After 200 years, classical composer Chopin's music still holds mysteries

Elliptical style: Polish-born Frédéric Chopin's music can appear simple, but his work is intricate and challenging.
Elliptical style: Polish-born Frédéric Chopin's music can appear simple, but his work is intricate and challenging. (Associated Press File)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Monday, Feb. 22, is Frédéric Chopin's 200th birthday. That is, it's Fryderyk Chopin's birthday; the Polish-born, Paris-dwelling composer's name is more commonly spelled these days with Ys. And that's his birth date according to a baptismal certificate; the composer said he was born on March 1. Even 200 years after his birth, things that appear simple about Chopin are actually more complicated than they seem.

Including, and above all, his music. Chopin's piano pieces -- all of his pieces involve the piano: no symphonies or operas here -- are lyrical and lovely, poetic and, therefore, seen as accessible. Yet they can also be harmonically intricate, technically challenging.

His 24 Op. 10 and Op. 25 Etudes, far from being simple "studies" for students, are so difficult that the great pianist and Chopin specialist Artur Rubinstein avoided playing some of them. And they can be elliptical to the point of impenetrability (take the final movement of the Second Sonata: a whirling cloud of sound less than two minutes long). Taken together, Chopin's pieces represent a towering hurdle, the benchmark against which a classical pianist is measured -- in part because of the difficulty of finding a way to plumb the music's depths while sounding simple.

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"Proper" Chopin style is at once a seal of approval and the subject of endless debate. It involves lightness and clarity of touch, something evinced by one of the latest crop of Chopinistes, Rafal Blechacz, in his new CD of two rather conventional piano concertos. It requires a singing legato: the illusion that the pianist is creating an unbroken line of sound, like a human voice. This is particularly true in the Nocturnes, which are incessantly compared to the operas of Chopin's friend Vincenzo Bellini.

But Chopin style can also evoke the kind of stormy outbursts the young Martha Argerich gives in her just-released CD, a collection of previously unreleased radio recordings from 1959 and 1967.

Most important, and most elusive, Chopin style involves rubato -- changing tempo or rhythm for expressive purposes. The question of rubato dogs Chopin performance. The composer was said to be quite free as a pianist, but it's not clear what this meant: There are indications that he kept a fairly steady left-hand beat at all times.

Still, generations of performers, following the misguided notion that a piece of music is a canvas upon which they are to express themselves, take Chopin's advocacy of rubato as license to slow down and speed up almost at will. Hearing a lot of Chopin -- even in some cases very good Chopin -- can leave me seasick from listening to too many phrases being stretched out as if going slowly uphill, then tumbling helter-skelter down again.

Chopin's music has sometimes been branded effeminate, or "salon music": not quite serious, not quite healthy, not quite German, since it departs from the structural conventions of the great Viennese classical school. Even the two powerful sonatas are unconventional, playing fast and loose with the structural conventions upheld by Mozart and Beethoven.

Indeed, some of Chopin's ardent defenders have implicitly bought into the idea that the music is weak and needs defending, trying to emphasize its seriousness (and manliness) by playing the works in sets -- all 24 preludes, or the 24 etudes of Op. 10 and 25 -- and thus casting them as long, weighty pieces rather than salon entertainments measuring three or four minutes long.

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The view of the work as fragile and sickly is also linked to the pervasive idea of Chopin as a prototypical Romantic genius: pale and dapper, doomed to a tragically short life (he had tuberculosis), needing the care of a strong mother figure (his lover, best known by her literary pseudonym, George Sand), receiving the divine flash of inspiration at the keyboard (though a brilliant improviser, he labored over his compositions).

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