The Transgressive Chopin and the Politics of the Chopin Competition

by Halina Goldberg, Scholar in Residence 2017

My first experience attending the International Chopin Piano Competition occurred during turbulent times. The summer of 1980 in Poland was eventful. At the end of June, the Communist government announced extensive price hikes. Overnight, as people rushed to buy produce, all food disappeared from grocery stores. Everything. The day after the announcement, shops everywhere were wastelands of empty shelves and unfilled display cases. To tone down this flagrant display of Communism’s failures, the shelves were later filled with millions of bottles of vinegar, the only produce that was not in short supply. This sight was to become the norm for the next several years. The people responded to these new economic hardships with a wave of strikes, out of which the now-legendary labor union Solidarity—the movement that brought down Poland’s Communist Party a decade later—was born. It was against the backdrop of these events that the 10th Chopin International Piano Competition took place, just weeks after the establishment of Solidarity.

Most Chopin enthusiasts remember this competition for Martha Argerich’s melodramatic resignation from the jury. She quit over what she viewed as unjust treatment of one of the contestants, Ivo Pogorelich, who did not advance to the finals. Unfortunately, even today, it is Pogorelich’s name that is more often recalled in relation to that competition than that of Dang Thai Son, the fine Vietnamese pianist who won it.

On the ground, way below the Mount Olympus inhabited by the jurors, clashes over Pogorelich’s playing started even earlier, during the first round of the competition. I was still close to my pianistic roots, having just played my diploma recital a few months before, and as an aspiring music critic I had plenty to say about Pogorelich’s pianism. I disliked just about everything about it. But I quickly found out that I expressed these views at my own peril. The customarily polite and elegant world of classical pianism was deeply divided. Emotions ran hot, and the diverging opinions pitched friends against each other with intensity of the sort some of us experienced during Thanksgiving gatherings in 2016, after the American election.

After he was eliminated in the third round, the fandom for Pogorelich reached the level of pandemonium. The recital, which he performed in Warsaw after the competition concluded, sold out in a flash (in the following months he also played debut concerts at Carnegie Hall, in London, and in other places). But one of my sassier friends, an aspiring film director, dragged me (kicking and screaming) into the office of the director of the Warsaw Philharmonic, where she demanded that additional on-stage seating be provided. We were among the lucky ones who got to hear the Divine Ivo! The less fortunate ones were seen scaling the building of the philharmonic to gain access to the grand event. Not since Liszt (or at least Paderewski) had the world seen so many young women sigh and shriek and throw flowers at their pianistic idol.

Although on the surface all this brouhaha around Pogorelich seemed to be about pianistic aesthetics, in actuality other forces were also at play. In fact, the intensity and divisiveness of aesthetic opinions were soon to be mirrored in the political arguments that ripped apart families, as some Poles sided with the authorities while their kin supported the opposition movement.

What was it about the slinky Yugoslav pianist that touched a raw nerve in Polish audiences? Sure, he had the good looks and allure of a bad boy, but his following extended far beyond those drawn to him by his sex appeal.

During Poland’s summer of discontent, the slowly simmering economic and political tensions and frustrations exploded in a collective act of rebellion. Pogorelich and his playing tapped into this defiance of authority: he disregarded rules and broke taboos; instead of the customary dark suits, he wore tight black pants and folksy shirts adorned only by a thin black velvet ribbon tie or even (gasp!) performed tieless; rumors circulated that he was in a relationship with his much older teacher (Aliza Kezeradze whom he indeed married later that year). Even his bad-boy sexiness exuded disobedience; it stood in sharp contrast to the refined Chopinesque charm of Krystian Zimerman, the equally handsome winner of the previous competition.

But beyond these outward trappings of rebelliousness, in his performances Pogorelich gave his Polish audiences a Chopin that was defiant, nonconformist, and modern. His transgressive, unsentimental playing offered a perfect antidote to the sappy concept of Chopin’s music trapped in the national and socialist narratives.

The case of Pogorelich highlights the Polish dilemma of Chopin’s legacy. Chopin’s music embodies Polishness. But the political narratives that shape its role in Polish culture have the capacity to both draw the Polish listeners in and drive them away.

Under Communism, Chopin was decisively placed among “the people.” He inhabited the Polish countryside, fraternized with peasants, and learned from their music. On the rare occasions when he was imagined in the city, he was seen as sympathetic to the woes of the common workingman. (Aleksander Ford’s 1952 film Chopin’s Youth serves as a good example of presenting Chopin in this manner.) His music, likewise, was hijacked to speak for and solemnize the new socialist order.

Mieczysław Oracki-Serwin, Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat Major for the “Kościuszko” Steelworks

By the 1980s, many Poles had grown to resent the role Chopin’s music played in the service of the Communist agenda. Even for some professional musicians it was difficult to separate his expressive compositions from the solemn official ceremonies (akademia in Polish) during which Chopin’s music (and life) was imbued with a socialist spirit rivaling that of “The Internationale.” So, in reacting to Pogorelich’s performances, his Polish audiences were also responding to some three decades of Chopin being yoked to an oppressive political system.

Perhaps the most interesting postlude to the whole Pogorelich fuss is that the fall of Communism did not do away with the inner contradictions intrinsic to the Poles’ relationship with Chopin. On the one hand, there is a cognizance that Chopin’s music is somehow important. There is also an awareness that his name provides an internationally recognizable trademark of Polishness, one that is appropriated for various and nefarious purposes (for example, the Chopin Airport and Chopin Vodka), and that his music crosses linguistic and cultural borders with much greater ease than Mickiewicz’s poetry or Grotowski’s theater, with perhaps the single competitor being the astronomical discoveries of Copernicus. But for Poles, especially the young ones, the flip side of these positives is the lingering politicized image of Chopin as Poland’s official composer. In 2010 (the year of the Chopin Bicentennial and the 16th International Chopin Piano Competition), concerns about the persistence of this stilted image of Chopin led the organizers to embark on a campaign of de-propagandizing him. By midyear, the country was plastered with such terrific posters as these:

For the true aficionado of Chopin’s music, all this is irrelevant. The Pogorelich moment was unusual in the way it drew the audience of the Chopin Competition into politicized performance. . . or was it? The most recent competition (2015) coincided with the highly-contested parliamentary election that gave most seats to the Law and Justice Party. I was there, and there is a story to be told about that as well. . . maybe in a future blog post.


