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Vol. LXIV, No. 11
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
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Record Review

After the Wind and the Rain: Listening to Chopin in the Dark

Stuart Mitchner

If all music were to be destroyed, I would plead for the Preludes.

James Huneker in “The Greater Chopin”

Say your power’s been knocked out and you’re in the dark except for a small candle faintly flickering on top of a dresser, with nothing to get you through the night but a portable CD player and Chopin’s Preludes played by Maurizio Pollini. The wind’s still howling, and unbeknownst to you, the basement’s filling with water, but you’re inside Pollini’s piano, and the glory of the music is speaking for everything, the storm, the wind, the dark, the candle, the memory of your father playing Chopin on the grand piano in the living room while your mother swooned, and somehow you’re there again and you’re happy. An hour later when you find out what happened in the basement, you realize there’s nothing you can do until morning but let the water rise. So you go back upstairs, put the headphones on, wrap yourself in a blanket, and let Chopin gather you in again.

A Tourist

Like a tourist preparing for a voyage, I consulted some guidebooks, namely André Gide’s Notes on Chopin, James Huneker’s “The Greater Chopin” in Mezzotints in Modern Music (1899) Tad Szulc’s Chopin in Paris (1999) and Benita Eisler’s Chopin’s Funeral (2003). Thanks to the last two books, both borrowed from the Princeton Public Library, I know quite a bit more about the man who was born in Poland 200 years ago this month. Both biographies are full of quotable details about his life, but Gide and Huneker gave me what I needed to know. It’s one thing to get the basic facts about a country you’re about to visit. How much better, though, to read something that excites your interest. Both Gide and Huneker are fascinated by their subject and have a way of isolating the sort of detail that’s worth passing on; thus fellow pianist and composer Stephen Heller’s picture of Chopin at the piano: “It was an astonishing sight to see one of his little hands reach out and cover a third of the keyboard. It was like the mouth of a serpent about to swallow a rabbit. In reality, Chopin was made of rubber.” In reality! Some reality! What sort of eyes did he have? “The eyes of a flower,” according to his great contemporary Robert Schumann (1810-1856), with whom he’s sharing a bicentenary this year, ”the eyes of a doe, the eyes of a young girl.”

While Schumann was one of the first and most enlightened admirers of Chopin (“the proudest poetic spirit of his time”), he had problems with the B flat minor sonata, comparing the movements to four “wayward children” and claiming that it “begins and ends … with dissonances, through dissonances, and in dissonances.” He had special problems with the brief, astonishing finale (“That isn’t music”), a coda to the famous marche funebre that suggests that the departing mourners were swept away by a tornado (Chopin himself has the left hand and the right hand merely “gossiping”). As for the Preludes that James Huneker would plead for “if all music were to be destroyed,” Schumann’s critique is mixed at best: “sketches, beginnings of studies, ruins, single eagle’s-feathers in wild confusion” containing “a note of the morbid, the febrile, the repellent.”

The moralistic tone in Schumann’s reference to the morbidity in the Preludes encourages both Huneker and Gide to refer to the similarly “unhealthy” confessional element in Chopin’s music that puts him in the company of such seemingly unlikely figures as Baudelaire and Poe. Huneker, for example, finds “affinities with the darkling conceptions” of Poe and Coleridge in the Scherzo in C-sharp minor, comparing it to “some fantastic, sombre pile of disordered farouche architecture” about which “hovers perpetual night and the unspeakable and despairing things that live in the night.”

Hints of Poe’s gothic rhetoric can also be found in Gide’s references to “the inexorable fatality” of the Prelude in D minor and the way “the anguished soul seems to escape its agitation” in the Etude in B flat minor. In the Prelude in D minor, Gide hears “a harrowing moan” in the last measures, “a twisted, jolted, and, as it were, sobbing rhythm” that “concludes fortisssimo in frightful depths where one touches the floor of hell.” Chopin’s haunting, harrowing Prelude in A-minor goes to “regions where the inner being is out of tune,” and when played “for oneself alone” incites an inexhaustible, “almost physical terror.”

