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Interpreting Chopin

Thursday, 28 October 2004

Angela Lear

Chopin's music has always posed a challenge to pianists. His compositions have retained a universal popularity and continue to be performed in virtually all corners of the world. They have been recorded and re-recorded in their thousands, so Chopin is apparently 'well-represented' - but many interpretative, and more particularly textural, issues with respect to his music have yet to be resolved.

To gain further insight into his unique musical language and stylistic practices it is essential to comprehend as far as possible his expressed intentions. Our knowledge and appreciation of this most poetic of composers is greatly enriched by the combined study of not only his original manuscripts and related material (i.e. draft scores, early editions and annotated scores), but also the many statements made by his associates, friends and pupils who knew his playing and teaching principles. In addition to the considerable amount of general correspondence, reviews and reports of his concerts are revealing, although not always laudatory! especially from avid supporters of the 'sledge-hammer school' as Chopin called them. To this list I feel it essential to include Polish folk-music, the wonderful songs and dances, and the historical development of the Polonaise, Rondo, Krakowiak and Mazur.

Most of us concert artists lead very busy lives so is it reasonable to ask whether or not it is really necessary to undertake the time-consuming task of such studies. To answer that question, one so often addressed to me, I would like to cite a single example of the wide disparities that exist between Chopin's expressed intentions and the interpretative approach many pianists commonly adopt when playing his famous 'Black Keys' Study in Gb major, Op.10 No.5.

We are familiar with performances of this remarkable Study executed in brilliant style - played Allegro con brio/Presto with highly-charged forte dynamics, heavily accented and liberally pedalled - to suit the desired virtuosic display. This approach is, however, in direct opposition to Chopin's original score markings and his concept of its interpretation. His score markings were actually given as leggierissimo e legatissimo (extremely light and delicate with a very smooth effect), carefully balanced against an unpedalled staccato l.h. accompaniment. The exaggerated dynamics and 'express train' tempo markings imposed on this Study are not to be found in the original manuscripts and so we have, regrettably, arrived at an opposing concept to that of the composer! To achieve the delicate lightness of touch required by Chopin is far more demanding technically, especially on the large concert grand pianos of today. There is also the problem of maintaining the tempo from the outset to include the double-octaves that descend in a final flourish of triplets. No slowing down of pace is indicated here by Chopin (or by any editors I know of), but it becomes inevitable when the overall tempo is taken too fast. Metronome markings applied to this Study generally in editions are not from the composer.

Where score markings are correctly stated in publications his compositions still continue to fall prey to all manner of facilitating alterations in performance - perpetuated by generations of pianistic 'tradition' and stylisation. Unfortunately the variety of erroneous 'revisions' imposed on Chopin's scores from pianists who arrogantly seek to remould his music into something that suits their purposes better are often praised. Interpretatively the easier performance options of 'personalised interpretation' with 'flexibility of expression'- to the extent that originally written score directions are all but eclipsed - are too often defended. The idea of a carte blanche or 'free for all' when interpreting Chopin is often actively encouraged on the misguided premise that pretentious sentimentality and histrionic (mis)interpretations actually 'improve' Chopin's compositions. To perceive Chopin as the archetypal Romantic languishing in a violet-scented mist of indecision about his scores is a misconception borne of spurious legend.

Chopin had very clear and definite views on adherence to his score details: "Chopin could not bear anyone to interfere with the text of his works. The slightest modification was a gross error for which he would not pardon even his closest friends, not even his fervent admirer Liszt. The composer considered these alterations as a veritable act of sacrilege". (Reported by Marmontel) [Chopin: 'Pianist and Teacher' by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger] Chopin occasionally pencilled an altered dynamic or variant into the scores of selected pupils during lessons but it was only his prerogative as the composer-pianist to make any such alterations. On the subject of the sentimentalise/Romantic approach, we know that he shunned all forms of excess or exaggeration and was never a Romantic composer in the Lisztian or Byronic sense. Rather his unique musical language and aesthetic belongs to earlier forms of art-music and Classicism. He revered the music of Bach and Mozart above all other composers - the significance of which should not be underestimated when playing Chopin.

It is vital from an artistic and aesthetic standpoint that the interpreter allows absolute priority to score directions and remains within the 'guidelines' marked on the texts by the composer. These provide our most fundamental link with his intentions. To clarify these 'guidelines', albeit simplistically, I refer to score indications that form the basis of an interpretation: e.g. that given sotto voce/pianissimo/piano markings are not substituted for a 'preferred' mezzo piano/mezzo forte/forte, or broad largo/lento tempos exchanged for the faster pace of an Allegretto etc.. Chopin was also strict about the observance of his precise phrase/slur markings and agogic signs, whilst pedalling 'remains a study for life', as he said, and requires constant consideration.

