Chopin: the Man and His Music


Opus 25, twelve studies by Frederic Chopin, are dedicated to Madame la Comtesse d'Agoult. The set opens with the familiar study in A flat, so familiar that I shall not make further ado about it except to say that it is delicious, but played often and badly. All that modern editing can do since Miluki is to hunt out fresh accentuation. Von Bullow is the worst sinner in this respect, for he discovers quaint nooks and dells for his dynamics undreamed of by the composer. His edition should be respectfully studied and, when mastered, discarded for a more poetic interpretation. Above all, poetry, poetry and pedals. Without pedalling of the most varied sort this study will remain as dry as a dog-gnawed bone. Von Bulow says the "figure must be treated as a double triplet—twice three and not three times two—as indicated in the first two bars." Klindworth makes the group a sextolet. Von Bulow has set forth numerous directions in fingering and phrasing, giving the exact number of notes in the bass trill at the end. Kullak uses the most ingenious fingering. Look at the last group of the last bar, second line, third page. It is the last word in fingering. Better to end with Robert Schumann's beautiful description of this study, as quoted by Kullak:

In treating of the present book of Etudes, Robert Schumann, after comparing Chopin to a strange star seen at midnight, wrote as follows: "Whither his path lies and leads, or how long, how brilliant its course is yet to be, who can say? As often, however, as it shows itself, there is ever seen the same deep dark glow, the same starry light and the same austerity, so that even a child could not fail to recognize it. But besides this, I have had the advantage of hearing most of these Etudes played by Chopin himself, and quite a la Chopin did he play them!"

Of the first one especially he writes: "Imagine that an aeolian harp possessed all the musical scales, and that the hand of an artist were to cause them all to intermingle in all sorts of fantastic embellishments, yet in such a way as to leave everywhere audible a deep fundamental tone and a soft continuously-singing upper voice, and you will get the right idea of his playing. But it would be an error to think that Chopin permitted every one of the small notes to be distinctly heard. It was rather an undulation of the A flat major chord, here and there thrown aloft anew by the pedal. Throughout all the harmonies one always heard in great tones a wondrous melody, while once only, in the middle of the piece, besides that chief song, a tenor voice became prominent in the midst of chords. After the Etude a feeling came over one as of having seen in a dream a beatific picture which when half awake one would gladly recall."

After these words there can be no doubt as to the mode of delivery. No commentary is required to show that the melodic and other important tones indicated by means of large notes must emerge from within the sweetly whispering waves, and that the upper tones must be combined so as to form a real melody with the finest and most thoughtful shadings.

The twenty-fourth bar of this study in A major is so Lisztian that Liszt must have benefited by its harmonies.

"And then he played the second in the book, in F minor, one in which his individuality displays itself in a manner never to be forgotten. How charming, how dreamy it was! Soft as the song of a sleeping child." Schumann wrote this about the wonderful study in F minor, which whispers, not of baleful deeds in a dream, as does the last movement of the B flat minor sonata, but is—"the song of a sleeping child." No comparison could be prettier, for there is a sweet, delicate drone that sometimes issues from childish lips, having a charm for ears not attuned to grosser things.

This must have been the study that Chopin played for Henrietta Voigt at Leipsic, September 12, 1836. In her diary she wrote: "The over excitement of his fantastic manner is imparted to the keen eared. It made me hold my breath. Wonderful is the ease with which his velvet fingers glide, I might almost say fly, over the keys. He has enraptured me—in a way which hitherto had been unknown to me. What delighted me was the childlike, natural manner which he showed in his demeanor and in his playing." Von Bulow believes the interpretation of this magical music should be without sentimentality, almost without shading—clearly, delicately and dreamily executed. "An ideal pianissimo, an accentless quality, and completely without passion or rubato." There is little doubt this was the way Chopin played it. Liszt is an authority on the subject, and M. Mathias corroborates him. Regarding the rhythmical problem to be overcome, the combination of two opposing rhythms, Von Bulow indicates an excellent method, and Kullak devotes part of a page to examples of how the right, then the left, and finally both hands, are to be treated. Kullak furthermore writes: "Or, if one will, he may also betake himself in fancy to a still, green, dusky forest, and listen in profound solitude to the mysterious rustling and whispering of the foliage. What, indeed, despite the algebraic character of the tone-language, may not a lively fancy conjure out of, or, rather, into, this etude! But one thing is to be held fast: it is to be played in that Chopin-like whisper of which, among others, Mendelssohn also affirmed that for him nothing more enchanting existed." But enough of subjective fancies. This study contains much beauty, and every bar rules over a little harmonic kingdom of its own. It is so lovely that not even the Brahms' distortion in double notes or the version in octaves can dull its magnetic crooning. At times so delicate is its design that it recalls the faint fantastic tracery made by frost on glass. In all instances save one it is written as four unbroken quarter triplets in the bar—right hand. Not so Riemann. He has views of his own, both as to fingering and phrasing:

