Chopin, The Artist


[This is taken from James Huneker's Chopin; The Man and the Artist.]

Chopin’s personality was a pleasant, persuasive one without being so striking or so dramatic as Liszt’s. As a youth his nose was too large, his lips thin, the lower one protruding. Later, Moscheles said that he looked like his music. Delicacy and a certain aristocratic bearing, a harmonious ensemble, produced a most agreeable sensation. “He was of slim frame, middle height; fragile but wonderfully flexible limbs, delicately formed hands, very small feet, an oval, softly outlined head, a pale transparent complexion, long silken hair of a light chestnut color, parted on one side, tender brown eyes, intelligent rather than dreamy, a finely-curved aquiline nose, a sweet subtle smile, graceful and varied gestures.” This precise description is by Niecks. Liszt said he had blue eyes, but he has been overruled.  Chopin was fond of elegant, costly attire, and was very correct in the matter of studs, walking sticks and cravats. Not the ideal musician we read of, but a gentleman. Berlioz told Legouve to see Chopin, “for he is something which you have never seen—and some one you will never forget.” An orchidaceous individuality this.

With such personal refinement he was a man punctual and precise in his habits. Associating constantly with fashionable folk his naturally dignified behavior was increased. He was an aristocrat--there is no other word—and he did not care to be hail-fellow-well-met with the musicians. A certain primness and asperity did not make him popular. While teaching, his manner warmed, the earnest artist came to life, all halting of speech and polite insincerities were abandoned. His pupils adored him. Here at least the sentiment was one of solidarity. De Lenz is his most censorious critic and did not really love Chopin. The dislike was returned, for the Pole suspected that his pupil was sent by Liszt to spy on his methods. This I heard in Paris.

Chopin was a remarkable teacher. He never taught but one genius, little Filtsch, the Hungarian lad of whom Liszt said, “When he starts playing I will shut up shop.” The boy died in 1845, aged fifteen; Paul Gunsberg, who died the same year, was also very talented. Once after delivering in a lovely way the master’s E minor concerto Filtsch was taken by Chopin to a music store and presented with the score of Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” He was much affected by the talents of this youthful pupil. Lindsay Sloper and Brinley Richards studied with Chopin. Caroline Hartmann, Gutmann, Lysberg, Georges Mathias, Mlle. O’Meara, many Polish ladies of rank, Delphine Potocka among the rest, Madame Streicher, Carl Mikuli, Madame Rubio, Madame Peruzzi, Thomas Tellefsen, Casimir Wernik, Gustav Schumann, Werner Steinbrecher, and many others became excellent pianists. Was the American pianist, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, ever his pupil? His friends say so, but Niecks does not mention him. Ernst Pauer questions it. We know that Gottschalk studied in Paris with Camille Stamaty, and made his first appearance there in 1847. This was shortly before Chopin’s death when his interest in music had abated greatly. No doubt Gottschalk played for Chopin for he was the first to introduce the Pole’s music in America.

Chopin was very particular about the formation of the touch, giving dementi’s Preludes at first. “Is that a dog barking?” was his sudden exclamation at a rough attack. He taught the scales staccato and legato beginning with E major. Ductility, ease, gracefulness were his aim; stiffness, harshness annoyed him. He gave Clementi, Moscheles and Bach. Before playing in concert he shut himself up and played, not Chopin but Bach, always Bach.  Absolute finger independence and touch discrimination and color are to be gained by playing the preludes and fugues of Bach.  Chopin started a method but it was never finished and his sister gave it to the Princess Czartoryska after his death. It is a mere fragment. Janotha has translated it. One point is worth quoting.

He wrote:

No one notices inequality in the power of the notes of a scale when it is played very fast and equally, as regards time. In a good mechanism the aim is not to play everything with an equal sound, but to acquire a beautiful quality of touch and a perfect shading. For a long time players have acted against nature in seeking to give equal power to each finger. On the contrary, each finger should have an appropriate part assigned it. The thumb has the greatest power, being the thickest finger and the freest. Then comes the little finger, at the other extremity of the hand. The middle finger is the main support of the hand, and is assisted by the first. Finally comes the third, the weakest one. As to this Siamese twin of the middle finger, some players try to force it with all their might to become independent. A thing impossible, and most likely unnecessary. There are, then, many different qualities of sound, just as there are several fingers. The point is to utilize the differences; and this, in other words, is the art of fingering.

