When I mention to people I’ve played Chopin on my recitals lately, I tend to get a curious reaction–a slightly sour look with a parental, passive-aggressive question mark swirling around in it. Oh, dear, really? From their oblique remarks I glean an implication: why would you play Chopin, since you are a supposedly thinking person (i.e. “Think Denk”) and Chopin, well, dot dot dot. I’ll admit it, I often feel vaguely insulted by these reactions, both for my sake and for Chopin’s. It’s a duet of outrage. One part of me thinks I’m certainly dumb enough to play Chopin!, while another impotently huffs, Chopin is not dumb, and you’re a boorish nincompoop. Over martinis, I consider what level of drooling lobotomy I would have to have for people to think it OK for me to play Chopin.
A person quite close to me feels Chopin is pure boredom in a jar. I told Mitsuko Uchida once that I might have trouble choosing between Chopin and Schubert, and the storm that crossed her brow would have shut down the airports for days. I’ve had my moments of doubt too: occasions when I sat through the E minor Piano Concerto (a wonderful piece, IMHO) as performed by such-and-such marvelously talented young pianist and I couldn’t reconcile this superficial finger-doodling and quasi-emoting with the shiver I know, the deeply delicious savoring of passing notes, the web-like harmonic world that Chopin holds me in … hours spent at home, passing your fingers over the piano, you’re playing and you’re shivering at the same time, trapped happy fly eaten by genius spider.
Just take the slow section of the Polonaise-Fantasie:
… And you thought nothing more could be wrung out of that old whore, dominant-and-tonic! Hard to know why this is so astoundingly beautiful. In the left hand a wave, rising-falling, and in the right hand the intersecting wave, more muted, as if a mere reflection of (or commentary on) the larger wave. Compare this to the climax of Tristan und Isolde:
Which is almost the same–the same gist, with a reversed harmonic polarity–but Chopin has drained it of Wagnerian emotional hyperinflation, burst the bubble of the grand demonstrative stage, distilled from I and V a purer love: perhaps just the intimate (but often seemingly almost erotic) love of Chopin for the piano itself.
This pure moment would be so much less, however, without its bizarre and brilliant lead-in. We start with the bluster of a diminished seventh chord, here:
and that explodes into a massive chromatic whorl:
Standard Romantic expostulation? Maybe you have the feeling that this is a bridge too far, the chromatic’s too oozy, the drama’s outsized: you’re right about that. For the bluster somewhat obviously, tiredly wears itself out, the curlicue oozes downwards, loses steam, loses faith in itself–and we finally settle on a lone F#. What was the point? If you feel also that the new key has not quite been prepared by all this flailing about, that the transition has been ineffective, you’re right about that too: for, now, a “true preparation” comes as a rebuke to the “false preparation.” Look, see, the F# is looking for a context; Chopin makes us listen to it for a moment, alone, then with a strangely sour chord,
then alone again, then with the “right” chord, waiting waiting waiting,
and then the epiphany comes, utterly different from any previous moment in the piece, or any moment to come:
… magic doorway of the other. Chopin’s simplicity rebukes Chopin’s complexity. The Genius of Chopin is sitting there, in his self-rebuke, sandwiched between an almost-clichéd chromatic transition, a pedal point, and a lyrical slow section rocking between the two most common chords there are: this glimpse of screw-you-I-can-write-something-so-beautiful-that’s-made-of-almost-nothing, as an unearthly transition between things that are also almost nothing. The four mysterious bars are a messenger, unveiling a new chapter before vanishing, a chapter which turns out to be the quietly beating heart of the piece.
I want to go back to that long pause on the F#.
One of the great and strange elements of the Polonaise-Fantasie, one of its “themes,” is that the act of listening is woven into its fabric. Chopin wants you to listen–carefully! thoughtfully!–to certain sounds, certain pitches, certain moments; the structure of the story he is telling is utterly dependent upon this listening. But he knows that listening is an inherently lazy activity, often thoughtless, often lulling itself into complacency. Just look around the boxes of Carnegie some night if you don’t believe me on this. [Sometimes I look out into the crowd while I’m playing and I will see some rapt individual beaming ecstasy, and I will tell myself not to look any more, but then I can’t help it, I look around later and there is some guy searching the back of the program for classified ads and clearly desperate to get out of my concert and straight to the liquor store and then home to ESPN.]
