Last Sunday there were to be big fireworks, but it fell through on account of rain. It’s a strange thing—when there are to be fireworks, the weather almost always turns sour.
I can tell you a story about that: A certain fellow once had a fine tan coat, but every time he put it on, it rained. He seldom wore it, but never brought it home dry. So he goes to the tailor and asks him: why? The tailor shakes his head and asks the coat to be left with him a few days for experiments; he is not yet sure whether the problem might be caused by a hat, or the boots, or a particular shirt.
Not at all—the tailor puts on the coat and goes out, and it starts raining cats and dogs. The poor fellow forgot his umbrella and had to take a cab home. He got wet, and the coat was damp. With nothing else to be done for it, he began to rip it apart in search of a goblin that might be hidden within, drawing the clouds. He tears the sleeves—nothing. The lower part—nothing.
At long last he rips into the breast of the coat and finds it lined with announcements of fireworks.
- Frédéric Chopin, writing to his family from Vienna, 1831.
Piano Concerto Nº 1 in E minor, Op. 11
I. Allegro maestoso
Radio Orchestra of the USSR
Alexander Gauk, cond. (1951)
Neuhaus, student of Godowsky and teacher of Richter, Gilels, Lupu, and many others, curtailed his concert career in order to pursue teaching. His was a notoriously unstable personality, but he was well-loved by his pupils and penned one of the most venerated piano pedagogy texts in the literature. His playing, as Richter recalls, was wildly inconsistent—he could begin a recital “playing like a pig” and end it in breathtaking rapture. This recording of Chopin is particularly fine, evidencing an aristocratic but sincere refinement of expression that is unmatched in modern recording and likely quite close to the character of the composer’s own playing. Neuhaus was in his mid-sixties by this time.
Manuscripts pages from Frédéric Chopin’s piano works in the composer’s hand.
Images in order:
- Notes and doodles by the composer (perhaps for his Variations on Mozart’s “La ci darem la Mano”). The doodle is apparently of Mozart and some sort of monument.
- Opening measures to Etude Op. 10, No. 3. Notice the original Vivace ma non troppo tempo indication.
- Opening to the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23.
- Section from the Nocturne in Db Major, Op. 27, No. 2.
- Section from Prelude in Bb Minor, Op. 28, No. 16
- Final measures of Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38.
- Possibly an autograph by the composer using measures from the Polonaise in Ab Major, Op. 53.
- Opening to the Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58.
- Page from Waltz in Db Major, Op. 64, No. 1 (“Minute Waltz”).
- Mazurka in F Minor, Op. 68, No. 4 - the composer’s final composition.
Piano Concerto Nº 1 in E minor, Op. 11
III. Rondo: Vivace
London Philharmonic Orch
Posting partially because it’s a great recording of this finale.
But mostly because it’s in like F half-sharp major.
Because why not.
Recently I chose two Chopin nocturnes — Op. 9 Nº 3 and Op. 48 Nº 1 — for performance in a recital program coming up in October. The second of the two, the great C minor Nocturne, was the starting point. But its companion in publication, Op. 48, Nº 2 in F-sharp minor, did not seem to make a fitting partner for performance for my purposes so I picked my other favorite nocturne, the early B major, to be the first in a set of two.
Étude in B minor, Op. 25, Nº. 10
"My kingdom is quite small, but in it I am really the king."
The legacy of Chopin is only barely alive in the well-lit concert hall; it is absent from academia altogether, and flees instantly and imperceptibly from the gleaming instruments of analysis. The composer is most present in his own music when one plays alone in the parlor or the practice room, or perhaps in some quiet corner of a hotel as people pass only nominally aware of the phantasmic, fantastical sound world building and destroying mirages in the air in blurry succession.
Chopin’s essence is precisely such that the most important member of the audience, and the only necessary one, is the performer himself. It is for this reason than he confined his efforts — though one feels confined is probably not the right word, exactly — to the kingdom of the piano, a single obliging partner and struggling secretary to his innermost thoughts, joys, and sufferings.
The 1830 Uprising which forever banished Chopin from his home and his family, as it did so many others, was not for him some abstract romantic inspiration. It was a visceral upheaval that made him homeless, rent his family in two, and sent some of his closest friends marching off to die. The Russian Grand Duke Constantine was not a shadowy enemy general but a smiling face in the musician’s memory, a man in whose palace and with whose children Frédéric had sometimes played hide-and-seek as a boy. It is no wonder, then, that he became the first nationalist composer. But he was in no need of an orchestra to pronounce metered rhetoric; he wanted only a strung-up wooden box to hear his daily confession. It had always represented home for him as much as anything or anyone else. He would not have any jingling of medals. There would have been no concerti at all had he not realized the necessity of playing the games required of him by musical Europe. After settling into a comfortable existence in the Boulevard Poissonière, he gave less than 30 public performances in the remaining two decades of his life.
Chopin the composer, like Chopin the pianist, was decades ahead of his time. From within their small frames his works push technical and musical boundaries that even Beethoven and Berlioz never braved. The groping and searching, while intensely self-conscious, is not cerebral. It is driven by an uneasy, electrified balance between wit and despair that one can virtually taste in the mouth; exquisite, painstakingly crafted lines move perfectly against one another in the midst of swirling malestroms of glee and rage alike, or else serve to underscore quiet broodings and twisted, sun-dappled memories. In Chopin the society figure, bleached and ironed gloves, tailored suits, handsomely appointed carriages he could scarcely afford, and scathing, lively repartee were objects of delight — but only outside the doors of his apartments. Many young ladies emerged from their lessons in tears, but they always returned a few days later. From truly talented pupils he would accept no fees, but would nearly consume their beings. Almost none went on to become great pianists themselves.
He was not a lovable man, though his desire to be loved was always more present than his need to sell compositions and be understood. He neatly packed away his correspondence with Maria Wodzińska, the young Polish noblewoman he had loved and hoped to marry and who at sixteen painted the best portrait of the composer we have, in an envelope labeled “My Tragedy” and never opened it again.
When you are sick for someplace far away, some distant location or long-gone time, when everyone near you seems obscured by haze and there is only your own homunculus for company, then Chopin is with you, and it is only then you begin to hear him. The low light now emanates from computer screens and smartphones rather than hearths and candles, but the music and its meaning have not changed and continue to point a way forward that is little explored in our time.