Chopin Now – by Olaf Eggestad

Chopin Now

Olaf Eggestad

All works that should be studied must first be analysed exactly with a look at formal structure, then planned out from whichever feelings and psychological processes they awake and set in motion.

Mikuli quoting from Chopin’s teaching

Poetry, science and improvisation

Let us agree: the poet Chopin was to a very small degree a dreamer. On the contrary, every day he went determinedly to his laboratory. He also paid close attention to what was happening within natural science in the real sense. In a letter home to his family in Warsaw on 11 October 1846 he held forth enthusiastically on astronomers’ latest mathematical calculations, and whether the irregularities in Uranus’s trajectory could indicate one or more hitherto unnoticed objects in the solar system. That one could calculate this with just the tools of mathematics alone, by pure logic, fascinated him deeply. He also writes about new types of explosives, and was also occupied with the phenomenon of magnetism.

A good source for understanding Chopin’s attitude to the area of art and to be able to verify the link between his interest in science and his composition work, is his artist friend Delacroix, and the latter’s famous Journals. Delacroix refers to a little private lecture Chopin gave him during a drive with horse and carriage on 7 April 1849, where he called the fugue “music’s pure logic” and counterpoint its “eternal principle”: “Skill in fugue means to recognise that element of rationality and logic that the music contains.” Delacroix is delighted by Chopin’s “scientific” way of grasping artistic subjects, and adds on his own account: “For true science is not what one usually means by that word, namely a different field of knowledge from art. No, when knowledge is regarded in this way, when it is demonstrated by a man like Chopin, that is art itself; and art for its part is then no longer what people believe, that is to say a kind of inspiration that comes from I know not where, moves at random and only shows the picturesque surface of things. It is reason itself which is crowned by genius, but which follows the path of necessity and is controlled by higher laws.”

Chopin Now, or Chopin in and for our time, can include so much – and even more, if one extends this to the historic. An important and essential musical now, or perhaps rather ‘there and then’, is what one properly calls ex tempore. Chopin was a matchless improviser, especially in the small hours, in a close circle amongst good friends. We will never know how it sounded. But we know that the day after he used to note down several of the motifs that buzzed in his inner ear after a night at the piano, and which he regarded as worth preserving. In his case to a particular degree it is worth pointing out that this ‘there and then’ also revolves around a physical presence: “the concrete, present Being” (Merleau-Ponty). Chopin was a motile and pianistic exceptional talent, which was well on the way to developing into one of the period’s greatest piano virtuosos completely by itself. The piano works are to a large degree undoubtedly a product of intuitive physique, of Chopin’s enquiring hands. His cognition, sharp rationality and improvisatory presence converge in Merleau-Ponty’s reorientation of the concept of science: “This scientific thought – comprehensive thought, the thought of the object in general – must fit itself anew into a prior ‘it exists’, returns to the perceived and the preliminary world as its location, as its foundation, as they are in our life and for our bodies; not the virtual body that one may correctly claim to be an information machine, but for the actual body that I call mine, the sentry that keeps silent behind my words and deeds.” Or, one may add, gain the use of speech through practising music. After hearing Chopin play in Düsseldorf, Mendelssohn wrote significantly that he had at last heard “the perfect virtuoso.” It is hard to say what made the greatest impression on Mendelssohn, whether it was the absence of wrong notes, the sureness of the musical form, or the experience of the astonishing conformity between, or the melding together of, ideas, physics and sound. Chopin, to an unusual degree, must apparently have effected a presence in and through his limbs, and his person could really best be described at the same time as completely flexible and completely controlled (Liszt said one inevitably treated him as a prince). His Polish friend Grzymala very strikingly compared Chopin’s piano technique with the snake that dispatches its booty by dislocating its jaws: his narrow hands could apparently and effortlessly stretch over the whole keyboard.

Correspondence and congruence, the necessary and the sufficient. In the way we recognise the term from mathematics, it also forms a central principle with the composer who admired mathematics. This was exactly the genius Chopin’s technical star turn; we could, like Heidegger, say unveiling, through the concise, exact and congruent – perfectibility, stringency and economy. The pieces on this CD in a special way exemplify this quality of him as a composer: his intolerance of everything superfluous.