Here, it seems to me, is one of the most practical truths ever uttered by a teacher. Pianists spend thousands of hours trying to subjugate impossible muscles. Chopin, who found out most things for himself, saw the waste of time and force. I recommend his advice. He was ever particular about fingering, but his innovations horrified the purists. “Play as you feel,” was his motto, a rather dangerous precept for beginners. He gave to his pupils the concertos and sonatas—all carefully graded—of Mozart, Scarlatti, Field, Dussek, Hummel, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Weber and Hiller and, of Schubert, the four-hand pieces and dances. Liszt he did not favor, which is natural, Liszt having written nothing but brilliant paraphrases in those days. The music of the later Liszt is quite another thing. Chopin’s genius for the pedal, his utilization of its capacity for the vibration of related strings, the overtones, I refer to later. Rubinstein said:

The piano bard, the piano rhapsodist, the piano mind, the piano soul is Chopin. ... Tragic, romantic, lyric, heroic, dramatic, fantastic, soulful, sweet, dreamy, brilliant, grand, simple; all possible expressions are found in his compositions and all are sung by him upon his instrument.

Chopin is dead only fifty years, but his fame has traversed the half century with ease, and bids fair to build securely in the loves of our great-grandchildren. The six letters that comprise his name pursue every piano that is made. Chopin and modern piano playing are inseparable, and it is a strain upon homely prophecy to predict a time when the two shall be put asunder. Chopin was the greatest interpreter of Chopin, and following him came those giants of other days, Liszt, Tausig, and Rubinstein.

While he never had the pupils to mould as had Liszt, Chopin made some excellent piano artists. They all had, or have—the old guard dies bravely—his tradition, but exactly what the Chopin tradition is no man may dare to say. Anton Rubinstein, when I last heard him, played Chopin inimitably. Never shall I forget the Ballades, the two Polonaises in F sharp minor and A flat major, the B flat minor Prelude, the A minor “Winter Wind” the two C minor studies, and the F minor Fantasie. Yet the Chopin pupils, assembled in judgment at Paris when he gave his Historical Recitals, refused to accept him as an interpreter. His touch was too rich and full, his tone too big. Chopin did not care for Liszt’s reading of his music, though he trembled when he heard him thunder in the Eroica Polonaise. I doubt if even Karl Tausig, impeccable artist, unapproachable Chopin player, would have pleased the composer. Chopin played as his moods prompted, and his playing was the despair and delight of his hearers.  Rubinstein did all sorts of wonderful things with the coda of the Barcarolle—such a page!--but Sir Charles Halle said that it was “clever but not Chopinesque.” Yet Halle heard Chopin at his last Paris concert, February, 1848, play the two forte passages in the Barcarolle “pianissimo and with all sorts of dynamic finesse.” This is precisely what Rubinstein did, and his pianissimo was a whisper. Von Bulow was too much of a martinet to reveal the poetic quality, though he appreciated Chopin on the intellectual side; his touch was not beautiful enough. The Slavic and Magyar races are your only true Chopin interpreters. Witness Liszt the magnificent, Rubinstein a passionate genius, Tausig who united in his person all the elements of greatness, Essipowa fascinating and feminine, the poetic Paderewski, de Pachmann the fantastic, subtle Joseffy, and Rosenthal a phenomenon.