There are many instances where Chopin indicates extended pedal markings, often to create a veiled and almost impressionistic effect (e.g. in the introductory measures of the Polonaise-Fantaisie in Ab major, Op.61). Occasionally he would also indicate the pedal to be sustained through a change of harmony. These pedal indications need to be approached with some caution on the resonant and full-toned modern concert grand pianos, where the intended magical effects can become muddy and too thickly textured. It is a known fact that Chopin's preference in pianos was for the 'silvery thin-toned' Pleyel piano, which he also strongly recommended to his pupils. Unlike stringed instruments pianos do not stand the test of time, but having played two of Chopin's Pleyel pianos it is evident that the sustaining pedal could be depressed through harmonic changes without any excessive blurring to the clarity of the writing. It has also been remarked upon that Chopin rarely indicated use of the 'soft' pedal una corda, although he often requires sotto voce and pianissimo/leggiero in his compositions. Apart from the important refinement of touch these quieter levels of tone require, the una corda pedal should be applied with discretion on the full-toned instruments.

Within the wide variety of musical terminology and signs that form our score instructions the expressive scope is comprehensive. It is evident from his manuscripts at least that Chopin left nothing to doubt for his copyists and editors, crossing out his rejected score details with thick webs of diagonal lines that render it impossible to decipher previously written details. In the words of Arthur Hedley, “He hesitated long before attaching a final indication of tempo or expression, so that no pianist has the right to treat these things as a simple matter of personal preference”. To further avoid misunderstanding Chopin would write a message on his score for the engraver to clarify his precise intentions. All of which proved no guarantee against errors from copyists and editors. An example of these errors can be found in the first C major Study from Op.10 where the original ms shows only two bars to be played forte - but most editions indicate forte throughout with accents added to each quadruplet in the r.h.. Chopin also wrote diminuendos for the re-entry of the main 'theme' and at the closing measures. These diminuendos are often correctly shown in editions, but are replaced with crescendos by most interpreters. The immense technical difficulties of playing the widely extended arpeggios in this Study are certainly facilitated if played relentlessly forte with unwritten sforzando bass octaves on a concert grand piano. But the question arises - is it what Chopin would have wanted….? For those who consider that the composer knew best how his music should be performed, the answer is clear.

There exists the ever-present predilection to sacrifice the ultimate realisation of Chopin's art to personal whim. Wayward performances displaying an obvious ambivalence towards the text are often claimed as 'great' or even 'definitive interpretations' either for commercial purposes or from obvious misunderstandings of Chopin's music. 'Virtuosic' displays of meaningless digital dexterity and the flashiness of excessively fast tempos, hard-hitting aggressively exaggerated dynamics and uncontrolled tempo deviations that debase and trivialise his music have become the facile recipes for accepted Chopin interpretations. This is not only seriously misleading to the public and untruthful but commits a grave disservice to the composer. The true art of Chopin playing presents a challenge that needs to be thoroughly reviewed and reassessed.

"Simplicity is everything.. After having played immense quantities of notes, and more notes, then simplicity emerges with all its charm, like art's final seal. It is no easy matter." Chopin.
(From a statement made by Chopin to his pupil Friedrike Streicher-Muller, who studied with the composer from October 1839-March 1841 and was the dedicatee of his Allegro de Concert,Op.46).

Great music should surely ennoble the spirit, create a moving experience and provide a lasting impression to reflect upon after the final notes have been played. To allow the composer to be revealed through the re-creation of his music must be the ultimate aim of an interpreter.

© Angela Lear

* Angela Lear’s acclaimed CD series of Chopin’s works are available via her website: This website includes details of each recording with audio samples, reviews and biographical information. Vols. 4, 5 and 6 in the CD series are two-disc sets and include a ‘gratis’ CD presented as an illustrated commentary on Chopin interpretation.

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Recitals and Concerts

On Tuesday a chamber concert featuring Chopin Duo and Konstanty Andrzej Kulka is held at Swietokrzyska Philharmonic in Kielce, Poland. The program features works by Chopin, Brahms and Gasieniec.

Pawel Kubica performs an all-Chopin program at Dom Polonii in Cracow, Poland.

Monika Rosca performs an all-Chopin program in the Royal Lazienki Park in Warsaw. The recital is organized by Tour Operator Polish Landscape.

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Last update - Monday, 16 April 2007