Artists often reflect ancient conundrums. To varying degrees, the driving force of their work consists of seeing the world as few others do—more deeply, with greater sensitivity, more laden with feeling, judgment, nuance, beauty, curiosity, obsession, mystery. A common refrain: they feel in the world but not of it, with warring impulses to hold it close and finally break its code or push it away as something alien and irredeemable.
The classical (Romantic Era) composer Frédéric Chopin, born in Poland in 1810, embodied all these conundrums and more in a life often compromised and ultimately cut short by tenuous health that saw him dead at age 39 from multiple complications of tuberculosis.
But like many artistic geniuses almost bouncing out of the cradle eager to begin dropping their works into posterity (he wrote his first polonaise, a traditional Polish dance form, at age 7), Chopin at 20 was already an admired composer and virtuoso pianist in his native land, his reputation soon to spread across the western world.
What sets him apart from the pantheon of classical composers (Beethoven-Mozart-Brahms) with whom he is often mentioned in the same breath was that they wrote symphonic and other works for a wide range of instruments, while Chopin devoted himself almost solely to his first and only lasting love, the piano. Though he included other instruments in some of his works, all of his works included piano, and his best-loved and renowned are for that alone.
In an 1834 letter to a friend, he made the case for his brand of musical specialization:
“…They want me to be everything in one—a Polish Rossini and a Mozart and a Beethoven. But I just laugh under my breath and think to myself that one must start from small things. I’m only a pianist, and, if I’m worth anything, that is good, too.”
It’s a self-assured stance for a 24-year-old, resisting the clamor to do as the greats of the era were doing. And heeding that inner call to narrow his focus calls to mind the poet and painter William Blake’s lines—“To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wildflower…”
Chopin is also perhaps too modest by half: writing music that is at once beautiful and sometimes so complex it requires seemingly superhuman technical skill by the pianist (which was often him) is hard to countenance as a “small thing.”
And “only a pianist?”
Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major very much reflects both his engagement and love for the world. And—drawing it back to the smaller scale he alludes to above—his love for Poland in particular.
At age 20 in 1830, he set out from the family home in Warsaw to play, write, listen to and study music across Europe and beyond. Barely a month after his departure, the Polish people, long partitioned and essentially defenestrated as a country by occupying powers Russia, Austria and Germany since 1795, followed the lead of an Army rebellion and succeeded in driving the Russians out of Warsaw.
Known as the “November Uprising,” the effort saw initial success and waves of patriotic fervor spreading across the land. The jubilation was short-lived, however, as Russia’s massive advantage in troop size saw it crush the rebellion within a year. (Dark portents there of current times…)
Chopin, disconsolate to have missed the start of the rebellion and eventually unable to return home when it was crushed, became a lifelong expatriate and eventual French citizen, where he spent most all his remaining life.
His affection for his homeland never waned, though. The “Heroic Polonaise” arrived a dozen years later as a tribute to the rebellion’s leaders and a love song of sorts to the Polish people.
Polonaise is a Polish processional dance in which couples make their way around the hall in a dignified manner at slow to moderate pace. Chopin ups the ante with a good deal of drama attached in particular to the main melodic theme, which you’ve very likely heard before without necessarily knowing its source.
It’s a beautiful and soaring theme, easy on the ears but with a rhythmic drive that almost has one ready to leap skyward with each restatement (all the better to search for enemy encampments).
This use of the piano as a percussive as well as melodic instrument has a kind of one-man band quality to it, and Chopin, rightly hailed as an innovator who is responsible for dramatically expanding the piano repertoire, lets it all fly in this hallowed work.
The much revered Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989), one of the modern era’s great interpreters of piano works, does the honors below. Perhaps not so ironically, Horowitz also fled from the Russians as a young man to avoid oppression. Having been born in Kyiv, Ukraine, he made his way to Germany in the chaos of post-World War I and the Russian Revolution. By 1939, the darkness and anti-semitism of World War II compelled him to make his final stop in the United Sates, where he became a citizen five years later.
Horowitz, always self-assured and near rapturous at the keyboard while playing always to adoring crowds, nevertheless led a difficult life of inner turmoil. Different than Chopin, but like him, complicated—both by long bouts of depression and a struggle with sexual orientation.
Before we listen to him, I’ll close with a delicious snippet that could easily apply to both of them. It has to do with a reflection from the French novelist George Sand, with whom the never-married Chopin carried on a notorious decade-long affair while Sand was raising a young son and daughter and juggling various other lovers strewn through her much chronicled romantic life. (Quite a trio we’ve got here, I know. But it’s just life, in all its variegated expression, perhaps only intensified due to the artistic temperament all three of these figures shared.)
The passage counters the frequent assumption that great works flow forth from geniuses such as Chopin and Horowitz (and Sand, too, for that matter) like sweet, uncomplicated wine, rather than the wailing, anguish and near blood-letting that more often does take place as prelude and companion for intense creative work.
“Sand compellingly describes Chopin’s creative process: an inspiration, its painstaking elaboration—sometimes amid tormented weeping and complaining, with hundreds of changes in concept—only to return finally to the initial idea.”
To which I will only add here this droll sign-off line from another artist of arguably equal renown:
“And so it goes…”
Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Chopin portrait and polonaise dance from the public domain
Chopin memorial statue in Warsaw, Poland by Victor Wong, Toronto, Canada https://www.flickr.com/photos/magicketchup/