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Life / Biography - general outline / The Pianist


Chopin the Pianist

Fryderyk Chopin ranked among the most outstanding icons of his time.  The greatest virtuosos and music experts paid glowing tributes to Chopin the pianist, amazed at  the mastery and unique charm of his playing and at the original qualities and profundity of his music.  Indeed, Chopin's peer, Robert Schumann, expressed his admiration with these words, "He plays just as he composes, in a unique manner". 

We will never know how the composer of the "Revolutionary" Etude really played.  The phonograph and the player piano, let alone the more advanced technologies of recording music, were invented too late to record the playing of such masters of the piano as Chopin and Liszt.  What is left to us is re-creation, an attempt to "hear" Chopin's playing in our minds based on the many secondary sources - reviews, memoirs and accounts by his pupils.

Chopin lived and composed during the heyday of the piano.  This period saw the blossoming of many brilliant pianistic careers and the creation of magnificent piano works.  At this time,
too, the piano's design was improved and the piano achieved the ultimate triumph over the musical instruments used in Europe at that time.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries "a piano craze" swept whole countries.  The piano displaced the harpsichord because it held more emotional appeal and better met the aesthetic needs of societies at the dawn of Romanticism.  It became an irreplaceable domestic instrument and it performed well in concert halls.  According to Polish sources, around the year 1800 "every decent household had a piano, if only for show."  In Vienna "everyone is playing, everyone is learning music," reported the German press.

The great interest in the piano was accompanied by the development of the art of playing the piano.  Its culmination seems to have coincided with Chopin's international career.  In 1831 the young composer came to Paris to find himself at the very centre of music creation and performance, including the piano.

The ranks of excellent and famous European pianists, Chopin's contemporaries, were impressive. Among them were Johann Baptist Cramer and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a pupil of Mozart and a noted teacher of pianoforte technique, John Field, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Ferdinand Ries and Carl Czerny - the last two having been Beethoven's pupils, Maria Szymanowska, Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Peter Pixis, as well as Muzio Clementi who still enjoyed considerable fame. Their virtuoso careers and, more importantly, their composing efforts inspired young Chopin's talent for the piano.  After all, in their number were the leading representatives of the brillant style, which the young Fryderyk favoured.

Chopin remained on friendly terms with the younger generation of celebrated pianists, some of whom were rising stars.  He became good friends with some of them.  Chopin belonged to the generation of Franz Liszt, Ferdinand Hiller, Sigismund Thalberg, Henri Herz, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Robert Schumann.  Chopin's piano talent stood out from that of his competitors, themselves very talented, because of its uniqueness, nobility and technical mastery.  During his first year in Paris the young musician from Warsaw captivated his audiences and was acclaimed by aristocratic circles as one of the finest pianists.  Just two years after his Paris debut, "Gazette Musicale" named Chopin and Liszt as the two greatest pianists of the day (1834).  Getting to the top in such a short time was proof of the Polish artist's colossal pianistic talent, which beyond doubt was comparable with his composing genius.

From an early age his family and Polish society provided a stimulating environment for the development of young Fryderyk's piano skills. The Chopins had a piano on which the composer's mother played.  Fryderyk very early showed remarkable musical skills and a facility with the piano.  He played for four hands with his elder sister Ludwika; at the age of six he started having regular lessons with Wojciech Żywny, a music teacher from Bohemia.  The boy's talent developed amazingly quickly.  It would seem that little Fryderyk boasted a perfect playing "mechanism" (co-ordination of hands and fingers) and he learned the secrets of playing intuitively.  This may have accounted for his innate technical ability and the fast progress he made.

In Warsaw the child prodigy quickly become the talk of the town and, consequently, he did not have to wait long for his piano debut.  On 24 February 1818 the eight-year-old boy played Vojtech Jírovec's Piano Concerto at a charity function.  A Warsaw newspaper wrote, "This country, too, produces geniuses."  Private invitations from aristocratic homes poured in.  The wunderkind was driven in fine carriages to soirees to add lustre to the events with his brilliant playing.  This is very important  as private recitals in drawing rooms for select groups of people were to become the main staple in Chopin's career as a pianist.

