Prof. Jerzy Marchwiński
Frederic Chopin Symposium Speech
Warsaw Academy of Music, 1976
FREDERIC CHOPIN’S CHAMBER WORKS AND SONGS:
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me discuss some of the challenges encountered by performers of chamber works and Songs by Frederic Chopin.
However, please accept my two initial reservations – they will help to define the area onto which I am going to venture.
First of all, I am not a scientist, musicologist or a theoretician, but a performer and teacher/performer. I truly respect the scientific methods and often make use of the results of such research – mostly to determine the historic authenticity of a composer’s life and work. However, I generally leave this domain to the experts, theoreticians and musicologists. They have their own goals to achieve in art, while we, the performers, have ours. We can live in perfect harmony, without any errors resulting from overstepping one another’s competences.
Nevertheless scientists, even prominent, venture to discuss performance issues and at times prove to be almost ignorant; conversely we, the performers, may be dilettantes in science and all our efforts there may prove useless and worthless.
Secondly, I would like to differentiate between performance challenges and performance problems. I understand challenges as subjective. For some artists, the purely technical texture proves to be a veritable trap; others stumble over the cantilena and the narrative, while still others struggle with expression or the inability to read and understand the character of a work.
Therefore, challenges should be solved individually both by independent performers and by students, although the latter may be less experienced in an individual search for solutions and they tend to seek the assistance and decisions of their teachers.
The true problems are the reefs and dangers which stand in the way of the majority – if not all – performers while working on the pieces.
In my view, Chopin’s Songs and chamber works pose the following problems:
1. Positioning them among all Chopin’s works;
2. Notation and text problems;
3. General problems of ensemble performances.
I do not intend to discuss today the elementary, simple and obvious issues, as I am talking here to outstanding teachers, pianists and students to whom the art of piano playing and the art in general has disclosed at least a part of its innumerable secrets.
Positioning chamber works and Songs among Frederic Chopin’s works
To proceed orderly, let me recall the opus numbers:
· Introduction and Polonaise for cello and piano, Op.3
· Trio for violin, cello and piano, Op.8
· Grand Duo for cello and piano on themes from “Robert the Diable” by G. Meyerbeer(appr. Op. 16-17)
· Sonata for cello and piano, Op.65
· Posthumous Songs published as Op. 74
Chopin created his chamber works early and late in his life. The Introduction and Polonaise and the Trio were written between 1828 – 29, Grand Duo in 1832 while the Sonata for piano and cello is the last work covered by the opus numbers.
Ten of the Songs were written between 1829-31, four between 1836-38 and the remaining ones between 1841-47. (Chronology by Maurice Brown: CHOPIN. An index of his works in chronological order).
It seems worthwhile to ask the composer himself about his opinion on his chamber works.
· This is what he wrote in a letter to Tytus Woyciechowski on Sept. 09, 1828:
“As far as my new works go, I have nothing done yet, with the exception of the Trio in g-minor which I started after your departure and left not quite finished. I tried the first Allegro with an accompanist before I left to Sanniki and I plan to rehearse the rest as soon as I am back.”
· To Tytus Woyciechowski, on Jan. 14, 1829:
“I wrote at his place (Radziwiłł’s manor in Antonin) the Alla polacca with cello. It is nothing but glitter for the drawing room, for the ladies.”
· To Tytus Woyciechowski, on April 10.04.1829:
“[…] my Polonaise with cello, to which I added Adagio, an introduction specially for Kaczyński. We rehearsed it and it seems acceptable.”
· To Tytus Woyciechowski, on August 21, 1830:
“Kaczyński and Bielawski will see me tomorrow. At ten in the morning I will rehearse my Polonaise with Cello and Trio, with Elsner, Ernemenn, Żywny and Linowski. We will play until we drop dead.”
· To Tytus Woyciechowski, on August 31, 1830”
“I rehearsed the Trio last Sunday. Perhaps it is because I have not listened to it for a long time, but I am quite content with myself (a happy man), but I got an idea into my head – to use viola instead of violin, as the fifth resonates the best for the violin, and therefore it is used the least. Thus, the viola will be stronger against the cello which is my proper writing focus; then it will go to the print. “
· To Jan Matuszyński, on December 26, 1830:
“After lunch came Wild - a famous, or even the most famous German tenor. I accompanied him the Othello aria by heart; he sung it like a master he is.”
