by Isidore Philipp, Eminent French Piano Virtuoso and Teacher
In the years 1809 and 1810 there came into the world three great artists whom a tragic fate removed all too early from their admiring contemporaries. They were Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann. After a century and more, their works still enchant those who love and feel music.
Of the three, Chopin alone chose to compose for the piano only. “Why do you not write on opera?” Asked Count Perthuis of him one day. “Ah! Monsieur,” replied Chopin, “Let me write music for the piano; it is all that I know how to do.”
Chopin came to Paris in the fall of 1831, in the full flower of Romanticism. He gave his first public concert early in 1832. On that occasion he played his “Concerto in F minor” and his “La ci darem” Variations with Orchestra from the “Don Giovanni” of Mozart, before a large audience. In 1833 he was heard again, this time in a concert with Liszt and Hiller. Each of these concerts attracted an illustrious assemblage. With Liszt, whose friend Chopin had become, he shared the enthusiasm of a loyal public. His life, his rare distinction of character, his Polish origin, also, just at the time when Poland stirred all classes of romantic generosity—all these elements made Paris glory in him. Heinrich Heine, the most admirable of all the German poets, whose friend Chopin was, called him the Raphael of the piano. “Poland gave him her feeling for chivalry and her historic suffering; France, her elegance and grace; Nature, a countenance of charm and refinement, a heart which is noble and filled with genius. He is neither Polish, nor French, nor German. He comes from the land of Mozart and Raphael. His true country is the realm of music and poetry.” No heart that was not warmed unto his art.
Enjoy Chopin’s Concerto in F minor, performed by Arthur Rubinstein, piano, and the London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn conducting (1975 ARTE Broadcast):
He associated himself with all the great artists who were in Paris at that time—Heine, Liszt, Meyerbeer, Halevy, Rossini, Delacroix, Berlioz, Thalberg, Stephen Heller; and from the moment of his appearance anywhere he was greeted with murmurs of pleasure and feverish anticipation. The great singer, Artot-Padilla, wrote to him in 1841: “My dear Chopin, do you know that you make me jealous? Wherever one goes all the women are talking of Chopin: ‘Do you know Chopin” Have you heard Chopin” I would like to have Chopin here!’—Chopin here. Chopin there—towering like a pyramid. . . .”
Even his rivals loved him. “Caro Chopinette,” Liszt wrote to him, “I am profiting by this occasion to repeat to you, even at the risk of seeming monotonous, that my affection and admiration of you will ever remain the same.”
“It is not well to listen a whole evening to our Chopin,” said Madame de Girardin. “Existence is far from pleasing the day after these feasts when a superior being has led you into the world of fairies and of dreams.”
Moscheles, in one of his letters, gave an account of a soiree held in honor of Chopin and himself at the court. “Yesterday,” he writes, “was a day not to be forgotten. At nine o-clock in the evening Chopin and I were conducted to the Chateau St. Cloud. We walked through a number of rooms in the palace till we came to the salon carre, where the royal family were assembled. It was only a small gathering. Around a table were seated the Queen, the Duchesse d’Orleans, and the maids of honor. Chopin, applauded and admired as a favorite, played some Etudes and Nocturnes. After I had performed in my turn some Etudes, old and new, meeting with like approval, we took places together at the piano. While we played a Sonata for Four Hands, the close attention of the little group was not broken except by the words ‘delicious,’ ‘divine!’ At the end of the Andante the Queen said softly to her maids of honor, ‘Would it be inconsiderate to ask for a repetition of that number?’ We began again, abandoning ourselves in the Finale, to the veritable delirium of music. The passionate impetuosity of Chopin seemed to electrify our audience, who praised us most enthusiastically. Some days later the King sent to Chopin a gilt cup and to me a traveling-case. Chopin always loved to joke, and he said to me, “The King sent you a traveling-case so that he might the sooner be rid of you.’”
