Chopin's Compositional Process: From Piano to Public
Curiosity about Chopin's compositional process follows naturally from an experience of his music as a kind of art that occupies a realm at once glorious and idiosyncratic, separated not only from more quotidian aesthetic experiences, but also from the creations of other admired figures of nineteenth-century music. Pole among Parisians, pianist-composer among the compositionally polymathic, Chopin is now-and was during his lifetime-the epitome of the musical "other," a fact that colors responses to him in many different ways, and in both positive and negative terms. Others provoke inquisitiveness, and a common reaction to the perceived difference of Chopin's music is to attempt to explain it in terms of its genesis.
This we see happening already in the 1830s. In the face of his puzzlement over Chopin's newly published Impromptu in Ab Major, op. 29, an anonymous critic in the Parisian weekly newspaper La France Musicale sought to explain the "defects" in the piece by satirizing Chopin's compositional method:
|His other compositional processes are simple enough. Monsieur Chopin searches for an idea; he writes, he writes, he modulates through the twenty-four keys; if the idea does not come, Monsieur Chopin draws it to an end, and concludes very nicely his little piece (1).|
A work whose (in the reviewer's words) "laboriously tormented" gestures lacked meaning evidently must point to a nonsensically tortured creative impulse. While most of us would wish to distance ourselves from this reviewer's aesthetic stance, we can at least see in his response the seeds of our own fascination with how Chopin's creative ideas progressed from mental conception to sounding work.
For if Chopin's music is something other, then surely learning something about how it came to be constructed will allow us better to understand its unique qualities. Indeed, some of this sense of difference arose precisely because of Chopin's habits as a composer. He revised inveterately. Individual manuscripts of his works teem with cancellations and insertions. Multiple autographs of the same composition seldom agree. The texts of editions issued "simultaneously" in different countries during his lifetime frequently diverge. Even after a work appeared in print, Chopin found ways to alter the text of it. In sum, composition for Chopin was an open-ended process, unbounded by the nature and physical restrictions of the source or the limits of publication. He did not feel compelled to mask all traces of the act of composition; nor did the creative process occupy for him an exclusively private domain. Because for Chopin the creation of a work in a sense became part of its aesthetic property, critical understanding of his music requires a grasp of its evolution.
How then did Chopin's music come into being? We might imagine ourselves as observers one summer in Chopin's studio in George Sand's summer home at Nohant (2): The composer's Pleyel piano stands against the wall; music paper, poetry, and Cherubini's treatise on counterpoint lie on his desk; carnations scent the air. The progression from mental conception to work begins not with Chopin lifting his music pen, but with him placing his hands on the keyboard (3).
That Chopin mapped out his ideas at the keyboard should not come as a surprise. His entire musical life-as composer, performer, and pedagogue-was linked to the piano. Every single work that he wrote included the piano in some role. Surely the instrument to which he was indelibly tied would figure centrally into his compositional process. And Chopin himself testified to the necessity of having a piano to compose in letters written from Majorca, in which the creative discomfort caused by a delayed shipment is palpable:
|My piano has not yet arrived.-How did you send it? by Marseilles or by Perpignan? I dream music but I cannot make any-because here there are not any pianos . . . in this respect this is a savage country (4). |
Only today I received news that on 1 December the piano was loaded onto a merchant ship in Marseilles. The letter was 14 days en route from Marseilles. I expect that the piano will spend the winter in port or at anchor (for nothing stirs here as soon as it rains) and that I will only obtain it upon my departure, which delights me greatly, for besides 500 francs duty I will have the pleasure to pack it back myself.-In the meantime my manuscripts sleep, while I cannot sleep, only cough (5).