After six years' tuition Fryderyk, then aged twelve, ended his lessons with Żywny.  There were no famous piano teachers in Warsaw at that time but the city's affluent cultural community made sure that the boy's proper development continued.  A talented musician, pianist and organist Wilhelm Würfel lived and worked in Warsaw.  He probably became Chopin's second piano teacher (he also taught the boy to play the organ).  Unlike the rather conservative Żywny, Würfel introduced Fryderyk to the modern piano technique, typical of the brillant style which was becoming extremely popular.  Five years after his debut as an eight-year-old, the young artist made another public appearance (1823).  He played a piano concerto by Ferdinand Ries.  It was then that his name was first mentioned alongside Liszt's. Liszt, one year Chopin's junior, had just started performing in Vienna.

During the following years of learning music Chopin would give an occasional recital for a large audience and many times played for smaller ones.  His 1826 foreign debut deserves special mention - it was a benefit recital during Fryderyk's summer holidays in the resort town of Bad Reinerz (currently Duszniki-Zdrój, which hosts the longest-running Chopin festival).  During his Warsaw period, until 1830, Chopin took a keen interest in the art of the piano.  This was reflected in his composing efforts which were strongly influenced by the brillant style.  The young man seriously considered a performing career when planning his future.  In his native Warsaw he already enjoyed a reputation as an outstanding virtuoso.  He had the opportunity to hear how other pianists, who frequently visited Warsaw, played, for example Maria Szymanowska and Hummel (1828).  He watched a host of young pianists at the piano and listened to Stephen Heller and Antoinette Pechwel - Dresden's number one female pianist.  But it was Paganini, the violinist, who impressed him the most and fired his virtuoso imagination.

Having found out how those virtuosos played, Chopin could compare his playing with theirs.  His comprehensive musical development was made complete through playing with other musicians.  Chopin played piano duets and accompanied cellists, violinists and the human voice.  Soon he started composing larger works for piano and orchestra to have an appropriate repertoire for future appearances.  He did not have to wait long.   As early as 1829, during his first stay in Vienna, Chopin made his debut by playing his own Variations Op. 2 with an orchestra, and improvising on an operatic and a Polish folk theme.  The audience responded enthusiastically to the concert, applauding each variation separately.  In a letter describing the concert Chopin mentioned the opinion that he had played "too softly" (it was the first time he had been told that the sound lacked volume), but the pianist would rather be criticised for this than "for  playing too strongly."  Chopin's second Viennese concert a week later was an even  greater success.

After these successful appearances it was time to make an "adult" debut in Warsaw. To this end a series of greatly anticipated concerts was held.  The farewell concert, before the composer left Poland for good, took place in the National Theatre on 11 October 1830.  It included his Concerto in E minor and the Fantasia on Polish Airs.

Leaving Poland at the age of 20, Chopin was a fully formed pianist who had a distinct style of playing. It should be noted, though, that he was increasingly interested in composing.  Later he would drastically reduce his public appearances, but at that time he actively sought concerts. Initially offers were infrequent but he did give some major concerts in Europe, which consolidated his fame as a pianist.  He performed in Wrocław, again in Vienna, in Munich (1831) and finally in Paris, where he made a successful debut on 26 February 1832.  No less than "the king of the piano", Friedrich Kalkbrenner, helped Chopin with organising his debut concert.  He even offered to give him piano lessons.  However this never happened.

In the following years Chopin gave few concerts in Paris.  The period until 1835 saw more than 10 public appearances of the Polish composer, who did not always find the applause satisfactory.  In late 1837 and early 1838 Chopin was more active as a pianist.  He played for the royal family of Louis Philippe and in March he delighted an audience in Rouen.  In Paris, after six years of absence from the stage, Chopin appeared in the Salle Pleyel to play his own solo works, and also to accompany other artists (1841).  At that time his fame as a composer and a pianist was all but legendary.  Less than a year later a similar concert was organised, after which Parisians had to wait another six years for "the Ariel of the pianists" to perform in public.  On 16 February 1848 Chopin gave his last concert in Paris (16 February 1848).  Held in the Salle Pleyel, it was virtually a private event as the number of seats was limited to 300 and the Parisian elite, mostly aristocrats and Chopin's friends, were quick to grab all the tickets.

In 1848, Chopin's worsening personal situation and the political unrest in Paris prompted his decision to travel to England and Scotland, where, despite his deteriorating health, he managed to give a number of public concerts in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh.  His last public appearance took place on 16 November 1848 and, like the first 30 years before, it was a charity occasion.