As a pianist, Chopin was unique. Moscheles, Mendelssohn, Meyebeer, Heller, all pronounced him incomparable. Stephen Heller and Mathias have often spoken to me of the power of his playing, of the bravura, of the extraordinary gradings of tone. Sir Charles Halle said: “It was a marvel to hear that genius, to watch his hands so supple, so aristocratic, moving over the keys. “Those who have heard Chopin,” so Mathias declared, “can say that never since that time have they heard anything to approach him. His playing was like his music. And what virtuosity! What power! But it lasted only a few moments. Such exaltation, such inspiration! The whole man vibrated with it. The piano became intensely alive, so marvelously that one shivered. I repeat that the instrument which one heard when he played never existed except under the fingers of Chopin.”
“Liszt is a demon,” said Balzac, “and Chopin is an angel.”
At the close of his life Chopin’s playing had become very weak in tone; but he managed his effects with so much art, so much skill, that he always achieved the same success. For his last concert in Paris he played his Barcarolle, so Sir Charles Halle has told me, pianissimo, but with such contract in nuancing that his lack of power was not felt. “And how he understood the pedals! It was unique.”
Enjoy Krystian Zimerman’s performance of Chopin’s “Barcarolle”:
The Social “Lion”
Chopin was adored by the world of society. At the home of Baron Rothschild, or of Prince Radziwill, of Count Apponyi, or of the Marchioness de Lanner, he was always surrounded by admirers. The moment he arrived the eager audience would begin asking, “Is he going to play for us?”
Chopin was very particular about his appearance. Mathias used to say, “And his polished half-boots? They were the most shining I ever have seen. He had a very small foot. And he always wore a double-breasted coat, buttoned up to the highest button, and tailored in the latest fashion. Every detail of his dress was the most finished, the most elegant that could be imagined.”
Before me lies a letter from Eugene Delacroix, the famous painter:
Dear good Chopin:
“The address of the shoemaker is 19 Roe Feydeen. Tell him exactly what shape you wish the toe of your boot to be. He is accustomed to making them round, like the English boots. Instruct him to make you some boots for winter with very thick soles, but light weight. I love you as much as I admire you.
His life might have run smoothly, perhaps, had it not been disturbed by the liaison with George Sand. By what anomaly was this being, so aristocratic, refined, fragile, brought into association with that vehement woman, always inclined towards the plebeian; why was his destiny mingled with hers?
But to what purpose do we try to explain the unexplainable?
Chopin the Teacher
Mathias has described Chopin at his lessons: “I remember them so well. His, ‘Very well my angel,’ when things went well; and his hands grasping his hair when they went badly. ‘Keep your elbow level with the keyboard,’ he would say, ‘your hands straight, turning neither to right nor to left.’ And how he would make you feel and understand the masters. His words were as eloquent as his music. And yet he was a simple person, not a literateur, nor a critic after the manner of Liszt and Berlioz. He did not care for Schumann, nor even for Mendelssohn; he detested the paintings of his friend Delacroix, and he was not at all interested in the literary movements of his period. . . .”
Mademoiselle Gavard, to whom Chopin dedicated the Berceuse (and, by the way, she played this badly) I myself have known. She, too, was astonished that Chopin did not understand Schuman and Schubert. But Bellini he adored!
Enjoy Valentina Lisitsa’s performance of Chopin’s “Berceuse”:
So it will be seen that I have known several persons who knew Chopin. Often, at the home of Mathias, Prince Czartoryski was at luncheon with us, an aristocrat of the most exquisite courtesy, and a friend of Chopin. When I suggested to Mathias that he ought to give a concert to make us understand the magic of Chopin’s playing, the prince also insisted. But Mathias replied: “No one plays like Chopin. I am but a man; while Chopin is of the essence of the fairylike.” At his home I met also Schulhoff, who was not very interesting. Madam Dubois O’Meara, very reserved. At the home of Saint-Saëns I had the honor several times of meeting Madame Pauline Viardot, who in a few words could conjure up the very spirit of Chopin; and it was a joy to hear Saint-Saëns and Viardot exchange reminiscences. Marmontel, eminent professor at the Paris Conservatoire, I know very well. Several times I saw Henri Herz, the celebrated pianist, a delightful old man, whose mind was stored with vivid and interesting recollections. Both of these latter were friends of Chopin.