Halina Goldberg is Professor of Musicology at Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University Bloomington, and affiliate of Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program, Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, Polish Studies Center, and Russian and East European Institute.  She is the author of Music in Chopin’s Warsaw (Oxford University Press, 2008; Polish translation O muzyce w Warszawie Chopina, 2016), and editor of The Age of Chopin: Interdisciplinary Inquiries (Indiana University Press, 2004).  Goldberg interests focus on the interconnected Polish and Jewish cultures.  Much of her work is interdisciplinary engaging the areas of cultural studies, music and politics, performance practice, and reception, with special focus on 19th- and 20th-century Poland and Eastern Europe, Chopin, and Jewish studies. She also serves as the Project Director for the Digital Scholarly Commons dedicated to the study of Jewish Life in Interwar War Łódźhttp://jewish-lodz.iu.edu

“REQUIEM, MAIS PAS PAIX”: RUMINATIONS ON CHOPIN’S FUNERAL

by Byron Adams, University of California, Riverside

As part of my preparation for writing program notes for this year’s Bard Music Festival, I read widely about Fryderyk Chopin and his life, especially his years in Paris. Simultaneously, I have been working on a scholarly article about the history and reception of Gabriel Fauré’s lapidary Requiem, Op. 48. Quite unexpectedly, my research on Fauré’s masterpiece raised questions about Chopin’s funeral, which took place on October 30, 1849, at the Église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Paris. Since Fauré worked as a choirmaster and organist at La Madeleine, as it is commonly known, from 1877 until 1905, I delved enthusiastically into the history of this church and its liturgy. Reading the work of musicologists such as Vincent Rollin, I realized that the liturgical practices of La Madeleine did not significantly change from 1842 until World War I. Thus the liturgy for Chopin’s funeral in 1849 was exactly the same as that used on January 16, 1888, when Fauré’s Requiem was first performed during a Requiem Mass held at La Madeleine.

In light of my increasing understanding of how Requiem Masses were celebrated at La Madeleine throughout the 19th century, I began to find reports of Chopin’s funeral to be confusing at best. Why? The more I learned about the history and liturgy of La Madeleine, the more certain aspects of Chopin’s Requiem Mass became puzzling and, at times, implausible.

My doubts arose in part from the history of the edifice itself. Napoleon ordered the construction of the building now known as La Madeleine as a temple to glorify the French army. After the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Louis XVIII decided to complete the building and consecrate it as a church. Due in part to its peculiar secular origin as a shrine to French military prowess, La Madeleine, after its consecration in 1842, assumed the status of a national church. There are two other reasons for this unusual status: the first is the size of the building, which lends itself to state funerals, while the second is its strategic location in the very heart of Paris. However, it is hard to credit the British music critic J. W. Davison, who claimed to have attended Chopin’s funeral, when he wrote that 4,000 mourners filled La Madeleine on that solemn occasion. As this was (and is) physically impossible, perhaps Davison conflated the number of those who obtained tickets to the service (!) with the large crowd of people who, lacking tickets, were forced to mill about outside.

In addition, Roman Catholicism was the state religion in France until 1905, which meant that the government had a say in the regulation of churches. At the time of Chopin’s death, French law apportioned the degree of pomp allowed at funerals according to class, so that only “very important persons” could be buried with a “première classe” funeral that featured elaborate music. As an émigré and piano teacher, Chopin did not have a defined position within either French society or officialdom. One wonders at the strings that had to be pulled for this “première classe” Requiem Mass to be celebrated at La Madeleine—the “national church”—and who, exactly, pulled them.

There is also the matter of the music. As he lay dying, Chopin famously (and expensively) requested that Mozart’s Requiem (K. 626) be performed at his funeral. Thanks to the devotion of his pupil, the Scottish heiress Jane Stirling (1804–1859), Mozart’s score was indeed played, but several aspects of this performance are obscure. Some biographers, for example, have written that the soloists, orchestra, and chorus—who were recruited from the Opèra—had to sing behind a black curtain because women were forbidden to sing at La Madeleine. While it is true that women could not sing in the church’s choir, which consisted exclusively of men and boys, they could and did sing sacred pieces on the premises. On Christmas Eve of 1858, for example, Camille Saint-Saëns, who was the organiste titulaire of La Madeleine at the time, conducted the premiere of his Oratorio de Noël in the church, a work that includes operatic parts for soprano, and mezzo-soprano soloists—music far beyond the abilities of any boy soprano or alto.

Finally, there is the testimony of Hector Berlioz, who attended Chopin’s funeral at La Madeleine and wrote about it in a letter to his sister that was begun the same day. Berlioz did not care for the performance of Mozart’s Requiem, mentioning that it was “performed with care, but ineffectively.” He further remarks, “And some notes from the organ, and the De profundis sung in fauxbourdon moved the listener more than the so celebrated and so incomplete score of the great master.” Berlioz’s report reveals that the regular choir of La Madeleine was present for this mass, as it is hardly likely that an opera chorus could have mastered the tricky patterns of the traditional fauxbourdon on short notice. This “fauxbourdon”—which sounds very much like present-day Anglican chant—was used during French Requiem Masses for the Sequence, that is, the “Dies irae.” As Rollin has pointed out, this part of the liturgy was known in Parisian churches during the 19th century as the “De profundis.” (This is why Fauré’s Requiem omits the “Dies irae,” as these words were still sung in fauxbourdon during funeral masses in 1888.) Does this mean that the performance of Mozart’s Requiem at Chopin’s funeral omitted the “Dies irae” altogether? Or was the same portion of the liturgy sung twice during a single Requiem Mass?

