Wersja polska | Polish version

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Fryderyk Chopin

    On the Chopin Tradition

    The Chopin tradition: three key words which open an immeasurable variety of events and phenomena that cannot be encompassed by a simple enumeration. Not only the music of Frederick Chopin remains extremely fascinating but also the personality of this "incomparable genius whom the heavens envied the Earth" (according to Eugene Delacroix). The unique worldwide fame which Chopin enjoyed already during his lifetime, the popularity of Chopin recitals, as well as festivals and competitions named after him, the thousands of studies, music recordings, and millions of copies of scores do not exhaust the issue. Numerous people - outstanding artists, virtuosos, historians of music and music lovers, for whom Chopin frequently remains their favourite composer - succumbed to his attraction. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made a symptomatic declaration: "I myself am still too much of a Pole not to resign from all other music apart from Chopin".. What about Poland, the native land of the composer of the mazurkas? The Polish XXth-century poet Julian Tuwim wrote: "Chopin was the greatest artistic shock which I experienced. My adoration for him continued to grow, and still does so, and I regard Chopin to be the most magnificent phenomenon not only in the history of Polish poetry but in global art as a whole... I would immediately exchange Mickiewicz - with despair, Slowacki - with sorrow, and a dozen Krasinskis for a single Chopin"; this mention of the leading poets of Polish Romanticism is followed by the admission: "Not being a pianist myself, I cherish for Chopin a feeling which could be described only as religion. This love for him made me understand that the zeal of faith could lead to religious wars and the Inquisition".

    A sui generis cult of Chopin comprises the true background and framework of present-day Chopin tradition throughout the world.

     

    The Shaping of the Chopin Tradition

    Listeners of Chopin`s music always found in it something fascinating, and even those who were not its admirers rarely remained indifferent and frequently sought to explain why a certain composition was not to their liking. Already as a child, the composer became a prodigy fashionable in Warsaw, and in the opinion of some was to "replace Mozart". This assessment testifies to the way in which in about 1820 the residents of the capital of the Kingdom of Poland reacted to the appearance of the youthful virtuoso, and to the hope they attached to his extraordinary talent. Already in this very fact one should seek the sources of the Chopin tradition, which assumed form around the person of the composer and his music. With its stable music and cultural life, and as if contrary to political subjection, Warsaw proved to be fully prepared for welcoming and educating such a great talent. "A true musical genius", exclaimed one of the Warsaw periodicals about the seven years-old "Chopinek". Several years later, the press proudly compared him to the equally young Ferenc Liszt. In 1862, "Kurier Warszawski" mentioned a performance given by the Polish artist in the foreign resort of Reinerz (today: Duszniki Zdrój). The fame of the young pianist and composer grew, Frederick became liked and admired, and his public concerts were true cultural events. When he left the country in November 1830, his friends performed a farewell cantata composed for this occasion by Józef Elsner.

    Outside Poland, interest in the music and person of Chopin increased after his first concerts abroad, especially in Vienna and Paris. The Polish composer was found captivating by a considerable part of the European elite. He made the acquaintance of numerous celebrities of the period, including Rossini, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, and Delacroix, and became popular and highly regarded almost from the very onset. Much was said and written about him throughout Europe. A review written by Schumann after hearing Variations, op. 2 contained the famous sentence: "Gentlemen, hats off, here is a genius". Unfavourable and even extremely cutting opinions were also voiced, especially by the German critic Ludwig Rellstab, who mentioned "ear-splitting discords" or "ugly distortions of melody and rhythm". All those people created an environment which gave rise to the circulation of Chopin`s music in the world of culture.

    The premature death of the composer on 17 October 1849 commenced a new chapter in the history of his artistic and spiritual presence in the world. The despondent Delacroix noted down in his diary: "What a loss! What miserable rogues fill the marketplace while this beautiful soul burns out!". Was it really receding into the distance? As in the case of each great composer, in subsequent decades the name of Chopin and the significance of his music assumed new meanings and spoke to new generations. Gradually, a great Chopin tradition came into being. Its minute examination and a description of the ways in which the storehouse of Chopin's music is used will be the theme of the following chapters. At this stage, we shall merely outline several characteristic aspects.

    The prime trait is diversity. From the second half of the nineteenth century, the Chopin heritage was interpreted in greatly variety of manners. Chopin remained vital and important for many outstanding composers, pianists, and men of letters as well as amateur musicians and the wide public, all of whom perceived in him different qualities. In his native land, owing to the political situation of the country, emphasis was placed on the national current of the Chopin oeuvre, envisaged as the most perfect expression of Poland's striving towards independence. Chopin grieving the fate of his country and Chopin, the national bard, was one of the long-retained models of Polish culture.

    First monographic studies about Chopin, headed by a sketch by Liszt, appeared in the wake of the artist's death. Collected editions of his works were prepared by renowned musicians, testifying to a changing attitude to the composer's text. Chopin, with his absolute originality, did not leave behind a composition school or successors. Nonetheless, his interest in folk music and national genres (polonaises, mazurkas) exerted an impact on the emergence of European national schools (Russian, Scandinavian, Czech, etc.). The paradox of the Chopin tradition consists in the fact that inspiration was sought in his stand and example rather than in his inimitable composing technique and original style. Chopin was admired by a multitude of composers, including Juliusz Zarebski, Alexander Scriabin, Karol Szymanowski, Claude Debussy, Manuel de Falla and Witold Lutoslawski.

    Upon the threshold of the twentieth century, Chopin`s oeuvre found itself in an entirely new perspective. In an age of new music, bold experiments with sound technique, and the destruction of tradition, works by the author of preludes not only resisted the test of time surprisingly well but from a distance of a new era disclosed the value of a specific novelty, which preceded its time by decades and can be properly recognised only now. Chopin, seen as the embodiment of Romanticism, does not exclude the twentieth-century image of Chopin as the great innovator and master of the composition workshop. At the onset of this century, the perspective of viewing Chopin changed from a Polish one to its more global counterpart, and from an emotional-ideological approach to an objective and technical perception. Enormous significance was attached to the inauguration in the 1920s of the Frederick Chopin International Piano Competition, an event held in Warsaw up to this day, which contributed to the popularisation of the music of the Polish composer. Young pianists from all over the world came to Warsaw, and continue to do so, with a prepared, exceedingly difficult Chopin programme. The music of Chopin also remained part of the repertoire of the most celebrated masters of the piano, especially Polish and Russian, such as Józef Hoffman, Serge Rachmaninoff, and Artur Rubinstein. Some, for example, Ignacy Friedman or Ignacy Jan Paderewski, took an active part in edition initiatives, and frequently contributed to the publication of collected works.

    Today, the Chopin tradition denotes not only a number of worthy institutions and artistic and scientific authorities but also a constantly vital realm of inspiration, new ideas and accomplishments, as well as a wide circle of people who regard the person of the composer as particularly dear and close. They aim at becoming familiar with and cultivating the great legacy: various interpretation traditions, authentic composition texts, knowledge concerning the life and works of the artist, manuscripts and mementos, and, finally, creative critical reflections on the significance of Frederick Chopin in history. Perspectives for the future appear to be extensive and open, more so considering that the music of Chopin will continue to astonish and delight us upon many occasions to come.

Artur Bielecki

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