[Musical score excerpt]

Jean Kleczynski's interesting brochure, "The Works of Frederic Chopin and Their Proper Interpretation," is made up of three lectures delivered at Warsaw. While the subject is of necessity foreshortened, he says some practical things about the use of the pedals in Chopin's music. He speaks of this very study in F minor and the enchanting way Rubinstein and Essipowa ended it—the echo-like effects on the four C's, the pedal floating the tone. The pedals are half the battle in Chopin playing. ONE CAN NEVER PLAY CHOPIN BEAUTIFULLY ENOUGH. Realistic treatment dissipates his dream palaces, shatters his aerial architecture. He may be played broadly, fervently, dramatically but coarsely, never. I deprecate the rose-leaf sentimentalism in which he is swathed by nearly all pianists. "Chopin is a sigh, with something pleasing in it," wrote some one, and it is precisely this notion which has created such havoc among his interpreters. But if excess in feeling is objectionable, so too is the "healthy" reading accorded his works by pianists with more brawn than brain. The real Chopin player is born and can never be a product of the schools.

Schumann thinks the third study in F less novel in character, although "here the master showed his admirable bravura powers." "But," he continues, "they are all models of bold, indwelling, creative force, truly poetic creations, though not without small blots in their details, but on the whole striking and powerful. Yet, if I give my complete opinion, I must confess that his earlier collection seems more valuable to me. Not that I mean to imply any deterioration, for these recently published studies were nearly all written at the same time as the earlier ones, and only a few were composed a little while ago—the first in A flat and the last magnificent one in C minor, both of which display great mastership."

One may be permitted to disagree with Schumann, for op. 25 contains at least two of Chopin's greater studies—A minor and C minor. The most valuable point of the passage quoted is the clenching of the fact that the studies were composed in a bunch. That settles many important psychological details. Chopin had suffered much before going to Paris, had undergone the purification and renunciation of an unsuccessful love affair, and arrived in Paris with his style fully formed—in his case the style was most emphatically the man.

Kullak calls the study in F "a spirited little caprice, whose kernel lies in the simultaneous application of four different little rhythms to form a single figure in sound, which figure is then repeated continuously to the end. In these repetitions, however, changes of accentuation, fresh modulations, and piquant antitheses, serve to make the composition extremely vivacious and effective." He pulls apart the brightly colored petals of the thematic flower and reveals the inner chemistry of this delicate growth. Four different voices are distinguished in the kernel.

"The third voice is the chief one, and after it the first, because they determine the melodic and harmonic contents":

[Musical score excerpt of 'four different voices']

Kullak and Mikuli dot the C of the first bar. Klindworth and Von Bulow do not. As to phrasing and fingering I pin my faith to Riemann. His version is the most satisfactory. Here are the first bars. The idea is clearly expressed:

[Musical score excerpt]

Best of all is the careful accentuation, and at a place indicated in no other edition that I have examined. With the arrival of the thirty-second notes, Riemann punctuates the theme this way:

[Musical score excerpt]

The melody, of course in profile, is in the eighth notes. This gives meaning to the decorative pattern of the passage. And what charm, buoyancy, and sweetness there is in this caprice! It has the tantalizing, elusive charm of a humming bird in full flight. The human element is almost eliminated. We are in the open, the sun blazes in the blue, and all is gay, atmospheric, and illuding. Even where the tone deepens, where the shadows grow cooler and darker in the B major section, there is little hint of preoccupation with sadness. Subtle are the harmonic shifts, admirable the ever changing devices of the figuration. Riemann accents the B, the E, A, B flat, C and F, at the close—perilous leaps for the left hand, but they bring into fine relief the exquisite harmonic web. An easy way of avoiding the tricky position in the left hand at this spot—thirteen bars from the close—is to take the upper C in bass with the right hand thumb and in the next bar the upper B in bass the same way. This minimizes the risk of the skip, and it is perfectly legitimate to do this—in public at least. The ending, to be "breathed" away, according to Kullak, is variously fingered. He also prescribes a most trying fingering for the first group, fourth finger on both hands. This is useful for study, but for performance the third finger is surer. Von Bulow advises the player to keep the "upper part of the body as still as possible, as any haste of movement would destroy the object in view, which is the acquisition of a loose wrist." He also suggests certain phrasing in bar seventeen, and forbids a sharp, cutting manner in playing the sforzati at the last return of the subject. Kullak is copious in his directions, and thinks the touch should be light and the hand gliding, and in the B major part "fiery, wilful accentuation of the inferior beats." Capricious, fantastic, and graceful, this study is Chopin in rare spirits. Schumann has the phrase—the study should be executed with "amiable bravura." There is a misprint in the Kullak edition: at the beginning of the thirty-second notes an A instead of an F upsets the tonality, besides being absurd.