· To his family in Warsaw, on June 23, 1831:
„Cicimarra said that nobody else in Vienna is as good an accompanist as me. ‘I know it perfectly well’ thought I (Hush!)”
· To Tytus Woyciechowski, on December 12, 1832:
„(…) Schlesinger, who employed me to write something based on the themes from Robert.”
· To his family in Warsaw, on December 12, 1845:
„I rehearsed some fragments of my Sonata with cello with Franchomme and it went well. However, I do not know if I can find time to print it still in this year.”
· To his family in Warsaw, on October 11, 1846:
„Sometimes I find my Sonata with cello satisfactory, at other times – not. I discard it, then I put it together again ...”
· To his family in Warsaw, in April 1847:
„Before she (Delfina Potocka) left, Franchomme and I played her my Sonata, at my place.”
These are the most important quotes from Chopin’s correspondence. There are also various brief yet always precious comments in a number of letters; they not only show Chopin’s authentic interest in singing, but also his excellent knowledge of the repertoire and even technical terms used by singers.
According to his contemporaries, he was a perfect accompanist and he also required that his students play in ensembles. Mikuli says that he actually ordered his assistant Mrs Rubic to learn singing.
In his youth, Chopin befriended Antoni Radziwiłł, the author of music to Faust and dedicated the Trio to him. His friendship with Franchomme – artistic and everyday – continued for many years and resulted in the Grand Duo, composed jointly. One may also assume that it may have influenced the Sonata with Cello as well.
I am sure that Chopin was one of the artists who as a rule do not create to order in the most explicit sense, with the exception of trifle, marginal items, but work almost always under the internal summons of their genius which is their sole commander. Such summons govern both the contents and the form of the work, jointly and severally, and they are crowned with incorruptible perfection. The toil and struggle with the matter and with oneself to achieve perfection are the sign that the artist truly and deeply strives for internal freedom. In this sense, Chopin was the most liberated of all the free spirits. He yielded only to his birth date – but none of the geniuses, even the greatest ones, have yet been able to free themselves from this constraint. The place of birth, however, was for him not just a name in the certificate, but the vital, beloved essence of his life and creation. He never bowed to convenance and to the pressure of well-meaning friends and refused to compose symphonies or operas. He wrote because he needed and wanted to do it. All his legacy was such – including chamber works and songs. It seems that this chamber character, or in other words intimacy, is the most transparent feature of the whole repertoire of his works.
Without the overwhelming effect of the symphony, without the operatic wedgies, lipstick and elevated stage, Chopin appeals directly to the most sensitive sides of the human soul. The spirit of chamber music is present – at least by my ear – in the pieces which seem purely pianistic, such as the Sonata in b-minor. The phrasing between measures 144 - 160 in the Scherzo with the marvellous, cello-like singsong of the left hand and equally singsong-like, polyphonic chords in the right-hand part could actually sound equally natural when played by a string quartet.
I had been pondering over a certain unwillingness or even bias which I noted in some performers and theoreticians who do not treat Chopin’s solo pieces, chamber works and songs as equal, being definitely partial towards the solo works. Evaluating comparisons are always abhorrent, especially when they refer to art created by geniuses; in such cases they prove particularly aimless and pointless. Chopin’s chamber works and songs are just different from the solo works, because they are another type of art of different character. The artist is one person, but his works are many and various.
The piano genius of the composer uses the identical instrumental texture in all the works; the type of the musical narrative is also the same. The elements of the work and the concepts are perfect and the structuring of the whole is just an authentic masterpiece; this holds true for all Chopin’s works.
I position Chopin’s songs similarly to the Mazurkas, although some of them are written in duple metre. Nevertheless, they share with the Mazurkas the same root – the authentic Polish, vernacular folklore. It would be a vain attempt to seek there any direct quotations from the folklore; however, the songs grow out of the actual, palpable, obvious but elusive soul of the Polish people, the nation – and it undoubtedly defines their character. However, this is neither the right place nor am I the right person to name here the sources of this exceptional power which binds us all so vitally and so cordially and at times so painfully with the land of our childhood where bread had such a delicious taste.