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice exclaims in Wonderland, “Curiouser and curiouser!”

Chopin in Mode Masculine

by Jonathan D. Bellman, Scholar in Residence 2017

One of the aspects of Chopin’s biography that has, historically, been most difficult to write about is his predisposition to dandyism, which began in childhood, and its implications. For example, asked after a performance what he thought people like best, young Fryc said it was his new collar. His effete manner, refined bearing, and (as far as anyone knows for sure) underdeveloped love life have always been treated as something of a minefield. Particularly in the half century after his death, writers have slipped into the common pattern of associating his fragile health and unembarrassed artistic sensitivities with what previous generations called “the weaker sex,” and it was clearly a cause for discomfort. In my previous blog post I quoted the critic and Chopin biographer James Huneker:

“When [Anton] Rubinstein, Tausig, and Liszt played Chopin in passional phrases, the public and critics were aghast. This was a transformed Chopin indeed, a Chopin transposed to the key of manliness. Yet it is the true Chopin. The young man’s manners were a trifle feminine but his brain was masculine, electric, and his soul courageous. His Polonaises, Ballades, Scherzi and Études need a mighty grip, a grip mental and physical.”

There is plenty more where that came from. The image of Chopin as ladies’ entertainment goes back to his early years in Paris. In 1834, the critic Gottfried Wilhelm Fink wrote that the Nocturnes, Op. 15, “are really reveries of a soul fluctuating from feeling to feeling in the still of the night, about which we want to set down nothing but the outburst of a feminine heart after a sensitive performance of the same: ‘The Nocturnes surely are my entire life!’”

Huneker struggled for an explanation:

“[Chopin] writes home that ‘my manner of playing pleases the ladies so very much.’ This manner never lost its hold over female hearts, and the airs, caprices, and little struttings of Frédéric are to blame for the widely circulated legend of his effeminate ways. The legend soon absorbed his music, and so it has come to pass that this fiction, begotten of half fact and half mental indolence, has taken root, like the noxious weed it is.”

Chopin’s putative “effeminate ways” return again and again in Huneker’s book, noxious weed or not. He quotes the German propagandist Heinrich Pudor, who considered Chopin to be as decadent as Liszt: his “figure comes before one as flesh without bones, this morbid, womanly, womanish, slipslop, powerless, sickly, bleached, sweet-caramel Pole!” (Even Richard Wagner, who declared himself “the most German of beings,” earns Pudor’s contempt: “His cheeks are hollow and pale—but Germans have the full red cheeks!”) Huneker reported that Wagner had said, “I do not like the ladies’ Chopin,” yet the middle section of his little-known “Song without Words: For Ernst Benedikt Kietz” is a close approximation of precisely that style. Ultimately, these anxieties about who is more feminized than whom became something of an obsession.

Of the aforementioned writers, only Huneker hailed from the USA, where there is a long tradition of viewing any sort of classical music training as an indicator of likely sissydom, though such childhood “rules” (like those placing athletes at the top of the social hierarchy) are irregularly followed across geographical areas and America’s constituent cultures. Still, it does not take an advanced degree in gender studies to identify the anxieties associated with a man disposed to play the piano: too girly, or too refined, or (perhaps worst of all) too susceptible to maternal approval? Huneker can’t let it go. “Chopin in the mode masculine” is one of his descriptions, and he also nervously notes, “All artists are androgynous; in Chopin the feminine often prevails.” All artists are androgynous? Huneker also recounts, without further commentary, Anton Rubinstein’s program for Chopin’s Ballade No. 2:

“Is it possible the interpreter does not feel the necessity of representing it to his audience—a field flower caught by a gust of wind, a caressing of the flower by the wind; the resistance of the flower, the stormy struggle of the wind; the entreaty of the flower, which at last lies there broken; and paraphrased—the field flower a rustic maiden, the wind a knight.”

The knight having his way with a “rustic maiden” is an old trope, dating back to the medieval Robin-and-Marion plays if not before. It is important here only insofar as we need to remember that this image—there is a one-syllable word for the knight’s action, after all—was, historically, less appalling than it is today. Be it said: there is not the slightest glimmer in any of Chopin’s music or correspondence, or in the oral history concerning him, suggesting that such an interpretation of the Ballade would even have been conceivable to him. In his correspondence, he laughed off the idea of being mistaken for a séducteur as an inconceivable misunderstanding. So even if Huneker’s account of Rubinstein’s statement is correct, nothing is more distant from Chopin than this kind of image.

Closer to our own time, though, this seems to survive as a characteristically American anxiety: fear of weakness, fear of beauty, and fear of any emotion besides anger. This is a false polarity, however; the various warrior-poet traditions date back to King David, probably, and his mythic biography features not only battlefield prowess but also the Psalms—some of the most beautiful poetry in history—as well as raw expressions of emotion. Charles Ives’s father had been a Union bandleader in the Civil War, and music defined that composer’s early household culture (and a terror of feminization defined his psyche, for whatever reason). In contrast, another American modernist, George Antheil, wrote of playing his first childhood “sonata,” titled “The Sinking of the Titanic,” for his gang of friends, all of whom whooped and applauded. So it is worth asking what we are afraid of, why we have such contradictory reactions to Chopin: we love his music but need to make him a he-man in increasingly untenable ways. These concerns seem not to have bothered his contemporaries, including his friends from youth: Chopin was Chopin, however many men who were not-the-marrying-kind, so to speak, he associated with.

In American culture (and myth), the point of contact between dour Protestant duty and fierce western frontier independence is in a kind of exaggerated masculinity—less a strutting, performative machismo than an impassive can-do, git-’er-done resilience that suffers no beauty or softness: we have God’s own country to build, so we don’t have time for the fripperies of the luxurious classes, or for anything that might weaken us as men of God. Weakness, obviously, is of the Devil, and we have log cabins to build.

