Choppin' Chopin

The hush of newly fallen snow, pipes bursting in your walls, squirrels frozen in mid-scamper on the front lawn… these can only mean one thing. Yes, it's time for orchestras around the world to play their "Mozart's Birthday" concerts and Fort Wayne is no exception. However, since I wrote about Mozart just one wee year ago and will write about him again in just one wee year next January, I shall instead concentrate on the other composer on the roster… Frederic Francois (fran-swa) Chopin, the most frequently played composer in the world (not including the guy who wrote the theme song to "CHiPs").

The mutant offspring of a French father and a Polish mother, Fred started out life the usual way, composing piano music at age three and giving public recitals at age eight. Even at such a tender age, he had a unique, flowing style that none could match. There is the story that at age ten, he was often summoned to play for the Duke! The Grand Duke Constantine, governor of Poland, that is. Seems Mr. Duke had a little problem with recurring seizures of madness (he was a compulsive Beanie Baby® collector) and only the piano playing of this little boy was able to ease the seize. After sitting through a Chopin recital, the Grand Duke could go about his normal activities until the "medicine" wore off and he would again have to send for the miniscule pianist.

In the same year that he became legal, there was some political problems (the Duke couldn't get Seymour Squid so he started crackin' skulls) so Fred moved to Paris. He was immediately noticed by Robert Schumann who proclaimed him "the boldest and proudest poetic spirit of the time". If you will remember, Schumann was the guy who proclaimed Brahms a genius. Schumann was a proclaiming kind of guy. Due to his attractive looks, sensitive playing, and courteous manners, he soon had rich folk lined up to take piano lessons. Many of his compositions are instructional in nature, teaching certain aspects of technique, though you would never know it by listening. Because of this tie with the upper crust, Choppy is one of the few composers who did not have money problems. Instead, he had health problems (he was always sickly and frail, thus limiting the number of concerts he could give a year… and thus boosting the ticket price to each concert. He weren't no dummy!) and problems of the heart. Yes, our sickly, sensitive Freddy was quite the ladies man. The most notorious was his nine-year romance with cross-dressing writer George Sand (for the record, George was a female who dressed like a man). Those in the know said that there was a very strong maternal aspect to this relationship. I'll say no more except "Eeeewwww!". This romance also coincided with Chopin's more productive creative period during which he wrote, among other things, a little piece for George's dog known as Waltz in D-Flat. It is also known as "The Minute Waltz". Other well-known pieces written by Chopin have shown up in the music of Barry Manilow ("Could It Be Magic" is based on Prelude in C minor, Opus 28), the hit song "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows", and the ultimate goal for every composer, Bugs Bunny cartoons. Pick up nearly any CD of Chopin music and you will hear at least one piece that will make you think, "SHAZAAM! I've heard this song before!" Of course, the correct terminology is "piece" and you would be quickly escorted to a Snob Reeducation Center, returning a brainwashed and empty shell of your former self. I tell ya, this man could write a melody that would stick in your head like echidna gumbo to a new pair of pants. But I digress… When George left him in 1847, Choppy's health became, well, choppy. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and kicked yon proverbial bucket two years later. His funeral was attended by over 3,000 people but he was not buried in a grand piano.

As for his music, well, my main man Charles Ives called it "soft… with a skirt on" (he said the same thing about the music of Mozart). While I'm usually the first to agree with Chuck, I have to disagree this time, at least to the slanderous aspect of his comment. Yes, much of the music is light on the ears but it is all murder on the hands. His tenure at the piano single-handedly revolutionized the world of piano music by changing everyone's idea of what was possible (intimate, brilliant singing, a huge array of tone colors) and was what not (apparently nothing). I daresay that had it not been for the new paths tread by Chopin, Ive's own Concord Sonata might not have come into being (but don' tell his heirs… they don't like to be contradicted). From the flurry of notes to the tender, romantic love songs, the solo piano miniatures (most of his compositions are under five minutes long) do seem to be as frail as their composer. However, on a closer look, one finds the aural simplicity of these pieces murderously deceiving. It takes a master to play a Chopin piece correctly and a master's master to make it look easy. Chopin loved to improvise when he performed, hating to write down his compositions because it would freeze them like a squirrel on an Indiana yard in January (didn't we already cover this?). True to the spirit of the age, his pieces are extremely expressive. It's takes a cold individual to listen to a collection of Chopin pieces and not feel anything (why does my college calculus professor suddenly come to mind?).

Due to his being largely self-taught, Fred was incredibly inventive in his compositions, having little notion of what was "not allowed". Through melodic clashes, ambiguous chords, unresolved 7ths and even the occassional excursions into pure chromaticism (almost atonal but doesn't sound as harsh), he pushed the accepted view of dissonance and key into previously unexplored territory. The list of composers influenced by this "Poet of the Piano" include such big shots as Liszt, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Debussy, and yes, even Ives.

The bulk of Chopins work can be divided up into three parts: small, technical, instructional pieces for the piano; larger, more developed solo piano pieces for concert performance; and a few orchestral pieces. A very few orchestral pieces. In fact, he wrote only two piano concertos and some pieces for cello and piano, so it is very rare to hear Chopin played with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. The Chopin piano concerto being played this weekend was so successful in its premier that the concert was repeated five days later and has played to extraordinary success ever since. It's full of intoxicating melodies and keyboard burning finger work. Don't miss this rare opportunity!

Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman

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