Friday, January 15, 2010

What you may not know about Chopin

18 Things You May Not Know about Chopin

This is the 200th anniversary of Frederic Chopin’s birth, in Poland, in 1810, so we should be prepared to hear a good deal of Chopin’s music this year. And the amount of beautiful music he wrote is astonishing. Especially considering that he died, of tuberculosis, at only 39.
Here are some facts about Chopin that you may not know:

1. His most famous composition, known around the world, is his funeral march -- the third movement of his Sonata in B Flat Major. You might also recognize his Fantasie-Impromptu (turned into “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”), his Étude in E Major (“Oh, Promise Me”), his Polonaise in A Flat Major (“Till the End of Time”).
2. His father, who was French, moved to Poland, where he married a Polish woman. Hence Chopin’s French name. He grew up in Poland, then went to Paris, the mecca for artists in the early 19th century.
3. He wasn’t interested in “program” music — music with a literary meaning. So forget about the “Raindrop,” the “Revolutionary Étude,” “Butterfly,” and so forth. He didn’t name them.
4. Like Mozart, whom he idolized, he was a child prodigy. He had some of his music published at the age of 8.
5. How he composed: “He would lock himself in his room for whole days, weeping, pacing back and forth, breaking his pens, repeating or changing one bar a hundred times, writing and erasing it many times, and beginning again the next day with an infinite and desperate perseverance. He sometimes spent six weeks on one page, only in the end to write it exactly as he had sketched it in the first draft.” – George Sand
6. No one plays the “Minute” Waltz in 60 seconds. (Usual time: 1:50. Perhaps it should be re-named the “Two Minute” Waltz.)
7. What kind of person was he? Contradictory. While he could be charming and considerate, a Polish girl who studied with him wrote that he was a “weird and incomprehensible man…. You cannot imagine a person who can be colder and more indifferent to everything around him…. He is heavily endowed with wit and common sense…but when he is evil and angry he breaks chairs and stamps his feet.”
8. He made anti-Semitic comments in his letters, but his biographer, Jeremy Siepmann, points out that such remarks were “common change” among the Polish at the time.
9. He could be snippy. Visiting England, he met with “one of the most highly regarded great ladies” in her castle—a woman “considered a great musician.” One day, after he played the piano, “they brought a kind of accordion, and she began with the utmost gravity to play on it the most atrocious tunes. How about that? Every creature here seems to have a screw loose.” (Lesson: If Chopin comes to visit you, leave your damn accordion in the closet.)
10. Contemporary critics, Siepmann reports, were surprised that “such a refined and accomplished musician could come from so provincial and primitive a place as Poland.”
11. Some critics considered his music not manly enough. Artur Rubenstein, the pianist, wrote: “Chopin the man was seen as weak and ineffectual…effeminate if appealing, dipping his pen in moonlight to compose nocturnes for sentimental young women.” Yet, far from being shallow, sentimental music, Siepmann has written, Chopin’s music is “of the highest sophistication and intellectual acumen.”
12. When he first met the novelist George Sand, whom he lived with for ten years, he declared: "What a repulsive woman Sand is! But is she really a woman? I am inclined to doubt it." At first they were lovers; as his health declined they became like mother and son. Her novels are seldom read these days except by students of 19th century French fiction. Charles Baudelaire (“The Flowers of Evil”) wrote: “She is stupid, she is ponderous, she is long-winded. Her moral ideas have the depth of judgment and delicacy of feeling of those of concierges and kept women.” Siepmann notes that posterity has agreed with him.
13. What a magnificent pianist! He could, it was said, strike a note in 20 different ways. His hands were small, but they seemed to expand to cover a third of the keyboard. Someone said Chopin’s fingers seemed to be without bones.
14. Chopin became so ill with tuberculosis, coughing up blood incessantly, that he weighed only 98 pounds. He wrote: “I have been sick as a dog during these past two weeks. Three doctors have visited me. The first said I was going to die; the second said I was breathing my last; and the third said I was already dead." George Sand: “His whole being is too delicate, too exquisite, and too perfect to exist long in our coarse and heavy earthly life.”
15. Several movies have been made about Chopin, one of the better ones being “Impromptu,” starring Hugh Grant as Chopin.
16. When he died, at his request, his heart was cut out and placed in a Polish church, where it remains today. (One reason: He was fearful of being buried while still alive.)

17. Christopher Morley wrote this poem, under the title “Reciprocation”:

One good nocturne
Deserves another,
Said George Sand
When she met Chopin.

18. Claude Debussy wrote, “Chopin is the greatest of us all, for he discovered everything through the piano alone.”

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