Frederic Chopin stood at the crossroads between Classicism and Romanticism. He adored and fastidiously studied the works of Bach and Mozart. Yet he was also a great lover of bel canto opera, particularly the works of Bellini. His compositions follow the strict discipline of form and counterpoint in his classical antecedants, but they also extend the boundaries of harmony and range of emotions common to the Romantic period and later. Unlike almost all of his contemporaries, literature played no significant part in his thinking or in his compositions. And also unlike most of his 19th century contemporaries, he wrote only for the piano.
In fact the piano in the hands of Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, the Schumanns and Liszt, became the most important instrument of the 19th century, and in a way defined the way that, even a century and three quarters later, we think about serious music.
The music of Chopin is extraordinary in its ability to transcend small forms with an enormous range of emotions, colours and effects. Sometimes these are achieved in mere seconds.
His music is almost instantly recognizable and among the most popular to appear in over a century and a half of recital programming.
He left no heirs, either biologically or artistically, yet the piano repertoire of the last one hundred years would be vastly different without his influence. There were perhaps many imitators, but he founded no piano tradition of pedagogy the way Liszt did, since most of Chopin’s pupils were the daughters of wealthy Parisian parents who viewed music as a refinement and social grace, not as a viable profession. Yet the great interpreters of Chopin’s music through the ages cover the legends of the piano itself, from Liszt to Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Cortot, Rubinstein, Ashkenazy and Argerich.
Chopin’s own piano playing was sensitive, singing, fastidious, dramatic but not showy and certainly not loud. This set him apart from all his contemporaries. And in the same way, his compositions stand unique and apart from both Classicism and Romaticism in a world especially his own.
By Don Mowatt