Pianists remember their first Chopin the way most of us remember our first kiss: an awakening, a glimmer of anticipation, and an entree into the larger world of sophistication and maturity.
At, say, 8 or 10 years old, they start with one of the simpler mazurkas or preludes or waltzes. For the rest of their musical lives, Chopin will be a guiding force, constantly challenging the player at deeper and deeper levels of technique and expression. There is no proper piano playing without him. Some very exceptional pianists, like Artur Rubinstein, become "Chopinistes," specialists known for their refinement and sensitivity. But every pianist worth speaking of harbors the lessons of Chopin as the fundamental wellsprings of his or her playing.
Frederic Chopin died 150 years ago, in October 1849, at the age of 39 (a long life compared with Mozart or Schubert, a short one compared with Liszt or Saint-Saens). This autumn has been rich with Chopin's music, with appearances in Washington by such noted Chopinistes as Krystian Zimerman (who brought his own piano and handpicked orchestra to the Kennedy Center last weekend to present the perfect performance of the composer's two piano concertos) and Mitsuko Uchida, who played a keystone work, the Sonata No. 2, at the Kennedy Center on the same Saturday night.
Washington is in the middle of an elaborate Chopin festival organized by the Alliance Francaise and the Ministry of Culture and Arts of Poland, a program of 14 events that began earlier this month and is taking place in embassies, museums and concert halls across the city. One of the highlights of the series, an appearance by the undeservedly obscure pianist Juana Zayas (who many critics believe has recorded the most definitive cycle of Chopin etudes available), takes place tomorrow at La Maison Francaise, 4101 Reservoir Rd. NW. There will be a final program of chamber music there on Nov. 29.
Chopin specialized in one instrument--he wrote only a handful of pieces for other instruments (including the chamber works featured next week), and a small collection of songs--yet transcended his specialty to achieve full-fledged recognition in the concert hall. Composers who devoted themselves almost exclusively to one instrument aren't rare, but they tend to remain niche artists. The composers Eugene Ysaye and Henri Vieuxtemps, for example, specialized in the violin and wrote very fine music, but their real currency is limited mostly to lovers of the violin. Chopin goes beyond that--he limited himself to the piano, but was never limited by it. Despite never producing any of the obligatory large-scale scores--symphonies, operas, string quartets--by which 19th-century composers were ultimately judged, Chopin emerged as a seminal figure of his time.
Chopin had the makings of a happy life: a loving and encouraging family, devoted friends and a prodigious talent at the keyboard that he parlayed into a lucrative career as a teacher in Paris. His cultural milieu in France was a mix of bohemian creativity and A-list gentility. His piano works, many of which bear dedications to the nobility of his time (real and newly created), redefined the nature of keyboard technique, emphasizing smoothness and delicacy of line, recalling the Italian operatic style.
Chopin was beloved and he remains so. He is the rare artist who attracted little if any real ire from colleagues. In a time of cutthroat musical ideology--competing and hostile journals fanned the flames of mostly meaningless aesthetic rivalries throughout the 19th century--Chopin stood to the side, quiet, reserved and impossible to dislike. There were musicians and critics (like Berlioz) who condescended to him--he was too delicate, too much a creature of small salon concerts, too effeminate in his compositions--but the condescension was mild, and mixed with affection. And the critics who found his delicacy and refinement unmanly have been answered again and again both by performers (like Maurizio Pollini, who plays his music like a decathlete) and by critics and scholars who defend him in the interests of their own ax-grinding.
The immensely influential music theorist Heinrich Schenker--who made a career of reducing music to graphs, sub-graphs and sub-sub-graphs--claimed that Chopin, who once visited Munich and Stuttgart on his way to Paris, was through-and-through German. "If I elevate the name of Frederic Chopin for inclusion in the roll of great German masters, it is because I wish the work to be accessible as a source of the highest operations of genius, and to place them newly at the service of German youth." If it's good for German youth, it can't be wholly feckless.