A world-great pianist was this Frderic Francois Chopin. He played as he composed: uniquely. All testimony is emphatic as to this.  Scales that were pearls, a touch rich, sweet, supple and singing and a technique that knew no difficulties, these were part of Chopin’s equipment as a pianist. He spiritualized the timbre of his instrument until it became transformed into something strange, something remote from its original nature. His pianissimo was an enchanting whisper, his forte seemed powerful by contrast so numberless were the gradations, so widely varied his dynamics. The fairylike quality of his play, his diaphanous harmonies, his liquid tone, his pedalling—all were the work of a genius and a lifetime; and the appealing humanity he infused into his touch, gave his listeners a delight that bordered on the supernatural. So the accounts, critical, professional and personal read. There must have been a hypnotic quality in his performances that transported his audience wherever the poet willed. Indeed the stories told wear an air of enthusiasm that borders on the exaggerated, on the fantastic. Crystalline pearls falling on red hot velvet-or did Scudo write this of Liszt?-- infinite nuance and the mingling of silvery bells,--these are a few of the least exuberant notices. Was it not Heine who called “Thalberg a king, Liszt a prophet, Chopin a poet, Herz an advocate, Kalkbrenner a minstrel, Madame Pleyel a sibyl, and Doehler—a pianist”? The limpidity, the smoothness and ease of Chopin’s playing were, after all, on the physical plane. It was the poetic melancholy, the grandeur, above all the imaginative lift, that were more in evidence than mere sensuous sweetness.  Chopin had, we know, his salon side when he played with elegance, brilliancy and coquetry. But he had dark moments when the keyboard was too small, his ideas too big for utterance. Then he astounded, thrilled his auditors. They were rare moments. His mood-versatility was reproduced in his endless colorings and capricious rhythms. The instrument vibrated with these new, nameless effects like the violin in Paganini’s hands. It was ravishing. He was called the Ariel, the Undine of the piano.  There was something imponderable, fluid, vaporous, evanescent in his music that eluded analysis and illuded all but hard-headed critics. This novelty was the reason why he has been classed as a “gifted amateur” and even to-day is he regarded by many musicians as a skilful inventor of piano passages and patterned figures instead of what he really is—one of the most daring harmonists since Bach.

Chopin’s elastic hand, small, thin, with lightly articulated fingers, was capable of stretching tenths with ease. Examine his first study for confirmation of this. His wrist was very supple.  Stephen Heller said that “it was a wonderful sight to see Chopin’s small hands expand and cover a third of the keyboard. It was like the opening of the mouth of a serpent about to swallow a rabbit whole.” He played the octaves in the A flat Polonaise with infinite ease but pianissimo. Now where is the “tradition” when confronted by the mighty crashing of Rosenthal in this particular part of the Polonaise? Of Karl Tausig, Weitzmann said that “he relieved the romantically sentimental Chopin of his Weltschmerz and showed him in his pristine creative vigor and wealth of imagination.” In Chopin’s music there are many pianists, many styles and all are correct if they are poetically musical, logical and individually sincere. Of his rubato I treat in the chapter devoted to the Mazurkas, making also an attempt to define the “zal” of his playing and music.

When Chopin was strong he used a Pleyel piano, when he was ill an Erard—a nice fable of Liszt’s! He said that he liked the Erard but he really preferred the Pleyel with its veiled sonority. What could not he have accomplished with the modern grand piano?  In the artist’s room of the Maison Pleyel there stands the piano at which Chopin composed the Preludes, the G minor nocturne, the Funeral March, the three supplementary fitudes, the A minor Mazurka, the Tarantelle, the F minor Fantasie and the B minor Scherzo. A brass tablet on the inside lid notes this. The piano is still in good condition as regards tone and action.

Mikuli asserted that Chopin brought out an “immense” tone in cantabiles. He had not a small tone, but it was not the orchestral tone of our day. Indeed how could it be, with the light action and tone of the French pianos built in the first half of the century? After all it was quality, not quantity that Chopin sought. Each one of his ten fingers was a delicately differentiated voice, and these ten voices could sing at times like the morning stars.

Rubinstein declared that all the pedal marks are wrong in Chopin.  I doubt if any edition can ever give them as they should be, for here again the individual equation comes into play. Apart from certain fundamental rules for managing the pedals, no pedagogic regulations should ever be made for the more refined nuanciren.

