemberg, Mr. Paderewski has in nobly eloquent words explained why and how the entire Polish nation responds and vibrates to the music of Chopin, in which it unfailingly recognizes its very own features. The so-called tempo rubato, itself, universally identified with Chopin's style, could be termed a trait of our national life. Musically it is a craving for liberty; it is a rebellion against the artificial tyranny of bar-line and rhythmic regularity and constraint, "as if it were the yoke of some hated government."
Pole, pianist, poet, these three words sum up the quintessence of Chopin's personality, as well as any formula ever made. In these three fundamental aspects he was deeply subjective and revolutionary. Schumann said with the unerring insight of a kindred spirit: "Chopin's works are cannons buried in flowers." "A tone poet," Heine, his contemporary and friend, already called him. Of the pianist Mendelssohn said he performed marvels "which no one would ever have believed possible." But the world, those critics whom Schumann accuses of always lagging behind, ever was and still is apt to misunderstand and oppose boldness and delicacy alike. The piano is much maligned and belittled and Chopin suffers from that bias. Although his message reached the world outside of Poland by its force and humanity, few are broad-minded as Dr. Bie, who candidly confesses: "Why should a German's feelings be better or saner than a Pole's?" The human intellect eager to understand, but too prone to judge in its attempts to weigh the material, to measure the immeasurable, especially in this scientific age of ours, so conceited about its precisions and estimates, is apt to go astray in its pretenses to analytical and perfect justice. Prose alas, is ever ready to oppose poetry; hence the queer, disparaging talk about a genius like Chopin, against which Mr. Finck vehemently but righteously protests. The emotional nature of Chopin's inspiration, the very abundance and spontaneity of an improvisatory, creative genius, the racial versatility of his high-strung- nature, sufficiently explains his preference for smaller forms, which has been construed into "child-like helplessness" in the larger ones. The marmorean coldness of the sonata could scarcely appeal to him in its diffused rigidity. If it be true that form is but extended rhythm* and such rhythm be chiefly an intellectual element in music, the incompatibility of this tyranny with his nature is here illustrated in the same way as it is by his rubato. But this writer holds that some of Chopin's innovations in this field were most happy, and if some forms did not "master him," he nevertheless perfectly mastered such forms as suited the needs and contents of his message. §
As for the absurd legend of a "sickly," "effeminate" Chopin, it implies both a tribute to the feminine side of his genius—for creative artists are apt to be double sexed—and a strange blindness as to the fact that the author of the Polonaises and Scherzi, Ballades and Sonatas, the Fantasie, Etudes, and Barcarolle, was a Titan as well as a magician. The body struggled to the end against unforgiving illness, but inside a flame burned unflinchingly. The muse of the sick man in turns voiced the tenderness and glory of life, forebodings of death, even serene visions of the Beyond. On his very death-bed Chopin dictated music. I know of no higher achievement of manliness. Another achievement of man and artist alike was that Chopin worked and struggled hard—a solitary soul among the worldly crowd in which he moved—to overcome his improvisatory impulse, as if it were a deficiency, ever correcting and perfecting his conceptions with pitiless self-criticism and undaunted courage, before he could satisfy the aristocrat in soul and utterance he really was. The revelations of George Sand make of this a pathetic story. Mr. Huneker calls Chopin an "unconscious classic." If the very essence of art be choice, if only those who most deliberately sift and choose are apt to become classics, then the "greater Chopin" surely was a classic, although what we know of his efforts toward perfection would not make him an unconscious one. Unconscious, he only was in the divine part of inspiration that was his. But some would have us believe that there are higher and nobler ideals than his! Morals are indeed the "Circe of philosophers," as Nietsche says, and musical critics do not escape the temptation in their efforts for a class-room hierarchy of genius. As if art could have a nobler purpose than sincerity of heart allied to beauty of expression! This alliance is enough indeed to satisfy the legitimate human pride in artistic effort, to raise art above any other form of human play.
* Jules Combarien : La Musique, ses Lois et son Evolution,
§ l am glad to pay a tribute on this occasion to the illuminating book of Mr. E. Stillman Kelley, which deals with that side of Chopin's genius and to American critics such as Mr. Huneker and Mr. Finck, who have showed an insight and understanding of Chopin's art which it is perhaps permissible for a polish artist gratefully to commend.

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