Fryderyk (Frédéric) Chopin (1810–1849) was a Polish-born French pianist who composed and performed some of the greatest piano music of the Romantic era.
Professor of Music History at the University of Pennsylvania, Jeffrey Kallberg has published widely on the music of Chopin and its cultural contexts.
Simply Charly: You’re a Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania where you specialize in the music of the 19th and 20th centuries. In particular, you’ve studied and published extensively on the music and cultural contexts of Frédéric Chopin. How did your fascination with all things Chopin begin?
Jeffrey Kallberg: Curiously, it did not start in my first years studying piano as an adolescent. Then I believed Chopin too “saccharine” (a telling misconception in light of the direction of some of my later studies). Fortunately, a friend disabused me of this notion by playing for me Artur Rubinstein’s 1960 recording of the G-minor Ballade, op. 23. When I heard the lilting and lyrical second theme return, energetically transformed into a passage that sounds massive and triumphant, Chopin first took hold of my imagination and never let go.
The beginnings of my professional engagement with Chopin began in my first year of graduate study at The University of Chicago. Generally interested at that time in the compositional process (how and why composers made decisions about form, melody, harmony, and counterpoint when they wrote music), I learned that the Newberry Library in Chicago owned an autograph manuscript of Chopin’s late Nocturne in B major, Op. 62 no. 1. The autograph proved to be a fascinating compositional document, full of large—and small-scale revisions, with the earlier versions canceled by Chopin with vigorous cross-hatches. The manuscript hinted at a world of complexities in the ways that Chopin composed. By further coincidence, the Joseph Regenstein Library at The University of Chicago held one of the best collections of Chopin’s first editions in the United States, and I learned from comparing the editions that Chopin published nearly simultaneously in France, Germany, and England that the compositional complexities continued into the publication process. I decided to write my dissertation on the compositional process in Chopin, and this led me to consult nearly all of his extant manuscripts and first editions as contained in libraries throughout Europe and the United States.
SC: Perhaps more than any other composer, Chopin cited J.S. Bach as the most important in shaping his musical outlook. Where can one find perceptible traces of this influence in Chopin’s music?
JK: For Chopin (and for many other pianist-composers before him, including Beethoven), Bach’s keyboard music, and especially the 48 Preludes and Fugues, served as a fundamental source for the development of pianistic technique. Chopin first of all absorbed Bach’s music in his fingers, and when he placed particular emphasis on contrapuntal scaffolding in his later music (particularly fine examples occur in the F-minor Ballade, op. 52; the Polonaise-Fantasy, op. 61; and the Nocturne in B major, op. 62 no. 1, but the technique is ubiquitous from his Mazurkas Op. 50 on), the pianist can sense this influence first of all in the fingers: the feeling of playing contrapuntal late Chopin is akin to that of playing Bach. Listeners can most easily perceive Bach’s influence when Chopin turns to strict imitation—at the start of the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 50 no. 3 and at the end of the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 63 no. 3—C-sharp minor often called forth contrapuntal writing from Chopin, going all the way back to the Nocturne, op. 27 no. 1. But more intensive listening will also reveal the secondary melodies that weave in and out of works like the Nocturne in E-flat major, op. 55 no. 2. We can perceive Chopin’s genius in his late works in his ability to merge contrapuntal rigor, learned from Bach, with the kind of lyrical expressiveness that we more normally associate with his music.
SC: Pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen has written that Chopin’s “command of the style of Italian operatic melody was astounding … and it is the foundation of some of Chopin’s most powerfully expressive and idiosyncratic achievements.” Can you give us a little more insight into this?
JK: The music Chopin cared most about (apart from his own, of course) was opera. His letters from Warsaw in the 1820s teem with observations about operatic repertoire and performances then currently on the boards, and the most exciting parts of his letters home from Paris in the early 1830s report on his operatic encounters there. Profoundly immersed in opera (and especially the most popular form of it, Italian opera), Chopin learned much from the ways composers like Rossini and Bellini (but not Donizetti or Verdi, neither of whom appealed to Chopin) constructed lyrical melodies. We hear in Chopin’s tunes echoes of the shapes, phrase structures, and affective shadings of the Italian Cantabile style. Sometimes the homage is frankly direct (the melody in the left hand of the Etude in C-sharp minor, op. 25 no. 7, evokes a cello tune from a scena in the third act of Bellini’s Norma); often we sense a more distant affinity of style (one could choose virtually any lyrical melody by Chopin, but to keep the comparison in the Etudes, a fine example occurs at the opening of the famous Etude in E major, Op. 10 no. 3).
