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The Poetry and Leadership of Chopin

by Aubertine Woodward Moore

"The piano bard, the piano rhapsodist, the piano mind, the piano soul is Chopin," said Rubinstein. "Tragic, romantic, lyric, heroic, dramatic, fantastic, soulful, sweet, dreamy, brilliant, grand, simple, all possible expressions are found in his compositions and all are sung by him on his instrument."

In these few, bold strokes one who knew him by virtue of close art and race kinship, presents an incomparable outline sketch of the Polish tone-poet who explored the harmonic vastness of the pianoforte and made his own all its mystic secrets.[Pg 136]

Born and bred on Poland's soil, son of a French father and a Polish mother, Frédéric Chopin (1809-1849) combined within himself two natures, each complementing the other, both uniting to form a personality not understood by every casual observer. He is described as kind, courteous, possessed of the most captivating grace and ease of manner, now inclined to languorous melancholy, now scintillating with a joyous vivacity that was contagious. His sensitive nature, like the most exquisitely constructed sounding-board, vibrated with the despairing sadness, the suppressed wrath, and the sublime fortitude of the brave, haughty, unhappy people he loved, and with his own homesickness when afar from his cherished native land.

Patriot and tone-poet in every fibre of his being, his genius inevitably claimed as its own the soul's divinest language, pure music, unfettered by words. The profound reserve of his nature made it peculiarly agreeable to him to gratify the haunting demands of his lyric muse through the medium of the one musical[Pg 137]instrument that lends itself in privacy to the exploitation of all the mysteries of harmony. Strong conviction in regard to his own calling and clear perception of the hidden powers and future mission of the piano early compelled him to consecrate to it his unfaltering devotion. He evolved from its more intimate domain effects in sympathy with those of the orchestra, yet purely individual. He enriched it with new melodic, harmonic and rhythmic devices adapted to itself alone, and endowed it with a warmth of tone-coloring that spiritualized it for all time.

To the piano he confided all the conflicts that raged within him, all the courage and living hope that sustained him. In giving tonal form to the deep things of the soul, which are universal in their essence and application, he embodied universal rather than merely individual emotional experiences, and thus unbared what was most sacred to himself without jarring on the innate reticence which made purely personal confidences impossible. Although his mode of expression was peculiarly his own, he[Pg 138] had received a strong impulse from the popular music of Poland. As a child he had become familiar with the folk-songs and dances heard in the harvest-fields and at market and village festivals. They were his earliest models; on them were builded his first themes. As Bach glorified the melodies of the German people, so Chopin glorified those of the Poles. The national tonality became to him a vehicle to be freighted with his own individual conceptions.

"I should like to be to my people what Uhland was to the Germans," he once said to a friend. He addressed himself to the heart of this people and immortalized its joys, sorrows and caprices by the force of his splendid art. Those who have attempted to interpret him as the sentimental hero of minor moods, the tone-poet in whom the weakness of despair predominates, have missed the leaping flames, the vivid intensity and the heroic manliness permeated with genuine love of beauty that animated him. True art softens the harshest accents of suffering by placing superior to it[Pg 139] some elevating idea. So in the most melancholy strains of his music one who heeds well may detect the presence of a lofty ideal that uplifts and strengthens the travailing soul. It has been said of him that he had a sad heart but a joyful mind.

The two teachers of Chopin were Adalbert Zwyny, a Bohemian violinist, who taught the piano, and Joseph Elsner, a violinist, organist and theorist. "From Zwyny and Elsner even the greatest dunce must learn something," he is quoted as saying. Neither of these men attempted to hamper his free growth by rigid technical restraints. Their guidance left him master of his own genius, at liberty to "soar like the lark into the ethereal blue of the skies." He respected them both. A revering affection was cherished by him for Elsner, to whom he owed his sense of personal responsibility to his art, his habits of serious study and his intimate acquaintance with Bach.

