Chopin and his Europe Chopin and his Europe

[Rok] Inspirations

We perceive Chopin in the history of music as a great inspirer, and his work as an inexhaustible source of creative impulses for future composers, as well as for his contemporaries (Liszt!).

And yet while inspiring others, he was also inspired, submitting, like everyone, to the unwritten law of European music history: the mutual inspiration among composers. Indeed, this is another way of looking at the history of music (and of other arts, as well): as an elaborate network of mutual influences, connections, affiliations, affinities and relationships of choice; inter-composer links that are loose or tight, open or hidden, direct or indirect, patent or conjectured… In such a picture of music history, we (perhaps) perceive networks of genealogies with particular roots, lineages with certain origins…

So who – among musicians, composers – could have inspired Chopin in his creative pursuits? By whose music, how and when, might Chopin have been inspired? These key questions are raised by the programme of our festival, since it contains works by composers who may have been particularly close to Chopin (although not to a similar degree). Foremost among them are the triumvirate of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Bach was adored and revered by Chopin, who saw him as the supreme, absolute authority in questions of music and musical composition; he would not be parted from the Wohltemperiertes Klavier. Mozart, he loved like a kindred musical spirit: for his clarity, transparency, luminosity and natural perfection; he took from Mozart the joy of being in music. Beethoven both attracted and repelled him, fascinated him and aroused his resistance; moved him, with the dramatic, dynamically contrastive side of his genius, manifest in the sharpness, violence and turbulence of his music, his ‘fulminating at the piano’ (as Chopin himself put it in a letter).

Two masterpieces included in the festival programme, the two pillars of oratorial music (almost a century apart) that are Bach’s B minor Mass and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, appear to patronise Chopin’s oeuvre (although, as a composer, he never ventured into those lofty regions of musical spirituality, in spite of the urgings of some of his friends that he finally write something truly grand: an opera, an oratorio, or at least a symphony). These two works focused within themselves the most valuable traditions of the musical culture of Christianity. (One only wonders whether Chopin actually heard them.)

During the Romantic nineteenth century, when Bach’s compositional greatness was being discovered, the B minor Mass was dubbed the ‘Great’, the Hohe Messe. It is one of those works in which inventiveness and compositional mastery reach their zenith. It exudes the refulgence and splendour of a masterpiece, intense beauty, loftiness of religious message and profundity of theological thought; greatness, which invariably attracts listeners and continually induces performers to produce new readings, and ever more splendid recordings. In terms of its size, it is the longest musical mass ever composed in Western music. Generically, it belongs to the history of missal music, and its heritage dates from the early Middle Ages, and the (monodic) plainchant mass, then the heyday of the polyphonic mass in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and finally the concerting style – close to opera – of the religious music of the Baroque, where the liturgical text was distributed among particular ‘numbers’: arias, duets and choruses. Yet despite such rich traditions, it remains a unique, distinct work: no one before or after composed such a mass so long, extensive and architectonically complex.

However, although a musical masterpiece, the B minor Mass is not a formal, architectonic, unified whole. It consists of four distinct musical compositions dating from different years: the Kyrie and Gloria are from 1733; the Credo was written the earliest, in 1732; the Sanctus dates from 1736; and the final part, comprising ‘Hosanna’, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and ‘Dona nobis pacem’, was composed during the years 1738–1739. Some of the parts (the Gloria, the ‘Crucifixus’ from the Credo, and the Agnus Dei) had their prototypes in earlier cantatas. Here, Bach produces a grand synthesis of his own compositional experiments in vocal-instrumental forms (as he did in Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Das Musikalisches Opfer and Die Kunst der Fuge in instrumental forms). The mass derives from his cantata output, with which it shares its fundamental elements of chorus, aria and duet. However, the proportions between the choral and solo parts are the reverse of those in most of the cantatas, since the monumental architecture of the mass is based on the choruses. The Latin liturgical text of the mass, for centuries traditionally set to music by composers, is musically developed and through-composed by Bach, for whom it forms the fabric onto which he weaves self-contained musical forms and genres: fugue, canon, aria and duet. The main areas of compositional work are polyphony and also homophony – based on blocks of chords (Gloria, Sanctus). The texts of what in narrative terms are the longest parts of the mass – the Gloria and the Credo – are divided by Bach into separate verses (theological particularisation!), with successive phases of the liturgical narrative given expression appropriate to the text.

