In 1836, Robert Schumann told the composer who had dropped by that his favorite of Chopin’s compositions was the Ballade in G minor, Op. 23, and the composer agreed with his judgment. Anton Rubinstein thought that everything to be revered in music died with Chopin in 1849, and for this declaration, he has been condemned as a “reactionary.” Sergei Rachmaninoff declared that the Chopin Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35, had everything in only 19 minutes, and his hair-raising performance of 1929 is an indispensable statement, rivaled perhaps by the recording of Alfred Cortot from the same period. Personally, I wouldn’t want to live without either; and there are numerous recordings made in the last few decades worthy of a listen, beginning with that of Ivo Pogorelic.
But Percy Grainger thought that the B minor Sonata, Op. 58, was the greatest sonata ever written by anyone, and he recorded it in that spirit. Claudio Arrau thought that Chopin’s greatest works were the nocturnes. I daresay that other sets of Chopin’s devising could be claimed as his best works, the mazurkas most certainly, because of their charm, their mystery, their daring, their passion and proliferation—a lifelong or, should I say, life-short obsession of the composer. Other sets we would dismiss, the waltzes being one, except when they are played as they were by Cortot or Dinu Lipatti. The impromptus are also not that imposing, and not as good as Schubert’s. But much of the rest of Chopin’s output is on the list: the ballades commandingly; the études in spite of their formulaic nature; the preludes (Op. 28 and the isolated one, Op. 45); the scherzi—the fourth of which is the only late work of Chopin to which I take exception. Unique accomplishments like the Barcarolle and the Polonaise-fantasie are sui generis. And the polonaises are grand things, in spite of the distorting popularity of the most familiar one.
If there’s any great composer who is all too familiar, that composer might be, or even must be, Frédéric François Chopin, and for several reasons. He is too familiar because of the sheer appeal of his works, so often ripped off by Tin Pan Alley. He is too familiar because, in the cities of the world, you hear his works being hacked at by one student or amateur or another. He is too familiar because all the big pianists played his works, with a few exceptions—but those who did didn’t like to program his works anywhere but last. He is too familiar because he has been done by the movies, after he had been done by legend, after he had been done in by a fatale case of tuberculosis and a femme case of George Sand; and in this instance, the legends were ironically and Byronically true.
He is too familiar for all of the right reasons and most of the wrong ones. What José Iturbi did to him wasn’t much worse than what Arthur Rubinstein did, though it was rather better than what Liberace did to him. Success and fame have a way of being worse than failure, somehow! I have heard a lot of Chopin in my life, probably too much, but of course never enough. The best I ever heard was not in a recital hall but in private spaces, and I must thank Carlo Lombardi threefold—for the privileged occasions, the brilliant performances, and the vivid memories. Another memorable occasion was beneath a dome in a Palladian mansion—old Frédéric would have approved of such a privilege, without a doubt.
If Chopin is a great composer, he is certainly an odd one, idiosyncratic to a fault. As for example, though he was fastidious in many ways, his liaison with George Sand did not fit the bill, and neither do his manuscripts, which don’t look like the products of a fussy perfectionist. But any lack of polish was never a lack of Polish, or of Polishness.
Chopin was a famous pianist, but also one who played in public only a few times in his brief career. He was nothing if he was not Polish, yet he lived in exile for half of his life. This uneasy station worked for him in at least two ways. First, it institutionalized his nostalgia and focused his imaginative identity. And this exile itself, though not so visible to us today, was a widely shared social matter in the Paris of the 1830’s and 40’s. Chopin lived within the community of hundreds of Polish exiles in the Paris of those days. We should then imagine that Chopin was more, not less, Polish, even in his exile. And we should be prepared to understand that some of his work alludes to a very particular politics and passion. The very familiarity of Chopin—his deceptive accessibility and even the Hollywood treatment—is a barrier to be overcome. It was so from the beginning. Back in the late 19th century, the dramatic Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor was nicknamed “the Governess,” because so many governesses in proper England played the thing! Great piece that, but let’s not overdo it, shall we?