The portraits of Chopin differ widely. There is the Ary Scheffer, the Vigneron—praised by Mathias—the Bovy medallion, the Duval drawing, and the head by Kwiatowski. Delacroix tried his powerful hand at transfixing in oil the fleeting expressions of Chopin.  Felix Barrias, Franz Winterhalter, and Albert Graefle are others who tried with more or less success. Anthony Kolberg painted Chopin in 1848-49. Kleczynski reproduces it; it is mature in expression. The Clesinger head I have seen at Pere la Chaise. It is mediocre and lifeless. Kwiatowski has caught some of the Chopin spirit in the etching that may be found in volume one of Niecks’ biography. The Winterhalter portrait in Mr. Hadow’s volume is too Hebraic, and the Graefle is a trifle ghastly. It is the dead Chopin, but the nose is that of a predaceous bird, painfully aquiline. The “Echo Muzyczne” Warsaw, of October 1899-- in Polish “17 Pazdziernika”—printed a picture of the composer at the age of seventeen. It is that of a thoughtful, poetic, but not handsome lad, his hair waving over a fine forehead, a feminine mouth, large, aquiline nose, the nostrils delicately cut, and about his slender neck a Byronic collar. Altogether a novel likeness. Like the Chopin interpretation, a satisfactory Chopin portrait is extremely rare.

As some difficulty was experienced in discovering the identity of Countess Delphine Potocka, I applied in 1899 to Mr. Jaraslow de Zielinski, a pianist of Buffalo, New York, for assistance; he is an authority on Polish and Russian music and musicians. Here are the facts he kindly transmitted: “In 1830 three beautiful Polish women came to Nice to pass the winter. They were the daughters of Count Komar, the business manager of the wealthy Count Potocki.  They were singularly accomplished; they spoke half the languages of Europe, drew well, and sang to perfection. All they needed was money to make them queens of society; this they soon obtained, and with it high rank. Their graceful manners and loveliness won the hearts of three of the greatest of noblemen. Marie married the Prince de Beauvau-Craon; Delphine became Countess Potocka, and Nathalie, Marchioness Medici Spada. The last named died young, a victim to the zeal in favor of the cholera-stricken of Rome. The other two sisters went to live in Paris, and became famous for their brilliant elegance. Their sumptuous ‘hotels’ or palaces were thrown open to the most prominent men of genius of their time, and hither came Chopin, to meet not only with the homage due to his genius, but with a tender and sisterly friendship, which proved one of the greatest consolations of his life. To the amiable Princess de Beauvau he dedicated his famous Polonaise in F sharp minor, op. 44, written in the brilliant bravura style for pianists of the first force. To Delphine, Countess Potocka, he dedicated the loveliest of his valses, op.  64, No. 1, so well transcribed by Joseffy into a study in thirds.”

Therefore the picture of the Grafin Potocka in the Berlin gallery is not that of Chopin’s devoted friend.

Here is another Count Tarnowski story. It touches on a Potocka episode. “Chopin liked and knew how to express individual characteristics on the piano. Just as there formerly was a rather widely-known fashion of describing dispositions and characters in so-called ‘portraits,’ which gave to ready wits a scope for parading their knowledge of people and their sharpness of observation; so he often amused himself by playing such musical portraits. Without saying whom he had in his thoughts, he illustrated the characters of a few or of several people present in the room, and illustrated them so clearly and so delicately that the listeners could always guess correctly who was intended, and admired the resemblance of the portrait. One little anecdote is related in connection with this which throws some light on his wit, and a little pinch of sarcasm in it.

“During the time of Chopin’s greatest brilliancy and popularity, in the year 1835, he once played his musical portraits in a certain Polish salon, where the three daughters of the house were the stars of the evening. After a few portraits had been extemporized, one of these ladies wished to have hers—Mme.  Delphine Potocka. Chopin, in reply, drew her shawl from her shoulders, threw it on the keyboard and began to play, implying in this two things; first, that he knew the character of the brilliant and famous queen of fashion so well, that by heart and in the dark he was able to depict it; secondly, that this character and this soul is hidden under habits, ornamentations and decorations of an elegant worldly life, through the symbol of elegance and fashion of that day, as the tones of the piano through the shawl.”