There is food for thought in the fact that this Prince Charming of the piano, whose magic touch awakened the Sleeping Beauty of[Pg 140] the instrument of wood and wires, never had a lesson in his life from a mere piano specialist. Liszt once said Chopin was the only pianist he ever knew that could play the violin on the piano. If he could do so it was because he had harkened to the voice of the violin and resolved to show that the piano, too, could produce thrilling effects. In the same way he had listened to the human voice, and determined that the song of his own instrument should be heard. Those who give ear to the piano alone will never learn the secret of calling forth its supreme eloquence.

We can see and hear this "Raphael of Music" at the piano, so many and so eloquent have been the descriptions given of his playing. It is easy to fancy him sweeping the ivory keys with his gossamer touch that enveloped with ethereal beauty the most unaccustomed of his complicated chromatic modulations. We can feel his individuality pulsating through every tone evoked by those individualized fingers of his as they weave measures for sylphs of dreamland, or summon to warfare[Pg 141] heroes of the ideal world. We are entranced by his luxuriant tone-coloring, induced to a large extent by his original management of the pedals. We marvel at his softly whispered, yet ever clearly distinct pianissimo, at the full, round tone of its relative fortissimo, that was never harsh or noisy, and at all the exquisitely graded nuances that lay between, with those time fluctuations expressive of the ebb and flow of his poetic inner being. No wonder Balzac maintained that if Chopin should but drum on the table his fingers would evoke subtle-sounding music.

And what an example he has left for teachers. Delicately strung as he was, he must often have endured tortures from the best of his pupils, but so thoroughly was he consecrated to his art that he never faltered in his efforts to lift those who confided in him to the aërial heights he had found. A vivid picture of his method of teaching is given in the lectures on "Frédéric Chopin's Works and Their Proper Interpretation," by the Pole, Jean Kleczynski.[Pg 142]

The basis of this method consisted in refinement of touch, for the attainment of which a natural, easy position of the hand was considered by Chopin a prime requisite. He prepared each hand with infinite care before permitting any attempt at the reproduction of musical ideas. In order to place it to advantage he caused it to be thrown lightly on the keyboard so that the five fingers rested on the notes E, F sharp, G sharp, A sharp and B, and without change of position required the practice of exercises calculated to insure independence. The pupil was instructed to go through these exercises first staccato, effected by a free movement of the wrist, an admirable means of counteracting heaviness and clumsiness, then legato-staccato, then accented legato, then pure legato, modifying the power from pp to ff, and the movement from andante to prestissimo.

He was exceedingly particular about arpeggio work, and insisted upon the repetition of every note and passage until all harshness and roughness of tone were eliminated. "Is that[Pg 143] a dog barking?" he was known to exclaim to an unlucky pupil whose attack in the opening arpeggio of a Clementi study lacked the desired quality. A very independent use of the thumb was prescribed by him. He never hesitated about placing it on a black key when convenient, and had it passed by muscle action alone in scales and broken chords whose zealous practice in different forms of touch, accent, rhythm and tone were demanded by him.

Individualization of the fingers was one of his strong points, and he believed in assigning to each of them its appropriate part. "In a good mechanism," he said, "the aim is not to play everything with an equal sound, but to acquire beautiful quality of touch and perfect shading." Of prime importance in his eyes was a clear, elastic, singing tone, one whose exquisite delicacy could never be confounded with feebleness. Every dynamic nuance he exacted of fingers that fell with freedom and elasticity on the keys, and he knew how to augment the warmth and richness of tone-coloring by setting in vibration sympathetic harmonics[Pg 144] of the principal notes through judicious employment of the damper pedal.

By precept and example he advocated frequent playing of the preludes and fugues of Bach as a means of cultivating musical intelligence, muscular independence and touch and tone discrimination. His musical heroes were Bach and Mozart, for they represented to him nature, strong individuality and poetry in music. At one time he undertook to write a method or school of piano-playing, but never progressed beyond the opening sentences. A message directly from him would have been invaluable to students, and might have averted many unlucky misapprehensions of himself and his works. Those of his contemporaries who have harkened with rapture to his playing have declared that he alone could adequately interpret his tone-creations, or make perfectly intelligible his method. Pupils of his and their pupils have faithfully endeavored to transmit to the musical world the tradition of his individual style. The elect few have come into touch with his vision of beauty, but it has[Pg 145] been mercilessly misinterpreted by thousands of ruthless aspirants to musical honors, in the schoolroom, the students' recital and the concert hall.