An American festival devoted to Chopin offers the ideal opportunity to stare this in the face. Returning to Huneker, above: were pianists today not to play Chopin “in passional phrases,” they’d be written off as “ladies’ Chopin,” falsifiers of the tradition. Concert pianism, as it has evolved, has far more in common with Liszt’s playing to the galleries and virtuosic Russian fire and brimstone than Chopin’s subtle, understated musical confessions to an informed circle of intimates. Generations of teachers, students, and audiences acclimated to Sol Hurok productions, international Chopin competitions, and RCA Red Label classical marketing require, it now seems, the exact opposite of how Chopin himself conceived and realized his own music, and what (apparently) audiences of the mid-to-late nineteenth century expected.

The global style change has been so gradual as to be almost unnoticed, but what has amounted to a 180-degree aesthetic reversal is noteworthy regardless. Heretical as it may seem, we need to reflect on the variety of performance approaches people have taken to Chopin’s music, and perhaps widen our own personal palette of desirable possibilities. One problem with music this familiar and beloved is that our expectations become ossified, and we come to mentally hum along with this repertoire as we do our favorite pop records. Chopin’s music deserves far better than comfortable familiarity, I would argue, and so we should be expanding our own horizons of expectation.


Jonathan D. Bellman is the Professor of Music History and Literature at the University of Northern Colorado, in the United States of America. He earned piano performance degrees from the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Illinois, and a Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano Performance Practices at Stanford University in 1990.

His most recent book, Chopin’s Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom, has just been published by Oxford University Press. His first two books, The Style Hongrois in the Music of Western Europe (1993), and The Exotic in Western Music (1998; a collection of essays by himself and others), were published by Northeastern University Press; his third book, A Short Guide to Writing about Music (2000; 2nd Ed. 2007) is a textbook published by Longman.

His articles and reviews have appeared in, among other publications, the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Nineteenth-Century Music, Early Music, Historical Performance, and The Journal of Musicology. His research interests include musical exoticism and the music and performance practices of Frédéric Chopin.

He also still performs occasionally, and in spring 2009 premiered the reconstruction of a piece jointly composed in in 1833 by Felix Mendelssohn and Ignaz Moscheles, the Fantasy and Variations for Two Pianos and Orchestra on the Gypsy March from Weber’s ‘Preziosa’.

Chopin and the Image of Romanticism

by Richard I. Suchenski, SummerScape Film Series Curator

Few composers have had as important a place in the history of cinema as Fryderyk Chopin. His music was part of the standard repertoire used by silent film accompanists, and selected pieces (especially some of the waltzes and the third “Funeral March” movement from Piano Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, 1839) were common in both Hollywood and European films of the 1930s and ‘40s. In most cases, Chopin’s music—like pieces such as Beethoven’s popular “Minuet in G” (1796)—was used as a conventional emotional cue or an emblem of universal romantic values. The advantages and limitations of this approach are exemplified by Charles Vidor’s Technicolor biopic A Song to Remember (1945). With varying degrees of irony, postwar filmmakers including Stanley Kubrick (Lolita, 1962), John Boorman (Hope and Glory, 1987), Luchino Visconti (The Innocent, 1976), and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salò, 1975) played off of this tradition.

Unsurprisingly, it was in Poland itself that the more specifically national, and even patriotic, elements of Chopin’s music were emphasized. As the leading Polish composer and an avatar of Romanticism—the country’s most enduring, adaptive, and influential artistic framework—Chopin and his music represented cultural continuity in the midst of tumult and trauma, frequently evoking aspirations that could only be addressed indirectly for censorship reasons. The most resonant and iconic example is the use of the “Military Polonaise” (Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1, 1838) at the end of a key scene in Andrzej Wajda’s elegiac war film Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Experimental filmmaker Eugeniusz Cękalski had explored similar issues in his Three Studies of Chopin (1937–44), and the husband-and-wife team of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson used pieces by Chopin and Karol Szymanowski to rally support for the Polish cause in the British propaganda film Calling Mr. Smith (1943). Aleksander Ford, who helped to establish the film industry in postwar Communist Poland as head of Film Polski and professor at the National Film School in Łódź, redirected these associations in the socialist realist biopic Chopin’s Youth(1952). Ford taught both Wajda and Roman Polanski, who powerfully used Chopin’s music to highlight the ambiguities of art, politics, and history in The Pianist (2002).

The filmmakers associated with Poland’s cinema of “moral anxiety” during the mid-1970s and early 1980s gave a new inflection to these traditions by using performances and recordings of Chopin’s music to deepen the stakes of the small but deeply significant ethical decisions made by their protagonists. Krzysztof Zanussi, who regularly collaborated with composer Wojciech Kilar and has also directed documentary portraits of Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutosławski, used Chopin’s music in many of his 1970s films, most prominently in the quietly devastating Camouflage (1977). Zanussi himself appears in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (1979), which, like Agnieszka Holland’s Provincial Actors (1979), employs music by Chopin at a critical moment of self-discovery. Kieślowski would later make parodic use of Chopin in his French-Polish black comedy White (1994). In the same period, Polish émigré Andrzej Żuławski reexamined both the historical and mythological aspects of Chopin’s biography with a mixture of irony and exuberance in the French film Blue Note (1991).

Chopin was also important as a reference point for the intimate chamber dramas Ingmar Bergman began making in the 1960s (he was married at the time to concert pianist Käbi Laretei). Most overtly, the challenges of articulating the controlled emotions embedded in Chopin’s preludes are used as a correlate to mother/daughter dynamics in Autumn Sonata (1978). Bergman’s most moving and mysterious film, Cries and Whispers (1972), explicitly emulates musical structures, and its title alludes to a review of Mozart by a Swedish critic. The score consists of only two pieces: the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor (BWV 1011, 1720), which recurs frequently in Bergman’s work, and Chopin’s 1833 Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4 (played by Laretei). Both pieces accompany enigmatic transitions, the latter associated with the movement of memory.

