Chopin played the piano softly, with a singing tone that imitated the voice. Others bashed and thumped the keys, but Chopin was a master of understatement.
In the mid 1800’s, piano virtuosi were often distinguished by what they did best. Kalkbrenner was known for his octaves, Liszt for surpassing technique.
Indeed, one of Chopin’s favorite composers was Bellini, known for his beautiful, perfectly shaped melodies. Given that Chopin only really liked Bach and Mozart, that is high praise of Bellini, indeed.
In fact, Chopin’s music, like opera, is almost always centered around a melody of haunting beauty, even when there are strenuous pyrotechnics in progress.
A comparison of Liszt and Chopin reveals, for example, that Chopin is always contrapuntal, with several carefully crafted parts at work, whereas Liszt’s music is often comprised of a single line with an accompaniment that includes little counterpoint beyond basic voice leading.
Chopin uses his counter melodies, those inner parts, to support the melody in a way that shows his intense knowledge and love for Bach. Few other composers of the time bothered to lavish such attention on almost inaudible inner parts, but Chopin did it with care and passion, lovingly sculpting each voice until their sum made a living breathing whole.
Schumann was similar in his attention to inner parts, but the overall effect rarely breathed as naturally as the phrasing of the elegant Chopin, although the musical thought in Schumann was always equally heartfelt.
As Chopin’s short life drew to a close, and he knew he was dying for many years, his melodies became convoluted, tortured and dark.
Gone was the shiny brilliance and the childish enthusiasm of his early works, replaced by a brooding, mature romanticism that has a razor sharp inner lining to the bittersweet exterior.
Indeed, there is a streak of anger to his very last works, as if he reproved his fellows for not sharing his early departure.
Imagine what we would have heard, had Chopin lived another thirty years!
Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press
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