On 7 May 1824, three parts of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis – the Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei – were performed at the Kärntnerthortheater in Vienna, alongside the Ninth Symphony, also being performed for the first time. These two works, composed at the same time, are linked by an affinity of concept, idea and message, and also by a similarity of certain motifs, phrases and developments. The premiere of the whole of the Missa solemnis took place that same year in St Petersburg. Dedicated to Archduke Rudolph, cardinal and archbishop of Olomouc, the score of the ‘Solemn Mass’ was published in 1827, by Schott of Mainz.

The Missa solemnis towers above the whole genre as cultivated at that time; only Mozart’s C minor Mass and Requiem come close to its grandeur; and only in Bach, in his B minor Mass, does Beethoven’s Missa find a kindred work, albeit one completely different in style. The comparisons between these two works, of similar grandeur, loftiness and divinity, are striking. They differ like the genius of Bach differs from the genius of Beethoven, like the Bachian style of the first half of the eighteenth century differs from the Beethovenian style of the first half of the nineteenth century. In the several centuries of the history of the musical mass, abounding in masterpieces, it is in these two works that the idea of the missal form acquires its fullest embodiment. And so the Missa solemnis, like (though at the same time also unlike) Bach’s B minor Mass, is a work of great synthesis, a product of elevated compositional awareness, deeply rooted in the most valuable traditions of the art of polyphonic composition. Aware of its roots and sources, the music of this solemn mass also reaches into the future; the great synthesis is richly endowed with innovative and pioneering features (as are the last sonatas and quartets); it also has an inspirational influence on the great composers of the nineteenth century in their expression of religious themes in monumental forms. Thus, derived from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis are Berlioz’s Requiem, Liszt’s oratorios, Verdi’s Requiem, Bruckner’s masses and Te Deum, Brahms’s German Requiem, Dvořák’s Requiem and Stabat Mater, and finally Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. The essence of this work’s pioneering nature lies in the new way in which two ideas of form collide within it and dialectically act together: the musical and the liturgical. The musical form is characterised by the Romantic-Beethovenian tendency to break with convention, to push back boundaries, to extend time and expand space, to transcend itself. The liturgical form, meanwhile, is distinguished by its Classical conciseness and proportionality, disciplined by the Latin text and the action of the mass. The time of the Romantic musical form is potentially boundless, and its length unspecified. The time of the liturgical form is strictly determined. Music (for Beethoven, ‘a revelation superior to religion and philosophy’) may be said to act together here with liturgy in form-generative dispute with it…

Chopin was inspired not only by the greats. In terms of pianistic technique and piano texture, he owed a great deal to the virtuosos and composers of the style brillant (fashionable during his formative years). And the shaping of his melodic style was influenced by opera (which he adored already in his youth), with its art of ‘beautiful song’ – bel canto; above all Italian (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti), but also French (Meyerbeer, Auber, Boieldieu, Halévy) and German (Die Zauberflöte, Der Freischütz). Chopin was not just fond of that operatic singing, he was also perfectly au fait with its secrets (as is attested by numerous passages from his letters, which at times read like mini reviews). The most brilliant fruit of the sublimation of operatic bel canto is the melodic style of Chopin’s nocturnes.

During his early Paris years, Chopin was keenly fascinated by both Norma, perhaps the most splendid opera by Bellini (with whom Chopin was friends), and also Robert le diable by Meyerbeer, in his day a leading representative of French ‘grand opera’. These fascinations gave rise to the Grand duo for cello and piano, one of Chopin’s few compositions of a ‘commercial’ character. (As Mieczysław Tomaszewski writes: ‘Indeed, Chopin was tempted by a commission – the first he had received in Paris. Maurice Schlesinger, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s publisher, wishing to consolidate the success of Robert le diable […] commissioned fantasies, paraphrases and variations on themes from the opera from several Parisian composers. Chopin was a great admirer of Robert le diable, bewitched by its “Romanticism” and the lavish production. His enthusiasm knew no bounds: “It’s a masterpiece of the new school […] Meyerbeer has immortalised himself”’.)

Time levels out criteria and restores appropriate measures of value. While the operas of the Italian masters of bel canto (active in Chopin’s day) remain alive to us today, thanks to the lyrical-dramatic inventiveness that permeates them, the French grand opera of those times, full of dazzling effects, but poorer in terms of melodic invention (which, after all, is the very lifeblood of opera!), are apt to interest us more from an historical perspective, in respect to the manners and mores of the period, familiarising us with the tastes of Romantic audiences – amateurs and connoisseurs…

Let us now take a closer look at the inspirational effect that Chopin’s music had on composers of his day and also those who came after him. Why are those inspirations so strong, extensive and multi-faceted? Well, they attest the greatness and originality of Chopin’s compositional genius, his singular place in the history of music, art and culture. If composers throughout history have influenced one another, if that inspirational effect also appears to be their compositional duty, then Chopin, whilst loyal to that obligation, has something that distinguishes him. But what?