The SummerScape 2017 Film Series will provide an opportunity to explore many facets of Chopin’s legacy. The core films will be supplemented with relevant shorts and partner features exploring related issues. All programs begin at 7 p.m., with breaks between features.

Click here to access the full calendar of the SummerScape Film Series. 

Header Image: Still from Cries and Whispers. Ingmar Bergman, 1972, Sweden.


Richard I. Suchenski is the founder and director of the Center for Moving Image Arts (CMIA) and associate professor of film and electronic arts at Bard College. He is the author of Projections of Memory: Romanticism, Modernism, and the Aesthetics of Film (Oxford University Press, 2016), the editor of Hou Hsiao-hsien (Austrian Film Museum / Columbia University Press, 2014), and a contributor to many books and journals, including Artforum, The Moving Image, Viewing Platform: Perspectives on the Panorama (Yale University Press, 2015), and Robert Bresson (Indiana University Press, 2012). In addition to year-round CMIA programs, he has curated film series covering periods from the silent era to the present at institutions such as the National Gallery of Art, Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution, Austrian Film Museum, Museum of the Moving Image, George Eastman House, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Harvard Film Archive, Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, British Film Institute, National Museum of Singapore, and Yale University.

The Wind that Plays the Harp: George Sand on Genius

by Isabelle Naginski, Professor of French and Codirector, International Literary and Visual Studies Program, Tufts University

George Sand’s entrance into literature in the early 1830s was steeped in self-doubt and melancholia. Her pronouncements on poetic inspiration were full of angst. In an early journal, Sketches and Hints (1830–34), using a violent and bloody image, she looked inwardly in search of the mystery of her future self: “I dug deep down into my entrails to find the secret of my destiny,” she writes.[1] She then conceded that her genius would bring with it a life of solitude, suffering, and public misunderstanding.

Early texts such as Letters of a Traveller and the novel Lélia depict genius as a curse and at the same time as a source of anxiety regarding the author’s literary worth. She creates, she claims despairingly, “with crude instruments such as the hoe and the trowel works which are roughly hewn, lacking in form, and always composed in moments of feverishness.”[2] Yet she knows in her heart of hearts that she is a woman of genius, following in the footsteps of her great literary foremother, Germaine de Staël.

The association that the young novelist establishes between genius, intellectual superiority, and melancholy comes directly from Aristotle. In his writings, he spoke of the “Saturnine temperament” of superior artists and great men.[3] This vision of genius has dominated Western thought and was exploited with particular intensity in the 19th century among French intellectual circles. Chateaubriand’s Romantic hero, René, who suffers from his own paralyzing superior intellect (later to be called “le mal du siècle”), Baudelaire’s “spleen,” and the group of poets, such as Verlaine and Rimbaud, who considered themselves to be superior but cursed (“poètes maudits”) are a few avatars of this pessimistic view of genius.

Unexpectedly, Sand seems to have changed the Aristotelian paradigm in 1837, at least for herself, when she composed a novel entitled The Master Mosaic Workers. In it she portrays two brothers, one who is a stereotypical melancholic artist, the other, Valerio, who embodies a new type. The latter’s carefree and cheerful behavior are signs that he is confident in his talent and does not need to mull things over in a somber way. Although less assiduous in his work, Valerio believes in his good fortune. He is more prolific when it comes to innovative ideas or sublime compositions.[4] Through this innovative artistic type Sand presented a radically new conception of genius. “Ambition is a sickness of the soul,” the mosaic worker explains. “All light comes from a divine place.”[5] Henceforth, this is the model that would guide Sand in her long writing career. Never again would her correspondence or her autobiographical or fictional texts expound the idea of literary production accomplished only through excruciating suffering.

Sand’s new vision of genius is Platonic in nature, since Plato was convinced that genius was a gift bestowed by the gods. In 1836 and 1837, when Sand was composing her novel, she was also avidly reading Plato in Victor Cousin’s French translation. The dialogue “Ion” is particularly crucial in this context: “Poets owe everything to inspiration.… They are the organs of god who speaks through their mouths.” As a result of her encounter with the philosophical and aesthetical theories of Plato, Sand’s attitude toward her capacity to write genially was transformed. She rejected the idea of a pessimistic Romanticism based on melancholic and solitary toil and replaced it with an optimistic Romanticism grounded in joy and solidarity. In other words, from an Aristotelian, Sand became a Platonist.

Years later, in her masterful correspondence with Flaubert, which spanned 14 years, Sand proposed various metaphors for the poetic inspiration that descended upon her. The author of Madame Bovary was an archetypical Saturnine artist who wrote painfully, slowly, and with great torment. As she attempted to present her friend with another vision of composition, Sand wrote: “The wind plays my old harp as it pleases. It has its upbeats and its low points, its strong notes and its weaknesses. In truth, it is all the same to me, as long as emotion comes, but I can find nothing in my inner being. It is the other who sings at will, either with success or with failure.” This “other” is her way of naming the Platonic muse. Sand had by now become a full-fledged Platonist. She scolded her friend for not understanding that the artist could act according to a different model from the one that was his. But Flaubert would have none of it, and he continued to write in suffering and frustration.