In perhaps the most famous description of Chopin at work, George Sand, Chopin's companion of nine years, eloquently depicts how the piano fueled his compositional impulses. She also informs us of the difficulties Chopin encountered trying to compose in his last years (her comments concern specifically Chopin's last months in Nohant):
|His creation was spontaneous, miraculous. He found it without searching for it, without foreseeing it. It came to his piano suddenly, complete, sublime, or it sang in his head during a walk, and he would hasten to hear it again by, tossing it off on his instrument. But then would begin the most heartbreaking labor I have ever witnessed. It was a series of efforts, indecision, and impatience to recapture certain details of the theme he had heard: what had come to him all of a piece, he now over-analyzed in his desire to write it down, and his regret at not finding it again "neat," as he said, would throw him into a kind of despair. He would shut himself up in his room for days at a time, weeping, pacing, breaking his pens, repeating and changing a single measure a hundred times, writing it and effacing it with equal frequency, and beginning again the next day with a meticulous and desperate perseverance. He would spend six weeks on one page, only to end up writing it just as he had traced it in his first outpouring (6).|
Sand not only confirms the centrality of the keyboard to Chopin's inspiration, she also underscores the otherness of his compositional being. The splendors of the creative product stand in sharp contrast to the lamentable blockages of the creative process (a process whose restricted rate of production must have seemed doubly incomprehensible to the notably prolific Sand). What was "miraculous" at the moment of the arrival of the creative spark turned monstrous in its labored transition to a written form.
Before Chopin would set pen to paper, then, he normally had shaped with his fingers at least the broader notions of structure and melody for a piece. And this preliminary spadework lent the first written stage of his compositional process-sketches-a distinctive look. Chopin treated his sketches as private documents; he jotted them down in great haste and took little care to be absolutely precise in his notation. Pitch locations may be vague, noteheads are often not distinguished from their stems, and personal abbreviations abound. Chopin in effect evolved a kind of notational shorthand in which the musical meaning was self-evident to him (a shorthand that must have been a godsend to the anxious composer that Sand described as hastening to recapture in written form the music that first came to him aurally). Nonetheless in some sketches (particular those for more extended works) certain portions plainly flowed more freely from his pen than others. These passages normally encompass precisely defined principal sections of a piece, beginning at the first measure and finishing with the last measure. For example, in the sketches for the Polonaise-Fantasy, op. 61, Chopin drafted without special difficulty the introduction, the initial statements of the principal theme, the contrasting slow section, the reprise, and the coda (Illustration 1 shows the first page of these sketches). The greater assuredness of their design suggests that these main sections were the portions of pieces Chopin conceived at the piano. Connections between sections, on the other hand, troubled him more; he at times required multiple drafts in order to work out a viable solution. (In the sketches for the Polonaise-Fantasy, Chopin worked particularly hard to find a solution to what became measures 92-117, where two different and transformed versions of the main theme and a transition to the contrasting lyrical section are heard.) Indeed, the need to forge such links between sections may have been precisely what initially led Chopin to leave the keyboard and take up his quill.
With sketches complete, Chopin ordinarily proceeded directly to the preparation of a manuscript that could be deciphered by someone other than himself, or what we may term a "public" manuscript. But what in theory might have been a simple, mechanical procedure of making a legible copy of the sketch in practice rarely was. Rather than merely transfer readings from one document to another, Chopin continued to compose in the neater manuscript. These artistic alterations could involve matters as great as the reshaping of entire sections (sometimes the structural revisions were so great that Chopin was forced to abandon the manuscript as unfit for anyone but himself) or as small as the revoicing of individual chords (not surprisingly, changes of the latter sort occurred more frequently).
By itself, this ongoing pattern of composition was not unusual; many composers could not resist the temptation to retouch a work during the preparation of a clean copy (as a glance at some of the autographs Beethoven prepared for his publishers quickly confirms). What set Chopin's habits apart was the publishing system within which he worked. For much of his mature career, he issued his pieces at more or less the same time in three different regions: France, England, and one of the German-speaking states. He did this for two reasons: first, by selling the work to three separate publishers, he increased his income from it; and second, by publishing the work legally in three countries, he could hope to avoid the piracies that would remove his control over the texts of his printed music. Chopin could supply copy to these publishers in a variety of ways, but matters get most interesting when he himself supplied separate engraver's manuscripts for each publisher (7). For the same urge that tempted him while moving from a sketch to the first neater manuscript acted upon him in deriving the remaining two: he continued to compose as he moved from source to source. Even when copyists were responsible for the additional manuscripts (as frequently was the case in the years 1835-41), Chopin would usually make light changes and additions in checking over their work (8).