There was also Alkan, the great but now forgotten artist, whom I had the honor of seeing and hearing often. He adored Chopin, and I regret deeply that I did not write down all that he told me of the great genius. A letter from Alkan to Chopin, dated 1836, runs thus: “I am going to trouble you, dear Chopin, for I am about to make a request which will cost you something to grant and will also cost you something to refuse. Nevertheless I cannot resist speaking of it. It is, would you be willing to play with me, with two pianos, at Erar’s? If you do not consent, please do not even write to excuse yourself. Always the same, Alkan.” There were no excuses made; and the concert took place on the first day of March, 1836.
And the Pianist
Chopin’s attitude at the piano was a marvel of calmness and nobility, a contrast to that of Liszt, which was extraordinary. He lifted his head as if inspired, raised his eyes toward heaven as if seeking for the stars in space. At other times he would lean over toward the keys, or again, seem about to depart, like a spirit, from his seat at the piano.
Chopin’s contemporaries felt and showed toward him the greatest of deference. Meyerbeer once wrote to him:
“Dear and illustrious Master,
I regret extremely that you did not find me at home, when you did me the honor of wishing to see me. Today I am writing to pray you to grant me a favor. There is a young Italian girl, eight years old, Mademoiselle Merli, who is blind, and a pianist. But in my opinion she is a real prodigy of talent and genius. Can you, will you hear her? I thank you.
Believe me, with all my affection, your devoted,
Among all the many works of Chopin there is not one which, during a century, has grown old. From his very first works one sees in him the genius emerging, developing, expanding. Here is a personality which is stronger than methods and rules. Shedding light around, it breaks through the limits of conventions and of worn-out technical theories, and, rising above them, leads us a step higher into absolute beauty.
We can apply to Chopin what Balzac said of music: “It is a language a thousand times more rich than words. The other arts impose on the mind creations which are definite; music is infinite in hers. Each soul can interpret music in terms of its own grief or joy, its own hope or despair.”
Again the Teacher
To return to Chopin as a professor; Chopin insisted on training the hand in stretching, but without fatigue. He laid much stress on passing under the thumb, in scales and arpeggios. These were to be practiced at first very slowly, and then gradually accelerated. He taught first the scales with the black keys, and last of all the scale of C, the most difficult. He desired absolute suppleness of the arm combined with firmness of the fingers. He advised the use of the “Preludes” and “Exercises” of Clementi, the “Etudes” of Cramer, the “Gradus ad Parnassum” of Clementi, “The Well Tempered Clavichord” of Bach, and finally some “Etudes” of Moscheles. Occasionally, for the study of sonority, he added the “Nocturnes” of Field, and his own. Fingering, he considered highly important. He did not hesitate to place the thumb on the black keys. He broke rules of fingering, authorized all sorts of liberties, and developed the technic of the piano to a perfection equaling that of Liszt, if not surpassing it. He required strict rhythm; he detested all mannerism and exaggerated rubato. What is the rubato of Chopin? It is a nuance of movement: there is in it anticipation and holding back, restlessness and repose, agitation and calm. But this rubato must be used with the utmost moderation, else it becomes unendurable, as if one looked into a concave or a convex mirror which gives back an image deformed, grimacing.
A Musical Form Glorified
The Nocturne was originally a short, slow piece, delicate in style, elegiac or sentimental. It is to John Field that the musical art owes this form. But Mozart already had written his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Mendelssohn the Nocturne to “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Nachtstucke of Schumann and Des Abends of the “Fantasiastucke, Op. 12”, are also nocturnes transposed into German! But it was Chopin who was to ennoble this title. There is nothing more perfect in the works of this unequalled genius. These pages contain hitherto unheard of musical riches: here are tenderness and charm; grief, even to sobbing; caresses, heroism—in fact the whole gamut of feeling. Chopin has all strings to his lyre, and he has made them all sing with an intensity of emotion which is matchless.