Because Chopin did not label his works with any but general titles, Ballades, Scherzi, Studies, Preludes and the like, his music sounds all the better: the listener is not pinned down to any precise mood, the music being allowed to work its particular charm without the aid of literary crutches for unimaginative minds. Dr. Niecks gives specimens of what the ingenious publisher, without a sense of humor, did with some of Chopin’s compositions: Adieu a Varsovie, so was named the Rondo, op. 1;

Hommage a Mozart, the Variations, op. 2; La Gaite, Introduction and Polonaise, op. 3 for piano and ‘cello; La Posiana—what a name!--the Rondo a la Mazur, op. 5; Murmures de la Seine, Nocturnes op. 9; Les Zephirs, Nocturnes, op. 15; Invitation a la Valse, Valse, op. 18; Souvenir d’Andalousie, Bolero, op. 19--a bolero which sounds Polish!--Le Banquet Infernal, the First Scherzo, op. 20--what a misnomer!--Ballade ohne Worte, the G minor Ballade—there is a polyglot mess for you!--Les Plaintives, Nocturnes, op. 27; La Meditation, Second Scherzo, B flat minor-meditation it is not!--II Lamento e la Consolazione, Nocturnes, op. 32; Les Soupirs, Nocturnes, op. 37, and Les Favorites, Polonaises, op. 40. The C minor Polonaise of this opus was never, is not now, a favorite. The mazurkas generally received the title of Souvenir de la Pologne.

In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Chopin, October 17, 1899, a medal was struck at Warsaw, bearing on one side an artistically executed profile of the Polish composer. On the reverse, the design represents a lyre, surrounded by a laurel branch, and having engraved upon it the opening bars of the Mazurka in A flat major. The name of the great composer with the dates of his birth and death, are given in the margin. Paderewski is heading a movement to remove from Paris to Warsaw the ashes of the pianist, but it is doubtful if it can be managed. Paris will certainly object to losing the bones of such a genius.

Chopin’s acoustic parallelisms are not so concrete, so vivid as Wagner’s. Nor are they so theatrical, so obvious. It does not, however, require much fancy to conjure up “the drums and tramplings of three conquests” in the Eroica Polonaise or the F sharp major Impromptu. The rhythms of the Cradle Song and the Barcarolle are suggestive enough and if you please there are dew-drops in his cadenzas and there is the whistling of the wind in the last A minor Study. Of the A flat Study Chopin said: “Imagine a little shepherd who takes refuge in a peaceful grotto from an approaching storm. In the distance rushes the wind and the rain, while the shepherd gently plays a melody on his flute.” This is quoted by Kleczynski. There are word-whisperings in the next study in F minor, whilst the symbolism of the dance—the Valse, Mazurka, Polonaise, Menuetto, Bolero, Schottische, Krakowiak and Tarantella—is admirably indicated in all of them. The bells of the Funeral March, the will o’ wisp character of the last movement of the B flat minor Sonata, the dainty Butterfly Study in G flat, opus 25, the aeolian murmurs of the E flat Study, in opus 10, the tiny prancing silvery hoofs in the F major Study, opus 25, the flickering flame-like C major Study No. 7, opus 10, the spinning in the D flat Valse and the cyclonic rush of chromatic double notes in the E flat minor Scherzo—these are not studied imitations but spontaneous transpositions to the ideal plane of primary, natural phenomena.

Chopin’s system—if it be a system—of cadenzas, fioriture embellishment and ornamentation is perhaps traceable to the East.  In his “Folk Music Studies,” Mr. H. E. Krehbiel quotes the description of “a rhapsodical embellishment, called ‘alap,’ which after going through a variety of ad libitum passages, rejoins the melody with as much grace as if it had never been disunited, the musical accompaniment all the while keeping time. These passages are not reckoned essential to the melody, but are considered only as grace notes introduced according to the fancy of the singer, when the only limitations by which the performer is bound are the notes peculiar to that particular melody and a strict regard to time.”

Chopin founded no school, although the possibilities of the piano were canalized by him. In playing, as in composition, only the broad trend of his discoveries may be followed, for his was a manner not a method. He has had for followers Liszt, Rubinstein, Mikuli, Zarembski, Nowakowski, Xaver Scharwenka, Saint-Saens, Scholtz, Heller, Nicode, Moriz Moszkowski, Paderewski, Stojowski, Arenski, Leschetizki, the two Wieniawskis, and a whole group of the younger Russians Liadoff, Scriabine and the rest. Even Brahms--in his F sharp major Sonata and E flat minor Scherzo—shows Chopin’s influence. Indeed but for Chopin much modern music would not exist.