Gide’s Chopin

The knowlege gained by playing Chopin “for oneself alone” informs Gide’s Notes on Chopin. An accomplished pianist, he preferred to play when no one was in the room or, better yet, when he suspected that someone was outside listening (my italics). I found this piquant detail in the notes to Wade Baskin’s 1968 translation of Gide’s first novel, The Notebooks of André Walter (originally published in 1891 when Gide was 22), where the title character, obviously a stand-in for the author, plays Chopin for someone “outside listening.” The someone is his cousin Emmanuele, to whom he writes, “You came out on the terrace while the others remained inside. When I saw that you could not flee, I opened the widow wide and sat down at the piano. The sounds came to you in waves.” The piece he’s playing is Chopin’s first Scherzo, which he begins “brutally,” then “mutes the melody,” then goes “back to the agitato but with all the passion in my heart, making the anguished dissonances quiver.” Afterward, he finds his unseen audience trembling, her eyes “radiant.” When she asks why he was playing that piece, he’s afraid to answer. It’s easy to read the ambiguities Gide describes in Notes on Chopin into the anti-romantic consequences of what appears to be an amorous gesture but is received as something disturbing, even terrifying; it’s as if the music had been an otherworldly violation of his beloved, whose response is to speak of looking “into the darkness” (“Is it not supernatural?”). She resents the “cowardly” gesture. Next day, “suffering, feverish, and almost delirious,” she stays in bed and refuses to see him.

In Notes on Chopin Gide balances his occasionally florid readings of the music with practical, illuminating insights about how the composer worked: “We are told that Chopin always looked as if he were improvising; that is, he seemed to be constantly seeking, inventing, discovering his thought, little by little.” This is the way Gide thinks the work should be played, not as an “already perfect, precise, and objective whole” but as “a promenade of discoveries” presented “in a state of successive formation.” Of the Prelude in G, he advises “Don’t play it in haste … Chopin here renounces all subtleties, those mysterious vague keys into which he was later to drive all modern music.” Gide again: “Chopin proposes, supposes, insinuates, seduces, persuades; he hardly ever affirms.” I wonder about the latter claim. More often than not Chopin seems to be affirming everything, good and evil, joy and anguish, the storm and the wind and the rain. The very demands he makes on the pianist interpreting him require an affirmative attitude. Before playing the Scherzo in C-flat minor in a YouTube video, Arthur Rubinstein confesses that it “takes more strength out of me than any other work I know.”

Bergman’s Chopin

Gide’s fascination with the Prelude in A-minor is infectious, and so it’s no surprise that Ingmar Bergman made such moving use of it in one of his best later films, Autumn Sonata (1978), where it is played by both Eva, the daughter (Liv Ullman) and Charlotte, the concert pianist mother (Ingrid Bergman). Classical music figures in almost all of Ingmar Bergman’s films, but never has it been so effectively and excitingly blended with the emotional development of the plot. While the film is best known for the midnight encounter where the tipsy daughter finally finds the nerve to confront the mother with a devastating indictment of her ruinous neglect, the scene at the piano has to be one of the most extraordinary moments in all Bergman.

Looking mousy in spectacles and very much the fretful, desperate-to-please daughter, Eva plays the prelude moderately well. One of the distinctive things about the piece is the halting cadence, which can provide cover for a tentative or uninspired performance. Before the mother sits down at the piano to show the daughter how it’s done, she gives a little lecture (Ingrid Bergman on Chopin). “The prelude tells of pain, not reverie,” the mother says, implying that the daughter, who is clearly feeling psychic pain, has been unable to convey it. “You have to be calm, clear, and harsh,” which also describes Bergman’s manner at the moment. “Total restraint the whole time …. This prelude must be made to sound almost ugly. It’s never ingratiating. It should sound wrong. You have to battle your way through it and emerge triumphant.”

Gide would probably approve this reading, given his description of the way the left hand “pursues its inevitable march, unconcerned with the human plaint of the melody,” and of how “its indefinable emotion cannot be exhausted, nor that kind of almost physical terror, as if one were before a world glimpsed in passing, a world hostile to tenderness.”

Seen in profile, close-up in the foreground, the mother is intent on demonstrating the right way to play the piece. Seated next to her, the daughter, who has been staring at the keyboard, slowly looks up at her mother’s face. For a full minute she stares. The depth of dread, loathing, disbelief, hurt, and sheer wonder played out in her expression is uncanny. Her eyes are burning with the indictment that she’ll put passionately into words later that night. At the same time, her expression is hair-raisingly in accord with the “human plaint” and “indefinable emotion” and “almost physical terror” of the music her mother is playing.

The works by Chopin referred to here were on CDs borrowed from the Princeton Public Library. Celebrations of the composer’s 200th birthday are ongoing, worldwide, even on Wall Street, which marked the occasion with waltzes, mazurkas, sonatas, nocturnes, impromptus, and études performed from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on four different pianos placed at various locations in the World Financial Center’s street and lobby levels. Closer to home, on March 21 at the Trenton Museum at Ellarslie, the veteran classical and jazz musician Vince de Mura will conduct a special Chopin recital apparently meant to answer the question, “Was Frederic Chopin the first jazz pianist?”

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