Chopin only appeared before the general public about 40 times, and that included his appearances as a child.  He disliked huge concert halls and hated playing for a large crowd, frequently  suffering stage fright.  This, however, may give the reader a false idea about the composer's stage accomplishments.  Chopin was very active as a pianist, but it was in the private drawing room that he was in his element.  There, in the company of a small select group of people, many of them his friends, he felt utterly at ease and presented his piano art, of which playing was an integral part, in a perfectly natural manner.  He played his own compositions and was unequalled at improvising, but his repertoire included also works by other composers.  He played the music of Bach and Mozart, whom he admired, especially in his younger years, and also works by Moscheles, Jérovec, Gyrowetz, and Ries.  In his later period Chopin played mostly his own compositions.

Chopin believed the quality of the instrument to be enormously important and complained when given a grand or an upright piano which he found not good enough.  In France the Pleyel was his favourite brand, although he also used Erard and Broadwood pianos.

Chopin's listeners felt that they were offered the experience of a piano art that was not only masterly, but also genuinely exceptional, one that clearly stood out from that of many other pianists.  Although no material manifestations of Chopin's playing exist, there are several indirect sources allowing us to get a general idea of the aesthetic attitude shown by the composer of the Etudes.  The numerous reviews of Chopin's public concerts, published in the Polish, Austrian, German, French and English press, were one source.  The accounts of people who heard Chopin play in private homes, the environment that better suited his artistic sensitivity, provide an invaluable source of information.  There are also the testimonies of Chopin's pupils who were allowed a special insight into their Maestro's piano technique and had firsthand knowledge of his aesthetic views.  A special source is Chopin's "Esquisses pour une méthode de piano".

Chopin's prominent pupil Karol Mikuli underlined his teacher's remarkably developed technique of playing, the unprecedented evenness of scales and passages in every kind of articulation and the naturally effortless and unrestrained mechanism of playing.  This opinion may also be found in the earliest sources (reviews), which speak of the "extreme ease", of the artist's precision of playing, of his clear and confident touch on the piano and his deftness.  "Indescribable technical prowess", "clarity of playing" are some of the phrases used by the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig, and an Allgemeine Theaterzeitung reviewer wrote, "His playing reflects dexterity of the finest kind."

Thus technical dexterity is the first of Chopin-the-pianist's qualities that struck many listeners.  The composer's hands were not too large but nimble, allowing him to play the most difficult figures effortlessly.  Another feature of Chopin's playing was his subtle, light touch on the piano and, despite his confidence, softness combined with profound emotions, enhanced by the exquisite variation of the tones.  "Each striking of a key comes from his heart," wrote Gazeta Warszawska.  "In the subtlety of emotions and elegance of taste he has excelled even Hummel."  "He is a pianist of emotions par excellence," wrote Leon Escudier.  Lightness, "the discreet manner of striking the keys," "the charming subtlety of playing," were the phrases frequently used in the accounts of Chopin's concerts.  These features did not preclude the artist's "masculine and noble energy" (Mikuli), which was never violent.

The terms "lightness" and "subtlety" were associated with a feature which in large concert halls was undesirable - the absence of a full, intense sound.  Many reviewers were quick to stress this problem.  "He does not elicit enough sound from the instrument," wrote a critic after Chopin's Paris debut.  A "Manchester Guardian" reviewer stressed the intimate character and the lack of loudness and expansiveness in the music and its execution.

It would seem that Chopin, who was keen on nuance, did not feel predisposed to play with great resonance, a kind of playing that resembled orchestra-produced effects and emanated stage brilliance.  His technical mastery was based on a skilful use of a legato articulation and on efforts to achieve naturalness and nobility of playing. Legato, Chopin's primary way of articulating, is a beautiful combination of notes similar to vocal technique.  The composer would often refer to the technique of singing and used bel canto to demonstrate the logic and naturalness of phrasing.  Also his famous tempo rubato was linked to the vocal technique tradition, allowing an irregularity of the pulse in musical flow.  Chopin's recommendation is often quoted: the left hand, accompaniment, is the conductor, the maestro di cappella (its role is to maintain the pulse), while the melody is given the privilege of ad libitum, like a prima donna who is given the privilege of being temperamental.

In his "Esquisses pour une méthode de piano" the composer included several important statements about piano technique.  He stressed that if the shape of the hand fitted the keyboard design, the result was an easy facility of "moving" up and down the keyboard.  A nimble hand was a prerequisite of a proper mechanism of playing, one that enabled "a skilful varying of the sound to achieve a fine quality."

No words can really describe Chopin's art of piano playing which his listeners found truly remarkable. It was a unique, original phenomenon in the history of music.  What is left to us, if our imagination is good enough, is an attempt to hear a distant echo of this facet of the artistic excellence of ‘the Poet of Sounds'.

Artur Bielecki
English translation: Jerzy Ossowski




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