The ballades: A new orientation

The CD Chopin Now presents several of Chopin’s late works or works from his last phase and those that outwardly or inwardly foreshadow it. How far it is a cover to call some of the pieces examples of ‘Chopin’s late style’ (Spätstil) or whether such a thing exists, is however disputable – according to several criteria. The recording takes as its starting point an ellipse with two focus points, namely of genre and chronology (respectively ‘ballades’ and the cluster of opp. 60, 61 and 62). It is however also possible to say something meaningful about the chronology and creative history within them. The first in G minor was begun in transit, in fact during Chopin’s second sojourn in Vienna in the winter of 1830-31, on the way to what would become his permanent domicile in Paris. However, it was not completed until 1835 and published in 1836. By then he was busy with his second, in F major/A minor. Some years also passed before this was published; it was not issued until 1840, a year after Chopin had completed it. The A-flat Ballade was written in 1840-41 and the Ballade in F minor in 1842. So in reality he was continually occupied with the ballade genre for 11 years. According to Schumann, Chopin was the first to use the term ballade about a piece of music without a text. And the pieces also represent something completely new in his output, in regard to both form and technique. One can quickly point to some obvious common traits between them, such as the time signatures. With the exception of larger parts of the first Ballade, the majority are in 6/8 or 6/4 time, which gives them a light dancing momentum and (over long stretches) a wandering and narrative character. More subtle similarities are the mirror reprises and the delayed function of the dominant.

Much has been written and speculated about their possible literary inspiration. Chopin was neither indifferent nor apathetic literaturewise. He came from an academic family, was an accomplished scholar and read a great deal all his life. Not least he was ardently committed to the literature of his contemporary Polish countrymen. Three ballads by the romantic national poet Adam Mickiewicz are, anecdotally, the basis of Chopin’s last three Ballades (Świtezianka, Undine and Budri (The Three Brothers Budri)) – but if so, in undetermined order, although Schumann attests to the authenticity of the link between the F minor ballade and Budri. Overwhelmingly likely, however, is that Mickiewicz’s ballads form the model for the musical pieces on a more general basis, or gave the idea for Chopin’s genre.

The ballades are innovative in their dramaturgy and romantic narrative form, without thereby ending up anything like programme music. It is an abstract, exclusively music-based narrative. Both in form and character the four are quite different, but they all rely on elements of sonata form as well as variation form. The second is the easiest to grasp (ABA’B’C/coda), but has the distinctive feature of closing in a key other than the one in which it begins. As Schumann points out, it should therefore be called the Ballade in F major/A minor. This ambivalence, which finally results in one not being able to find one’s way home, sets it apart. After Schumann wrote a flattering letter to Chopin about No.1 in G minor (and Chopin after a long time eventually thanked him by saying that it was also one of his favourites), Chopin dedicated No. 2 to Schumann. In spite of the main section’s movingly lyrical qualities and the disturbing drama in the interludes, Schumann nevertheless thought it was a disappointment compared with the first. And set against the originality and narrative grasp of the G minor Ballade, many pieces would come out badly; the opening of F major/A minor might sound passive in comparison. The G minor Ballade is a brilliant example in Chopin of a work with a specific and indigenous inspiration, but which becomes universal in its language and address. The external circumstances in this regard are certainly a factor: the ballade is dark in its fundamental character and conclusion, and opens with an heroic-tragic flourish on the Neapolitan sixth, probably reflecting the composer’s dejection in Vienna and his longing for Poland – in addition to his melancholy presentiments about the fate of his homeland. The main section of the piece comprises two main themes that are expanded and varied and are then repeated in other keys – or with new accompaniment. The codas form something of a central point in the Ballades, and the thundering off-beat gallop that makes up the G minor Ballade’s coda is unusually effective.

Nos 1 and 2 are both logically and minutely connected, right down to the level of the smallest motif. Even these first examples in the genre thus display an astonishing unity in aesthetic and construction. Chopin concentrates on and elucidates only a few intervals and formulas, small short melodic phrases, that are developed into a broadly planned drama – but without their getting lost as identity-creating elements. Thus three notes – to begin with – in descending stepwise motion play a decisive role in both pieces, often in combination with a leap of a third and the more or less striking presence of the interval of a fourth, as a leap or motivic framework (a tetrachord).

