"Guns Smothered in Flowers"
(Schumann's description of Chopin's Music)
My "Take" on Chopin
The Importance of his work (then and now) and why I LOVE IT!
-------First of all, WELCOME to my Chopin
homepage! A few years ago, I stumbled-onto Chopin's music by way of a renewed
interest in playing the piano as an adult. A couple of years ago, I stumbled-upon
the internet. Since I fell in love with both, it became my dream to have
what I hoped would the best and most complete Chopin homepage on the internet.
Hopefully (until the one in Warsaw is done) I've taken some steps toward
that goal. I wanted a homepage that could serve as a resource for people
doing searches on Chopin, for any reason, as well as a source of all kinds
of information and media regarding my favorite composer. So these would
include links to other Chopin-related sites, pictures of Chopin, a complete
list of his works, some recommended books and recordings, MIDI and other
audio files, and some other, more unique information that would be of interest
to the Chopin fan. Almost all of these things can be found on the internet
somewhere or another, but I thought it would be helpful to have all of
them (or at least links to them) in one place. So it is my hope that, among
other things, this page can be a point of reference for anyone wanting
to find things about Chopin on the internet.
-------I have also chosen to add some more personal thoughts to the site, including the importance of Chopin to the world of music (then and now), an attempt to describe why some of us love Chopin so much, and also my personal descriptions of Chopin's many genres (or compositional styles). Hence, my "essay". It is easy to find dry, impersonal descriptions of his music, as in the liner notes with CDs, and many places on the internet. But I thought if you are interested enough in Chopin to visit my page, and furthermore to bother reading my "take" on him, you might enjoy reading another Chopin fan's personal thoughts on his music. So bear in mind that this "essay" is not meant to be academic, but more personal. I have no formal training in music, and my thoughts reflect my personal experience with his music, and will not necessarily back-up the more traditional interpretations of his music. That being said, thank you for visiting, and I hope you enjoy these thoughts.
-------In my opinion, Chopin was the most
influential composer of the 19th century, of course after Beethoven...
As I see it, he propelled the emerging Romantic era to it's greatest heights.
For me, Chopin was the beginning, middle and end of the Romantic era. Of
course, this might apply more to piano music. But for me he slam-dunked
the whole era, just like Beethoven did with the Classical era. Both men
left a massive wake behind them through which no one could navigate with
equal success. As I understand it, the Romantic era in music was about
a more personal and emotional expression of music. Beethoven shocked the
world with his candid and emotionally charged music and changed music forever.
What came next was an era in which composers had new tools and freedom
to express a whole new sensibility in their music. Beethoven paved the
way for composers to express a far wider range of emotionality. And thus
the Romantic era was born.
-------Earlier music, of course, had emotional elements, and much of it was profoundly emotional. After all, the experience of music is inherently emotional. One cannot help having emotional reactions to even the driest music. What I see as being new about the Romantic era, among other things, was the focus on emotionality as a primary ingredient in the music. Of course, opera had been around for a long time, and it was rich in dramatic and emotional content, but other musical genres of the day didn't seem to have the freedom to express emotions so directly. When I read a biography on Chopin (see my links page), I was surprised to learn that he was influenced primarily by vocal music like that found in Italian opera . Even at a very early age, his mother's singing would bring him to tears. It is fitting, however, that this should be the case. The human voice is naturally the most emotional instrument of all, and music, as well as the instruments it is played on, has always seemed to strive to imitate this most moving sound. Chopin brought this "singing" or cantabile style to his piano compositions from the onset. Even Van Cliburn's mother advised him to imagine singing the piece he was playing to guide him to a more effective expression of the piece. A female singer once even set words to some of Chopin's Mazurkas, to his delight - or so he told her...