But a genuine school exists not. Henselt was only a German who fell asleep and dreamed of Chopin. To a Thalberg-ian euphony he has added a technical figuration not unlike Chopin’s, and a spirit quite Teutonic in its sentimentality. Rubinstein calls Chopin the exhalation of the third epoch in art. He certainly closed one. With a less strong rhythmic impulse and formal sense Chopin’s music would have degenerated into mere overperfumed impressionism. The French piano school of his day, indeed of today, is entirely drowned by its devotion to cold decoration, to unemotional ornamentation. Mannerisms he had—what great artist has not?--but the Greek in him, as in Heine, kept him from formlessness. He is seldom a landscapist, but he can handle his brush deftly before nature if he must. He paints atmosphere, the open air at eventide, with consummate skill, and for playing fantastic tricks on your nerves in the depiction of the superhuman he has a peculiar faculty. Remember that in Chopin’s early days the Byronic pose, the grandiose and the horrible prevailed—witness the pictures of Ingres and Delacroix—and Richter wrote with his heart-strings saturated in moonshine and tears. Chopin did not altogether escape the artistic vices of his generation. As a man he was a bit of poseur—the little whisker grown on one side of his face, the side which he turned to his audience, is a note of foppery—but was ever a detester of the sham-artistic. He was sincere, and his survival, when nearly all of Mendelssohn, much of Schumann and half of Berlioz have suffered an eclipse, is proof positive of his vitality. The fruit of his experimentings in tonality we see in the whole latter-day school of piano, dramatic and orchestral composers. That Chopin may lead to the development and adoption of the new enharmonic scales, the “Homotonic scales,” I do not know. For these M. A. de Bertha claimed the future of music. He wrote:

“Now vaporously illumined by the crepuscular light of a magical sky on the boundaries of the major and minor modes, now seeming to spring from the bowels of the earth with sepulchral inflexions, melody moves with ease on the serried degrees of the enharmonic scales. Lively or slow she always assumed in them the accents of a fatalist impossibility, for the laws of arithmetic have preceded her, and there still remains, as it were, an atmosphere of proud rigidity. Melancholy or passionate she preserves the reflected lines of a primitive rusticity, which clings to the homotones in despite of their artificial origin.” But all this will be in the days to come when the flat keyboard will be superseded by a Janko many-banked clavier contrivance, when Mr. Krehbiel’s oriental srootis are in use and Mr. Apthorp’s nullitonic order, no key at all, is invented. Then too a new Chopin may be born, but I doubt it.

Despite his idiomatic treatment of the piano it must be remembered that Chopin under Sontag’s and Paganini’s influence imitated both voice and violin on the keyboard. His lyricism is most human, while the portamento, the slides, trills and indescribably subtle turns—are they not of the violin? Wagner said to Mr. Dannreuther—see Finck’s “Wagner and his Works”—that “Mozart’s music and Mozart’s orchestra are a perfect match; an equally perfect balance exists between Palestrina’s choir and Palestrina’s counterpoint, and I find a similar correspondence between Chopin’s piano and some of his Etudes and Preludes—I do not care for the Ladies’ Chopin; there is too much of the Parisian salon in that, but he has given us many things which are above the salon.” Which latter statement is slightly condescending. Recollect, however, Chopin’s calm depreciation of Schumann. Mr. John F. Runciman, the English critic, asserts that “Chopin thought in terms of the piano, and only the piano. So when we see Chopin’s orchestral music or Wagner’s music for the piano we realize that neither is talking his native tongue—the tongue which nature fitted him to speak.” Speaking of “Chopin and the Sick Men” Mr. Runciman is most pertinent:

“These inheritors of rickets and exhausted physical frames made some of the most wonderful music of the century for us. Schubert was the most wonderful of them all, but Chopin runs him very close. ... He wrote less, far less than Schubert wrote; but, for the quantity he did write, its finish is miraculous. It may be feverish, merely mournful, cadavre, or tranquil, and entirely beautiful; but there is not a phrase that is not polished as far as a phrase will bear polishing. It is marvellous music; but, all the same, it is sick, unhealthy music.”

