CHOPIN – Introduction to the Complete Works


In response to requests from a few members of the audience last night, here is the text of my introduction to Warren Mailley-Smith’s cycle of the complete works of Chopin at St John’s Smith Square – Friday 4th September 2015

I am privileged to have been asked by Warren to say a few words about the composer whose complete music for solo piano he is going to play – and we are going to hear – over the next 12 months in 11 concerts. 211 separate titles. Roughly 3 ½ million notes.

I am merely the amuse-bouche before the hors d’oeuvres, main course, desserts, cheese and fine wines. Yes we are all eating the food of the same master chef for a whole evening – but what variety of flavours, how carefully the ingredients have been chosen, what aromas to delight the senses, and what a menu to choose from!

Is there anybody here tonight who is hearing a piece of Chopin for the first time? (How lucky you are to about to experience that in these surroundings played by this artist.)

And those of us who perhaps know the music of Chopin quite well. What is it that makes it so appealing? Why do those of us who play the piano a bit keep returning to it no matter what our technical shortcomings? A lot of it is quite deceptively difficult to play well. Many of us I’m sure will empathise with the famous quote of George Ade: ‘The music teacher came twice each week to bridge the awful gap between Dorothy and Chopin.’

A whole evening with some composers can be stodgy and indigestible – but not Chopin. Why is that? And why is he so universally loved by pianists and public? The French writer André Gide came up with one answer: ‘Chopin proposes, supposes, insinuates, seduces, persuades; he almost never asserts.’ Unlike Beethoven, for instance. We love Beethoven, too, but for different reasons. The writer Colin Wilson in Brandy of the Damned said that Beethoven ‘reminds me of a man driving the car with the handbrake on, but stubbornly refusing to stop, even though there is a strong smell of burning rubber.’

You can’t imagine anyone saying that of Chopin. Trying to pin-point Chopin’s appeal is an elusive business but he is among the most universally beloved of all composers. For those to whom the contrapuntal rigours of Bach, the Olympian utterances of Beethoven and the Teutonic splendour of Brahms are too severe companions, Chopin proves an understanding friend. He shares your confidences and reflects your dreams, anxieties and joys.

Oscar Wilde said ‘After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.’

Chopin himself had no rose-tinted view of himself. He knew very well where he stood in the great scheme of things. Bach, of course, was his idol and he wrote in a letter to Delphine Potocka ‘Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars… Beethoven embraced the universe with the power of his spirit… I do not climb so high. A long time ago I decided that my universe will be the soul and heart of man.’

Chopin is, I think, unique among the pantheon of ‘Great Composers’ in two main respects: he wrote no symphonies, no operas, no ballets, very little chamber music and no church or choral music; secondly, every single composition in whatever form involves the piano.

Some know Chopin only from a handful of overplayed works with nicknames – the ’Revolutionary’ Study, the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, the ‘Military’ Polonaise.  For others, Chopin represents a great deal more. Not only was he one of the greatest and most original pianists in history but his compositions made significant contributions to the development of the piano’s potential – and this at a time when the instrument itself was developing in much the same way that home computers today are constantly upgraded and improved. Chopin liberated the piano.

His name has other resonances: a symbol of Polish patriotism; the dandified musical aristocrat of Parisian salons; the tragic lover of George Sand; a sensitive consumptive who died young like the hero of the archetypal romantic novel. And for others – lost on me, I have to admit – Chopin is a somewhat effete composer of short piano pieces who was limited in his range and made a minimal contribution to music.

Compared with the moderately small amount of music he composed – very little beside, say, Haydn or Liszt – a huge proportion of it is played and recorded regularly (unlike the music of Haydn and Liszt of whose music only a tiny portion is in the standard repertoire).

Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart are examples of just three major composers whose music was largely ignored for many decades. Vivaldi was virtually unknown until the 1930s and few of Mozart’s sublime piano concertos were in the regular repertoire of pianists until a century after his death. Yet Chopin’s music has never been out of fashion with either public or pianists. It was much played, easily available and widely popular in his lifetime (unlike Schubert’s). There has never been a period when it was considered passé or vulgar (unlike Liszt), neither did it fall out of favour with his death (unlike Meyerbeer, for example, or Saint-Saëns).

One reason for this was the extraordinary fecundity of ideas (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and structural) tempered by hyper-sensitive self-criticism. Very few works he allowed to be published fall below his own high standards. Every composer has his weak spots. But with Chopin there are remarkably few weak or undernourished works. His fastidious, self-critical character meant he was a ruthless editor of his own creations.

Chopin’s waltzes, studies, preludes and nocturnes have been recorded literally hundreds of times. The pianists who do not include his music in their repertoire are very few indeed. So exceptional is it for a concert pianist not to play Chopin at some point in his or her career that such a creature is viewed as somehow incomplete, lacking a central element in their art, and a distinct oddity. Who, in short, could love the piano and fail to respond to Chopin’s music?

But however we view Chopin’s music, most of us have no idea – or only a vague one – of who he was and what he was like. And in many ways he is a mystery, an enigma. Like many other men and women of his mindset, he was a complex and contradictory character. He was a reserved, private individual whose emotions and innermost feelings were expressed, consciously or not, in his music. And, of course, like anyone who does not easily reveal himself, he becomes ipso facto infinitely more alluring. He never married, of course, he had no mistresses or boyfriends. Unlike Liszt, no scandal was ever attached to him. And though he lived with the cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing George Sand for ten years from 1838, their sex life seems to have been, let’s say, intermittent.

We know what he looked like from the various portraits. There are even two photographs of him. He was five feet seven inches tall with grey-blue eyes, dark blond, silky hair and in 1840 weighed just under seven stone. Liszt wrote of ‘the fineness and transparency of his complexion, his distinguished carriage, his manners so instinctively aristocratic that everyone treated him as though he were a prince. His gestures were full of grace and freedom, the tone of his voice was muffled to the point of being stifled.’           Someone asked the eminent composer and pianist Ignaz Moscheles ‘What is Chopin like to look at?’ Moscheles answered: ‘His music’.

What was it like to listen to Chopin playing the piano? There are many contemporary descriptions, few more vivid than the seventeen-year-old Karl Halle, later Sir Charles Hallé founder of the famous Manchester orchestra. On 2  December 1836 he wrote to his parents:

‘…I heard – Chopin. That was beyond all words. The few senses I had have quite left me. I could have jumped into the Seine. Everything I hear now seems so insignificant that I would rather not hear it at all. Chopin! He is no man, he is an angel, a god (or what can I say more?). Chopin’s compositions played by Chopin! That is a joy never to be surpassed…There is nothing to remind one that it is a human being who produces this music. It seems to descend from heaven – so pure, so clear, so spiritual. I feel a thrill each time I think of it.’

This, to my mind, tallies with the description of Chopin by his friend, the poet Heinrich Heine. ‘Since [Chopin] is neither Polish, nor French, nor German, he reveals his higher origin; he comes from the country of Mozart, Rafael and Goethe: His true country is the country of Poetry.’

©2015 Jeremy Nicholas

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