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History Of Music:
George Frederic Handel
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ludwig Van Beethoven
The Romantic Composers
Development Of The Piano
Famous Operas And Their Composers
Wagner And His Music Dramas
Tristan And Isolde
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The middle of the nineteenth century saw piano music raised to a pinnacle of perfection never before equalled nor since surpassed. The three men to whom this development is chiefly due are Shumann as composer, Liszt as pianist and Chopin as both player and composer.
Frederic Chopin, the "Poet of the Piano," has exerted a more subtle influence upon his art than any other writer of instrumental music. With but few exceptions he labored in one field-that of piano composition-and he expressed himself in the smaller musical forms. That a composition is colossal in proportions does not signify that it is great, and some of the shortest of Chopin's productions are gems of the rarest beauty. At the present time it is the test of a good pianist to be able to play his works with understanding.
He was born in Zelazowa Wola, Poland, in 1809. His father was a Frenchman of high intelligence, and his mother a refined Polish woman. His early education and musical train ing were received in Warsaw, where he found excellent teachers. At an early age he distinguished himself as a pianist, his precocity causing much wonder. He was gladly received into the houses of titled nobility and found their habits entirely in keeping with his own fastidious tastes. At the age of twenty-one he left Poland to study in Paris, visiting Vienna on the way, where he gave several successful concerts. He was at that time already a composer of considerable note, a brilliant pianist of good general education and was well prepared to treat his art in a scholarly manner. There he remained, teaching and composing, until his death in 1849.
"He lived a retired life as composer and teacher, little known to the world at large, but honored and beloved by a circle of friends, which included some of the most accom plished musicians, artists and authors in Paris. Chopin was a man of exquisite refinement, delicate and high-strung, of an ardent, and in early life at least, playful disposition. The prevailing impression that he was morbid, over-sensitive and a prey to dejection comes from the records of his later years of declining health. The remarkable friendship between Chopin and George Sand, with the final rupture and its lamentable consequences, has done more than anything else to produce erroneous impressions of Chopin's disposition."'
Although he never again saw his beloved country, Chopin remained to the last an intense patriot. He, perhaps in a greater degree than any other composer, reflects his own character in his music. The two predominating elements of his productions are those of personality and nationality. He expresses himself with perfect clearness and reflects his own poetic soul. At times he seems rather too sensitive, but again he displays intense power and strength.
Poland had been a strong military power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its downfall, culminating in the seizure of Warsaw by the Russians, caused the deepest despair in that valiant little country. We find strong traces of the melancholy Polish temperament in Chopin's music and of its undaunted courage as well. In addition, French influence may be traced in the delicacy of his style and finish, and he possessed German mastery of musical science.
Contrary to the tendency of the time, Chopin did not give poetic titles to his pieces, but there is a clear poetic meaning behind his work. His sharp contrasts of mood, the vague ness of outline and variety of rhythm are all characteristics of the Romantic School. The running passages require a peculiar technique which he himself invented. He exacts great things of the pedal, fingers and wrist, and his compositions require the most delicate touch and an ear of the finest training. As a rule the best Chopin players are Poles and Russians, they having a national sympathy.
Although he seldom played in public concert halls, Chopin was one of the greatest pianists of his day. He had remarkable flexible hands and a peculiarly singing touch, while his sympathetic use of the pedal is said to have been a revelation. Schumann said, in describing his playing: "Imagine an aeolian harp that has all the scales, and that these are jumbled together by the hand of an artist into all sorts of fantastic arabesques, but in such a manner that a deep fundamental Cone and a softly singing tipper part are always audible, and you have an idea of his playing."
Polish folk-music is rich in songs and dances, and Chopin 'early acquainted himself with their melodies. The forms known as mazurka and polonaise originated in Poland. Chopin's mazurkas are imitations of national dances, but are enlarged and greatly developed. By means of intricate harmony and varied treatment the common dance becomes one of the higher musical forms. Chopin wrote his mazurkas in a style distinctly his own; no other composer has so fully caught the spirit of this national dance. Their fascination largely lies in the frequent change of mood-some are cheerful, others sad and depressing-and the Polish temperament is discernible in all.
The polonaise is a stately march, or procession, rather than a dance. It originated at court and was a most brilliant spectacle, often led by the king and queen. This dance of high society has now declined and is rarely danced at the present time. Chopin's polonaises may be divided into two classes: (1) those that are heroic, almost military in character, as the one in A flat, and (2) those that are melancholy in tone, as the F sharp minor polonaise.
The scherzos and ballades are among Chopin's finest work. Hitherto the scherzo had been a movement of a sonata, but he applied the form to an independent piece for piano. The bal lades were probably suggested by Polish poems; he is undoubtedly at his best in his ballades, etudes, impromptus and fantasies. The nocturnes are not so difficult of execution as the other compositions and are consequently better known. They are, for the most part, rather dreamy and languishing in their general tone and are responsible for the prevailing opinion that Chopin was sad and of an unhealthy temperament. The preludes are sketches rather than pieces, but each is complete in its form. They are original and beautiful in their conception and deserve more attention than they commonly receive. Chopin wrote nothing of importance for the orchestra; it is evident that he did not care to undergo the training necessary for this field of composition, for his orchestration is thin and uninteresting. He understood the powers of the piano perfectly and developed them to their utmost.
His last years were spent in great physical suffering and distress; his finances were at a low ebb and his final break with George Sand in 1847 added to his general unhappiness.