Chopin rarely discusses his compositions in letters or elsewhere, – the music describes itself, he would no doubt have said. However, here and there small hints leak out. An apparently glaring contrast to the improvisatory method is his statement in the letters to Julian Fontana from Nohant in August 1841. He writes, “Tomorrow you will receive the Nocturnes [op.48], and by the end of the week the Ballade [op. 47] and the Fantasia [op.49]; I cannot polish them enough.” We know that Chopin had a renewed interest in the academic side of composition from ca. 1840 – noticeably from the F-sharp minor Polonaise, op.44, and beyond. This involved further studies and new readings of above all Bach and Cherubini, and from now on a tendency or inclination to a more distilled means of expression is noticeable, together with an improved structural awareness, both in consistency and coherence, and in a pronounced presence of contrapuntal techniques and advanced harmony (only op.52 of the Ballades is contrapuntal in a strict sense, but imitation techniques and representations of theme and motivic material in all parts, is found in several of them). Grace notes and ornaments – which with Chopin has certainly always been on the boundary between passage work and melodic structure – is now as good as erased. To the degree that they are found, they are also pervaded by logical motivic and structural thinking.

Of the Ballades, it is no.3 in A-flat major that is the most integrated. The thematic phrases, harmonic progressions or passages that do not reflect any of the motivic starting material are scarce. This includes the ascending fourth with the subsequent descending second (the end of the theme in the right hand), and the chromatic descent in the bass. The piece is apparently in the form of an arch, ABCBA plus a coda. However, a closer look reveals a more complex structure, a variant of sonata form, with an element of distant keys and refined elaborated motivic dissocitations: Theme A (A-flat major), theme B (C major/F major, F minor), variations of themes A and B (A-flat major), coda. Finally the introductory opening theme sounds definitively in the bass line’s octaves. There is speculation about concrete inspirations for the work (Schumann is also a source here), and besides many have claimed that it contains a musical look askance at the vacation in Majorca. But in spite of a dramatic key change where the work seems to be more and more broken up before it is finally assembled again, op.47 is the lightest of the Ballades, with a thoroughly optimistic and triumphant basic character.

Many consider the fourth Ballade in F minor to be Chopin’s most important and opulent single composition. It is introduced by a theme that has been described as the very epitome of romantic melancholy. In what follows we are presented with episodes that span strongly contrasting emotional content, and the listener is tossed between mentally far removed locations. The F minor Ballade ends in darkness – albeit a defiant and heroic darkness; its existential depth is due to the amount and concentration of life experience embodied in musical form, but also that it, so to speak, seems to observe life from the viewpoint of death. The work has an intensity that inclines towards the repressed, but in between turns aside into cooler sections with a greater peace of mind. The harmony over large parts is pervaded by chromaticism and is one of the examples that allow us to understand how Wagner could declare Chopin to be one of his most significant sources of inspiration. In a few places there blazes over the clouds something that can be reminiscent of the fioratura, the opera stars’ coloratura ornamentations, of earlier works, but just as quickly as they are brought to the surface, they are absorbed again by the conflict-ridden undercurrents of the piece. The rapid emotional movement reaches a high point in the intricate and turbulent coda – which at the same time marks the ballade’s dark climax. The final passages constitute a maelstrom of counterpoint and asymmetric harmonic accents that give weight to Paderewski’s words about ‘the Poles’ inherent arhythmia’, their love of distorted and unexpected accents. The coda is like a therapeutic high-speed film, a marvellously abridged reworking of a wealth of psychological problems. But even here, as in the rest of his oeuvre, Chopin remains true to his instinct for elegance.

Late style and possible Urstück

From the last ballade, we take a small leap in time to three subsequent opus numbers, starting with the Barcarolle op.60 in F-sharp major (or G-flat major), Chopin’s apparently favourite key. Behind him are a series of pieces which, in the method of writing or compositional approach, are related. In addition to the last two Ballades, the Fantasia op.49, the fourth Scherzo in E major, the B minor Sonata and the Berceuse op.57 belong to the same group. In between there were several new groups of nocturnes and mazurkas. However, in the following two or three years there is much that shows that he was living through a sort of crisis, where composition work was going unusually slowly. Chopin the perfectionist allowed nothing to leave him unless it met his sky-high demand for quality, but that does not mean that he could not also compose easily. The Prelude op.45 was written down in one single spell, and the same applies to several other shorter works. But from autumn 1844 he complains about a certain stagnation, or that he is not happy with what he is creating. According to G.Sand he called what he did “detestable/loathsome” and “miserable”, and is still saying in a letter home in 1845 that he is “playing little, but writing even less”. He evidently recognises the need of another renewal, or to conquer less familiar terrains – or overcome new barriers. Or he is teeming with something that still has not found its language.