Of the fourth study in A minor there is little to add to Theodor Kullak, who writes:

"In the broadest sense of the word, every piece of music is an etude. In a narrower sense, however, we demand of an etude that it shall have a special end in view, promote facility in something, and lead to the conquest of some particular difficulty, whether of technics, of rhythm, expression or delivery." (Robert Schumann, Collected Writings, i., 201.) The present study is less interesting from a technical than a rhythmical point of view. While the chief beats of the measure (1st, 3d, 5th and 7th eighths) are represented only by single tones (in the bass part), which are to a certain extent "free and unconcerned, and void of all encumbrance," the inferior parts of the measure (2d, 4th, 6th and 8th eighths) are burdened with chords, the most of which, moreover, are provided with accents in opposition to the regular beats of the measure. Further, there is associated with these chords, or there may be said to grow out of them, a cantilene in the upper voice, which appears in syncopated form opposite to the strong beats of the bass. This cantilene begins on a weak beat, and produces numerous suspensions, which, in view of the time of their entrance, appear as so many retardations and delayals of melodic tones.

All these things combine to give the composition a wholly peculiar coloring, to render its flow somewhat restless and to stamp the etude as a little characteristic piece, a capriccio, which might well be named "Inquietude."

As regards technics, two things are to be studied: the staccato of the chords and the execution of the cantilena. The chords must be formed more by pressure than by striking. The fingers must support themselves very lightly upon the chord keys and then rise again with the back of the hand in the most elastic manner. The upward movement of the hand must be very slight. Everything must be done with the greatest precision, and not merely in a superficial manner. Where the cantilena appears, every melodic tone must stand apart from the tones of the accompaniment as if in "relief." Hence the fingers for the melodic tones must press down the keys allotted to them with special force, in doing which the back of the hand may be permitted to turn lightly to the right (sideward stroke), especially when there is a rest in the accompaniment. Compare with this etude the introduction to the Capriccio in B minor, with orchestra, by Felix Mendelssohn, first page. Aside from a few rallentando places, the etude is to be played strictly in time.

I prefer the Klindworth editing of this rather sombre, nervous composition, which may be merely an etude, but it also indicates a slightly pathologic condition. With its breath-catching syncopations and narrow emotional range, the A minor study has nevertheless moments of power and interest. Riemann's phrasing, while careful, is not more enlightening than Klindworth's. Von Bulow says: "The bass must be strongly marked throughout—even when piano—and brought out in imitation of the upper part." Singularly enough, his is the only edition in which the left hand arpeggios at the close, though in the final bar "both hands may do so." This is editorial quibbling. Stephen Heller remarked that this study reminded him of the first bar of the Kyrie—rather the Requiem Aeternam of Mozart's Requiem.

It is safe to say that the fifth study in E minor is less often heard in the concert room than any one of its companions. I cannot recall having heard it since Annette Essipowa gave that famous recital during which she played the entire twenty-seven studies. Yet it is a sonorous piano piece, rich in embroideries and general decorative effect in the middle section. Perhaps the rather perverse, capricious and not altogether amiable character of the beginning has caused pianists to be wary of introducing it at a recital. It is hugely effective and also difficult, especially if played with the same fingering throughout, as Von Bulow suggests. Niecks quotes Stephen Heller's partiality for this very study. In the "Gazette Musicale," February 24, 1839, Heller wrote of Chopin's op. 25:

What more do we require to pass one or several evenings in as perfect a happiness as possible? As for me, I seek in this collection of poesy—this is the only name appropriate to the works of Chopin—some favorite pieces which I might fix in my memory, rather than others. Who could retain everything? For this reason I have in my notebook quite particularly marked the numbers four, five and seven of the present poems. Of these twelve much loved studies—every one of which has a charm of its own—the three numbers are those I prefer to all the rest.

The middle part of this E minor study recalls Thalberg. Von Bulow cautions the student against "the accenting of the first note with the thumb—right hand—as it does not form part of the melody, but only comes in as an unimportant passing note." This refers to the melody in E. He also writes that the addition of the third in the left hand, Klindworth edition, needs no special justification. I discovered one marked difference in the Klindworth edition. The leap in the left hand—first variant of the theme, tenth bar from beginning—is preceded by an appoggiatura, E natural. The jump is to F sharp, instead of G, as in the Mikuli, Kullak and Riemann editions. Von Bulow uses the F sharp, but without the ninth below. Riemann phrases the piece so as to get the top melody, B, E and G, and his stems are below instead of above, as in Mikuli and Von Bulow. Kullak dots the eighth note. Riemann uses a sixteenth, thus:

[Musical score excerpt]

Kullak writes that the figure 184 is not found on the older metronomes. This is not too fast for the capriccio, with its pretty and ingenious rhythmical transformations. As regards the execution of the 130th bar, Von Bulow says: "The acciaccature—prefixes—are to be struck simultaneously with the other parts, as also the shake in bar 134 and following bars; this must begin with the upper auxiliary note." These details are important. Kullak concludes his notes thus:

Despite all the little transformations of the motive member which forms the kernel, its recognizability remains essentially unimpaired. Meanwhile out of these little metamorphoses there is developed a rich rhythmic life, which the performer must bring out with great precision. If in addition, he possesses a fine feeling for what is graceful, coquettish, or agreeably capricious, he will understand how to heighten still further the charm of the chief part, which, as far as its character is concerned, reminds one of Etude, op. 25, No. 3.

