The Poet of the Piano, Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, is part of the international musical consciousness; he is timeless with all his poetry and melodies, honesty and humility
Published in Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly
The media is expected to discuss news or provide analysis that is linked more or less directly to current events. In this context, writing about Frédéric Chopin might seem surprising. Why now? But I would say, why not?
Chopin is no stranger to the Egyptian audience and many pianists include the composer’s work in their recitals or dedicate whole evenings to him. On 22 January, indeed, Mohamed Shams will feature some Chopin, alongside Beethoven and Liszt, in his recital at the Cinema Zamalek.
But Chopin is an artist one needs no excuse to bring up. He is part of the international musical consciousness and he lives within the souls of many people; he is timeless and always present. Chopin’s music rises above time and space, where the beauty of melodies and harmonies are but a translation of the deepest emotions.
The Poet of the Piano, as he is often referred to, Chopin was born on 1 March 1810 — according to his family — though the certificate of his baptism points to 22 February in the same year. Again, according to the family records, Chopin’s first, semi-public performance took place on 3 May 1818, while he was in his eighth summer.
In May 1829, Chopin left his native Poland for Vienna, a city where “people only liked the waltzes of Strauss and Lanner,” as he wrote in a letter. Over two years later, in October 1831, he moved to Paris where he lived years of plenitude and where during a soirée with friends in April 1837, he met the French writer Georges Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) with whom he had a love affair. In 1847 Chopin’s health began to deteriorate; his relationship with Sand was also drying up. Chopin died on 17 October 1849.
Timid by nature, and given to avoiding big crowds, Chopin used music as the channel through which to express love, passion, ardour, grief, sorrow, joy, fear, envy, pity and dozens of timeless emotions.
A renowned Polish poet and Chopin’s contemporary, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, wrote of him, “Born a Varsovian, a Pole in his heart, and in his talent a citizen of the world”. What I would add to this sentence is “a citizen of the world filled with emotions of all shades and colours”. His compositions were in part nurtured by his native Poland but his relations with music extend in many directions beyond geographical and national borders.
One of Warsaw’s landmarks is a bronze monument created by Wacław Szymanowski in 1907 and placed in the city’s Royal Baths Park (Łazienki Park). The monument depicts the composer lost in thought under what ought to be the windblown weeping willow — a tree that characterises the country’s rural areas, its meadows and pastures — whose branches loosely imitate the pianist’s hand. The metaphor aims to capture the deep nostalgia of Chopin’s longing for his homeland, a feeling shared by Poles longing for their composer.
Such mutual nostalgia has always been very strong. So much so that, before his burial at Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery, Chopin’s heart was removed from his body and transported to the church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw, to be kept there. One story has it that this had been the composer’s own request, because he was afraid of being buried alive, or because he wanted his heart to rest in his lost paradise: Poland.
Whatever the reason, let’s blame this rather unconventional move on the melancholia running through Romantic souls. Scientists believe that the sample DNA of the organ could serve some valuable findings such us providing more detail about Chopin’s health conditions and death, but in 2008, the Polish Ministry of Culture ruled out any encroachment on the pickled heart.
On Preludes and Sonata no. 2
Like many prodigies’, Chopin’s life was rather short, but he lived long enough to leave us with plenty of great music and universal emotion.
Poetic honesty emanates from all of his works, with each carrying its own unique combination of melody and harmony. The dramatic feel in Scherzo No. 2 op. 31, the heroism of the Polonaise Op. 53 (hence it’s name, “heroic”), the radiance of the Grande Valse Brillante Op. 18, the piercing longing in Waltz No. 7 Op. 64 no. 2, the sparkling Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66; the conflicting thoughts in Ballade op. 23 in G minor are but a few of the colours on display.
Chopin offers the same fulfilling journey through emotions in both individual pieces and in compact form, as is the case with his 24 Preludes Op. 28, one of my favourite displays of feelings. For piano students they are a great exercise and for accomplished pianists they test the performer’s intimacy with Chopin’s style.