To gain some idea of the variety of his genius, it is enough to glance through his series of nocturnes. In them vibrate all the ardor of his passionate being, all the joys and all the sorrows of this heart exalted or cast down. It is his exceptional power to express emotion which makes the music of Chopin so human that it seems to each individual the song of his own heart. The touching beauty of his works arises from their absolute sincerity and spontaneity.
“Chopin,” said Liszt, “had a temperament of extreme nervousness; yet one could not help loving him. He knew how to restrain himself, but without being able to control himself completely; and he drilled himself every morning in conquering his passions, his hatreds, his anger, his love, his grief, his impetuosity. Did he know Young’s “Night Thoughts”? Had he been inspired by them? One could almost believe it, in reading some of his nocturnes.”
A Master Work Dissected
The Nocturne, Op. 32, No. 2, in A-flat major, should be played with simplicity, with expression, without any exaggeration, and with the nuances carefully observed.
At first the left hand must be practiced alone. But to play it as written is not enough, if one would master it. I would advise the following analysis of it:
with the exception of Measure 7 and similar measures:
In the middle section, measures 27 and 50, the two hands should first be practiced separately and slowly, portamento, and then very legato, but never forte. Measures 37, and 38, 49 and 50, may be studied thus:
The pedal must be used with great care. A pianist must always play clearly, and the pedal, used incorrectly or too often, blots out all outlines and all accents.
With regard to style, measures 1 and 2 should be played slowly and softly like an improvisation. The true theme does not begin till the third measure. The group of notes in Measure 5 must be simple and without emphasis, and likewise the group of seven notes in the sixth measure, which should be divided thus:
The trill in Measure 8 must not seem hurried. Measure 9 demands special work for tonal effects: the five notes at the beginning must be played expressively and mf; the last C of this group and the first C of the next beat must be played elastically and as if they were two notes of a triplet group, as:
The close of the measure must be played diminuendo, and with sensitiveness, but with no exaggeration of feeling.
In measures 11, 12 and 13 the bass should be sustained without the help of the pedal, except where the pedal is marked. The passages in small notes, from Measure 14 up to the section in twelve-eight rhythm, must be done without hurrying. The agitato, which follows, is to be expressive yet with care in the nuances which are marked. But, I would repeat, one must guard against committing the great fault which is so common with interpreters of Chopin: Do not, then, exaggerate the feeling; do not change the movement; for these alterations will add nothing to expression which is true and sincere. The marks for the nuances must be followed precisely; the basses must be sustained with care; there must be a light, expressive accent on certain notes of the left hand, as in Measure 30:
These five notes—E flat, F, E-flat, D-natural, D-flat—must be brought out, with a velvety quality of tone.
From Measure 36 to Measure 39 the expression is increasingly dramatic, and the crescendo in these three measures leads to a forte in 39, and from there to a fortissimo in 43. Here the pace becomes faster. The passionate feeling reaches its climax at the reprise of the expressive theme of the Nocturne; and this, instead of being interpreted like the intimate dolce of its original statement, must be appassionata e forte. Gradually the excitement subsides at Measure 56, and we return to the melancholy of the beginning.
In the finale—Measure 63 to the end—the first five notes of the right hand must be delicately marked, with an exquisite combination of rhythm and abandon; the trill of Measure 64 must be executed without haste; and the whole must close poetically, as it breathes away mysteriously.
One more word of advice to performers. The first duty of a virtuoso is to impart confidence to the audience. An accident does not matter, if it is merely an accident. But if, through nervousness, one becomes insecure, or shows fear of an accident, the audience also becomes uneasy and does not listen attentively. If the tone becomes uneven; if the lines of the melody are not clear and distinct; if the listener does not follow the text as calmly as if he were reading it, he will no longer listen.
Remember the thought of Leonardo da Vinci: “Study without enthusiasm ruins the memory; for the latter does not then retain what it takes in.”
Enjoy Philippe Giusiano's performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in A-flat major, Op. 32, No. 2:
THE ETUDE MUSIC MAGAZINE – January 1940