The Chopin Brand or the Chopin Soul

The Old Library, Warsaw University 
venue for 

Third International Congress CHOPIN 1810-2010 Ideas - Interpretations - Influence

[This article also appears in the 84 page Chopin 2010 UK Events Guide]

The music of Fryderyk Chopin has always been a haven of spiritual refuge to the Polish nation under oppression be it Tsarist Russia, Nazi Germany, the Soviets or the period of communist hegemony. Yet the accession of Poland to the European Union was curiously low key that cold May night in 2004, at least in the capital Warsaw. Unbridled festivity was not present in an atmosphere filled with long speeches and the ‘Heroic’ polonaise performed by Rafał Blechacz on a plinth in Piłsudski Square.[1]  The collective memory and final victory of the country over oppression was expressed by a chorus of ghosts without number in Chopin’s passionate and melancholic vision. What then is the emotional significance of Chopin for contemporary Poland?

All ages interpret the productions of genius through their own aesthetic and historical filters. In modern times the historical and cultural context in which Chopin composed is often ignored or imagined in crude ‘Hollywood’ terms. Following his emotional flight into exile before the rape of his native land by Russia in 1830, he encountered as well as the elegant salons, the assault of the pestilential filth of the Paris streets of that time. The raging cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849 killed many of his friends. This together with his exile, his own illness and the political convulsions of 1830 and 1848 strengthened his tragic view of the transience of life. We are mercifully far today from the source of his suffering.

However the passing of time has created a musical disconnection. Chopin is one of the most difficult of composers to interpret and begs for a cultivated mind of sensibility, poetry and a very particular form of spiritual unease in the face of human mortality. He occupies a discomforting position among composers, his feminine sensibility finely balancing a masculine lyric strength. His is a restrained sentiment that eschews sugared sentimentality. A proper understanding of his early Polish cultural milieu and noble historical style (including the contemporary instruments he used) needs to be acquired by any young modern performer. In Paris Chopin himself commented that in otherwise excellent performances of his work the ‘Polish element’ was missing. The resistance to political tyranny that runs like a red thread through his compositions, the fraught emotions of oppression and disinheritance he expressed in exile gave rise to the complex Polish emotion of żal (melancholic nostalgia and bitter remorse which at times can lead to a type of internal fury of protest). Such feelings have to be imagined by most young Polish pianists who were born, grew up and today live in an atmosphere of democratic freedom.

In response to the infinite repetitions possible with modern recordings and the modish concern with his sexual proclivities, various redefinitions of the composer have taken place since his death in 1849. Most prominent is the emphasis on the physical aspects of his virtuosity as expressed on behemoth Yamaha or Steinway instruments. The world young artists have inherited is loud, cruel and violent, a world dominated by technology that prizes physical power, speed and the body above intelligence, morality and the soul. Playing can certainly be physically exhilarating, but poetic thought, sensibility, refinement and elegance, even patriotism and morality once prized in all art, has become almost an embarrassment in the face of the muscular, the sportif and the overtly sexual in performance. Having almost exhausted the patriotic, aesthetic, literary, ideological, philosophical and musicological appreciation of Chopin we inevitably turn to the easy seductions of the physical.

‘Technique is money’ one Asian professor recently remarked to me in a furtive aside at a Chopin master-class in Duszniki Zdrój, a spa town on the Polish Czech border where there is an important annual Chopin festival. A young pianist from New York is advertised as having ‘the fastest fingers on the planet’ by an esteemed Russian professor. I have seen assistants sponging down sweating pianists between pieces like prize-fighters between bouts, the pianist wiping down the keyboard prior to playing as if it were a piece of sports tackle. George Sand was once amused at Chopin’s horror when he suspected he may actually have been sweating in the summer heat at her French country retreat in Nohant. Too often a form of making war on the piano has become the ideal, hysteria in interpretation all too frequent. ‘Facilement, facilement,’ Chopin often warned. ‘Caress the key, never bash it!’ he would admonish. Paradoxically Chopin playing has become harsh reality itself rather than a consolation in the face of it.

Many pianists and listeners are simply too young and emotionally immature for the pain and mystery of Chopin. The spiritual tension of what the Polish musicologist Mieczysław Tomaszewski called Chopin’s ‘imprisoned romanticism’ is scarcely alluded to in performance. Understandably they lack a mature understanding of his ambiguous, neurasthenic and emotional vie intérieure. In many modern performances, naturally not all (pace Barenboim, Olejniczak, Zimerman, Blechacz, Pires, Ohlsson, Pollini), the individual ‘voice’ of the performer has been mislaid. Athletic training has turned too many young pianists into acrobats of the keyboard participating in an Olympic sport of tempestuous brutality. C.P.E. Bach put it well ‘They overwhelm our hearing without satisfying it and stun the mind without moving it . . .’[2]

An alternative development of Chopin as ‘entertainment’ is the uniquely Polish and to my mind not entirely successful ‘jazzification’ of certain small works such as preludes or mazurkas. Many contrapuntal keyboard pieces of J.S. Bach wing effortlessly above the medium of their expression be it organ, harpsichord, piano, unaccompanied voice ensemble, even Jamaican steel band. The Polish composer meets with mixed results in this type of reinterpretation .

In our contemporary world dominated by the religion of economics and the golden calf, the Chopin industry develops apace as he is transformed into a brand, a ‘loss leader’ for Poland. Previously the domain of the musically cultured, his music and name are rapidly becoming utilised by the world of business as a tradable and profitable commodity. An asteroid, the main airport in Warsaw and a luxury vodka already carry his name. Undoubtedly in Poland during the bicentenary year great performances of his music will be heard from the finest pianists in the world. But dispiritingly his aristocratic face will inevitably adorn T shirts, pens and tissues - the entire paraphernalia of an opportunistic marketing campaign. It happened to Mozart recently in Vienna, why not to Chopin? But his spirit will survive.

Let us not lose sight of the true significance of this composer for music lovers amidst the superficial distractions of trade and insensitive performance. Chopin possesses an unrivalled position as Poland’s national composer and its musical wieszcz.[3] His music remains the beating heart of the country. The great Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821–83) described Chopin as ‘a Varsovian by birth, a Pole by heart, and a citizen of the world by talent’. Virtuoso brilliance, a supreme gift for melody and an air of sentiment explain his immense appeal on a popular level. But more deeply the universality of Chopin lies in his profound sense of loss and nostalgia. His revolutionary music expresses a fierce resistance to domination, a sense of sacrificial melancholy in the face of the bitter finales of life – universal and timeless human emotions.

Fryderyk Chopin, while ‘detached’ from the Polish revolutionary cabals in nineteenth century Paris, expressed more profoundly than almost anyone, the sorrow and heroic aspirations of the Polish spirit. In doing so he gave voice to the universal suffering of any spirit labouring under a totalitarian heel or shackled by personal psychological chains. His music offers deep consolation to troubled hearts throughout the world. The music of Chopin continues to express the beauty and richness of conscious life forever overshadowed by the implacable reality of death, a profound awareness of which is surely the source of all we would wish to call ‘civilization’.

© Michael Moran 2009
Author of A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland (London 2009)

[1] Later to become winner of the 2005 Chopin International Piano Competition
[2] Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen 1753 (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, trans. ed. W.J. Mitchell (London 1949)
[3] There is no English equivalent for this Polish word – an approximation might be ‘bard’, ‘prophetic seer’ or ‘messianic messenger’. Adam Mickiewicz is considered a wieszcz through his national epic Pan Tadeusz and the poetic drama Dziady (Forefathers' Eve).

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