The joy, longing and the merriment of Polish people are inherent in the songs and dances. In Chopin’s life, the drama of Polish history and fate of the nation were neither an ornament nor a stigma, but the very life itself. Their truth and power were incredible, if one realizes that even the tune to such a personal, private song Out of my sight charms with the rhythm of the mazurka.
The folk and national character of Chopin’s songs poses the paramount problem for the performers which at times almost turns into a trap. Schubert’s songs can happen anywhere. Chopin’s songs can happen only here, under the Polish sky. They are just like the Mazurkas. Their simplicity is so misleading. In fact, they are incredibly difficult.
The Songs are full of emotion, natural and vivid, which never let Chopin move away from his home and fatherland, in spite of his physical absence there. Sensing his near end he wrote a letter to Wojciech Grzymała in Edinburgh, 1848: “And meanwhile, where did my art go astray? Where did I squander my heart? I hardly remember now how people sing songs at Home”.
The second problem encountered by performers setting to work on the chamber songs by Chopin are the issues and doubts concerning the text itself: its authenticity, variants, inaccuracies etc.
I intended to start this part with a general appeal to remember that Chopin’s pieces are a living work of a genius which talks to us and resonates with the audience – and not with printed pages covered with notation… however, this would be a wrong audience for it!
Such appeal should be directed to scientists and editors. The historic narrative of the artist’s life with all its complexity, relationships, structuring and aspects should be investigated by an intelligent and sensitive biographer or even a scientist who would separate facts from legends and authentic events from apocrypha, giving us an unrestrained access to the facts or just the most credible information about the composer. The important and complex problem of the notation and text is of a very similar nature.
The whole huge, investigative, comparative work which consists in reaching to the sources and then correcting and verifying the information is actually burdening the editor. He has to resort to his Benedictine patience and exactness and deduction skills equalling that of Sherlock Holmes – particularly in this era which values urtext editions and the most authentic versions – to reach the manuscripts and first editions, to show the work in its original rendering free from the traditional overgrowth, distortions or just plain mistakes of the copyists or the nonchalance of early editors. Again, as in the previous case, we – the performers – are actually interested only in the effects of his work. We would like to get a text which is credible in its authenticity, which transfers the concept of the artist in its entirety and is free from errors, mistakes and deformations.
In Chopin’s case this is particularly important. The more detailed the study of the notation of his work, the better the perception of the mastery of the composer’s workshop. One can just marvel at the deep musical wisdom, logic, precision and exactness as well as the unyielding imperative of perfection which undoubtedly tormented the artist himself but at the same time it gave us, the performers, an incredible opportunity to enjoy the most wonderful adventure – to participate in the thinking process of a genius. I see Chopin as an artist endowed with immense internal freedom and therefore never yielding to the creative pedantry. His various, even the most trifle solutions of tying, articulation or dynamics are always justified, even if at the first glance they seem unnecessary or just erroneous.
Every detail is of significance. In my opinion, the perfection of the detail is one of the essential characteristics which distinguish a great, outstanding performance from a mediocre, common one. Many performers and composers have excellent creative or interpretation concepts. However, some are able to turn them into pure gold, while others generate just tombac. Some associate musical thoughts in an ordinary, typical, routine or just banal manners, while others, who are doomed to be genial and original, combine them following their own rules of perfection, mastery and creativity. Chopin, the primus inter pares, the perfect architect of the whole and the master of a detail, obliges the performer to keep both these aspects in mind.
Lew Tolstoy was right to speak about 95 percent of craft and just 5 percent of genius in art. In my view, these five percent of Chopin’s genius is a mystery which should not be touched, similarly to the seeds of our own talents. However, one should examine the handicraft which is there to be learnt and showed in the spotlight. It is available for all and one and it should be the focus of our teaching effort and of the performing toil. As always, we strive to provide the most perfect rendering of the composer’s thought by comprehending and mastering the craft recorded in the notation. Obviously, the text, the graphic recording of the thoughts is imperfect, incomplete and sometimes just helpless when facing the vastness of such thought. Still, it remains the external and palpable reflection of the craft. Hence the importance of its authenticity and recommended diligence of study.