In History of My Life, the remarkable autobiography that Sand penned in the early 1850s, her treatment of Chopin’s genius is relevant to this discussion. First of all, she ranks Chopin as the greatest composer, surpassed only by Mozart.[8] Secondly, she uses both paradigms of genius to explain his working habits:

            His creativity was spontaneous, miraculous; he found it without seeking it.…But then would begin the worst heartbreaking labor I have ever witnessed. It was a series of efforts, indecision, and impatience to recapture certain details of the theme he had heard: … he now over-analyzed in his desire to transcribe it.… He would shut himself up in his room for days at a time, weeping, pacing, breaking his pens, changing a single measure a hundred times.[9]

In this detailed account of how Chopin composed his musical works, we find the Saturnine obsession very much alive in the composer’s mind. But the fact that “he would spend six weeks on a page, only to end up writing it just as he had done in his first outpouring” demonstrates that he was fundamentally a Platonist composer who believed himself to be an Aristotelian one. His “spontaneous” creativity was in the end allowed to take precedence after six weeks of painful and useless rewriting.

Thus is confirmed Sand’s conviction that artistic inspiration comes from a mysterious place that the artist—whether composer or novelist—does not fully control or understand. He or she can only remain open to its manifestations. The wind that plays the harp is a master image of Sandian poetics and helps us better understand such geniuses as Chopin and the novelist herself.


[1] George Sand, Sketches and Hints, in Œuvres autobiographiques, ed. G. Lubin (Paris: Gallimard/Pléiade, 1970–71), 2:602.

[2] George Sand, Lettres d’un voyageur, ed. H. Bonnet (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1971), 193.

[3] Aristotle, Problemata, section XXX. An apocryphal text according to some, but one for which no critic has been able to summon solid proofs one way or the other.

[4] George Sand, Les maîtres mosaïstes, ed. H. Lavagne (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Chêne, 1993), 47.

[5] Ibid., 61.

[6] Plato, Œuvres, trans. V. Cousin (Paris: Bossange, 1822–34), 7 vol. in-8.

[7] Letter dated November 29, 1866, in Correspondance Sand-Flaubert, 102–3; emphasis in original.

[8] George Sand, Histoire de ma vie, in Œuvres autobiographiques, 2:421.

[9] George Sand, Story of My Life, ed. T. Jurgrau (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 1108.

Paris, 1831–49

by Luc Sante, Visiting Professor of Writing and Photography

Chopin arrived in Paris in September 1831, at the age of 21. He would receive French citizenship in 1835; he would never return to Poland.

The city he settled in was undergoing its difficult passage into modernity. A three-day insurrection the previous July had ushered out the last Bourbon, Charles X, and brought in Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen Monarch.” The change of kings was a slight improvement, although Louis-Philippe had already begun throwing his weight around: that November, the caricaturist Charles Philipon was sent to prison for six months and fined 2,000 francs for depicting the new monarch as a pear with human features.

Louis-Philippe, ”past, present, and future.” Illustration by Honoré Daumier, from La Caricature, 1834

Beginning in mid-February 1832, Paris was in the grip of a cholera epidemic that would kill more than 18,500 citizens over the course of nine months. The Romantics, who were generally unaffected, were fascinated; at a soirée at Victor Hugo’s, Franz Liszt played Beethoven’s Funeral March to great effect. Chopin, who had just given his debut concert in Paris, was not yet well enough established to be there himself. That June, a minor uprising began at the funeral of General Lamarque, a veteran of Napoleon’s army; it would be remembered primarily because Hugo employed it as a set piece in Les misérables.

At the end of 1833, the Luxor obelisk was installed in the Place de la Concorde. The following April saw another republican insurrection, that one capped by the massacre of all the inhabitants of a house on rue Transnonain (today, rue Beaubourg), immortalized in a print by Honoré Daumier. In November 1835, Pierre François Lacenaire, a psychotic killer who became a literary celebrity, went up for trial—his memory is preserved in Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s Children of Paradise (1945). The year 1836, when Chopin first met George Sand, was also marked by the debut of the first two cheap daily newspapers, La Presse and Le Siècle, which both began the same day and altered the course of French literature with their frenzied competition over serial novels. That year also saw the inauguration of the Arc de Triomphe in the Place de l’Étoile.

The first railroad line out of the city was opened in 1837; Louis-Mandé Daguerre first experimented with daguerreotypes in 1839; the first gas stoves and the first Christmas trees made their appearance in 1840. In 1842, when Chopin began showing signs of serious illness, the first French-made cigarettes arrived on the scene; not long after came the first railway disaster—57 dead on the Versailles line. In the following year, the first attempt was made at electric street lighting. Adolphe Sax won a musical competition on the Champ de Mars in 1845 and saw his instrument adopted by French military bands; that same year, the first electric telegraph line was installed.

The year the Chopin-Sand liaison came to an end, 1847, was also the year Henri Murger published Scènes de la vie de bohème, which somewhat fancifully documented a social type that had recently come to prominence in the capital. In 1848, when Chopin was so ill he weighed less than 99 pounds, the city erupted in thwarted revolution, with barricades filling the streets from February to June. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected president of the Republic in December (he would stage his coup d’état, culminating in his crowning as emperor, in 1851). In 1849, the year of Chopin’s death, the first bureaucratic steps were taken that would ultimately lead to Baron Haussmann’s razing and rebuilding of large areas of the city. Chopin was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery—that is, all except his heart, which went back to Warsaw in an oil-filled urn.

Luc Sante is a visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard, teaching in both the Art History and Written Arts programs since 1999. His books include The Other Paris, Kill All Your Darlings, The Factory of Facts, and Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. His honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Grammy (for album notes), an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, Guggenheim and Cullman fellowships, and, most recently, the first French Heritage Society Literary Award.

What’s In a Name?

by Christopher H. Gibbs, James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music; Artistic Codirector, Bard Music Festival

Twelve years ago the Bard Music Festival decided that our featured composer each summer should be given a first name. While Brahms and His World had sufficed for the 1990 inaugural season, 25 years later it was Franz Schubert and His World for the annual book of essays published by Princeton University Press. Neither composer needs much introduction. (Richard Strauss was given his full name in 1992 so as to eliminate any doubt—we have yet to tackle Johann Strauss Jr.)

