Chopin and his Europe Chopin and his Europe

[Rok] Roots and...

The scope of the programme of our festival – in this jubilee Chopin Year – is vast. On one hand – grounded in the fundamental works of religious music, the pillars of the musical spirituality of Christianity – it reaches back to the modern-era roots of that spirituality: to the polyphony of the Renaissance. On the other, it extends into the bustling and flickering multimedia regions of contemporary civilisation, of which Chopin, with his music, is also an (artistic?) object.

On the question of various kinds of paraphrase, adaptation, arrangement or pastiche of this music, there would appear to exist two opposing views: according to the first (traditionalist? démodé? behind the times?), there is something in Chopin’s music (and this also distinguishes it from the music of other great composers!) that opposes its treatment as material for such compositional (?) procedures as mentioned above; in other words, this music resists deconstruction, deformation, decomposition, because it is characterised by supreme formal excellence, structural refinement and compositional preciousness. One may proceed in this way – treating their music as ‘standards’, in jazz parlance – with Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Mahler, cutting out attractive themes from their works. But with Chopin it just doesn’t do!

According to the other view – in keeping with the spirit of the times! – there is nothing to stop us treating Chopin (whose music is teeming with catchy motifs and themes!) in the same way as other great composers. After all, his entering the circulation of contemporary musical life – in all its bewildering diversity – does nothing to diminish Chopin’s compositional greatness, but merely increases still further the attractiveness of his music, highlighting (perhaps) qualities not always discerned. Tellingly, neither of these views are unfounded!

What is Chopin for us today? The phenomenon of his music – and also of his artistic personality – seems curiously dual, split, bipolar. Chopin comes across as somehow bi-cultural, existing and functioning on two planes of culture, in two cultural spheres, on two levels.

The first sphere is the Chopin of musicians, musicologists, critics, musicographers and experts on his music, biography and personality; the Chopin of experienced connoisseurs and discerning music lovers. The Chopin of the cultural elites with an interest in music. In this sphere of culture (let us call it the ‘aristocratic’ sphere, in the sense of ‘spiritual aristocracy’), his music is numbered among goods of supreme value. And this placement of Chopin within the hierarchy of values gives rise to rigorously observed ways of proceeding with the Chopin legacy. The work of Fryderyk Chopin is subject to the same laws as the legacy of our greatest writers, poets and artists: the laws safeguarding its existence and social functioning, its constant presence in cultural circulation. The music of Chopin, similar in this to the most precious Polish national parks – the Tatra and Białowieża parks – is subject to strict protection, to absolute bans on its destruction, mutilation or deformation, on the depletion of its reserves; a protection ensuring it of a full life in the cultural community and of development in accordance with its musical nature. Appropriate state-subsidised institutions, under the patronage of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, have been established to take care of it, to treasure it: the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, the Fryderyk Chopin Society and the Foundation for the National Edition of the Works of Fryderyk Chopin. They are charged not only with protecting the Chopin legacy, but also with working on it: with scholarly, research, analytical, critical, editing and popularising work.

And so in this superior sphere of culture – the sphere of sheet music, recordings, books, periodicals, music shops, concerts, radio broadcasts and academic conferences – there is an absolute respect for the life of the Chopin legacy. Every work, however small, every note or word Chopin wrote, every littlest fragment of that legacy, has its value. Similarly, everything connected with Chopin’s life is highly estimated: letters and mementos, all material traces of his earthly journey. For us, today, this whole legacy, solicitously safeguarded, closely protected, has an almost sacred value.

In the second sphere of culture, however, no such laws seem to obtain in respect to Chopin’s music. One can do with it whatever one will: cut a work up into pieces, or select motifs, themes, phrases, chords or harmonies to create new, ‘original’ compositions. This is the (‘postmodern’) sphere of pastiche, parody, paraphrase, transcription, processing, arranging, stylising, deconstruction, decomposition, destructuring and deforming. Chopin’s music, deprived of its own identity, stripped of its meanings, its symbols, its own peculiar expression, shorn of immanent sense, is treated solely as raw material (chiefly melodic, but also harmonic; after all, we know how much jazz harmony, for example, owes to Chopin’s harmony) for improvised compositions in particular styles of jazz, pop, rock or folk music.

So what do all these liberties with Chopin’s music attest? Is it only the ‘moral decline’ of modern civilisation? Or can we look at them from a different, more positive, perspective? There is perhaps something else at work here that cannot be overlooked: a powerful fascination with Chopin’s melodic speech; with its distinctiveness, its beauty, its vividness, its suggestiveness…

The assertion that this second (inferior?) sphere of culture is governed by no laws, principles or rules of behaviour is perhaps a little rash. Chopin’s music as appropriated into this sphere, although admittedly deprived (entirely?) of its own (integral) identity, is nevertheless subject to other laws and rules, designed for the particular musical styles of contemporary popular culture: jazz (although jazz occupies a dual position here, being at the same time music of a refined elite!), rock and folk. Moreover, such adaptational practices are applied not only in respect to the music of Chopin, but also with Mozart and Bach. The art of contemporary jazz improvisation, in various styles, occasionally gives rise to new values.

And when we look at it from a broader, historical, perspective, we might possibly discover the sources and roots of such treatment of Chopin’s music; its traditions might possibly be revealed: in the spirit and the element of improvisation, understood as a form-generative motor of the vital energy of music; improvisation particularly valued during the Baroque and Romantic eras, when it was the art of creating musical form ad hoc, of composing ‘live’, of demonstrating a work in statu nascendi. After all, Chopin himself, in his variational inventiveness, enjoyed a reputation as the greatest master of that art! And he improvised, from his early youth, both on his own themes and also on melodies which he liked and which were liked by the public of those times, melodies taken from songs and ditties, from dances, and especially from popular Italian operas: by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti…

‘From his earliest youth’, relates his friend Julian Fontana, ‘the richness of his improvisation was astonishing. But he took good care not to parade it; and the few lucky ones who have heard him improvising for hours on end, in the most wonderful manner, never lifting a single phrase from any other composer, never even touching on any of his own works – those people will agree with us in saying that Chopin’s most beautiful finished compositions are merely reflections and echoes of his improvisations.’ (Quoted in Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, ‘Chopin as improviser’, in Chopin: pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils, tr. Naomi Shohet with Krysia Osostowicz and Roy Howat, ed. Roy Howat. Cambridge, 1986)

Bohdan Pociej