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.