This year we have to make a call that in various ways captures much at the heart of the 2017 Bard Music Festival: should we say Fryderyk or Frédéric Chopin? The question is not only politically weighted between Poland and France but also revealing about how the program committee makes fundamental decisions about the unfolding of the festival.

Every year poses challenges, and one challenge this time is how to represent the almost exact split in Chopin’s life: his first 20 years spent in Poland, the remaining 19 mainly in Paris. And even this neat chronological divide is more complicated than it first appears. His father was French, and Chopin was raised imbibing French culture and exposed to the language. Once he moved to Paris, he became deeply involved with a vibrant diaspora, had Polish patrons, students, friends, and even a roommate; Chopin probably spoke Polish almost daily. His letters home also reflect the divide: he wrote in Polish to his father, who responded in French.

As we finalize the plans for this summer we want to represent both of these worlds and much more, while also considering the intriguing implications. We no doubt think too easily of Chopin as the 19th-century artistic emblem of Poland. His life, loyalties, and legacy were far more complex, cosmopolitan, and interesting. While he was the grateful beneficiary of an elite education in Warsaw, his most commanding musical models from the start were leading foreign composers, past and contemporary. Chopin longed to travel. After a brief and somewhat disappointing trip at age 18 to Berlin, he made his way to Vienna, the “music city” that captivated him and where he was immediately embraced by the preeminent musical figures. (Schubert had died just eight months earlier, precluding what might have been a fascinating connection.) In Vienna, Chopin discovered the considerable appeal that his Polish exoticism had with foreign audiences, as well as the contempt in which his country was sometimes held: “In Polen ist nichts zu holen” (roughly, “There’s nothing to be done with Poland”) was a phrase he overheard, to his chagrin and resentment.

Russia crushed Poland in late 1830, during Chopin’s second trip to Vienna. He felt he could not return home, and so pressed forward to Paris, never to see his native country again. Much of Chopin’s music continued exhibiting a deeply rooted connection to Poland. Many of his teenage pieces written in Warsaw drew upon Polish songs and dances; he would now export this music across Europe. Robert Schumann, his earliest, most ardent, and most powerful critical advocate, stated that if Tsar Nicholas I, who had done the crushing of Poland, “knew what a dangerous enemy threatened him in Chopin’s works, he would forbid this music. Chopin’s works are guns buried in flowers.”

While exposing his own “ethnocentric” point of view—the undeniable centrality of German music—Schumann raised the crucial issue of nationalism that must have haunted Chopin as well. Chopin found astonishing ways in his compositions to combine Slavic exoticism with Bachian counterpoint, Beethovenian boldness, Schubertian inwardness, Lisztian virtuosity, and Bellinian lyricism. How his music relates to Poland, to Paris, to the domestic music making of the salon, to the tradition he inherited, and to the legacy he passed on—well, these are exactly the issues we will explore with this summer’s programming.

One of our main challenges, however, will be to do justice to Chopin’s dual identity: beginning with his formidable training in Warsaw, the youthful influences, relations with Polish culture and politics while in Paris, and his legacy across Europe. The young Chopin was molded by a broad European musical scene. Benefiting from the advice of this year’s scholars in residence, Jonathan Bellman and Halina Goldberg, we are programming concertos that Chopin either played himself or admired, especially piano concertos. These pieces provide missing links between the Beethoven concertos we know, Chopin’s own teenage efforts, and the later, more symphonic ones by Liszt, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff. Concertos by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Friedrich Kalkbrenner (to whom Chopin dedicated his E-Minor Concerto), Ferdinand Ries, and Ignaz Moscheles are especially revealing.

The great cultural critic Walter Benjamin called Paris the “capital of the nineteenth century.” Chopin spent his entire adult life in the city and got to know many of its luminaries, not just the greatest musicians but also cultural figures such as Eugène Delacroix, Balzac, Heinrich Heine, and Victor Hugo. His long, fascinating, and fraught relationship with Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, brought him in touch with other leading personalities. The festival ends by pairing Chopin with the preeminent French composer and critic of the day, Hector Berlioz, and his dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette.

I confess to a longstanding fascination with composers’ deaths, burials, monuments, and memorials. In Chopin’s case, the circumstances around his death are revealing about the issues of identity signaled by the two versions of his first name. He died at age 39 in his Paris apartment surrounded by friends and family. The funeral at the Madeleine was attended by thousands of mourners and Mozart’s Requiem was sung. He was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Before the burial, however, his heart was removed for his sister to take back “home” to Warsaw, and later some soil from “home” was brought to Paris to be placed on his grave. What a perfect metaphor for his divided life: Frédéric Chopin is buried in Paris, but Fryderyk’s heart remains in Poland. “Chopin and His World,” as our festival will inevitably be called, will open on August 11.


Christopher H. Gibbs

B.A., Haverford College; M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D., Columbia University. Recipient, Dissertation Prize of the Austrian Cultural Institute (1992), ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award (1998); fellow, American Council of Learned Societies (1999–2000). Musicological director of the Schubertiade at the 92nd Street Y in New York City; musicological adviser for the Schubert Festival at Carnegie Hall (1997) and the Bard Music Festival (2000, 2002); coartistic director, Bard Music Festival (2003– ). Program annotator and musicological consultant, Philadelphia Orchestra (2000– ). Author, The Life of Schubert (2000); editor, The Cambridge Companion to Schubert (1997); coeditor, Liszt and His World (2006); associate editor, The Musical Quarterly. Contributor to New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 19th-Century Music, Schubert durch die Brille, Current Musicology, Opera Quarterly, and Chronicle of Higher Education. Faculty, SUNY Buffalo (1993–2003). At Bard since 2002.

