When we contemplate a portrait of Chopin, when the remembrance of his fascinating melodies renews to us the life of these delicate, finely cut features of his face, from which it is so easy to guess an equally delicate slender body—the very idea of connecting him with anything so savagely heroic as a revolution seems absurd. This hypersensitive little man who, upon receiving back a book from a friend hastily opened it and said: “You have smoked while reading it—I smell it—you may keep it”! this diffident, retiring creature who was so afraid to let a written word go out of his hand that he would walk from one end of Paris to the other merely to avoid the writing of a letter; this, nevertheless, inwardly haughty little person to whom the very touch with the common riff-raff was so odious that he shunned any place where they could possibly be, and who selected all his associates—when not artists—from among the nobility; he—a revolutionist? Preposterous, you will say. And yet such he was!
The Polish Temperament.
He was a Pole; an educated Pole. He had the temperamental traits of his nation those traits which were the cause of its downfall. Impulsive, sensitive, romantically chivalrous, pugnaciously uncompromising, aroused to furious anger by the slightest cause for disagreement, the Poles carried on internal strife so long that it weakened them and made them an easy prey for the surrounding powers, who divided the kingdom among themselves under the plea that thus only could order be restored and internal peace secured. However much the Poles may thus have had to blame themselves, they felt the hands of their pitiless conquerors lying heavily upon them. As time went on the cause of the partition of their nation faded from their memory, but the sad fact, the partition, remained and kept rankling in their mind—as it does to this day.
Now, if the Poles were fiery in their resentment, their women were—and still are—perfect fanatics on this premise. When the men felt that further tugging at their chains was useless for the time being, the women would prod them up into renewed uprising; they used every means at their command; mothers would threaten their sons with their maternal curse; wives would threaten their husbands; loving maidens would resort to promises of blissful rewards. They were Megaera, Eumenides, and Erinyes rolled into one, and Chopin’s mother was of pure Polish blood, belonging to boot, to a family of nobility, impoverished by the rebellion of 1768.
The Polish Temperament in Chopin’s Music.
Frederic Chopin did not need to see the humiliation of even the noblest families to become a revolutionist; he was one by inheritance. With his frail physique he could not take arms against the oppressor, but he kept the fire of patriotism burning in the hearts of his compatriots by using that agency which nature gave into his hands and which is said to be even mightier than the sword. He took his place by the side of Mickiewicz and other great Polish poets and writers who sand and preached Poland and revolution; but, where their words spoke only to their countrymen, his word reached all over the civilized world.
Think of the Polonaise in E-flat minor! What a world of determined resentment it expresses! One can almost see the rebels assemble, secretly, stealthily, but with the grim determination not to outlive their national shame; to die, if needs be, but to die fighting. There is also ever present that melancholy undertone which reveals the anguish of the heart as to the doubtfulness of success. And this note of anguish rises at times to a cry of despair, almost of horror over the utter uselessness of the great sacrifice of blood and life.
And the one in C minor! How heroic in its sadness! And what is it that bursts forth from the C minor etude? It is the wail of Polish mothers after the battle of Warsaw (1831): “Oh! that the Czar may drown in our tears!” And the grand Polonaise in A-flat—is it not the dream vision of a distant future when Poland shall be victorious, free, independent again?
Enjoy Vladimir Horowitz performance of Chopin's "Polonaise in A-flat":
Chopin The Pole.
Has ever bard sung the woes and yearnings of his people more clearly, more forcibly, more nobly? Surely Frederic Chopin was a revolutionist, for the warriors of his tone-poems are not brutal aggressors, not savage invaders, but noble champions of a perfectly legitimate and worth—though extremely unfortunate—cause.
The revolutionary trait, however, is gregarious. It is a trait of masses rather than of individuals, in the sense that in the uprising of a people the individual merges his identity in the great body of the rebelling party. Hence we recognize in the works of revolutionary mood rather Chopin the Pole than Chopin the man, the Chopin we love, the dreamer, the poet. The essential Chopin, despite Poland and its misfortunes, is the solitary seer of wondrous visions, the idealist.