But just as crucial to Chopin was how Italian opera was sung: it is clear that Chopin’s aesthetic of pianistic performance was grounded in his belief that proper declamation and tone at the keyboard should imitate the essence of the way great artists sang Italian opera. He urged his pupils to go listen to the likes of Giuditta Pasta, Giovanni Battista Rubini, and Maria Malibran, and to make melodies “sing” on the piano like great artists sang on the Parisian operatic stages. One of his favorite dictums to his piano students during their lessons was “one must sing with fingers!”
SC: Chopin concentrated on the genres of salon music considered trivial—nocturnes, mazurkas, and waltzes. How did these genres of music impact his compositional style?
JK: While it is true that salon music was accused of being lightweight and trivial, this was an attitude that gained acceptance mostly after Chopin’s death in 1849. For Chopin, the salon was a protected realm in which he felt at ease playing before select groups of refined acquaintances—listeners who, in turn, perceived elements of transcendence and of “soul” (sometimes Chopin’s, sometimes their own) in the nocturnes, mazurkas, and waltzes they heard Chopin perform on his favorite Pleyel pianos. The frequency of this kind of response from listeners in salons is telling, for Chopin’s achievements in these and other “small forms” count among his greatest. The nocturnes again draw attention to the importance of vocal music to his aesthetic, for Chopin’s nocturnes (like John Field’s before him) were a transmutation of a popular kind of vocal duet into the realm of piano music: in effect, “songs without words.” The mazurkas show Chopin at his most radical, inventing a sonic image of his native Poland as a realm of the distantly exotic. It is commonly asserted that Chopin imitated the sounds of folk mazurkas in these pieces, but this is likely not true: by the time Chopin came to know mazurkas, the genre had been domesticated as a form of popular urban dance, and the examples of folk mazurkas that survive from Chopin’s time show little of the chromatic dissonance that he emphasized in his works. Chopin’s waltzes are just as sophisticated as his nocturnes and mazurkas, but now the sophistication is put into the service of capturing the glittery verve of the salons that Chopin frequented. Some of the best of the Chopin’s waltzes offer a glimpse at the kind of intellectual play that we know reigned in the salon, as in the opening of the Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 42, which sets a melody in the “wrong” duple meter above the iconic triple meter of the accompaniment.
SC: Critics have pointed to the fact that because Chopin composed no symphonies, operas or liturgical works, he could not be granted the status of a truly major figure. What is your view on this?
JK: Claims of this sort are the product of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century mode of historiography that is now largely discredited. The exceptional nature of Chopin’s compositional achievement was widely recognized in Chopin’s day, and it has remained so ever since.
SC: Chopin had a natural gift for teasing out some of the most expressive sonorities from the piano, prompting his contemporary, Franz Liszt, to call him a “gentle, harmonious genius.” Charles Rosen suggests that Chopin achieved this partly through his unorthodox fingering technique, which ran in “direct opposition to the reigning contemporary piano pedagogy.” Can you tell us how his fingering innovations changed the character and sound of his music, especially when brought to bear on his own compositions?
JK: None of Chopin’s teachers was a pianist, which meant that he was left free to invent new solutions to technical problems on the keyboard. Two of his most characteristically idiosyncratic fingers involved playing chromatic lines with just the fourth and fifth fingers (often asking the fourth finger to turn over the fifth) and calling for melodies to be played entirely by the thumb (both effects can be heard in various passages of the Concerto in F minor, Op. 21). Chopin’s fingerings always stand in the service of expressive shading; they follow from his belief (one that was quite contrary to contemporary teaching) that each finger had different strengths, and that, in composing for them, he should emphasize these differences. Sometimes the effects are subtle: assigning successive melodic notes to the thumb helps set a melody into relief (as in a passage in the second theme of the F-minor Ballade, Op. 52); other times assigning a melody to the thumb frees the other fingers to create a web of polyphonic blurring above the tune (the Prelude in F-sharp minor, Op. 28 no 8).
