Chopin the Conqueror


By James Huneker.

The Scherzi of Chopin are of his own creation; the type as illustrated by Beethoven and Mendelssohn had no meaning for him.  Whether in earnest or serious jest, Chopin pitched on a title that is widely misleading when the content is considered. The Beethoven Scherzo is full of a robust sort of humor. In it he is seldom poetical, frequently given to gossip, and at times he hints at the mystery of life. The demoniacal element, the fierce jollity that mocks itself, the almost titanic anger of Chopin would not have been regarded by the composer of the Eroica Symphony as adapted to the form. The Pole practically built up a new musical structure, boldly called it a Scherzo, and, as in the case of the Ballades, poured into its elastic mould most disturbing and incomparable music.

Chopin seldom compasses sublimity. His arrows are tipped with fire, yet they do not fly far. But in some of his music he skirts the regions where abide the gods. In at least one Scherzo, in one Ballade, in the F minor Fantaisie, in the first two movements of the B flat minor Sonata, in several of the Eludes, and in one of the Preludes, he compasses grandeur. Individuality of utterance, beauty of utterance, and the eloquence we call divine are his; criticism then bows its questioning brows before this anointed one. In the Scherzi Chopin is often prophet as well as poet. He fumes and frets, but upon his countenance is che precious fury of the sibyls. We see the soul that suffers from secret convulsions, but forgive the writhing for the music made. These four Scherzi are psychical records, confessions committed to paper of outpourings that never could have passed the lips. From these alone we may almost reconstruct the real Chopin, the inner Chopin, whose conventional exterior so ill prepared the world for the tragic issues of his music.

The first Scherzo is a fair model. There are a few bars of introduction—the porch, as Niecks would call it—a principal subject, a trio, a short working-out section, a skilful return to the opening theme, and an elaborate coda. This edifice, not architecturally flawless, is better adapted to the florid beauties of Byzantine treatment than to the severe Hellenic line.  Yet Chopin gave it dignity, largeness and a classic massiveness.  The interior is romantic, is modern, personal, but the facade shows gleaming minarets, the strangely builded shapes of the Orient. This B minor Scherzo has the acid note of sorrow and revolt, yet the complex figuration never wavers. The walls stand firm despite the hurricane blowing through and around them.  Ehlert finds this Scherzo tornadic. It is gusty, and the hurry and over-emphasis do not endear it to the pianist. The first pages are filled with wrathful sounds, there is much tossing of hands and cries to heaven, calling down its fire and brimstone. A climax mounts to a fine frenzy until the lyric intermezzo in B is reached. Here love chants with honeyed tongues. The widely dispersed figure of the melody has an entrancing tenderness. But peace does not long prevail against the powers of Eblis, and infernal is the Wilde Jagd of the finale. After shrillest of dissonances, a chromatic uproar pilots the doomed one across this desperate Styx.

What Chopin’s programme was we can but guess. He may have outlined the composition in a moment of great ebullition, a time of soul laceration arising from a cat scratch or a quarrel with Maurice Sand in the garden over the possession of the goat cart.

The Klindworth edition is preferable. Kullak follows his example in using the double note stems in the B major part. He gives the A sharp in the bass six bars before the return of the first motif. Klindworth, and other editions, prescribe A natural, which is not so effective. This Scherzo might profit by being played without the repeats. The chromatic interlocked octaves at the close are very striking.

I find at times—as my mood changes—something almost repellant in the B minor Scherzo. It does not present the frank physiognomy of the second Scherzo, op. 31, in B flat minor. Ehlert cries that it was composed in a blessed hour, although de Lenz quotes Chopin as saying of the opening, “It must be a charnel house.” The defiant challenge of the beginning has no savor of the scorn and drastic mockery of its fore-runner. We are conscious that tragedy impends, that after the prologue may follow fast catastrophe. Yet it is not feared with all the portentous thunder of its index.  Nor are we deceived. A melody of winning distinction unrolls before us. It has a noble tone, is of a noble type. Without relaxing pace it passes and drops like a thunderbolt into the bowels of the earth. Again the story is told, and tarrying not at all we are led to a most delectable spot in the key of A major.  This trio is marked by genius. Can anything be more bewitching than the episode in C sharp minor merging into E major, with the overflow at the close? The fantasy is notable for variety of tonality, freedom in rhythmical incidents and genuine power. The coda is dizzy and overwhelming. For Schumann this Scherzo is Byronic in tenderness and boldness. Karasowski speaks of its Shakespearian humor, and indeed it is a very human and lovable piece of art. It holds richer, warmer, redder blood than the other three and like the A flat Ballade, is beloved of the public. But then it is easier to understand.