He has had followers, imitators and epigones of his style among composers of lesser rank; yet we want to write here not of them, but of the outstanding, the great, the greatest. There is perhaps not one among them who did not owe something important to Chopin – indirectly and directly. So what does that particular Chopinian inspiration involve? What aspects of a musical work? In what did Chopin, as inspirer, refine (if we may say so) the form of music?

Well, we must distinguish here four fundamental kinds – four scopes and directions – of creative impulses issuing from Chopin’s music, arousing and guiding the creative inventiveness of other composers. Firstly, a Chopinian impulse acts on the elements of music (according to their traditional division); in particular on the two elements of greatest importance for composers of the Romantic era: melody and harmony; it stirs their growth, forces them, as it were, into intense development. Especially in the area of harmony (which, geared towards continual development, towards permanent evolution, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the main driving force behind progress in music, and in which Chopin was ahead of his time), it stimulated the spirit of musical discovery, set a tone of innovation, intensified ‘sonoristic’ inventiveness and excited composers’ harmonic imagination. That harmonic style of Chopin’s, insightfully studied and meticulously analysed by twentieth-century musicologists, whilst concentrating within itself the rich experiences of the past, also contains in nuce harmonic languages and styles of the future: the late Romantic chromatic ‘ferment’, the post-Romantic etching, the impressionist changing of harmonic functions into colour taches, the shoots of expressionist atonalism, the harbingers of neo-folklorism, neo-vitalism, ‘new objectivity’, neo-Classicism. The two greatest nineteenth-century innovators and inventors in this domain – Liszt and Wagner – derive from the harmonic thinking and the harmonic imagination of Chopin!

So how fascinating those two most distinctive and expressive sides of Chopin’s music, the melodic and harmonic, must have been! How striking their expression, their suggestiveness: the subtlest shades, the most delicate nuances of the speech of melody and the speech of harmony! And with their influential charm, they triggered the melodic and harmonic inventiveness of other composers. In the maturing and forming of the individual melodic styles of Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and Mahler, Chopinian impulses undoubtedly played a greater or lesser part.

Composers must also have been fascinated by something that may be termed Chopinian form; and not so much ready-made form as the process of forming, form in statu nascendi. Namely the way – the method, system or mode – in which Chopin shaped music, how he moulded the musical material, how his musical thoughts developed over the course of a work, how he led the narration, how he proceeded with the Classical models of composition, design, architecture, tonal construction (ABA, rondo, variations, sonata form, canon, fugato). How he mixed and contaminated those models, creating a new, Romantic and peculiarly Chopinian form: complex, variously shaped, epic-dramatic – in the ballades, scherzos, F minor Fantasy, Polonaise-Fantasy and sonatas; of lesser dimensions, and of lyrical, dramatised and dramatic narration – in the nocturnes, mazurkas and polonaises; structurally concise – in the etudes; aphoristic, miniature – in the preludes.

What must have particularly intrigued composers in this Chopinian form, this formed form, was the dialectic interplay between two opposing tendencies: the sense of Classical discipline, in the strict organising of musical time and space; a liking for narration that was Romantically fantastical, for a musical flow that was free, changeable, surprising, capricious, undulating. One might say that this kind of dialectic, of oscillating between ‘composition’ and ‘improvisation’, composing (rational, concrete, objective) and improvising (irrational, surreal), characterises all the composers of the Romantic era; they all – from Schubert to Mahler – combine in their compositorial stances, in the ways they composed, in some more or less concordant way, ‘classicism’ (as the eighteenth-century heritage of forms and the disciplining of emotions) and ‘romanticism’ (as the domination of emotional expression over form); they combine those two attitudes: more harmoniously – as in Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák; more disproportionately, in dispute, conflict, struggle – as in Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Strauss, Mahler…