Among the available texts, the PWM/Chopin Institute’s edition of Utwory kameralne (Chamber Works), which involved extremely valuable co-operation of the Wiłkomirski family, meets the requirements posed to reliable, critical and credible publication. The editors put considerable effort to consult manuscripts and first editions, providing a text which is quite credible.
Professor Jan Ekier, with his usual generosity and openness, told me once a story, almost an anecdote, which gives an idea of how inquisitive the researcher on Chopin’s works should be. An excellent cello player Franchomme had been Chopin’s friend for many years. Actually, on his part it was not only friendship but almost a cult. In addition to that, Franchomme was an extremely exacting person, almost a pedant. The conclusion is very easy: whenever any doubts concerning Chopin’s texts occur, one may assume with quite a high probability that works issued in Franchomme’s lifetime were proofread by the latter and therefore are the most credible versions.
Chopin’s chamber works were printed in his lifetime, but all the Songs were posthumous. There is no way to know which parts are authentic and how they were treated by Fontana, the first editor of this collection. One should realize the challenges facing a contemporary editor who will venture to create an authentic notation of these Songs, as they were conceived by their author.
To give but a few examples, let us consider the beginning of the piano part in The Wish which differs significantly in the manuscript from the text published in almost all the editions, or the problem of Leaves are Falling, a song which had been lost according to the introduction to the National Edition, but was reconstructed by Julian Fontana from memory.
General problems of ensemble performances
It is worthwhile to mention the third problem, related to ensemble performances. Let us start with a reservation. As I am aware of the high professional level of my audience, I shall not speak about obvious, common sense issues generally known to those who freely wield their artistic tools and craft, enjoying considerable erudition in music. I also keep in mind the vastness of the problem, which can be embraced with the mind, but almost evade the power of the word and the pen, particularly if the latter is not fluent enough. Therefore, my comments on ensemble performance are just a personal suggestion, presenting one of the many available solutions.
Primarily, the musical work should be treated as a whole intended to be performed by two or more persons. I would compare it to a mosaic composed of leading and accompanying elements, and not a combination of two or three parallel lines. A musical work is at the same time uniform and complex, with basic elements of rhythm, melody, harmony etc., and essential ones - articulation, dynamics and timbre, are mobile and dynamically interdependent.
Therefore, the ensemble performances are a team work based on a similar, although not necessarily identical understanding of such interdependence. Such perception immensely affects the relationship of the performers, effectively erasing any privileged or underprivileged positioning of the musicians as each of them performs in turn the leading elements which are of greater importance and then switches to the accompanying ones which are of lesser significance for the time being; such shifts occur multiple times throughout the performance. For this reason, the performers should enjoy equal or almost equal status. A dictator or a usurper and a servant or a slave should not perform jointly; the same concerns a partnership of a master and a considerably less skilful performer. The lack of confidence in oneself and consequently in others does not bode well either. Generally, some reasonable confidence in the musical skills, wisdom and good will of a partner seem to be the key to successful co-operation.
I do not think that the compatibility of personalities and characters of the partners is a necessary condition for a good team performance. The polarisation of two different individualities may become a fascinating adventure for the audience, and it may add brilliance to the interpretation. Such individual features should not be eliminated but channelled towards the overall goal which is the success of the performance. I do not see any reason for a pianist to imitate a cellist while playing the marvellous singsong beginning of the Largo from the Sonata op. 65. Let each play his or her own. Each of them is free, each is a different person with a unique, individual drop of eternity which is called life. They are bound by the fact that they are performing together, by their musical education and skill and – at least in theory – by the ordinary common artistic sense which effectively protects us against interpretative vagaries and absurdities.
In my career as a performer and teacher I follow three guidelines which determine the duties of each performer, to be completed before the first meeting with the partners:
· Each of them should study the whole work, the whole notation and the whole text of the songs;
· Learn one’s own part as well as possible. In my view, there are no main and support parts in music, or in theatre. There are only masterful renditions and poorly played parts.