Opus 39, the third Scherzo in C sharp minor, was composed or finished at Majorca and is the most dramatic of the set. I confess to see no littleness in the polished phrases, though irony lurks in its bars and there is fever in its glance—a glance full of enigmatic and luring scorn. I heartily agree with Hadow, who finds the work clear cut and of exact balance. And noting that Chopin founded whole paragraphs “either on a single phrase repeated in similar shapes or on two phrases in alternation”—a primitive practice in Polish folksongs—he asserts that “Beethoven does not attain the lucidity of his style by such parallelism of phraseology,” but admits that Chopin’s methods made for “clearness and precision...may be regarded as characteristic of the national manner.” A thoroughly personal characteristic too.

There is virile clangor in the firmly struck octaves of the opening pages. No hesitating, morbid view of life, but rank, harsh assertiveness, not untinged with splenetic anger. The chorale of the trio is admirably devised and carried out. Its piety is a bit of liturgical make-believe. The contrasts here are most artistic—sonorous harmonies set off by broken chords that deliciously tinkle. There is a coda of frenetic movement and the end is in major, a surprising conclusion when considering all that has gone before. Never to become the property of the profane, the C sharp minor Scherzo, notwithstanding its marked asperities and agitated moments, is a great work of art. Without the inner freedom of its predecessor, it is more sober and self-contained than the B minor Scherzo.

The fourth Scherzo, op. 54, is in the key of E. Built up by a series of cunning touches and climaxes and without the mood depth or variety of its brethren, it is more truly a Scherzo than any of them. It has tripping lightness and there is sunshine imprisoned behind its open bars. Of it Schumann could not ask, “How is gravity to clothe itself if jest goes about in dark veils?” Here, then, is intellectual refinement and jesting of a superior sort. Niecks thinks it fragmentary. I find the fairy-like measures delightful after the doleful mutterings of some of the other Scherzi. There is the same “spirit of opposition,” but of arrogance none. The C sharp minor theme is of lyric beauty, the coda with its scales, brilliant. It seems to be banned by classicists and Chopin worshippers alike. The agnostic attitude is not yet dead in the piano playing world.

Rubinstein most admired the first two Scherzi. The B minor has been criticised for being too much in the etude vein. But with all their shortcomings these compositions are without peer in the literature of the piano.

They were published and dedicated as follows: Op. 20, February, 1835, to M. T. Albrecht; op. 31, December, 1837, Comtesse de Furstenstein; op. 39, October, 1840, Adolph Gutmann, and op. 54, December, 1843, Mile, de Caraman. De Lenz relates that Chopin dedicated the C sharp minor Scherzo to his pupil Gutmann, because this giant, with a prize fighter’s fist, could “knock a hole in the table” with a certain chord for the left hand—sixth measure from the beginning—and adds quite naively: “Nothing more was ever heard of this Gutmann—he was a discovery of Chopin’s.” Chopin died in this same Gutmann’s arms, and, despite de Lenz, Gutmann was in evidence until his death as a “favorite pupil.”