Don’t Love Him Because He’s Beautiful

by Jonathan D. Bellman, Scholar in Residence 2017

Chopin: the best-loved composer in Western music history. Not, perhaps, the best known; Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart would probably head the line. But best loved—the scores most often found on the piano, the most infectious dance rhythms, and the most memorable melodies: that, very likely, would be Chopin. As one of my professors put it long ago, with Chopin, every vertical sound was an absolute gem. So the most dissonant passages (the coda of the C-sharp-Minor Étude, Op. 10, No. 4, comes to mind, or the even the forbidding and impassive A-Minor Prelude) somehow never overstep the bounds of beauty, “thus remaining music,” as Mozart wrote in a similar context. So it is that this music’s beauty and popularity are taken for granted, and Chopin could be remade in different images: for the theorist Heinrich Schenker, he was an honorary Austro-German; for Soviet propagandists, he instead became a mouthpiece of fire-breathing Revolutionary fervor. His physical fragility, sensitivities, and disposition toward à la mode fashion and refinement could be contextualized in deference to the anxieties of later ages. In 1900, the Chopin biographer and devotee James Huneker wrote:

When [Anton] Rubinstein, Tausig, and Liszt played Chopin in passional phrases, the public and critics were aghast. This was a transformed Chopin indeed, a Chopin transposed to the key of manliness. Yet is the true Chopin. The young man’s manners were a trifle feminine but his brain was masculine, electric, and his soul courageous. His Polonaises, Ballades, and Scherzi and Études need a mighty grip, a grip mental and physical.

Of course, Chopin’s music has maintained a strong and consistent popularity since it first appeared. Still, because virtue is its own punishment, we immediately register a certain suspicion of that which we enjoy too readily. The natural athlete, the beautiful girl, the catchy song, the sweet wine: we no sooner appreciate these than we begin to criticize, distrust, and dismiss them because anything of real merit requires a struggle, something to prevail over, to conquer, to discipline. It wasn’t until Jacob actually wrestled with the angel that . . . and so on. So have we been taught.

We have also been taught that the Western classical tradition is fundamentally Teutonocentric—essentially, German and Other. Chopin’s instantly ravishing music (“for piano solo,” smiles the Superior Person, “though of course there’s nothing . . . wrong with that; I’m just saying . . .”) has a long history of being too beautiful, actually, to be good. For a long time, it was music for the second half of the recital, as I once heard it explained; music to reward and reassure the audience after the challenging repertoire offered in the first half, when their ears were fresher and goodwill intact. No criticism of Chopin implied, of course; everyone loves him! But the art music repertoire has long had its own hierarchy, in which music of inherent Quality (according to theorists and critics) rates well above music that is merely Enjoyable. And so it is that the Bach fugues felt to be the finest are mature works in which everything may be found in the main motive, not his earlier, often jollier, more diffuse and discursive fugues. If one looks at Beethoven’s string quartets, it is the aesthetically stratospheric but stylistically knotty and uningratiating late ones that bear the palm.

The tirelessly self-promoting Wagner, seeking to unite all the arts of Mt. Olympus, was the paradigmatic example: whoever drew back from the grandiose gigantism—the sheer force and length and (yes) noise of his mature music dramas—offended Art herself. Leitmotiv guides were published so that through diligent preparation audiences might appreciate what was put before them. By Schoenberg’s time, it was no longer a question of art pleasing or delighting the audience; the audience had to elevate itself to the point of being worthy of Art.

Where does this leave Chopin? One of the goals of the Bard Music Festival, ultimately, should be to redeem him from the burden of his music’s beauty, or (better) from our Occidental shame and distrust regarding beauty per se. Chopin has been characterized for well over a century as a melodist or miniaturist; these are less designations of a particular gift or strength than circumscriptions that highlight the ways in which he was found wanting. The very loveliness of so much of his writing tends to mute, conveniently enough, legitimate and pressing questions, especially those to do with form. The conventional wisdom about Chopin’s discomfort with large forms is belied by his creation of the piano ballade, as flexible and chameleonic a form as Western music has yet devised. The logic behind so many chord progressions found in no harmony text has many inspirations, among them improvisation and the subtly prismatic shadings of 19th-century unequal temperaments, but accepted formal conventions were, at best, of tertiary importance. Indeed, Chopin’s music shows us, more clearly than that of any other single composer, just how barren our conception of “form,” as we understand it from German-derived textbooks, actually is: which tunes in a piece are important enough to hear again, and the order and in which keys they appear and reappear—a list of signposts, little more. No degrees in music are needed to recognize the inadequacy of that approach to a real-time art that can often achieve expressive beauty, rhetorical eloquence, and dramatic narrative at the same time.

We have, in short, our work cut out for us. Chopin is central casting’s idea of a Romantic: exiled from his homeland, tragically unlucky in love, ever-failing in health. Or, perhaps, central casting developed the concept of pop-culture Romanticism from his biography. Regardless: for two weekends the performances, panels, and (ideally) constant conversation about Chopin and his contemporaries should begin to frame a better understanding of a composer whose music was too safely beloved and beautiful to receive the study and respect that it is truly owed.

There is much ground to make up. See you here in August.


Jonathan D. Bellman is the Professor of Music History and Literature at the University of Northern Colorado, in the United States of America. He earned piano performance degrees from the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Illinois, and a Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano Performance Practices at Stanford University in 1990.

His most recent book, Chopin’s Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom, has just been published by Oxford University Press. His first two books, The Style Hongrois in the Music of Western Europe (1993), and The Exotic in Western Music (1998; a collection of essays by himself and others), were published by Northeastern University Press; his third book, A Short Guide to Writing about Music (2000; 2nd Ed. 2007) is a textbook published by Longman.

His articles and reviews have appeared in, among other publications, the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Nineteenth-Century Music, Early Music, Historical Performance, and The Journal of Musicology. His research interests include musical exoticism and the music and performance practices of Frédéric Chopin.

He also still performs occasionally, and in spring 2009 premiered the reconstruction of a piece jointly composed in in 1833 by Felix Mendelssohn and Ignaz Moscheles, the Fantasy and Variations for Two Pianos and Orchestra on the Gypsy March from Weber’s ‘Preziosa’.