The secondary part, in major, begins. Its kernel is formed of a beautiful broad melody, which, if soulfully conceived and delivered, will sing its way deep into the heart of the listener. For the accompaniment in the right hand we find chord arpeggiations in triplets, afterward in sixteenths, calmly ascending and descending, and surrounding the melody as with a veil. They are to be played almost without accentuation.

It was Louis Ehlert who wrote of the celebrated study in G sharp minor op. 25, No. 6: "Chopin not only versifies an exercise in thirds; he transforms it into such a work of art that in studying it one could sooner fancy himself on Parnassus than at a lesson. He deprives every passage of all mechanical appearance by promoting it to become the embodiment of a beautiful thought, which in turn finds graceful expression in its motion."

And indeed in the piano literature no more remarkable merging of matter and manner exists. The means justifies the end, and the means employed by the composer are beautiful, there is no other word to describe the style and architectonics of this noble study. It is seldom played in public because of its difficulty. With the Schumann Toccata, the G sharp minor study stands at the portals of the delectable land of Double Notes. Both compositions have a common ancestry in the Czerny Toccata, and both are the parents of such a sensational offspring as Balakirew's "Islamey." In reading through the double note studies for the instrument it is in the nature of a miracle to come upon Chopin's transfiguration of such a barren subject. This study is first music, then a technical problem. Where two or three pianists are gathered together in the name of Chopin, the conversation is bound to formulate itself thus: "How do you finger the double chromatic thirds in the G sharp minor study?" That question answered, your digital politics are known. You are classified, ranged. If you are heterodox you are eagerly questioned; if you follow Von Bulow and stand by the Czerny fingering, you are regarded as a curiosity. As the interpretation of the study is not taxing, let us examine the various fingerings. First, a fingering given by Leopold Godowsky. It is for double chromatic thirds:

[Musical score excerpt]

You will now be presented with a battalion of authorities, so that you may see at a glance the various efforts to climb those slippery chromatic heights. Here is Mikuli:

[Musical score excerpt]

Kullak's is exactly the same as above. It is the so-called Chopin fingering, as contrasted with the so-called Czerny fingering—though in reality Clementi's, as Mr. John Kautz contends. "In the latter the third and fifth fingers fall upon C sharp and E and F sharp and A in the right hand, and upon C and E flat and G and B flat in the left." Klindworth also employs the Chopin fingering. Von Bulow makes this statement: "As the peculiar fingering adopted by Chopin for chromatic scales in thirds appears to us to render their performance in legatissimo utterly unattainable on our modern instruments, we have exchanged it, where necessary, for the older method of Hummel. Two of the greatest executive artists of modern times, Alexander Dreyschock and Carl Tausig, were, theoretically and practically, of the same opinion. It is to be conjectured that Chopin was influenced in his method of fingering by the piano of his favorite makers, Pleyel and Wolff, of Paris—who, before they adopted the double echappement, certainly produced instruments with the most pliant touch possible—and therefore regarded the use of the thumb in the ascending scale on two white keys in succession—the semitones EF and BC—as practicable. On the grand piano of the present day we regard it as irreconcilable with conditions of crescendo legato." This Chopin fingering in reality derives directly from Hummel. See his "Piano School."

So he gives this fingering:

[Musical score excerpt]

He also suggests the following phrasing for the left hand. This is excellent:

[Musical score excerpt]

Riemann not only adopts new fingering for the double note scale, but also begins the study with the trill on first and third, second and fourth, instead of the usual first and fourth, second and fifth fingers, adopted by the rest. This is his notion of the run in chromatic thirds:

[Musical score excerpt]

For the rest the study must be played like the wind, or, as Kullak says: "Apart from a few places and some accents, the Etude is to be played almost throughout in that Chopin whisper. The right hand must play its thirds, especially the diatonic and chromatic scales, with such equality that no angularity of motion shall be noticeable where the fingers pass under or over each other. The left hand, too, must receive careful attention and special study. The chord passages and all similar ones must be executed discreetly and legatissimo. Notes with double stems must be distinguished from notes with single stems by means of stronger shadings, for they are mutually interconnected."

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