SC: Chopin reinvented the étude, expanding on the idea and making it into a gorgeous, eloquent and emotional showpiece. How different were his études from his Romantic contemporaries such as Liszt and Schumann?
JK: “Étude” means “study” in French. What tends to elevate Chopin’s études beyond those of the majority of his contemporaries is that Chopin tended to understand them as much compositional as technical studies. While they do serve (and serve very well) their ostensible technical ends, they also allowed Chopin to explore formal, harmonic, and other constructive compositional issues. As always with Chopin, technique is subsumed to expression. That said, Chopin’s effect on the genre of the étude was formidable and immediate, and the likes of Schumann and Liszt also wrote compositionally impressive études (as did a lesser known composer like Adolf Henselt).
SC: In your book, Chopin at the Boundaries: Sex, History and Musical Genre you explore, over several closely argued essays, how the connections of gender and genre should figure in our understanding of Chopin’s compositional methods. Can you elaborate on this?
JK: “Genre” refers to the kind of composition: nocturne, sonata, prelude, and so forth. Both composers and listeners in Chopin’s day came to any given genre with expectations as to how a work in it would unfold. A kind of contract emerged: composers agreed to employ enough gestures so that the genre would be recognized, and listeners agreed to interpret those gestures as belonging to the genre in question, and not some other. When genre is thus understood as a communicative device, it allows us to grasp the full extent to which meanings could be transmitted through this contract. This emerges with particular force in works where Chopin blended genres. For example, in his Nocturne in G minor, op. 15 no. 3, Chopin blended the nocturne with the mazurka and religious chorale in a way that reflects the religious character associated with Polish nationalism in Chopin’s day.
Certain genres were understood in gendered terms: the nocturne, for instance, was styled as feminine, in part because of its expressive scope, and in part, because the majority of its audience was thought to be women. Perceptions of gender also affected Chopin in interesting ways: his slight build, pale complexion, and persistent frailty resulted in people viewing him as somewhat effeminate (others saw him more as an androgynous or hermaphroditic figure). The intersection of these configurations of gender around Chopin’s compositions and around his person has, at different times, strongly affected the reception of Chopin’s music- as, for example, in the later part of the 19th century, when a certain subset of critics claimed there was something morally degenerate in Chopin’s music, and warned young pianists away from it.
SC: Elsewhere in Chopin at the Boundaries, you mention that some acclaimed pianists have tended to shun performing or recording Chopin altogether. Why?
JK: Such pianists are increasingly rare, but we might see in the phenomenon the remnants of beliefs that Chopin was somewhat suspect for being “feminine” and for not having written much in the “large forms.” Of course, few pianists would likely name these as conscious reasons for avoiding Chopin, but the fact that they tend to specialize in Germanic repertories that have consistently been viewed as masculine realms, and that are replete with longer sonatas and concertos, suggests a continuing undercurrent of suspicion around Chopin’s music.
SC: What are some of your favorite Chopin works and why?
JK: It would be hopeless to name some of my favorites of Chopin—there are too many of them! Instead, let me point readers toward a lovely, tiny gem that they might not have encountered yet. In 1834, Chopin penned a short composition that he gave as a gift to an unknown recipient. This was a common practice for Chopin, a manifestation of the sociability that made the salon such a favorite place for him. What prompted the gift, we don’t know. We also don’t know, precisely, what kind of piece it is, since Chopin only notated its expressive character, “Cantabile” (which has, for better or worse, become the name the piece is known by). It is a tiny piece—a mere 14 measures that do not even stretch to one minute in performance. Yet, it is plainly a complete piece: a lyrical theme undergoes ornamental growth, then harmonic complication, before yielding to a brief coda introduced by the kind of side-slipping chromatic harmonic progression that separated Chopin from most of his contemporaries (the progression is so delicious, Chopin called on it a second time in the coda). The ending is delicate and moving. The “Cantabile” offers Chopin in miniature, but in its brevity presents a picture of the composer that lacks nothing whatsoever.