“Liszt’s estimate of the technical importance of Chopin’s works,” writes Mr. W.J. Henderson, “is not too large. It was Chopin who systematized the art of pedalling and showed us how to use both pedals in combination to produce those wonderful effects of color which are so necessary in the performance of his music. ... The harmonic schemes of the simplest of Chopin’s works are marvels of originality and musical loveliness, and I make bold to say that his treatment of the passing note did much toward showing later writers how to produce the restless and endless complexity of the harmony in contemporaneous orchestral music.”

Heinrich Pudor in his strictures on German music is hardly complimentary to Chopin: “Wagner is a thorough-going decadent, an off-shoot, an epigonus, not a progonus. His cheeks are hollow and pale—but the Germans have the full red cheeks. Equally decadent is Liszt. Liszt is a Hungarian and the Hungarians are confessedly a completely disorganized, self-outlived, dying people. No less decadent is Chopin, whose figure comes before one as flesh without bones, this morbid, womanly, womanish, slip-slop, powerless, sickly, bleached, sweet-caramel Pole!” This has a ring of Nietzsche—Nietzsche who boasted of his Polish origin.

Now listen to the fatidical Pole Przybyszewski: “In the beginning there was sex, out of sex there was nothing and in it everything was. And sex made itself brain whence was the birth of the soul.” And then, as Mr. Vance Thompson, who first Englished this “Mass of the Dead”—wrote: “He pictures largely in great cosmic symbols, decorated with passionate and mystic fervors, the singular combat between the growing soul and the sex from which it fain would be free.” Arno Holz thus parodies Przybyszewski:

“In our soul there is surging and singing a song of the victorious bacteria. Our blood lacks the white corpuscles. On the sounding board of our consciousness there echoes along the frightful symphony of the flesh. It becomes objective in Chopin; he alone, the modern primeval man, puts our brains on the green meadows, he alone thinks in hyper-European dimensions. He alone rebuilds the shattered Jerusalem of our souls.”All of which shows to what comically delirious lengths this sort of deleterious soul-probing may go.

It would be well to consider this word “decadent” and its morbid implications. There is a fashion just now in criticism to over-accentuate the physical and moral weaknesses of the artist.  Lombroso started the fashion, Nordau carried it to its logical absurdity, yet it is nothing new. In Hazlitt’s day he complains, that genius is called mad by foolish folk. Mr. Newman writes in his Wagner, that “art in general, and music in particular, ought not to be condemned merely in terms of the physical degeneration or abnormality of the artist. Some of the finest work in art and literature, indeed, has been produced by men who could not, from any standpoint, be pronounced normal. In the case of Flaubert, of De Maupassant, of Dostoievsky, of Poe, and a score of others, though the organic system was more or less flawed, the work remains touched with that universal quality that gives artistic permanence even to perceptions born of the abnormal.” Mr. Newman might have added other names to his list, those of Michael Angelo and Beethoven and Swinburne. Really, is any great genius quite sane according to philistine standards? The answer must be negative. The old enemy has merely changed his mode of attack: instead of charging genius with madness, the abnormal used in an abnormal sense is lugged in and though these imputations of degeneracy, moral and physical, have in some cases proven true, the genius of the accused one can in no wise be denied. But then as Mr. Philip Hale asks: Why this timidity at being called decadent? What’s in the name?

