Chopin: the Man and His Music

Von Bulow calls the seventh study, the one in C sharp minor, a nocturne—a duo for 'cello and flute. He ingeniously smooths out the unequal rhythmic differences of the two hands, and justly says the piece does not work out any special technical matter. This study is the most lauded of all. Yet I cannot help agreeing with Niecks, who writes of it—he oddly enough places it in the key of E: "A duet between a He and a She, of whom the former shows himself more talkative and emphatic than the latter, is, indeed, very sweet, but, perhaps, also somewhat tiresomely monotonous, as such tete-a-tetes naturally are to third parties."

For Chopin's contemporaries this was one of his greatest efforts. Heller wrote: "It engenders the sweetest sadness, the most enviable torments, and if in playing it one feels oneself insensibly drawn toward mournful and melancholy ideas, it is a disposition of the soul which I prefer to all others. Alas! how I love these sombre and mysterious dreams, and Chopin is the god who creates them." In this etude Kleczynski thinks there are traces of weariness of life, and quotes Orlowski, Chopin's friend, "He is only afflicted with homesickness." Willeby calls this study the most beautiful of them all. For me it is both morbid and elegiac. There is nostalgia in it, the nostalgia of a sick, lacerated soul. It contains in solution all the most objectionable and most endearing qualities of the master. Perhaps we have heard its sweet, highly perfumed measures too often. Its interpretation is a matter of taste. Kullak has written the most ambitious programme for it. Here is a quotation from Albert R. Parsons' translation in Schirmer's edition of Kullak.

Throughout the entire piece an elegiac mood prevails. The composer paints with psychologic truthfulness a fragment out of the life of a deeply clouded soul. He lets a broken heart, filled with grief, proclaim its sorrow in a language of pain which is incapable of being misunderstood. The heart has lost—not something, but everything. The tones, however, do not always bear the impress of a quiet, melancholy resignation. More passionate impulses awaken, and the still plaint becomes a complaint against cruel fate. It seeks the conflict, and tries through force of will to burst the fetters of pain, or at least to alleviate it through absorption in a happy past. But in vain! The heart has not lost something—it has lost everything. The musical poem divides into three, or if one views the little episode in B major as a special part, into four parts (strophes), of which the last is an elaborated repetition of the first with a brief closing part appended. The whole piece is a song, or, better still, an aria, in which two principal voices are to be brought out; the upper one is in imitation of a human voice, while the lower one must bear the character throughout of an obligato violoncello. It is well known that Chopin was very fond of the violoncello and that in his piano compositions he imitated the style of passages peculiar to that instrument. The two voices correspond closely, supplementing and imitating each other reciprocally. Between the two a third element exists: an accompaniment of eighths in uniform succession without any significance beyond that of filling out the harmony. This third element is to be kept wholly subordinate. The little, one-voiced introduction in recitative style which precedes the aria reminds one vividly of the beginning of the Ballade in G minor, op. 23.

The D flat study, No. 8, is called by Von Bulow "the most useful exercise in the whole range of etude literature. It might truly be called 'l'indispensable du pianiste,' if the term, through misuse, had not fallen into disrepute. As a remedy for stiff fingers and preparatory to performing in public, playing it six times through is recommended, even to the most expert pianist." Only six times! The separate study of the left hand is recommended. Kullak finds this study "surprisingly euphonious, but devoid of depth of content." It is an admirable study for the cultivation of double sixths. It contains a remarkable passage of consecutive fifths that set the theorists by the ears. Riemann manages to get some new editorial comment upon it.

The nimble study, No. 9, which bears the title of "The Butterfly," is in G flat Von Bulow transposes it enharmonically to F sharp, avoiding numerous double flats. The change is not laudable. He holds anything but an elevated opinion of the piece, classing it with a composition of the Charles Mayer order. This is unjust; the study if not deep is graceful and certainly very effective. It has lately become the stamping ground for the display of piano athletics. Nearly all modern virtuosi pull to pieces the wings of this gay little butterfly. They smash it, they bang it, and, adding insult to cruelty, they finish it with three chords, mounting an octave each time, thus giving a conventional character to the close—the very thing the composer avoids. Much distorted phrasing is also indulged in. The Tellefsen's edition and Klindworth's give these differences:

[Musical score excerpt]

Mikuli, Von Bulow and Kullak place the legato bow over the first three notes of the group. Riemann, of course, is different:

[Musical score excerpt]

The metronomic markings are about the same in all editions.

Asiatic wildness, according to Von Bulow, pervades the B minor study, op. 25, No. 10, although Willeby claims it to be only a study in octaves "for the left hand"! Von Bulow furthermore compares it, because of its monophonic character, to the Chorus of Dervishes in Beethoven's "Ruins of Athens." Niecks says it is "a real pandemonium; for a while holier sounds intervene, but finally hell prevails." The study is for Kullak "somewhat far fetched and forced in invention, and leaves one cold, although it plunges on wildly to the end." Von Bulow has made the most complete edition. Klindworth strengthens the first and the seventh eighth notes of the fifth bar before the last by filling in the harmonics of the left hand. This etude is an important one, technically; because many pianists make little of it that does not abate its musical significance, and I am almost inclined to group it with the last two studies of this opus. The opening is portentous and soon becomes a driving whirlwind of tone. Chopin has never penned a lovelier melody than the one in B—the middle section of this etude—it is only to be compared to the one in the same key in the B minor Scherzo, while the return to the first subject is managed as consummately as in the E flat minor Scherzo, from op. 35. I confess to being stirred by this B minor study, with its tempo at a forced draught and with its precipitous close. There is a lushness about the octave melody; the tune may be a little overripe, but it is sweet, sensuous music, and about it hovers the hush of a rich evening in early autumn.

And now the "Winter Wind"—the study in A minor, op. 25, No. 11. Here even Von Bulow becomes enthusiastic:

"It must be mentioned as a particular merit of this, the longest and, in every respect, the grandest of Chopin's studies, that, while producing the greatest fulness of sound imaginable, it keeps itself so entirely and utterly unorchestral, and represents piano music in the most accurate sense of the word. To Chopin is due the honor and credit of having set fast the boundary between piano and orchestral music, which through other composers of the romantic school, especially Robert Schumann, has been defaced and blotted out, to the prejudice and damage of both species."

Kullak is equally as warm in his praise of it:

One of the grandest and most ingenious of Chopin's etudes, and a companion piece to op. 10, No. 12, which perhaps it even surpasses. It is a bravura study of the highest order; and is captivating through the boldness and originality of its passages, whose rising and falling waves, full of agitation, overflow the entire keyboard; captivating through its harmonic and modulatory shadings; and captivating, finally, through a wonderfully invented little theme which is drawn like a "red thread" through all the flashing and glittering waves of tone, and which, as it were, prevents them from scattering to all quarters of the heavens. This little theme, strictly speaking only a phrase of two measures, is, in a certain sense, the motto which serves as a superscription for the etude, appearing first one voiced, and immediately afterward four voiced. The slow time (Lento) shows the great importance which is to be attached to it. They who have followed thus far and agree with what has been said cannot be in doubt concerning the proper artistic delivery. To execute the passages quite in the rapid time prescribed one must possess a finished technique. Great facility, lightness of touch, equality, strength and endurance in the forte passages, together with the clearest distinctness in the piano and pianissimo—all of this must have been already achieved, for the interpreter must devote his whole attention to the poetic contents of the composition, especially to the delivery of the march-like rhythms, which possess a life of their own, appearing now calm and circumspect, and anon bold and challenging. The march-like element naturally requires strict playing in time.

This study is magnificent, and moreover it is music.

In bar fifteen Von Bulow makes B natural the second note of the last group, although all other editions, except Klindworth, use a B flat. Von Bulow has common sense on his side. The B flat is a misprint. The same authority recommends slow staccato practice, with the lid of the piano closed. Then the hurly-burly of tone will not intoxicate the player and submerge his critical faculty.

Each editor has his notion of the phrasing of the initial sixteenths. Thus Mikuli's—which is normal:

[Musical score excerpt]

Klindworth fingers this passage more ingeniously, but phrases it about the same, omitting the sextolet mark. Kullak retains it. Von Bulow makes his phrase run in this fashion:

[Musical score excerpt]

As regards grouping, Riemann follows Von Bulow, but places his accents differently.

The canvas is Chopin's largest—for the idea and its treatment are on a vastly grander scale than any contained in the two concertos. The latter are after all miniatures, precious ones if you will, joined and built with cunning artifice; in neither work is there the resistless overflow of this etude, which has been compared to the screaming of the winter blasts. Ah, how Chopin puts to flight those modern men who scheme out a big decorative pattern and then have nothing wherewith to fill it! He never relaxes his theme, and its fluctuating surprises are many. The end is notable for the fact that scales appear. Chopin very seldom uses scale figures in his studies. From Hummel to Thalberg and Herz the keyboard had glittered with spangled scales. Chopin must have been sick of them, as sick of them as of the left-hand melody with arpeggiated accompaniment in the right, a la Thalberg. Scales had been used too much, hence Chopin's sparing employment of them. In the first C sharp minor study, op. 10, there is a run for the left hand in the coda. In the seventh study, same key, op. 25, there are more. The second study of op. 10, in A minor, is a chromatic scale study; but there are no other specimens of the form until the mighty run at the conclusion of this A minor study.

It takes prodigious power and endurance to play this work, prodigious power, passion and no little poetry. It is open air music, storm music, and at times moves in processional splendor. Small souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should avoid it.

The prime technical difficulty is the management of the thumb. Kullak has made a variant at the end for concert performance. It is effective. The average metronomic marking is sixty-nine to the half.

Kullak thinks the twelfth and last study of op. 25 in C minor "a grand, magnificent composition for practice in broken chord passages for both hands, which requires no comment." I differ from this worthy teacher. Rather is Niecks more to my taste: "No. 12, C minor, in which the emotions rise not less high than the waves of arpeggios which symbolize them."

Von Bulow is didactic:

The requisite strength for this grandiose bravura study can only be attained by the utmost clearness, and thus only by a gradually increasing speed. It is therefore most desirable to practise it piano also by way of variety, for otherwise the strength of tone might easily degenerate into hardness, and in the poetic striving after a realistic portrayal of a storm on the piano the instrument, as well as the piece, would come to grief.

The pedal is needful to give the requisite effect, and must change with every new harmony; but it should only be used in the latter stages of study, when the difficulties are nearly mastered.

We have our preferences. Mine in op. 25 is the C minor study, which, like the prelude in D minor, is "full of the sound of great guns." Willeby thinks otherwise. On page 81 in his life of Chopin he has the courage to write: "Had Professor Niecks applied the term monotonous to No. 12 we should have been more ready to indorse his opinion, as, although great power is manifested, the very 'sameness' of the form of the arpeggio figure causes a certain amount of monotony to be felt." The C minor study is, in a degree, a return to the first study in C. While the idea in the former is infinitely nobler, more dramatic and tangible, there is in the latter naked, primeval simplicity, the larger eloquence, the elemental puissance. Monotonous? A thousand times no! Monotonous as is the thunder and spray of the sea when it tumbles and roars on some sullen, savage shore. Beethov-ian, in its ruggedness, the Chopin of this C minor study is as far removed from the musical dandyisms of the Parisian drawing rooms as is Beethoven himself. It is orchestral in intention and a true epic of the piano.

Riemann places half notes at the beginning of each measure, as a reminder of the necessary clinging of the thumbs. I like Von Bulow's version the best of all. His directions are most minute. He gives the Liszt method of working up the climax in octave triplets. How Liszt must have thundered through this tumultuous work! Before it all criticism should be silenced that fails to allow Chopin a place among the greatest creative musicians. We are here in the presence of Chopin the musician, not Chopin the composer for piano.


In 1840, Trois Nouvelles Etudes, by Frederic Chopin, appeared in the "Methode des Methodes pour le piano," by F. J. Fetis and I. Moscheles. It was odd company for the Polish composer. "Internal evidence seems to show," writes Niecks, "that these weakest of the master's studies—which, however, are by no means uninteresting and certainly very characteristic—may be regarded more than op. 25 as the outcome of a gleaning."

The last decade has added much to the artistic stature of these three supplementary studies. They have something of the concision of the Preludes. The first is a masterpiece. In F minor the theme in triplet quarters, broad, sonorous and passionate, is unequally pitted against four-eight notes in the bass. The technical difficulty to be overcome is purely rhythmic, and Kullak takes pains to show how it may be overcome. It is the musical, the emotional content of the study that fascinates. The worthy editor calls it a companion piece to the F minor study in op. 25. The comparison is not an apt one. Far deeper is this new study, and although the doors never swing quite open, we divine the tragic issues concealed.

Beautiful in a different way is the A flat study which follows. Again the problem is a rhythmical one, and again the composer demonstrates his exhaustless invention and his power of evoking a single mood, viewing all its lovely contours and letting it melt away like dream magic. Full of gentle sprightliness and lingering sweetness is this study. Chopin has the hypnotic quality more than any composer of the century, Richard Wagner excepted. After you have enjoyed playing this study read Kullak and his "triplicity in biplicity." It may do you good, and it will not harm the music.

In all the editions save one that I have seen the third study in D flat begins on A flat, like the famous Valse in D flat. The exception is Klindworth, who starts with B flat, the note above. The study is full of sunny, good humor, spiritualized humor, and leaves the most cheering impression after its performance. Its technical object is a simultaneous legato and staccato. The result is an idealized Valse in allegretto tempo, the very incarnation of joy, tempered by aristocratic reserve. Chopin never romps, but he jests wittily, and always in supremely good taste. This study fitly closes his extraordinary labors in this form, and it is as if he had signed it "F. Chopin, et ego in Arcady."

Among the various editions let me recommend Klindworth for daily usage, while frequent reference to Von Bulow, Riemann and Kullak cannot fail to prove valuable, curious and interesting.

Of the making of Chopin editions there is seemingly no end. In 1894 I saw in manuscript some remarkable versions of the Chopin Studies by Leopold Godowsky. The study in G sharp minor was the first one published and played in public by this young pianist Unlike the Brahms derangements, they are musical but immensely difficult. Topsy-turvied as are the figures, a Chopin, even if lop-sided, hovers about, sometimes with eye-brows uplifted, sometimes with angry, knitted forehead and not seldom amused to the point of smiling. You see his narrow shoulders, shrugged in the Polish fashion as he examines the study in double-thirds transposed to the left hand! Curiously enough this transcription, difficult as it is, does not tax the fingers as much as a bedevilment of the A minor, op. 25, No. 4, which is extremely difficult, demanding color discrimination and individuality of finger.

More breath-catching, and a piece at which one must cry out: "Hats off, gentlemen! A tornado!" is the caprice called "Badinage." But if it is meant to badinage, it is no sport for the pianist of everyday technical attainments. This is formed of two studies. In the right hand is the G flat study, op. 25, No. 9, and in the left the black key study, op. 10, No. 5. The two go laughing through the world like old friends; brother and sister they are tonally, trailing behind them a cloud of iridescent glory. Godowsky has cleverly combined the two, following their melodic curves as nearly as is possible. In some places he has thickened the harmonies and shifted the "black key" figures to the right hand. It is the work of a remarkable pianist. This is the way it looks on paper at the beginning:

[Musical llustration]

The same study G flat, op. 10, No. 5, is also treated separately, the melody being transferred to the treble. The Butterfly octaves, in another study, are made to hop nimbly along in the left hand, and the C major study, op. 10, No. 7, Chopin's Toccata, is arranged for the left hand, and seems very practical and valuable. Here the adapter has displayed great taste and skill, especially on the third page. The pretty musical idea is not destroyed, but viewed from other points of vantage. Op. 10, No. 2, is treated like a left hand study, as it should be. Chopin did not always give enough work to the left hand, and the first study of this opus in C is planned on brilliant lines for both hands. Ingenious is the manipulation of the seldom played op. 25, No. 5, in E minor. As a study in rhythms and double notes it is very welcome. The F minor study, op. 25, No. 2, as considered by the ambidextrous Godowsky, is put in the bass, where it whirrs along to the melodic encouragement of a theme of the paraphraser's own, in the right. This study has suffered the most of all, for Brahms, in his heavy, Teutonic way, set it grinding double sixths, while Isidor Philipp, in his "Studies for the Left Hand," has harnessed it to sullen octaves. This Frenchman, by the way, has also arranged for left hand alone the G sharp minor, the D flat double sixths, the A minor—"Winter Wind"—studies, the B flat minor prelude, and, terrible to relate, the last movement of the Chopin B flat minor Sonata.

Are the Godowsky transcriptions available? Certainly. In ten years—so rapid is the technical standard advancing—they will be used in the curriculum of students. Whether he has treated Chopin with reverence I leave my betters to determine. What has reverence to do with the case, anyhow? Plato is parsed in the schoolroom, and Beethoven taught in conservatories! Therefore why worry over the question of Godowsky's attitude! Besides, he is writing for the next generation—presumably a generation of Rosenthals.

And now, having passed over the salt and stubbly domain of pedagogics, what is the dominant impression gleaned from the twenty-seven Chopin studies? Is it not one of admiration, tinged with wonder at such a prodigal display of thematic and technical invention? Their variety is great, the aesthetic side is nowhere neglected for the purely mechanical, and in the most poetic of them stuff may be found for delicate fingers. Astounding, canorous, enchanting, alembicated and dramatic, the Chopin studies are exemplary essays in emotion and manner. In them is mirrored all of Chopin, the planetary as well as the secular Chopin. When most of his piano music has gone the way of all things fashioned by mortal hands, these studies will endure, will stand for the nineteenth century as Beethoven crystallized the eighteenth, Bach the seventeenth centuries in piano music. Chopin is a classic.

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