Chopin at the Opera

February 1, 2008

chopin.jpg Frédéric Chopin had a consuming interest in singers and singing. As composer, performer, and teacher, he exalted the legato of a shapely vocal phrase as the pianist’s melodic ideal. That, joined with his ability to make small-scale dramas out of “salon” pieces, makes a Chopin piano recital the nearest instrumental equivalent of an intimate Lieder recital.

The singing that commanded Chopin’s keenest attention, however, was in bel canto opera, for nineteenth-century Europe followed opera fervently. New ideas in music came from the opera house in those days, and Bellini’s operas provided the model for the sort of long, soaring melody that Chopin idealized.

The very nature of the piano’s sound — the tone percussively born, and quickly dying away — made it impossible for the player to imitate vocal melody literally. But in music impossibility gives full scope to illusion. It is the Chopin pianist’s glory to create the illusion of a procedure that is objectively unattainable on the instrument.

While many of Chopin’s musical impulses were shared by other musicians of the time, the circumstances of his career encouraged the full flowering of those impulses. His own style of piano-playing was self-taught: he never studied with a major performer, and of his infrequent early exposures to international musicians, many were to non-pianists like Paganini — or to singers. When Chopin was ten, he played for his first musical celebrity, the Italian soprano Catalani, who gave him a gold watch with a commemorative inscription.

Despite the early view of Chopin as a child prodigy, his first thorough musical training came only when he entered the Warsaw Conservatory at sixteen. His three-year course of study there served to give technical assurance to his individual stylistic impulses, impulses that he had already firmly established at the piano. He was so little touched by the broadening influences that a conservatory is supposed to impart that, to the end of his days, he never composed a work that did not involve the piano. His art was to remain that of the thorough pianist with an intensely vocal vision of the instrument’s potentialities. (One of the paradoxes of his life is that he disappointed his compatriots’ fond hope that he would create the long-awaited great Polish opera.)

Since he was famous as a virtuoso pianist, it is a remarkable fact that Chopin performed in public scarcely thirty times in his whole career — and never in a piano recital, an occasion that had not yet been invented. His pianistic immortality derives from the impression that he made on a select and articulate circle and, much more, from the pure pianism of his art: he conveyed his songful art by devices peculiar to the piano. It is also a remarkable fact that other great pianistic composers of his time made little impression upon Chopin: even the kind advances of Schumann and Mendelssohn were met with patient civility from a young man who had little admiration for those masters. (He was far more impressed with Schumann’s wife, Clara, who was the first concert pianist to program the Polish composer’s works.)

The first flush of fame Chopin experienced outside his native country came when he ventured to Vienna, where the public was overwhelmed by his improvisations on songs and dances, usually with an overt Polish flavor. He never ceased to increase the scope and sophistication of his stylized dances, but his manner was quickly established: his formal principles are those of a departure and return in which the return is emphatically climactic, with a substantial coda. No rigorous deployment of contrasting themes was allowed to interfere with the fluid treatment of his melodies.

Such non-Classical procedures also gave Chopin the freedom to do such novel things as beginning a Fantasie or Scherzo in one key but ending it in another, and to allow salon pieces to develop beyond the dimensions of a salon.

The first time the young Chopin heard a major pianist, that pianist was Hummel, and Chopin’s style of playing was often connected in critic’s minds with the genteel older master. Hummel had been Mozart’s favorite pupil, and Chopin’s vocally-conditioned pianism has Mozart’s music as its ancestor. It was thus poignantly fitting when the three thousand mourners in the Church of the Madeleine for the young composer’s funeral heard the Requiem of the young Mozart.

A remarkable symmetry likewise appears in a sequel to Chopin’s career. Just as the man who never wrote an opera had been nurtured by operatic melody, his harmonic procedures — which made a powerful impression on many composers, right down to Arnold Schoenberg — exerted a profound influence on the music dramas of Richard Wagner.

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5 Responses to “Chopin at the Opera”

  1. […] February 2, 2008 continued from yesterday […]

  2. […] of bel canto singing on the piano manner of Chopin (the meters for this site reporting that this and this are two of the most-linked-to entries in the ten-month history of RogerEvansOnline), […]

  3. […] most-visited postings on this site. (Somebody must have linked to them somewhere.) They can be see here and here. I mention them again now because it struck me tonight that, whereas in the past a pianist […]

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