-------Chopin began writing a wide variety of miniature expressions of an original and poetic nature. He soon wrote pieces that were among the most succinct and direct expressions of musical poetry and sentimentality that the world had ever heard. He then began to develop what I think is the most diverse "palette" or set of styles for writing music. He wrote Preludes, Etudes, Nocturnes, Mazurkas, Waltzes, Ballades, Scherzi, Sonatas, Impromptus, Polonaises, concerti, and a variety of other pieces. Each of these colors in his palette has a very distinct and unique quality and ability to express an amazing range of musical thoughts. Even within one of these colors, like the Preludes, one can find an incredible diversity of expression. He of course did not invent any of these genres (with the possible exception of the Ballade), but he elevated them to heretofore unknown heights (although Chopin would never compare his preludes to those of Bach!) No one had ever heard a Prelude like Chopin's before, and he changed the meaning of "Etude" forever. He elevated the Polonaise and Mazurka (folk dances from his native Poland) to art forms all his own. He didn't even invent the Nocturne, but the word, "Nocturne" will be forever associated primarily with Chopin.
-------More important than the wide variety of musical expression at his disposal was his unique ability to move the listener in such a direct, personal, and succinct manner. Succinct : Chopin minced few words when he wanted to tell you what he was thinking. Some of his shortest Preludes are the most complete and perfect expressions of musical thought to be found. Personal : no composer before him exposed his most inner self so nakedly. He literally tore himself open and showed you what was inside of him, no matter how painful, whimsical, lonely, confused, frightening. Direct : I think both of the aforementioned qualities combine to have a uniquely powerful and direct effect on the listener. The emotion or thought in the music is not parenthetical to or an aspect of the piece, but is the whole of the piece - simple or even complex emotions expressed in musical terms. This is part of what I find so compelling in Chopin. Chopin is often called the "poet of the piano" (or something to that effect). I think this is a fitting analogy. I know little of poetry, but I understand it to be, among other things, an art form whereby ideas or thoughts are made even more powerful by making them beautiful. Also, the ability to transpose a thought or feeling into words, or music, makes for an enlightening and very moving experience. Chopin's poetry could take the form of a thirty second prelude or a 30 minute sonata. Many composers were poets in their own right, but none, I think, to the extent that Chopin was. This is one of the hallmarks of the Romantic era. Why I think that Chopin "slam-dunked" the Romantic era was that he personified it - that no one else came so close to mastering all of it's potential.
-------Chopin, besides showing a wide variety of styles in which to compose, also displayed a complete mastery over all aspects of piano composition technically. Chopin's music is extremely rich texturally and rhythmically. He used syncopation between the right and left hands to wonderful effect - the melody played on the right hand often occurs between the time kept by the left. He used trills to a charming and elaborate extent. This device very common in earlier music was used by Chopin to a new sensibility in the Romantic era. He often invoked many other devices to add charm and intrigue to his pieces. Chopin also used pedaling, particularly the sustain pedal, with much more freedom than anyone before him to add even more richness and depth to his works. I think, technically, the element of harmony is where Chopin shined the brightest. All of his creations are studies in harmony - those which were conventional and many that few before him were willing to explore. Not only was the left hand rich in intriguing harmony, but many of his pieces had the right hand carry the melody in two part harmony throughout the piece. I think the Mazurkas especially display a wonderful variety of harmonic "flavors" that are intriguing and bewitching. Chopin's pioneering exploration of harmony paved the way for a lot of music that followed him.
-------Although my personal tastes go as far back as Bach in the history of music, I find few after Chopin that belong to be grouped with the likes of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Many people probably don't think Chopin even deserves to be included in such auspicious company. This may be a matter of personal taste, which I can accept. However, I think there is more to it than that. Chopin wrote almost exclusively for solo piano. For Chopin's legacy this was a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that the world was given a beautiful and extremely highly developed repertoire on such a universally loved instrument. And more importantly, the solo piano was the utmost vehicle for Chopin's personal and poetic style. Anyone who knows well both his solo piano work and his orchestral compositions will see why he abandoned the orchestra as a vehicle for his expression. I think the curse is that it has unfortunately relegated Chopin, in some peoples' mind, to a "piano composer". This is unfortunate for two reasons. Firstly, those not very familiar with Chopin's music may not be inclined to devote much time listening to him if they are not positively disposed to piano music, or have a preference for the orchestra. (I think this prevents him from getting his fair share of air-time on many classical music stations as well. Some seem to be unaware of much of him except for the unfortunately dubbed, "Minute Waltz"). Secondly, this implies that "piano music" is somewhat of a lesser genre - that the full scope and range of the symphony cannot be experienced from a solo piano. I think anyone familiar with the majority of Chopin's compositions already know this to be false.