Anyway. So Chopin writes “enforced” listening moments into the piece–strangely arresting moments, like that F# held, alone, then heard against an astringent dissonance, then heard alone again, then heard against the “correct” dissonance, the dominant seventh–moments that enact, in a kind of slo-mo, the very process of hearing dissonances resolve against a pedal …
The beginning of the Polonaise-Fantasy is an extraordinary example of this. Chopin begins with two announcing chords … and then follows them with a long unmeasured arpeggio (prolonging the harmony of the second chord) …
The same gesture of chord arpeggio is then repeated:
These arpeggios have, in a way, a mundane purpose. They fill up the thwunk and the attack of the piano with beauty: the arpeggio sails languidly into the dead space, the still lagoon of the note’s decay. But this is not all. A kind of rhythm is established, in this very unrhythmic beginning, a rhythm of events: chords, fermata, arpeggio … act, stop, listen. The pauses are quite long–deliberately almost too long–and so the action is weighted towards listening (thought) and against action. The pianist “does something,” plays two significant or signifying chords, then is forced to meditate on what he or she has done: the arpeggios are parentheses seeming to be inaction, but perhaps are the truer action (meditation, understanding). In creating this pace of events, by “building in” reflection and observation, Chopin creates an unusual kind of beginning. This piece does not begin in order to begin, but rather in order to summon some spirit to allow us to begin: in other words, the introduction is an invocation. And of course the spirit Chopin is patiently invoking is sound, the resonance of the piano, the ringing of the wood, some appreciation of the beauty of the struck harmonies drifting through time.
This often odd “enforced” listening to retained, held notes persists. For instance:
Chopin extracts, strangely, the middle voice from the chord, forces us to listen to it for a moment alone, then uses it as a pivot to the next event. He’s trying to encourage complex listening skills, by delving into the crusty middles of chords! Definitely not a superficial thrill, but a thrill for those “in the know.” Or perhaps this example, where we land on a B-flat:
… and twice Chopin makes us listen to the B-flat alone, while the rest of the voices attempt to cadence around it, before ending simply, perfectly, profoundly:
But the most wonderful, strange example of enforced listening is at the end of the piece. We are flush from the ecstasy of a climax, an A-flat major explosion of the slow section theme … this ecstasy is slowly winding down. Chopin gracefully abandons the energy of the climax, unravels it in circles, and in the echoing of this happiness he finds something unlooked-for, a kind of dark “second thought”:
… This darkness (or sadness, if you like) complicates the emotional image of the end, disrupts the fading bliss. And then Chopin throws over the ending a magnificent anomaly. As you see above, the dark measures cadence, we have a quiet, low A-flat major chord … the piece might be over? … and then while the low chord still sounds in the pedal, Chopin instructs the pianist to play one loud A-flat major chord, in the high register.
Yow. The luminous final chord then resounds against the dark overtones of the previous bars: a jarring double image, a bright light on a dark canvas. The effect is not either of those chords, but how you hear them decay together, their resonant death.
The pianist’s typical virtuosic, towering gesture is to try to “sum up” all the registers of the piano at once, to be everywhere at once, to be (sort of) an orchestra. This is the pianist equivalent of the phallic, midlife crisis truck purchase. Chopin is past such insecurities; here, things are definitely not all at once: the chord, the sensation, the understanding of the ending is assembled from disparate parts, foundation and overtone mismatched. It’s as though two endings are superimposed–the brilliant ending that could have been, the sad ending that could have been–and therefore the actual ending is a rare hybrid, with genes of two could-have-beens.
Chopin could have finished the piece with a surge, one last surge to victory (surges are so popular these days); but no, he is not finishing a piece, he is finishing a thought; this is a moment not for the pianist’s glory but for one last, complex listening. Listening “between” two layers of sound. My late great teacher used to talk about Chopin’s hypersensitivity, his mind “like the paws of a cat,” and then he would take his stocky Hungarian body, once employed as prisoner of war to break stones in the Carpathian mountains, and with a few gestures and a lifted eyebrow he’d make himself seem as light as a cat’s step, and with feathery gestures of his hand he’d come down on the piano, on some simple but illuminating pair of harmonies, and then his eye would meet my eye and I felt he was trying to communicate to overprivileged American me Chopin’s vast refinement of thought and elegance and culture, how he valiantly rescued the original from the salon’s tremendous pressure of cliché … elusive fragile epiphanies of sound, standing on the summit of the piano’s wood-and-wire construction … well, that’s the Chopin I love, and he’s no dummy.