Now, when I say politics and passion, I mean more than the obvious Romantic nationalism that is all too familiar to us from so many of Chopin’s mazurkas and polonaises. As examples of Romantic sensibility and of the musical exploration of specific identity, these are the best things of their kind, as the public has known since Chopin’s day. But after all the decades, these and other pieces are being interpreted in new ways today, and with remarkable results.
Some of this interpretation is historicist rethinking of Chopin’s works and connections with the microdetail of his time. But familiar works of Chopin’s orient the layman or the ordinary listener to the historicist supercharge in ways that were underlined by Chopin himself as matters of musical construction. Chopin insisted on flaunting outrageous juxtapositions at his audience—the radicalism of his presentations could suggest that other insinuations may have been less obvious, but were still there for a more restricted circle of listeners.
The first of Chopin’s scherzi we cannot miss. Fierce and even grotesque, the anxious violence of the first scherzo is interrupted by a cradle song, a carol for the Infant Jesus. When the outer section is resumed, it does so as an act of unprepared, unmodulated incursion, which leads to parallel scales that are both elegant and violent. This piece is the only one of Chopin’s that puts me in mind of Alkan—it is a brutal beauty, a paradox, and though familiar, it is above all strange. This is a piece related to the Gothic and the sublime, and the connection with religious references is insisted on. We cannot be surprised to know that this piece was written in exile during Poland’s November Uprising of 1831; the “Revolutionary Étude,” Op. 10, No. 12, was written in the same situation.
One avenue of association and connection has to do with what Jan Wecowski has called “Religious Folklore in Chopin’s Music” in Vol. 2 of the Polish Music Journal in 1999. He has identified hymnal- and carol-based musical derivations in Chopin’s études—Op. 25: Nos. 4, 7, and 11 (“the Winter Wind”)—and other pieces. This makes sense in our experience of listening to Chopin, for he often seems to be pushing an agenda while, at the same time, concealing or equivocating, as though he composed mysterious allegories. This element of religious association is one path, but not the only one.
Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49, is one of the finest works of his maturity, yet its burden is evasive. There is a Polish element, obviously, and marching episodes that seem hortatory in some way. But Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski has insisted that in the display of the elements of the Fantasy is a distinct allusion to the Litwinka of Karol Kurpinski, an insurrectionary song that was well known in the Polish society of Chopin’s Paris. Jonathan Bellman, in his 2010 monograph Chopin’s Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom, has pointed out that the “Lithuanian Song” itself contains a phrase from a mazurka that would become the Polish national anthem.
Kurpinski, senior to Chopin and also benign to him, provided musical models as well as ideas about musical composition, including narratives that would be freighted with reminiscences of musical associations. In his larger works, certainly Chopin seems to have responded to Kurpinski and also to the Polish society in Paris. But Chopin gave them what he wanted to—not what they thought they wanted, which was a Polish opera that would display their political vision.
Chopin knew what his métier was, always. And if he had a political vision, he knew that it could be a source and an inspiration, but not a didactic declaration. For if the Romantic vision was not art, then it was that much less than a vision. A musician could get entangled in politics, even disastrously so, as when Kurpinski composed a Polonaise in D major to greet the czar of Russia in 1825. In only a few years, that seemed a dreadful mistake. Zdzislaw Jachimecki has suggested that Chopin ironized Kurpinski’s obsequious polonaise in his own tragic Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No. 2—a transcendent rebuke, perhaps, but yet a beauty!
The music of Chopin may be too well known or too charming or too delightful, and I am not saying that it isn’t. But it is also mysterious, passionate, and even frightening. It encroaches on realms of disturbed feeling and troublesome contemplation that are the barren province of the inspired exile whose works only slowly yield their substantial secrets, more than two centuries after their creator’s birth.