Man is never quite so much himself as when by himself; alone with his dreams, longings, aspirations; alone with his heart, with his God. The deepest recesses of the heart do not disclose themselves in the turmoil of popular uprisings. For these emanate from hatred (though love-begotten hatred); they call upon the coarser virtues, upon valor, strength, disdain of physical suffering, of death, and the call comes from temporal causes. But when night has calmed the tempestuous heart; when quiet reigns, and man, from a solitary vantage ground, contemplates the nocturnal sky; when the myriads of kindly lights shed the balm of consolation into his heart of storm driven clouds respond sympathetically to his mood, then—ah, then—the mind will turn to things eternal, universal, to God, to Love!
Chopin the Poet.
Yes, the Chopin of the Nocturnes, of the slower moving Preludes, of the C-sharp minor or A-flat major Etudes, of the Berceuse, is, after all, the real, the essential Chopin! And when his name is mentioned in our hearing, it is those works we remember first. The tramp of horsehoof and the clatter of arms, though frequent enough in his works, somehow recede from our memory to give precedence to his calmer, more resigned, more reconciled moods. And when our thoughts turn to his Valses and simpler Mazurkas, it seems as if a faint smile were stealing through his tears, a smile half bitter and half hopeful, like the smile of Heine.
A Revolutionist in Music Also.
But now, that we have the Chopin intime the real Chopin,—is the revolutionary trait totally absent in his works of quieter character? By no means! If I were asked: where is it? I should say in reply: Compare any work, no matter which, written for the piano before his time with any one of equal merit written afterward and see if the treatment of the piano is the same. Take Chopin out of the history of music and you create an ugly gap; but take him out of the history of the piano and you destroy it. it simply falls to the ground. Was he a rebel? Why, he rebelled against things that were believed in, as we believe in the law of gravitation! He rebelled against playing in time! Think of it! He was the first who became conscious that strictly measured time-beats are an artistic impossibility. He modestly applied his discovery only to his own works, but he nevertheless opened our eyes (or ears) to the fact that a certain freedom in time-beats must have pre-existed, for he did not invent that freedom which he so inaptly named tempo rubato, he discovered it! We understand to-day that neither Bach nor Beethoven could have so violated their musical nature as to always play in strict time; but we also understand that they used their freedom unconsciously. Of course, Schumann says: Play, in time! But he meant the obedience to a much higher law; he meant it esthetically, while, alas, he is mostly taken literally. That, however, is our mistake, not his. Yes, Chopin openly rebelled against strict time! Honor to his memory for it!
He also objected to the use of the pedal as a mere prolonger of tones. He saw its possibilities as a means of coloring and he did not care if two harmonies did get mixed so long as they were relatives as near as Tonic and Dominant. Was he a rebel?
What was the piano before his time? A substitute for the orchestra. Among sovereign instruments it was a vassal. And now? Now it is a sovereign like violin, voice, or organ, only a trifle more so. Where these are dukes, it is a king who bows to none but the imperial majesty of the orchestra.
But, you might ask, what about Beethoven’s sonatas? Are they not for the piano? Surely! Still, they are too absolutely musical to be pianistic. They do require a good piano technic, but it is rather that of the expert interpreter of orchestra scores than that of the solo pianist. They call principally for musicianship. Moreover, if piety and reverence did not forbid their being orchestrated, there would be no preventive reason in the sonatas themselves, for surely there is enough orchestral suggestion in every one of them to well nigh preclude any error in the orchestration.
Now try to orchestrate one of Chopin’s sonatas! You will be puzzled! You first, and the poor members of your orchestra afterward. It won’t sound right!
True, the “Funeral March” has experienced several successful orchestrations, but this piece is—and must be by its very nature—orchestrally thought and conceived by the author. As to any other work of Chopin, it will bear neither orchestration nor even transcription. What a pitiable thing that E-flat Nocturne is when the melody is taken away from its enveloping accompaniment and transferred to the violin! All its charm is gone. It reminds one of the things one sees in an anatomical museum—a human form with the skin off and all the muscles, etc., laid bare. It makes one shudder, no matter how well it may be played. No, Chopin bears no transcription. His works are piano works. The piano par excellence!Fortunately, the piano composer was influenced by the colors of the orchestra, while after Chopin the orchestral writer tried to vie with the piano. Like most new departures, the imitation of piano effects was so much overdone that serious musicians had to raise their warning voices against “the thralldom of the piano.” And quite rightly. But this stage of exuberance did its work, nevertheless, to place the piano legitimately among the recognized instruments of musical poetry, and for this achievement none can claim the credit as justly as Frederic Chopin.
Enjoy Chopin's "E-Flat Nocturne" in its original composition for piano, performed by Joaquin Achucarro: