Chopin: the Man and His Music


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. With all the freedom of an improvisation the Chopin impromptu has a well defined form. There is structural impulse, although the patterns are free and original. The mood-color is not much varied in three, the first, third and fourth, but in the second there is a ballade-like quality that hints of the tragic. The A flat Impromptu, op. 29, is, if one is pinned down to the title, the happiest named of the set. Its seething, prankish, nimble, bubbling quality is indicated from the start; the D natural in the treble against the C and E flat—the dominant—in the bass is a most original effect, and the flowing triplets of the first part of this piece give a ductile, gracious, high-bred character to it. The chromatic involutions are many and interesting. When the F minor part is reached the ear experiences the relief of a strongly contrasted rhythm. The simple duple measure, so naturally ornamented, is nobly, broadly melodious. After the return of the first dimpling theme there is a short coda, a chiaroscura, and then with a few chords the composition goes to rest. A bird flew that way! Rubato should be employed, for, as Kleczynski says, "Here everything totters from foundation to summit, and everything is, nevertheless, so beautiful and so clear." But only an artist with velvety fingers should play this sounding arabesque.

There is more limpidezza, more pure grace of line in the first Impromptu than in the second in F sharp, op. 36. Here symmetry is abandoned, as Kullak remarks, but the compensation of intenser emotional issues is offered. There is something sphinx-like in the pose of this work. Its nocturnal beginning with the carillon-like bass—a bass that ever recalls to me the faint, buried tones of Hauptmann's "Sunken Bell," the sweetly grave close of the section, the faint hoof-beats of an approaching cavalcade, with the swelling thunders of its passage, surely suggests a narrative, a programme. After the D major episode there are two bars of anonymous modulation—these bars creak on their hinges—and the first subject reappears in F, then climbs to F sharp, thence merges into a glittering melodic organ-point, exciting, brilliant, the whole subsiding into an echo of earlier harmonies. The final octaves are marked fortissimo which always seems brutal. Yet its logic lies in the scheme of the composer. Perhaps he wished to arouse us harshly from his dreamland, as was his habit while improvising for friends—a glissando would send them home shivering after an evening of delicious reverie.

Niecks finds this Impromptu lacking the pith of the first. To me it is of more moment than the other three. It is irregular and wavering in outline, the moods are wandering and capricious, yet who dares deny its power, its beauty? In its use of accessory figures it does not reveal so much ingenuity, but just because the "figure in the carpet" is not so varied in pattern, its passion is all the deeper. It is another Ballade, sadder, more meditative of the tender grace of vanished days.

The third Impromptu in G flat, op. 51, is not often played. It may be too difficult for the vandal with an average technique, but it is neither so fresh in feeling nor so spontaneous in utterance as its companions. There is a touch of the faded, blase, and it is hardly healthy in sentiment. Here are some ophidian curves in triplets, as in the first Impromptu, but with interludes of double notes, in coloring tropical and rich to morbidity. The E flat minor trio is a fine bit of melodic writing. The absence of simplicity is counterbalanced by greater freedom of modulation and complexity of pattern. The impromptu flavor is not missing, and there is allied to delicacy of design a strangeness of sentiment—that strangeness which Edgar Poe declared should be a constituent element of all great art.

The Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, op. 66, was published by Fontana in 1855, and is one of the few posthumous works of Chopin worthy of consideration. It was composed about 1834. A true Impromptu, but the title of Fantaisie given by Fontana is superfluous. The piece presents difficulties, chiefly rhythmical. Its involuted first phrases suggest the Bellini-an fioriture so dear to Chopin, but the D flat part is without nobility. Here is the same kind of saccharine melody that makes mawkish the trio in the "Marche Funebre." There seems no danger that this Fantaisie-Impromptu will suffer from neglect, for it is the joy of the piano student, who turns its presto into a slow, blurred mess of badly related rhythms, and its slower movement into a long drawn sentimental agony; but in the hands of a master the C sharp minor Impromptu is charming, though not of great depth.

The first Impromptu, dedicated to Mlle. la Comtesse de Lobau, was published December, 1837; the second, May, 1840; the third, dedicated to Madame la Comtesse Esterhazy, February, 1843. Not one of these four Impromptus is as naive as Schubert's; they are more sophisticated and do not smell of nature and her simplicities.

Of the Chopin Valses it has been said that they are dances of the soul and not of the body. Their animated rhythms, insouciant airs and brilliant, coquettish atmosphere, the true atmosphere of the ballroom, seem to smile at Ehlert's poetic exaggeration. The valses are the most objective of the Chopin works, and in few of them is there more than a hint of the sullen, Sargasson seas of the nocturnes and scherzi. Nietzsche's la Gaya Scienza—the Gay Science—is beautifully set forth in the fifteen Chopin valses. They are less intimate, in the psychic sense, but exquisite exemplars of social intimacy and aristocratic abandon. As Schumann declared, the dancers of these valses should be at least countesses. There is a high-bred reserve despite their intoxication, and never a hint of the brawling peasants of Beethoven, Grieg, Brahms, Tschaikowsky, and the rest. But little of Vienna is in Chopin. Around the measures of this most popular of dances he has thrown mystery, allurement, and in them secret whisperings and the unconscious sigh. It is going too far not to dance to some of this music, for it is putting Chopin away from the world he at times loved. Certain of the valses may be danced: the first, second, fifth, sixth, and a few others. The dancing would be of necessity more picturesque and less conventional than required by the average valse, and there must be fluctuations of tempo, sudden surprises and abrupt languors. The mazurkas and polonaises are danced to-day in Poland, why not the valses? Chopin's genius reveals itself in these dance forms, and their presentation should be not solely a psychic one. Kullak, stern old pedagogue, divides these dances into two groups, the first dedicated to "Terpsichore," the second a frame for moods. Chopin admitted that he was unable to play valses in the Viennese fashion, yet he has contrived to rival Strauss in his own genre. Some of these valses are trivial, artificial, most of them are bred of candlelight and the swish of silken attire, and a few are poetically morbid and stray across the border into the rhythms of the mazurka. All of them have been edited to death, reduced to the commonplace by vulgar methods of performance, but are altogether sprightly, delightful specimens of the composer's careless, vagrant and happy moods.

Kullak utters words of warning to the "unquiet" sex regarding the habitual neglect of the bass. It should mean something in valse tempo, but it usually does not. Nor need it be brutally banged; the fundamental tone must be cared for, the subsidiary harmonies lightly indicated. The rubato in the valses need not obtrude itself as in the mazurkas.

Opus 18, in E flat, was published in June, 1834, and dedicated to Mile. Laura Harsford. It is a true ballroom picture, spirited and infectious in rhythms. Schumann wrote rhapsodically of it. The D flat section has a tang of the later Chopin. There is bustle, even chatter, in this valse, which in form and content is inferior to op. 34, No. I, A flat. The three valses of this set were published December, 1838. There are many editorial differences in the A flat Valse, owing to the careless way it was copied and pirated. Klindworth and Kullak are the safest for dynamic markings. This valse may be danced as far as its dithyrhambic coda. Notice in this coda as in many other places the debt Schumann owes Chopin for a certain passage in the Preambule of his "Carneval."

The next Valse in A minor has a tinge of Sarmatian melancholy, indeed, it is one of Chopin's most desponding moods. The episode in C rings of the mazurka, and the A major section is of exceeding loveliness; Its coda is characteristic. This valse is a favorite, and who need wonder? The F major Valse, the last of this series, is a whirling, wild dance of atoms. It has the perpetuum mobile quality, and older masters would have prolonged its giddy arabesques into pages of senseless spinning. It is quite long enough as it is. The second theme is better, but the appoggiatures are flippant. It buzzes to the finish. Of it is related that Chopin's cat sprang upon his keyboard and in its feline flight gave him the idea of the first measures. I suppose as there is a dog valse, there had to be one for the cat.

But as Rossini would have said, "Ca sent de Scarlatti!"

The A minor Valse was, of the three, Chopin's favorite. When Stephen Heller told him this too was his beloved valse, Chopin was greatly pleased, inviting the Hungarian composer, Niecks relates, to luncheon at the Cafe Riche.

Not improvised in the ballroom as the preceding, yet a marvellous epitome is the A flat Valse, op. 42, published July, 1840. It is the best rounded specimen of Chopin's experimenting with the form. The prolonged trill on E flat, summoning us to the ballroom, the suggestive intermingling of rhythms, duple and triple, the coquetry, hesitation, passionate avowal and the superb coda, with its echoes of evening—have not these episodes a charm beyond compare? Only Schumann in certain pages of his "Carneval" seizes the secret of young life and love, but his is not so finished, so glowing a tableau.

Regarding certain phrasing of this valse Moriz Rosenthal wrote to the London "Musical Standard":

In Music there is Liberty and Fraternity, but seldom Equality, and in music Social Democracy has no voice. Notes have a right to the Aftertone (Nachton), and this right depends upon their role in the key. The Vorhalt (accented passing note) will always have an accent. On this point Riemann must without question be considered right. Likewise the feeling player will mark those notes that introduce the transition to another key. We will consider now our example and set down my accents:

[Musical score excerpt]

In the first bar we have the tonic chord of its major key as bass, and are thus not forced to any accent. In the second bar we have the dominant harmony in the bass, and in the treble, C, which falls upon the down beat as Vorhalt to the next tone (B flat), so it must be accented. Also in the fourth bar the B flat is Vorhalt to the B flat, and likewise requires an accent. In bars 6, 7 and 8 the notes, A flat, B flat and C, are without doubt the characteristic ones of the passage, and the E flat has in each case only a secondary significance.

That a genius like Chopin did not indicate everything accurately is quite explainable. He flew where we merely limp after. Moreover, these accents must be felt rather than executed, with softest touch, and as tenderly as possible.

The D flat Valse—"le valse du petit chien"—is of George Sand's own prompting. One evening at her home in the Square d'Orleans, she was amused by her little pet dog, chasing its tail. She begged Chopin, her little pet pianist, to set the tail to music. He did so, and behold the world is richer for this piece. I do not dispute the story. It seems well grounded, but then it is so ineffably silly! The three valses of this op. 64 were published September, 1847, and are respectively dedicated to the Comtesse Delphine Potocka, the Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild and the Baronne Bronicka.

I shall not presume to speak of the execution of the D flat Valse; like the rich, it is always with us. It is usually taken at a meaningless, rapid gait. I have heard it played by a genuine Chopin pupil, M. Georges Mathias, and he did not take it prestissimo. He ran up the D flat scale, ending with a sforzato at the top, and gave a variety of nuance to the composition. The cantabile is nearly always delivered with sloppiness of sentiment. This valse has been served up in a highly indigestible condition for concert purposes by Tausig, Joseffy—whose arrangement was the first to be heard here—Theodore Ritter, Rosenthal and Isidor Philipp.

The C sharp minor Valse is the most poetic of all. The first theme has never been excelled by Chopin for a species of veiled melancholy. It is a fascinating, lyrical sorrow, and what Kullak calls the psychologic motivation of the first theme in the curving figure of the second does not relax the spell. A space of clearer skies, warmer, more consoling winds are in the D flat interlude, but the spirit of unrest, ennui returns. The elegiac imprint is unmistakable in this soul dance. The A flat Valse which follows is charming. It is for superior souls who dance with intellectual joy, with the joy that comes of making exquisite patterns and curves. Out of the salon and from its brilliantly lighted spaces the dancers do not wander, do not dance into the darkness and churchyard, as Ehlert imagines of certain other valses.

The two valses in op. 69, three valses, op. 70, and the two remaining valses in E minor and E major, need not detain us. They are posthumous. The first of op. 69 in F minor was composed in 1836; the B minor in 1829; G flat, op. 70, in 1835; F minor in 1843, and D flat major, 1830. The E major and E minor were composed in 1829. Fontana gave these compositions to the world. The F minor Valse, op. 69, No. 1, has a charm of its own. Kullak prints the Fontana and Klindworth variants. This valse is suavely melancholy, but not so melancholy as the B minor of the same opus. It recalls in color the B minor mazurka. Very gay and sprightly is the G flat Valse, op. 70, No. I. The next in F minor has no special physiognomy, while the third in D flat contains, as Niecks points out, germs of the op. 42 and the op. 34 Valses. It recalls to me the D flat study in the supplementary series. The E minor Valse, without opus, is beloved. It is very graceful and not without sentiment. The major part is the early Chopin. The E major Valse is published in the Mikuli edition. It is commonplace, hinting of its composer only in places. Thus ends the collection of valses, not Chopin's most signal success in art, but a success that has dignified and given beauty to this conventional dance form.

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