The great French Chopiniste Alfred Cortot also claimed the Polish-born composer as the quintessence of French thought and expression. The Russians have staked their claim as well, defining Chopin as a modernist. He is, most notably, an obvious precursor to the great early 20th-century Russian experimental composer Aleksandr Scriabin, who composed in the same forms as Chopin and eventually built an entirely new, radical and mystical musical style based in part on the sinuousness of Chopin's melodic writing, his freedom of rhythmic form and his intuitive approach to harmony.
And the Poles, who have first claim to Chopin, also have the most substantial. Chopin remained loyal both to his friends and family in Poland, and to the country's musical style, especially its distinctive dance forms. The supposed French refinement that Chopin grafts onto his Polish musical ideas was there well before the young composer left his native country. Poland, in turn, has remained loyal to its most prominent 19th-century genius. Chopin is as much a fixture in the tourist shops of Warsaw and Krakow as Princess Diana is in the postcard shops of London. He even appears on Polish currency.
And in this country? In 1896, the toast of the literary world was the American author Harold Frederic, who had just published a novel called "The Damnation of Theron Ware." Chapter 19 of this undeservedly obscure work--a watershed discussion of this country's long struggle with the enticements of sex and our stern Protestant past--is almost entirely devoted to Chopin. A young, beautiful, impetuous woman invites an uptight Protestant minister into her lair, a room of velvet drapes, overstuffed couches and erotic statues, and plays for him the music of "Shopang." First a prelude, then a waltz, then the Second Sonata, a handful of nocturnes, a mazurka or two, the Third Ballade and the Berceuse. A hefty program that leaves him defenseless, seduced and on his way to ruin.
The minister's submission to a female pianist raises an issue that has dogged the music of Chopin, especially among the sensible and pragmatic. It is dangerous music, too erotic and soft to be good for anyone devoted to making his way in the working world. Its effect on the listener and perhaps the player as well is like one of those enervating modes that Plato banished from his Republic.
To this day, women face the faint remains of the stigma that has been attached to the music. Jeffrey Kallberg, who appeared at a Chopin seminar sponsored by the Smithsonian in early October, has written in the introduction to his book "Chopin at the Boundaries" that pianists who become too closely associated with Chopin can find the association limiting. Especially women. He cites the quirky and brilliant pianist Helene Grimaud as an example. Grimaud is a woman, and French, and she is a prodigious and exquisite Chopiniste. Now, as a mature player making her way in the music world as an adult, she says she wants "to play like a man."
This sense of gender confusion in Chopin's music has been catnip to modern critics and academics, improving his stock even a century after his death. Kallberg's book uses the word "boundaries" in its title, a word that gives scholars a warm, trembly feeling, like "paradigm" and "reified." Chopin, according to contemporary scholars, played with boundaries in multiple ways, especially his use of self-defined, very fluid and unorthodox forms (like fantasies, scherzos, ballades and polonaises). His erotic and spiritual personality, his reversed sex-roles relationship to the novelist George Sand, and his enduring reception as a kind of androgynous angel figure (the critical literature is filled with such allusions) give him yet more boundary-defying cachet.
If the Germans reinvented him as a composer of inspiring classical works for German youth, and the Russians claimed him as the form-defying prophet of modernism, Americans are now reinventing him as the great postmodernist, a borrower and breaker of expected forms, a composer beyond convention and past mundane concerns about stylistic unity. There's some truth to this.
But the enduring truth of Chopin probably lies in the enduring devotion of pianists. Chopin's music tells romantic stories, which are as appealing to adolescents who begin to grapple with his larger works as they are to audiences listening to the finest Chopin players play familiar warhorses. It's conventional to dismiss this narrative component of his music. But Chopin didn't and something is lost if we don't acknowledge that even in the most abstract of his works, there is some kind of ancient tale being spun. And pianists have the special pleasure of feeling the music in the hands, in the sinews and muscles, where Chopin's eroticism is most palpably apparent. It is music that in the final analysis feels very good to play.