Whoever plays Chopin with sledge-hammer fingers will deaden all sense of his poetry, charm and grace. Whoever approaches him with weak sentimentalism will miss altogether his dignity and strength. It has been said of him that he was Woman in his tenderness and realization of the beautiful; and Man in his energy and force of mind. The highest type of artist and human being is thus represented. To interpret him requires simplicity, purity of style, refined technique, poetic imagination and genuine sentiment—not fitful, fictitious sentimentality.

In regard to the much discussed tempo rubato of Chopin many and fatal blunders have been made. Players without number have gone stumbling over the piano keys with a tottering, spasmodic gait, serenely fancying they are heeding the master's design. Reckless, out-of-time playing disfigures what is meant[Pg 146] to express the fluctuation of thought, the soul's agitation, the rolling of the waves of time and eternity. The rubato, from rubare, to rob, represents a pliable movement that is certainly as old as the Greek drama in declamation, and was employed in intoning the Gregorian chant. The recitative of the sixteenth century gave it prominence, and it passed into instrumental music. Indications of it in Bach are too often neglected. Beethoven used it effectively. Chopin appropriated it as one of his most potent auxiliaries. In playing he emphasized the saying of Mozart: "Let your left hand be the orchestra conductor," while his right hand balanced and swayed the melody and its arabesques according to the natural pulsation of the emotions. "You see that tree," exclaimed Liszt; "its leaves tremble with every breath of the wind, but the tree remains unshaken—that is the rubato." There are storms to which even the tree yields. To realize them, to divine the laws which regulate the undulating, tempest-tossed rubato, requires highly[Pg 147] matured artistic taste and absolute musical control.

Too sensitive to enjoy playing before miscellaneous audiences whose unsympathetic curiosity, he declared, paralyzed him, Chopin was at his best when interpreting music in private, for a choice circle of friends or pupils, or when absorbed in composition. It is not too much to say for him that he ushered in a new era for his chosen instrument, spiritualizing its timbre, liberating it from traditional orchestral and choral effects, and elevating it to an independent power in the world of music. Besides enriching the technique of the piano, he augmented the materials of musical expression, contributing fresh charms to those prime factors of music melody, harmony and rhythm. New chord extensions, passages of double notes, arabesques and harmonic combinations were devised by him and he so systematized the use of the pedals that the most varied nuances could be produced by them.

In melody and general conception his tone-poems sprang spontaneously from his glowing[Pg 148] fancy, but they were subjected to the most severe tests before they were permitted to go out into the world. Every ingenious device that gave character to his exquisite cantilena, and softened his most startling chord progressions, was evolved by the vivid imagination of this master from hitherto hidden qualities of the pianoforte. Without him neither it nor modern music could have been what it is. An accentuation like the ringing of distant bells is frequently heard in his music. To him bell tones were ever ringing, reminding him of home, summoning him to the heights.

James Huneker, the raconteur of the Musical Courier, discussing the compositions of Chopin, in his delightful and inspiring book, "Chopin, the Man and His Music," calls the studies Titanic experiments; the preludes, moods in miniature; the nocturnes, night and its melancholy mysteries; the ballades, faery dramas; the polonaises, heroic hymns of battle; the valses and mazurkas, dances of the soul; the scherzos, the work of Chopin the conqueror. In the sonatas and concertos he sees[Pg 149] the princely Pole bravely carrying his banner amid classical currents. For the impromptus alone he has found no name and says of them: "To write of the four impromptus in their own key of unrestrained feeling and pondered intention would not be as easy as recapturing the first 'careless rapture of the lark.'"

Unquestionably the poetry of Chopin is of the most exquisite lyric character, his leadership is supreme. So original was his conception, so finished his workmanship, so sublime his purpose, that we may well exclaim with Schumann, "He is the boldest, proudest poetic spirit of the time." "His greatness is his aristocracy," says Oscar Bie. "He stands among musicians in his faultless vesture, a noble from head to foot."