As previously pointed out, there are reasons for being able to claim that op.23, both psychologically and structurally, is absolutely an already burgeoning late style, or forms the pathway to it. A wedge, that is enriched by studies of counterpoint and is finally pushed in, breaking open his aesthetic universe in the middle of the 40s. Chopin is apparently governed by disparate affinities and creative drive, not to say rules. And in pressured and changing times it is as if he makes contact with aesthetically deep structures, that at times he truly experienced as his ‘true path’ – a concurrence with his aesthetic conscience. One could therefore, with a certain validity, say that Chopin Now could also be regarded as a precarious now, a ‘now or never’, in his late style, and in the very structure of the works. Now, one should not become hypnotised by the G minor ballade alone. Doubtless the technique can also be seen in the light of his innovations in the two collections of Etudes, opp.10 and 25,which frame its origin, and the “Revolutionary Study” is perhaps a part of the same narrative as the Ballade. The same concentrated energy also characterises several of the Preludes op.28, but Chopin’s new sense of form appears to break through in op.23. After the mid-40s, it is natural to believe that he indentifies himself with the work of the mathematician and associates this especially with contrapuntal technique for its own sake that now asserts itself more than ever, and that this is precisely an expression of the most genuine and deep principles (“eternal principles”, cf. the conversation with Delacroix), and therefore also the most enduring and (most universally) valid. In the meantime he had given birth to the Barcarolle op.60, the Polonaise-Fantasia op.61 and two Nocturnes, op.62, as well as the Cello Sonata op.65.

In 1845 Chopin and G.Sand first spoke of taking a trip to Italy. Nothing came of the journey, but Chopin nevertheless immersed himself in a Venetian subject and tried out his new principles in a basically simple and coded material linked to the canal city: the gondoliera. Op. 60 therefore makes use of snatches of gondoliers’ songs, but which he develops into a sophisticated piece of music, and where the atmosphere and the mood, combined with the movement of boat and wave, rapidly gives way to purely musical ideas. The Barcarolle is a superb demonstration of Chopin’s talent to unfold an apparently inexhaustible compositional imagination within a strict framework. The piece is special in the way that it is consistent in its basic character – given through the rolling 12/8 rhythm – but at the same time full of surprising episodes and wide-ranging modulations. Typical polyphonic techniques such as canon and stretto are made use of, in accordance with accepted practice, particularly in the concluding section, and the harmony is riddled with chromaticism, as in the F minor Ballade.

One may ask how far with op.60 Chopin has yet reached the final or possibly second phase of his late style. It depends on which criteria are used as a basis. Even the term ‘late style’ is modernistic, and used iconically about Beethoven’s last period, with the last five piano sonatas, the Galitzin quartets, the 9th symphony and the Missa Solemnis etc. This creates a certain precedence as to how the term should be interpreted, and has since been associated with a homeless style, something displaced or far ahead of its time, something profanely apocalyptic, aesthetically fragmentary or a meta-style, that comments on both style- phenomena and the art in this way.

When we then come to the Polonaise-Fantasia op.61 (placed on this CD after the Nocturnes op.62) one is dealing with a work which, in quite a different dimension and in quite a different way from its predecessors, fills the criteria of the established idea of ‘late style’. The piece has an up until then unheard polynomial narrative structure, although Chopin experimented with the polonaise form in both opp.44 and 53 (as early as the F-sharp minor Polonaise he was in doubt about whether he should call it polonaise or fantasia). In particular it is the middle sections of these which are irregular and where one sees a desire to blend the genres. Nevertheless one may speak of an overall ternary form, ABA. Op.61 abandons it; the piece may rather be regarded as a broadened B section where elements of A are pressed in – thus twisted, with the inside out. At first hearing the work is quickly perceived as formless and disjointed, or at any rate rhapsodic. The different sections or segments can loosely be defined as an improvisatory style, impro-polonaise, polonaise, ballade-polonaise, mazurka-ballade etc., but the identities are ambiguous. A particular trait in Chopin’s late style as expressed here is his desire to broaden and lengthen unstable sequences – and on several levels. Likewise he creates expectations that are not fulfilled and cultivates the fragmentary. In other words it is a work that makes itself, the music, and terms of style or genre the subject of debate – or on the whole makes the art’s ability for completion problematic. The language is, however, stripped down to essentials, and op.61 is in truth one of the most consistent pieces Chopin wrote. But to discover that, one should rather follow his own advice about going to the analysis. Op.61 can therefore seem chaotic or even deconstructive; it is definitely an ‘impure text’, but it is also translucent. More than ever the unveiling is maintained as his aesthetic strategy. The C-flat of the opening (enharmonic with B natural) instead of C as the third of the chord of A-flat, also forms the gateway to understanding the harmonic development of the whole work. And what is more, the intervals and small set motifs that make up the original cells in several of the Ballades, most obviously in the third, also form the building blocks here: third, fourth, second (plus the sixth). In variable order. This is so striking that one may speculate whether behind, or as a basis for most of the opuses on this CD, there lies an Urstück. Which – in so far as Chopin is in touch with this aim – could only manifest itself in ever new aspects and individual works.