-------After Beethoven, there was little else that the Classical era could do to expand upon it, so it faded away. Even though the Romantic era continued well after Chopin's departure, it's my own personal opinion that his wake was as awesome as Beethoven's before him, and there was little else to do with the genre. That's why I call Chopin the beginning, middle and end of the Romantic period. Through his vast array of styles and his incredible ingenuity, he simply did it all. Of course, music wasn't finished, but I think the Romantic era essentially was. Chopin was a tremendous influence during and after this period in musical history. So much of what was to follow owes an unpayable debt to Chopin. Without Chopin there would be no Debussy, Ravel, Faure, and the later piano music of Brahms, among many others. And Chopin continues to excersize his influence in the popular music of today. Bits and pieces of his Preludes and Nocturnes keep finding their way into modern music of all kinds, even commercials. This is true in the specific as well as the general sense. Just as Beethoven has, in a roundabout way, found his way into TV commercials and endless movie soundtracks (by way of Wagner et al), elements of Chopin's lyrical, catchy style is everywhere in popular music today. This element of melodic, lyrical composition is perhaps Chopin's most lasting and important legacy. So Chopin's importance to music is manifold.
-------What I find so immediately attractive about Chopin, besides the surface beauty of his music, is the redemption I find in his expressions of emotions and feelings that I thought were inexpressible. Furthermore, to hear them expressed in the most beautiful of music can be overwhelming. To hear one's most tender, confused, angry, ecstatic, wondrous thoughts expressed in the most emotional and direct of the artforms is not only cathartic but comforting. Chopin's music both validates and beautifies ones experience of life. Chopin's music is life-affirming. Even beyond this revelatory experience, Chopin's music reveals the beauty and wisdom lying beneath the surface of all suffering. In Chopin's music, sometimes the pain is overcome, sometimes it is not. Sometimes the struggle is won, and sometimes it is lost. However, there is always a lesson to be learned from life's hardships, and this is evident in Chopin's music. There are not answers but subtle clues that there is a higher power in the universe. Whether or not Chopin pitied himself, his music did not. He showed that at the very least the human experience is sublime and beautiful. From the beautiful darkness there usually emerges an understanding - some sort of transcendence. Chopin, in exploring his thoughts and emotions through music, always ended up in the same place - pure beauty. Maybe this means something for all of us - I know that it does for me.
-------After reading a couple biographies on Chopin, I got the impression that despite the unprecedented and uncompromising look he gave us into his soul, any final, clear understanding of the man is ultimately elusive. Chopin admired no one more than Bach, and Bach always believed that his music was not "his", but meant to be for the glorification of God. I think that all of the true geniuses in the field of music, whomever they may be for you, and whatever you define as music, (and if they *live* long enough) will transcend the desire to describe the human experience in terms of music and ultimately begin to approach God himself - which is, I believe, the ultimate expression of humankind, after all. Perhaps this is a sign of a true genius, or that Chopin was beyond genius itself. If this beautiful but elusive quality is not of humankind, but of God himself, then this is Chopin's highest and final gift to us.(Maybe this is why all the great ones die before their time is up...) In summary, I think that, for me, Chopin got as close as any of them.
-------"Essay II" is my personal description of Chopin's many distinct "genres" - not of individual pieces but their defining and differentiating characteristics, as I see them. These are similarly not meant to be strictly academic. Again, that can be found anywhere. I am basically a musical layman, so these thoughts are based on my own, personal experience with Chopin's music.