Chopin’s ‘Soul and Heart’
By BYRON JANIS
PUBLISHED IN THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ON MARCH 9, 2010
March 1 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great composer and pianist Frédéric François Chopin. Or was it? Not according to his sister Ludwika, Franz Liszt and Chopin’s close friend Jules Fontana. They all said, at one time or another, that he was born on March 1, 1 809, despite Chopin’s insisting his birthday was a year later. To add to the mystery, there is a birth certificate issued by the parish church in Brochów, Poland (and on display there to this day)-near Zelazowa Wola, the small town outside Warsaw where Chopin was born. It gives us still another date: Feb. 22, 1810, the same date inscribed on Polish monuments and on his burial site at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Chopin was born of a French father and a Polish mother, and though he lived half his life in Paris, his heart and soul were always with Poland. His passion for music showed itself early-even at age 3 he would cry whenever he heard it. His mother, an amateur pianist, decided to give him lessons and taught him what little she knew. Fortunately, both his later piano teachers recognized the boy’s genius and did not try to force the conventional methods of playing on him. They let him go his own way, freeing him to become the unique, great pianist he was.
At age 7 he wrote his first composition and gave his first public recital-to tremendous acclaim. He continued studying piano and composition at the Warsaw Lyceum and gave highly successful concerts that made him the toast of Warsaw.
In 1831 Chopin moved to Paris, where he spent his time performing and teaching piano. It was there that he met George Sand, who became his lover. The two spent many summers at Sand’s country home in Nohant, where Chopin composed some of his greatest music.
After their eight-year love affair ended in 1847, Chopin was never the same. He died less than two years later. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, but the autopsy stated “cause unknown.” His close friends agreed that he died of a broken heart.
In 39 brief years Chopin managed to compose over 180 works for piano, and except for three piano sonatas and two concertos, most of them last no more than three to five minutes. Chopin’s mastery of the genre shows itself in his magical preludes and mazurkas. His 24 études, which are basically technically challenging exercises, have been transformed into beautiful music by Chopin’s genius.
The ballade, full of dramatic intensity, mainly inspired by Polish epic poems, was a new musical form invented by Chopin. He converted the scherzo, originally a musical jest, into a work of a completely different nature. “How is gravity to clothe itself if humor wears such dark veils?” Robert Schumann once observed of these works. Chopin also transformed the polonaise, a dance that predated him, into a Polish processional march. One Chopin polonaise even gave us the popular song “Till the End of Time.”
Chopin was born just as the Romantic Period started-in fact, he was one of its initiators. But in his outlook he also harked back to the Classical Period of Bach and Mozart-the only two composers he really loved. He blended classical restraint with romantic feeling, detesting any exaggeration that would turn sentiment into sentimentality. To recognize that is to play Chopin’s music the way he wanted it played-the way he himself played it. Yet there’s more to it than that. To play his music as he felt it (as we learn from his writings) is to free it of all earthly bonds. As artists, that is our greatest challenge.
Chopin’s physical strength was limited not only by his delicate physique, but by his battle with tuberculosis. As a result, many who heard him perform in public auditoriums complained that his tone was almost inaudible. Yet genius that he was, he found a way to handle and transcend his limitations. He devised a tonal palette scaled down to the softest sound possible, increasing to a mezzo forte (half-loud) that sounded like a fortissimo by way of contrast.
Like the man, Chopin’s music was a mystery. Nothing like it had ever been heard before, nor has it been since. Liszt would introduce Chopin to friends with words that captured that otherworldly quality: “I want you to meet a man who comes from another planet.”
No word is more important in describing the playing of Chopin’s music than rubato. It comes from the Italian word robare, to rob, but in music it means “give and take.” If you steal a little time here, you’ve got to give it back. For example, in playing a melodic phrase, if you go forward in the first two bars, you must pull back in the next two so that the freedom you took does not break the rhythmical pulse. The classic feeling will come from the left hand, which Chopin insisted should be played as evenly as possible. Then the right hand can have its romance and play as freely as the left hand will allow. Every performer will use that freedom differently, and that is the beauty of the “disciplined freedom” that makes Chopin Chopin.
Chopin said the Polish word zal-a “bittersweet melancholy”-best described much of his music. Paradoxically, it can also mean anger, even rage, an emotion also found in Chopin’s musical vocabulary. Schumann agreed, describing Chopin’s music as “cannons buried in flowers.” For example, listen to the Ballade in G-minor and the Scherzo in C-sharp minor.
When I was 7 and first “met” Chopin, his music touched a special place in me that nothing else had. I wanted to know more about the man. I discovered he was, like his music, filled with intense emotions and tender poetry.
It was not only playing his music that brought me close to Chopin. In 1955 I visited Nohant, and had the thrill of unexpectedly meeting George Sand’s granddaughter, Aurore Lauth Sand. She was 11 when her grandmother died in 1876 and remembered her vividly. To have played a Chopin nocturne for her, in the very room where it was written, was one of my life’s most unforgettable moments.
Then in 1990 Andrew Borey, the great-great-grandson of Chopin’s sister Ludwika, walked into my life. This charming, elegant Polish gentleman and I became very special friends. When I recorded an all-Chopin CD in 1996, you can imagine how moving it was for me to have Andrew and his son George sitting on the stage with me.
Chopin’s own words perhaps best describe him: “Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars. Beethoven infuses the universe with the power of his spirit. I do not climb so high. A long time ago, I decided my universe would be the soul and heart of man.”
Chopin knew that climbing higher was not the only way to reach heaven.
Reproduced with permission of the WSJ