Why does this concern modern interpreters and listeners? When Chopin would make a compositional change in a later manuscript, he often would not return to the earlier sources to bring them into agreement. To complicate matters further, Chopin normally introduced further alterations when he read proofs for the French edition (he probably never saw proofs for the other two editions). Chopin's first French publisher, Maurice Schlesinger, commented on this practice (in what counts as one of the earliest remarks on Chopin's compositional process) in letters he wrote in 1833 to a German publisher:
|Chopin is not only a man of talent but he is anxious to maintain his reputation, so he always still polishes his works after they are long since finished; all that he sold us is done, I have had it many times in my hands, but there is a difference with him between finished and delivered . . . only today I received from Chopin the first proofs of the first six Etudes, filled with mistakes; he is so anxious that it is difficult to receive something from him (9).|
In other words, Chopin's urge to continue revising resulted in three first editions that frequently differed meaningfully from one another. And these differences filter their way into the performances pianists give and listeners hear by means of modern editions, which tend to choose differently among the welter of variants preserved in the original sources in establishing their texts of Chopin's works. Depending upon which edition they select as a basis for their performance, then, two pianists ostensibly playing the same work can produce very different sounding art works.
The manuscript and printed sources for the Nocturne in B Major, op. 62, no. 1, exemplify just how complicated the array of variants could become. Chopin fretted with particular insistence over measures 53-55 from the middle section of the piece (Example 1 tabulates the variants in a reconstruction of the order in which the composer conceived them). We can see how his conception of the passage gradually modified itself from the sketch through the autographs (that for the English edition is unfortunately lost) and into the proofs for the French edition. The changes affect the shape of the melody, the degree of dissonance in the melody, the accompanimental harmony (notice in particular the alterations in the first half of measure 55), and the density of these accompanimental chords. We know from Chopin's correspondence that he was responsible for correcting these proofs, and hence also for the differences between the French autograph and the French edition. Moreover, we can determine from his letters that he posted all three autographs of the Nocturne on the same day. In other words, we may assume that Chopin knew he was mailing different versions of measures 53-55, but chose not to bring them into agreement (10).
Not even publication need mark the termination of composition. On some occasions, Chopin would so extensively revise a work after it was published that he would require his publisher to released new impressions of it. Brandus issued two impressions of its French edition of the Mazurkas, op. 63, and Troupenas even more strikingly published four separate impressions of its French edition of the Sonata in Bb Minor, op. 35. More often, however, his refinements were more limited, confined to the pages of students' copies of his printed editions. During lessons, he would enter notations in pencil or ink. While many of these markings (such as fingerings, instructions on how to play ornaments, and tempo indications) served purely didactic ends, others appear to have represented substantial rethinkings of compositions. For others still, the distinction cannot be securely made between didactic and compositional annotations. For instance, in the Mazurka in B Minor, op. 33, no. 4, the cut of measures 87-110 (a full repetition of the principal thematic section of the piece) found in four separate annotated copies must represent Chopin's later thoughts on the proper form for the piece. But his substantial trimming of the middle section of the E-Major Etude, op. 10 no. 3, in the edition owned by his student Jane Stirling, which eliminates from the Etude the virtuosic diminished seventh chords and the sense of a contrasting thematic style, cannot so easily be assigned to either the didactic or compositional categories. Plainly it fits under both types-the cuts facilitate the performance of the piece as well as give it a very different shape-and we cannot be sure whether Chopin thought that changes should have any application for others besides Miss Stirling.
Chopin's idiosyncratic compositional process thus produced a source situation in which variant readings (of a passage or of an entire work) are pervasively endemic. Variants constitute the rule in Chopin's music, not the exception. Strangely, though, many editors and commentators on Chopin have interpreted this pervasiveness as a "problem." They view them as a problem because of the type of solution they seek: simply stated, they wish to find the "authentic" text, the "definitive" version for a given composition. The myriad variants therefore constitute an obstacle that must be hurdled in order for the goal to be reached.
But it takes only a little probing into the musical culture of the nineteenth century to see that this "problem" hinges entirely on an anachronistic notion of what the "musical work" represents. Composers and audiences in the nineteenth century did not necessarily view scores as unique, invariable forms of music. The evidence of Chopin's compositional process in particular suggests that a more permeable idea of the "musical work" reigned in the 1830s and 1840s: modern performers, editors, and critics tend to pay too little attention to the importance of process in the idea of "compositional process." If Chopin allowed multiple versions of his pieces to appear in print during his lifetime, then we should respect this attitude in our own approaches to this music. For Chopin as a composer (and as a performer, for that matter), music was a fluid, not fixed, concept. This explains why, in nearly every source he touched, he continued to compose, to revise, to cut. Variants are not a "problem" to be solved. Rather they reflect an essential aspect of Chopin's art.
University of Pennsylvania