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’.