The Maestro and the Myth

150 years after his death, the incredible music--and mystic-- of Frederic Chopin endure

Cover story

October 17, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Five and a half feet tall and never weighing more than 110 pounds, Frederic Chopin looked delicate, almost transparent, and not quite of this world.

Novelist George Sand, whose 10-year love affair with him has become the stuff of legend, called him her "little one." His friend, composer Felix Mendelssohn, not exactly a heavyweight himself, dubbed him "Chopinetto."

He was always suffering from something. "Chopin has been dying his whole life long," said one malicious Parisian lady, and another: "He has the most charming cough."

He was also a bit of a prig. He found foul odors intolerable, noise anathema, and an unannounced visitor could make his hair stand on end.

He possessed a mordant wit. During the notoriously cold and wet winter of 1838-1839 on Majorca, when he had his first serious brush with death, he wrote to a friend: "The three most famous doctors on the island have examined me; the first sniffed what I had spat out, the second pummeled me where I spat, and the third felt and listened how I spat. The first said I was dead, the second said I was dying, and the third -- that I am going to die."

Exactly 150 years ago today, when Chopin finally did die of tuberculosis, he was only 39. A photograph of him in his final months shows a shriveled, pain-wracked man, whose face, swollen with neuralgia, wears a slightly bewildered expression.

But in the less than two decades since his arrival in Paris in 1831 from his native Warsaw, this weak, tubercular man had succeeded, however quietly, in revolutionizing music in general and his own instrument, the piano, in particular. He had anticipated many of the innovations usually attributed to composers such as Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mahler. Without Chopin, it is impossible to imagine either the jagged, almost barbarically powerful achievements of Russian music or the polished urbanity and nuanced sophistication of French music in the 20th century.

He also had the highest batting average of any great composer. Almost everything by Chopin has entered the standard repertory -- a claim that cannot be made about any other composer, and that includes Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

A neglected anniversary

It seems strange, therefore, that this major anniversary is being celebrated with considerably less fanfare -- in the way of performances, recordings and scholarly conferences -- than those of Schubert (in 1978 and 1997), Brahms (1983 and 1998), Bach (1985) and Mozart (1991). "That Chopin should be relatively neglected in so important an anniversary year seems inexplicable," says Vincent Lenti, the administrator of the Eastman School of Music's piano department and one of the foremost authorities on the history of keyboard style. Though perhaps unfortunate is a more accurate term than inexplicable.

One reason for the restraint is that such anniversaries are generally sponsored by large institutions, such as orchestras, performing arts centers, music schools and opera houses. And Chopin wrote almost exclusively for solo piano, eschewing orchestras, chamber ensembles, choral groups and opera companies -- the musical media large institutions are created to support.

Another reason may be that Chopin's ubiquitousness in the repertory of almost every pianist makes anniversary performances of his music superfluous. "Chopin is our daily bread," says pianist Horacio Gutierrez. "Every year is a Chopin year for me and the audiences I play for."

Still, Gutierrez, along with several other noted pianists and music historians, agrees that Chopin rarely receives scholarly and critical attention that accords with his greatness.

"Big festivals are contrary to the way we experience his music and to our images of Chopin himself," says Jeffrey Kallberg, professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania. "While central to our repertory, Chopin nevertheless remains a marginalized figure."

He was indeed an isolated figure. He was a Pole who wrote his most important music in France and who worked in the Austro-Germanic musical tradition of his idols, Bach and Mozart. But Chopin's ears had been filled by the folk songs and dances of his native land, and his music exudes an "exotic" Eastern European appeal (some earlier critics even called it "Asiatic").

Chopin's successful championship of miniature musical forms when other composers gravitated to ever grander musical colossi confounds our attempts to compare him to contemporaries such as Berlioz, Liszt and Schumann.

His music likewise confuses our sense of gender boundaries. He was a male composer who wrote in "feminine" genres, such as the nocturne and the waltz, for the salon, a domestic setting in which his most enthusiastic listeners tended to be women.

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