And now we have reached the grandest—oh, banal and abused word— of Chopin’s compositions, the Fantaisie in F minor, op. 49.  Robert Schumann, after remarking that the cosmopolitan must “sacrifice the small interests of the soil on which he was born,” notices that Chopin’s later works “begin to lose something of their especial Sarmatian physiognomy, to approach partly more nearly the universal ideal cultivated by the divine Greeks which we find again in Mozart.” The F minor Fantaisie has hardly the Mozartian serenity, but parades a formal beauty—not disfigured by an excess of violence, either personal or patriotic, and its melodies, if restless by melancholy, are of surprising nobility and dramatic grandeur. Without including the Beethoven Sonatas, not strictly born of the instrument, I do not fear to maintain that this Fantaisie is one of the greatest of piano pieces. Never properly appreciated by pianists, critics, or public, it is, after more than a half century of neglect, being understood at last. It was published November, 1843, and probably composed at Nohant, as a letter of the composer indicates. The dedication is to Princesse C. de Souzzo—these interminable countesses and princesses of Chopin! For Niecks, who could not at first discern its worth, it suggests a Titan in commotion. It is Titanic; the torso of some Faust-like dream, it is Chopin’s Faust. A macabre march, containing some dangerous dissonances, gravely ushers us to ascending staircases of triplets, only to precipitate us to the very abysses of the piano. That first subject, is it not almost as ethically puissant and passionate as Beethoven in his F minor Sonata? Chopin’s lack of tenaciousness is visible here.  Beethoven would have built a cathedral on such a foundational scheme, but Chopin, ever prodigal in his melody making, dashes impetuously to the A flat episode, that heroic love chant, erroneously marked dolce and played with the effeminacies of a salon. Three times does it resound in this strange Hall of Glancing Mirrors, yet not once should it be caressed. The bronze fingers of a Tausig are needed. Now are arching the triplets to the great, thrilling song, beginning in C minor, and then the octaves, in contrary motion, split wide asunder the very earth.  After terrific chordal reverberations there is the rapid retreat of vague armies, and once again is begun the ascent of the rolling triplets to inaccessible heights, and the first theme sounds in C minor. The modulation lifts to G flat, only to drop to abysmal depths. What mighty, desperate cause is being espoused? When peace is presaged in the key of B, is this the prize for which strive these agonized hosts? Is some forlorn princess locked behind these solemn, inaccessible bars? For a few moments there is contentment beyond all price. Then the warring tribe of triplets recommence, after clamorous G flat octaves reeling from the stars to the sea of the first theme. Another rush into D flat ensues, the song of C minor reappears in F minor, and the miracle is repeated. Oracular octaves quake the cellarage of the palace, the warriors hurry by, their measured tramp is audible after they vanish, and the triplets obscure their retreat with chromatic vapors. Then an adagio in this fantastic old world tale—the curtain prepares to descend—a faint, sweet voice sings a short, appealing cadenza, and after billowing A flat arpeggios, soft, great hummocks of tone, two giant chords are sounded, and the Ballade of Love and War is over. Who conquers? Is the Lady with the Green Eyes and Moon White Face rescued? Or is all this a De Quincey’s Dream Fugue translated into tone—a sonorous, awesome vision? Like De Quincey, it suggests the apparition of the empire of fear, the fear that is secretly felt with dreams, wherein the spirit expands to the drummings of infinite space.

Alas! for the validity of subjective criticism. Franz Liszt told Vladimir de Pachmann the programme of the Fantaisie, as related to him by Chopin. At the close of one desperate, immemorial day, the pianist was crooning at the piano, his spirits vastly depressed. Suddenly came a knocking at his door, a Poe-like, sinister tapping, which he at once rhythmically echoed upon the keyboard, his phono-motor centre being unusually sensitive. The first two bars of the Fantaisie describe these rappings, just as the third and fourth stand for Chopin’s musical invitation, entrez, entrez! This is all repeated until the doors wide open swinging admit Liszt, George Sand, Madame Camille Pleyel nee Mock, and others. To the solemn measures of the march they enter, and range themselves about Chopin, who after the agitated triplets begins his complaint in the mysterious song in F minor.  But Sand, with whom he has quarrelled, falls before him on her knees and pleads for pardon. Straightway the chant merges into the appealing A flat section—this sends skyward my theory of its interpretation—and from C minor the current becomes more tempestuous until the climax is reached and to the second march the intruders rapidly vanish. The remainder of the work, with the exception of the Lento Sostenuto in B—where it is to be hoped Chopin’s perturbed soul finds momentary peace—is largely repetition and development. This far from ideal reading is an authoritative one, coming as it does from Chopin by way of Liszt.  I console myself for its rather commonplace character with the notion that perhaps in the re-telling the story has caught some personal cadenzas of the two historians. In any case I shall cling to my own version.

The F minor Fantaisie will mean many things to many people.  Chopin has never before maintained so artistically, so free from delirium, such a level of strong passion, mental power and exalted euphony. It is his largest canvas, and though there are no long-breathed periods such as in the B flat minor Scherzo, the phraseology is amply broad, without padding of paragraphs. The rapt interest is not relaxed until the final bar. This transcendental work more nearly approaches Beethoven in its unity, its formal rectitude and its brave economy of thematic material.

While few men have dared to unlock their hearts thus, Chopin is not so intimate here as in the mazurkas. But the pulse beats ardently in the tissues of this composition. As art for art, it is less perfect; the gain is on the human side. Nearing his end Chopin discerned, with ever widening, ever brighter vision, the great heart throb of the universe. Master of his material, if not of his mortal tenement, he passionately strove to shape his dreams into abiding sounds. He did not always succeed, but his victories are the precious prizes of mankind. One is loath to believe that the echo of Chopin’s magic music can ever fall upon unheeding ears. He may become old-fashioned, but, like Mozart, he will remain eternally beautiful.



 

 

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