And here, too, Chopin differs from the rest. He does not evince – one does not sense in his music – those arresting struggles of the ‘Classic’ with the ‘Romantic’, of Classical form with Romantic form, of tradition with newness – as in Schumann, Brahms, and especially Liszt. But neither does he display in this respect such a natural (?) concordance as we find in Schubert, Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky. In Chopinian form, ‘classicity’ and ‘romanticity’ coexist in some other way. But how? One might say that they do so in the maximisation of starkly opposite states of music, in a particular sharpening of contradictory features, which in some wondrous way harmonise with one another: intense emotional expression – in clear compositions with distinctive contours and proportional design; ‘unending melodies’ of instrumental song, in tempo rubato, in a free flow, over and above the bar lines – regulated somewhere below in an even rhythmic pulse… The Romantic harmonic ‘content’ (dense network of secondary chords, movement of chords ‘erring’ in search of an anchor, deceptive cadences, delayed endings), potentially infinite harmonic material perfectly filling out a finite formal framework… ‘Classicity’ coexisting with ‘romanticity’ (paradoxically?) in accordance with a higher order of art…

With his music, Chopin influenced many great, outstanding composers; he inspired them, stirred and swayed them – intuitively, rationally, consciously or unconsciously – into seeking and finding their own paths, into developing personal styles of utterance. On four composers in particular, his influence was most powerful, profound and creative, namely Liszt, Debussy, Scriabin and Szymanowski.

In Liszt, the Chopinian impulses – acting directly through an affinity of pianistic technique and piano texture – stimulated an inexhaustible, volcanic inventiveness: a structural, formal and expressive innovation in continual modifications, variations, alterations, transformations, metamorphoses… The idea of Chopinian form bore revelatory fruit in the Romantic form of Liszt – in a range of extreme states: an oscillation between the deep, the mystical and the utterly contemplative, on one hand, and a radically energetic agitation of the tonal material, on the other; in its endless narrative sequences, with no measure of time. It gives rise – directly in the piano music and indirectly in the symphonic music – to a form of music inspired also by literature, by a poetic sensing of the world, a literary perception of the world.

Debussy was inspired mainly by Chopin’s poetic of sound, his piano sonorism (if it may be so called). It was this very impulse (and Chopin was one of the composers to whom Debussy felt the closest affinity) that had a decisive influence on the creation of the new soundworld of the preludes and etudes, with their harmony freed from the functional references of the major/minor system to sound in themselves.

In Scriabin, the Chopinian impulse set in motion a remarkable stylistic evolution, opened the composer’s path to himself, to original, Scriabininan form, a new concept of musical time-space – in the last piano sonatas and symphonic poems. At the beginning of that path, Scriabin wrote works that were as yet no more than a straightforward continuation of the Chopin style.

The point of departure was similar for Szymanowski, in whose early works Chopin reminiscences merge with Brahmsian influences. Later, the Chopinian impulses would penetrate his work more deeply – in ideological, aesthetic, structural and formal terms – and the most creative fruits of those inspirations would be the mazurkas. In these, Szymanowski produces an original variety of the Polish style, paradoxically combining the Chopin concept of the mazurka (linked with the folklore of Mazovia and Cuiavia) with the music of the Tatran highlanders, stylised in a particular way.

As Zygmunt Mycielski recalled: ‘I do not have the article Szymanowski wrote about Chopin for the Revue Musicale to hand. But I remember – when he came out of the workshop-parlour of his Atma home in Zakopane, he was holding a piece of paper written in a small script with the ink still damp, and he said: “Do you love Chopin so madly as well?” Or perhaps he didn’t say “madly”, but used some other superlative that always sounded calmly on his lips and expressed something immeasurable, something extraordinary, something not sufficiently perceived by people in general. Something about which he took particular care.’

‘Although a musician myself, with an ever burning love and worship of the works of Fryderyk Chopin, today I will be speaking not about his music in the most realistic sense, but rather about that peculiar, almost supra-musical mystery that determines the eternal contemporaneity and endurance of his oeuvre. But we are not dealing here with some poetical, ideological or other content imposed from outside; I am not concerned with the tragedy or drama supposedly expressed through the tones of his music – I myself protest most fervently against such an approach to his work. This supra-musicality lies in the role which that odd, solitary man played in the history of the Polish Spirit, in connection with the era in which he lived and composed…

Yet I always hear in that music – so contemporary still today – the swoosh of the giant wings of the eternal, almost mythical past of the nation, unfathomed by reason. Speaking of myth – and I do so consciously – this music is for me Polishness, not uttered in words, but sung in Myth – in that very sense in which the nation’s collective imagination creates those historical myths in the immediate formulation of the deepest expression of past events.’ (Karol Szymanowski: excerpt from a speech delivered to a special assembly at the University of Warsaw, 9 November 1930)

Bohdan Pociej


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