Havelock Ellis in his masterly study of Joris Karl Huysmans, considers the much misunderstood phenomenon in art called decadence. “Technically a decadent style is only such in relation to a classic style. It is simply a further development of a classic style, a further specialization, the homogeneous in Spencerian phraseology having become heterogeneous. The first is beautiful because the parts are subordinated to the whole; the second is beautiful because the whole is subordinated to the parts.” Then he proceeds to show in literature that Sir Thomas Browne, Emerson, Pater, Carlyle, Poe, Hawthorne and Whitman are decadents—not in any invidious sense—but simply in “the breaking up of the whole for the benefit of its parts.” Nietzsche is quoted to the effect that “in the period of corruption in the evolution of societies we are apt to overlook the fact that the energy which in more primitive times marked the operations of a community as a whole has now simply been transferred to the individuals themselves, and this aggrandizement of the individual really produces an even greater amount of energy.” And further, Ellis: “All art is the rising and falling of the slopes of a rhythmic curve between these two classic and decadent extremes.  Decadence suggests to us going down, falling, decay. If we walk down a real hill we do not feel that we commit a more wicked act than when we walked up it....Roman architecture is classic to become in its Byzantine developments completely decadent, and St.  Mark’s is the perfected type of decadence in art. ... We have to recognize that decadence is an aesthetic and not a moral conception. The power of words is great but they need not befool us. ... We are not called upon to air our moral indignation over the bass end of the musical clef.” I recommend the entire chapter to such men as Lombroso Levi, Max Nordau and Heinrich Pudor, who have yet to learn that “all confusion of intellectual substances is foolish.”

Oscar Bie states the Chopin case excellently:--

Chopin is a poet. It has become a very bad habit to place this poet in the hands of our youth. The concertos and polonaises being put aside, no one lends himself worse to youthful instruction than Chopin. Because his delicate touches inevitably seem perverse to the youthful mind, he has gained the name of a morbid genius. The grown man who understands how to play Chopin, whose music begins where that of another leaves off, whose tones show the supremest mastery in the tongue of music—such a man will discover nothing morbid in him. Chopin, a Pole, strikes sorrowful chords, which do not occur frequently to healthy normal persons. But why is a Pole to receive less justice than a German? We know that the extreme of culture is closely allied to decay; for perfect ripeness is but the foreboding of corruption. Children, of course, do not know this. And Chopin himself would have been much too noble ever to lay bare his mental sickness to the world. And his greatness lies precisely in this: that he preserves the mean between immaturity and decay. His greatness is his aristocracy. He stands among musicians in his faultless vesture, a noble from head to foot. The sublimest emotions toward whose refinement whole genrations had tended, the last things in our soul, whose foreboding is interwoven with the mystery of Judgment Day, have in his music found their form.

Further on I shall attempt—I write the word with a patibulary gesture—in a sort of a Chopin variorum, to analyze the salient aspects, technical and aesthetic, of his music. To translate into prose, into any language no matter how poetical, the images aroused by his music, is impossible. I am forced to employ the technical terminology of other arts, but against my judgment.  Read Mr. W. F. Apthorp’s disheartening dictum in “By the Way.” “The entrancing phantasmagoria of picture and incident which we think we see rising from the billowing sea of music is in reality nothing more than an enchanting fata morgana, visible at no other angle than that of our own eye. The true gist of music it never can be; it can never truly translate what is most essential and characteristic in its expression. It is but something that we have half unconsciously imputed to music; nothing that really exists in music.”

The shadowy miming of Chopin’s soul has nevertheless a significance for this generation.  It is now the reign of the brutal, the realistic, the impossible in music. Formal excellence is neglected and programme-music has reduced art to the level of an anecdote. Chopin neither preaches nor paints, yet his art is decorative and dramatic—though in the climate of the ideal. He touches earth and its emotional issues in Poland only; otherwise his music is a pure aesthetic delight, an artistic enchantment, freighted with no ethical or theatric messages. It is poetry made audible, the “soul written in sound.” All that I can faintly indicate is the way it affects me, this music with the petals of a glowing rose and the heart of gray ashes. Its analogies to Poe, Verlaine, Shelley, Keats, Heine and Mickiewicz are but critical sign-posts, for Chopin is incomparable, Chopin is unique. “Our interval,” writes Walter Pater, “is brief.” Few pass it recollectedly and with full understanding of its larger rhythms and more urgent colors. Many endure it in frivol and violence, the majority in bored, sullen submission. Chopin, the New Chopin, is a foe to ennui and the spirit that denies; in his exquisite soul-sorrow, sweet world-pain, we may find rich impersonal relief.

 

 



 

 

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