A happy agitation resides in the opening Prelude no. 1 in C major, recalling the more tormented no. 8 in F-sharp minor or its fearful, tense sibling, a very brief Prelude no. 14 in E-flat minor. It is no. 14 that recalls the final movement of Chopin’s sonata no. 2 Op.35 in B-flat minor, but let us return to this.
The perfect musical nuance comes in Prelude no. 2 in A minor, which Alfred Cortot named “a painful meditation, the distant deserted sea,” but aren’t those two images somehow contrasting? They probably miss the complexity of chagrin that Chopin forged. The sun emanates from no. 3 in G major, where the pianist can showcase the finesse of the left hand, before moving to the famed no. 4 in E minor, in which melancholy is more soothing than upsetting.
No need to analyse all 24 Preludes, of course. But whenever we listen to the whole set, we end our walk with the ambiguity of no. 21 in B-flat major, the rebellious no. 22 in G minor, a laid-back fairyland — if I may paraphrase Cortot — apparent in no. 23 in F major. We eventually reach the magnum opus, the Prelude no. 24 in D minor, a key often linked to death — for instance Mozart’s Requiem carries the same key. In Chopin’s prelude, however, death is not sorrowful, but a thoughtful reconciliation with inevitability.
Just like all Chopin’s works, the Preludes are rich in contrasts and textures, conflicting thoughts on the one hand and unified concepts on the other. They capture life, nature and people, all summarised in a few bars. This does not mean that Chopin imitated emotions, or actions; he was only inspired by them, they all nurtured him as he translated them into music.
But one of my most recurrent thoughts about Chopin concerns the values of life and death. Maybe it was Chopin’s weak health that infused his music with this ability to see so many layers of life while being aware of the eventual dark curtain. This however does not mean that to Chopin life ends with death, as the ethereal existence continues, expressed through torment or hope.
A story of life’s continuum is so beautifully captured in Chopin’s sonata no. 2 Op. 35, famed for its third movement, the poignant funeral march (Marche Funebre). The sonata was played at Chopin’s funeral at Père Lachaise in 1849. I like to look at this sonata as a reflection on the stages of life, which as you might expect lead to an end or a closure.
It is a somewhat evolving frame of mind. The first movement (Grave — Doppio Movimento) brings many passions to the fore: the energy, the curiosity and youthful elasticity, balancing them with occasional gloomy moods. The spring of life and its confusions are all here. The second movement, Scherzo carries a noble strength as the piano sings of emotional maturity and wisdom. Such pure serenity, however, does not give way to inertia, since every now and then the music awakens us with its vitality.
It is in the third movement that the presence of death is evident, whether as a fait accompli or as something still approaching, crippling the soul long before the body has surrendered. Death is present not because it is a Marche Funebre, but because it is death playing on the keys of our emotions. The lento segment is a lyrical weeping over the inevitable final curtain. I feel that even if death comes in the third movement, its true realisation comes with the Finale-Presto, the brief anxiety which raises more questions than it provides answers.
The real and piercing unknown comes after the last note is played. Silence.
Once we realise the journey has ended, the soft reverberation gradually thins in the air while we are still trying to savour its beauty. Silence embraces the subtle emotional discharge but the audience hardly ever waits before showering the pianist with a sparkling ovation, leaving little room for the emotions to depart at their own slow pace.
Chopin’s music teaches us a lot about the composer, his home country moulded into universal casts — and ourselves as humans: our longings, hopes, fears and joys.
Chopin is not only a list of Ballades, Etudes, Polonaises, Scherzos, Waltzes, Mazurkas, works for piano and orchestra, violin, cello and voice, etc. While these express their own colours and Chopin’s genius, at the end of the day what you find in this work is simply music — all you hear is Chopin, the one and only, with all his poetry and melodies, honesty and humility.
Take what you will — the composer’s gift is sure to make you richer.