· Have one’s own concept of the work as a whole, but never forget that the final version may emerge only when playing together.
I am convinced that the above guidelines are true and effective. They are of utmost importance for the affirmative attitude of the ensemble, as they create the atmosphere of respect for the author, the work and oneself.
Each of Chopin’s chamber works is a full, complete entity although the instruments in them are not always given equal treatment or prestige; the piano seems to be privileged – for instance in the Trio.
However, I am positive that if the performers meet these three requirements for preparing oneself for the first rehearsal – and I emphasize here that this work has to be done fully and thoroughly before the rehearsal – they may realize that there are no essential problems obstructing the team performance. Obviously, this holds true not only for Chopin but also for works by other composers. The result should be a dialogue, or rather a conversation for three, conducted in this case in the extremely flexible language of Chopin’s music, creatively enhanced by the timbre of each of the performers. That conversation is live and dynamic, and each time it will be different, provided that the performers present similar level of knowledge, skill, craft, preparation, confidence and artistic sound reason. In fact, one should not take into consideration any other arrangements.
I would like to direct your attention to a performance problem in the Songs concerning piano players. They have to be aware that the tolerance and interpretation intentions must be much higher than in partnership with instrumentalists. Each singer has his or her own individual instrument which is actually unique in the history of mankind.
One should not only keep this in mind, but should consciously protect the things unique and extraordinary – particularly in the present age of mass production. Out of My Sight can be sung by a tenor or a bass, and the Melody or From the Mountains, Where They Carried... - perhaps the most beautiful of Chopin’s Songs can be sung by a woman or a man, Żylis-Gara or Hiolski. The songs will remain the same, yet they will be so different.
If the pianist partner overlooks the ramifications of the fact that every singer sings in his unique, individual voice, if he does not have the ability to play perfectly well in various keys, tempi and dynamics – or if he is unable to learn it, if he cannot rise above his own interpretation, which may be perfect but nevertheless inflexible, the strive for the perfect performance will end up with the inevitable defeat of both and the vexed listener will find himself alone in the woeful post-disaster zone.
For the purpose of this presentation where all the participants present sufficiently high level of musical education, abilities and artistic craft, I can see three problems affecting the performance of Chopin’s chamber works and songs:
· The positioning these works among the legacy of Chopin and perceiving them as equally valuable as the solo works and differing from them only due to their ensemble character, however equally masterful with respect to their overall architecture and the exquisite structure of its elements. These works were written out of the internal desire, without any external pressure to which Chopin was, nota bene, totally immune.
· Just as in the case of any other works, one should show immense respect to the text and notation which is the testament of a genius and also a transmission of the thought of an artist and the life of a person. It is also a masterpiece of the composer’s craft entrusted to us, palpable, and available for the study.
· The set of general problems of ensemble performances. In addition to the high level of professionalism, they require trust and tolerance, the ability to understand the partners and to think critically; all these features are the indispensable key to the success of any team activities.
In addition to the three problems discussed herein, I can see many others, but they are not artistic in character. All of us encounter them when entering the intricate meanders of communicating with another person. Although they may be applied to aesthetics, as in this case, they also refer to the philosophical understanding of goodness, truth and beauty which may unify people or separate them.
I did not discuss any detailed or particular problems posed by ensemble performances of chamber works and songs by Chopin, because I simply do not see any. I am deeply convinced, based on long years of my stage and teaching experiences that the individual, thorough work is a sufficient preparation for performing music in an ensemble.
I did not discuss any piano problems, as they are the same for all the works of Chopin and they have been discussed many times by outstanding experts.
I did not discuss any performance problems faced by violinists, cellists and vocalists either, as I do not have enough competence and none of my partners authorised me to speak in his or her name.
Let me end this presentation of performance problems in chamber works and Songs of Frederic Chopin with a comment on altruism – this very special state of mind which is the key to the success in chamber performances. An altruistic performer places the good of the others: the author, the work and the partners above his or her own personality, no matter how precious, and values the joy and emotions of the audience more than his own satisfaction.