The Nocturnes op.62 are both typical late works, but tap different sources from broadly planned conceptions like op.61 and the Cello Sonata, op.65. The B major Nocturne immediately announces a reality out of the ordinary by rolling out a minor supertonic-seventh chord at the opening. Then follows a remarkable mixture of almost naive simplicity in the melodic material, and, typical of Chopin, a tight chordal texture which carries within it a refined polyphony. The form is roughly ABA, where the middle section in A-flat major with the designation sostenuto (sustained) is close to a retrospective Albumblatt genre. But over the syncopated chordal accompaniment is heard a melody which is at the same time a non-melody, with strikingly wide intervals in slow note values and a series of imperceptible breaks. The Albumblatt idyll is turned on its head by the notorious rhythmic and harmonic instability; in spite of the long melody notes, it is never allowed to rest. The instability is underlined when the A section returns: the descending opening theme is played in trills and becomes an allusion to the last Beethoven sonatas where the ‘trill’ is also made into a distinctive topos (location). The trills are succeeded by something one could call a hyper-chorale, with harmony that points far into the future. The piece ends in a coda where doubt is sown about the main key, where abstract semiquaver passages with flattened sevenths float over single pedal points in the bass. In general, the Nocturne with its intangible character, has something almost metaphysical, not to say spectral, about it: an echo of time beyond time.

The character of ‘the other naivety’ also strikes one in encountering the E major Nocturne (to which the first is in a dominant relationship – and thus can be said to prepare for, not least in the flattened sevenths in the coda). In narrative logic, no.2 is often claimed to be simple, as opposed to no.1, but it is a simplicity which, if not before, is distorted in an agitated middle section, where we are pulled through diverse minor keys and exotic harmonic progressions. The density of information and the frequent transitions and modulations are raised to an even higher level in the E major Nocturne than in its predecessor in B major. In psychological content they both, but not least the E major, feel so far from Chopin’s early works that what is reminiscent of the typical melodic shapes, ornamentation and decoration of his younger years, is perceived at its climax as disguises and really a play on its own platitudes and clichés. One could almost suspect the rather over-simple melody that suddenly unfolds into fioratura of being something of a Trojan horse. The coda returns to the more lucid problematic content of the middle section, but in a gentle and muted form. It becomes a smouldering oscillation between, in particular, the main key and the parallel key, C-sharp minor, which – after a final far-reaching tonal fluctuation, which forces us suddenly to regard ourselves from a distant star, or perhaps from the contemporary astronomers’ undiscovered heavenly bodies – is completely affirmed in the final chord.

Chopin Now

Does Chopin concern us today? Does he have a relevance that reaches beyond history? – or possibly a particular topicality now? We want to believe that his late style in particular stands up well at a time when empirical arguments, and what one perhaps perceives as intellectual integrity, have great appeal. Or where one sees a tendency for physics, cosmology, poetry and philosophy to converge – or learn that these do not need to contradict one another. If traditional science has been concerned with the world in its obscurity (according to Merleau-Ponty), it is natural to let Chopin, on the threshold of a scientifically optimistic paradigm, introduce a new scientific term, a science that is concerned with the transparent, or that which renders transparent. The Chopinesque late style is music with x-ray vision; with him the scientific is something brilliant, as if the maya-veil is on the point of being torn to shreds. Visionary dreaming and skinless thought.


Note: This short essay by Olaf Eggestad was among the four nominated for the award ‘The Golden L’ with the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet in 2016.

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