By Jacob Stockinger
A conservative musician who admired and valued the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart above that of Ludwig van Beethoven and his own contemporaries, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) is one of the most popular and most played of all Romantic composers.
He remains a perennial favorite of audiences, students and concert artists. Witness the recent sold-out concerts featuring Chopin’s music by Trevor Stephenson at his home and by Adam Neiman at Farley’s House of Pianos. An amazingly high percentage of Chopin’s works remains in the active repertoire.
His was no belated posthumous fame, either. Chopin, the famous Polish pianist-composer who was exiled in Paris, was well-known and widely respected in his own lifetime by the public and by other famous composers and pianists such as Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann.
Yet despite many drawings and paintings of Chopin – often at odds in their depictions — until recently only one known photograph of Chopin existed: The familiar one taken by Louis-Auguste Bisson in Paris towards the end of Chopin’s life, just months before he died of tuberculosis at age 39 in 1849.
Now a second photograph — or daguerreotype, to be exact — has been discovered. It probably dates from 1847 or so.
Here is the new photographic portrait of Chopin:
Want to know some background?
Here is the story from Poland via The Washington Post and the Associated Press:
Here are the two known photographs side by side for comparison:
And here is a terrific blog analysis of the two photographs that also discusses his late music and what the photographs tell us about Chopin:
The Ear wonders how long it will be before we start seeing the new photograph of Chopin on CD jackets and liner notes.
By Jacob Stockinger
What makes for great Chopin playing?
It is an especially germane question since the critically acclaimed pianist Adam Neiman (below) will perform an all-Chopin recital this coming Sunday at 4 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.
Tickets are $45. For more information, go to:
Neiman –pronounced KNEE-man — has appeared here as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and recorded piano concertos by Mozart with the WCO. He is a critically acclaimed prize-winning pianist with a major concertizing and recording career. He also teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago and is a member of the Trio Solisti, a piano trio that has been hailed as the successor to the famous Beaux Arts Trio.
Here is a link to Neiman’s website with information about him and his recordings, including upcoming releases of Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff:
Adam Neiman also recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:
There are some exceptional players of Beethoven and other German composers who sound completely out of their element in Chopin. What qualities do you think make for great Chopin playing and what makes Chopin difficult to interpret?
Chopin’s music incorporates a narrative language and an emphasis on very “first person” points-of-view; in other words, it is highly personalized, expressing emotion from the perspective of the individual, including nationalistic sentiments. Often, Germanic music aims for “objective” viewpoints, with extremely stringent instructions by the composer.
For players who struggle with the open-ended idiomatic flavor in Chopin’s music, the lack of objective instruction by the composer can make it difficult for them to know what to do. (You can hear Adam Neiman discussing much more about Chopin’s personality and artistic achievement in the YouTube video at the bottom)
To play Chopin (below) at a very high level requires imagination and freedom, as well as a poetic and introspective musical tendency. The fluidity of rubato, the contrapuntal interaction between the hands and the frequent use of widely spread textures requires a nimble master of the instrument, one with the ability to emphasize the piano’s specific virtuosic abilities.
In addition, Chopin’s music is centered around a bel canto operatic style of melody, whereas Germanic melody tends to be more motivic in nature, and therefore developmental.
A composer like Beethoven will emphasize motivic metamorphosis as a means of augmenting a form to create large structures, whereas Chopin will glide from one melodic area to another, using harmonic exploration as the central means of formal expansion.
This compositional difference outlines different strengths in the pianists, as the skill set to play reams of melody lines in succession can often be very different from those skills required to highlight motivic development in a work.
Can you place the 24 Preludes that you will be playing within the context of Chopin’s entire body of works. What would you like the public to know about the preludes and how you see them individually and as a group?
The 24 Preludes were composed while Chopin was on holiday in Mallorca, Spain, which proved to be Chopin’s first palpable bout with tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him. (Below is an 1849 photo of Chopin on his deathbed.)
Many of these works were written in a fever-state, in haste, and during a stressful time period in which Chopin was not only facing his own mortality, but also dealing with the myriad challenges of integrating with the children of his lover, the French writer Aurora Dudevant who is better known as George Sand.
These Preludes are like snapshots into the mind of the composer at a moment in time, often without regard for cohesion or development. They exist in a timeless place, where the music expresses the extremely personal sentiments roiling through Chopin’s consciousness.
In many ways, these works capture his spirit in the most distilled possible way, giving the player and listener an opportunity to view the mind and heart of Chopin without filter or refinement, hallmarks of his larger works.
Despite the widely varied emotional content of these Preludes, as a set they hold together as a marvelous and surprisingly cogent musical journey. They exemplify the 19th-century “Romantic” ideals of fantasy, freedom, individuality and raw emotion.
You will also perform all four Ballades. How they do they rank within Chopin’s output? What would you like listeners to know about each of the four ballades, about what they share in common and what distinguishes each one? Do you have favorites and why?
If the Preludes represent the pinnacle of Chopin’s ability to express poetic ideals within miniature forms, the Ballades represent the apex of his more grandiose musical philosophy.
The Ballade, as a form, emanates from epic poetry, often portraying a heroic protagonist overcoming seemingly inescapable challenges. Ballades can also be tied to nationalistic notions, and for Chopin, all four Ballades are truly Polish in their expression.
As Chopin’s native Poland was invaded and he was cut off permanently from re-entry, Chopin became an orphan of the world, whose adopted home of France revered and celebrated him without equal.
His musical mission — exemplified by the Ballades, Mazurkas and Polonaises in particular — was to heighten awareness of Poland’s cultural contributions to a European audience totally unaware of the goings-on in the east.
As a result of the immense conflicts suffered by Chopin’s homeland, and in keeping with the deep pride and identification Chopin felt as a Pole, these Ballades express the emotional rollercoaster of a lone Polish hero — perhaps Chopin himself, autobiographically — battling the world.
All four of these works make an enormous impression on the listener. From the despair and anger of the first Ballade, the bi-polar conflicts of the second (below is the opening of the second Ballade in Chopin’s manuscript), the pastoral hopefulness of the third, and the desolate introspection of the fourth, these Ballades speak to the soul and require the most intensely personal voice of the performer.
They require the possession of immense physical power and emotional maturity, which renders these works as being among Chopin’s most challenging.
I love all four of them equally. They are true masterworks of the highest order.
In there anything else you would like to say?
I am deeply honored and extremely delighted to return to Madison to perform this recital. I look forward to seeing many familiar faces, as well as new friends. Thank you!
By Jacob Stockinger
The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), under its longtime music director Andrew Sewell, will close out its current Masterworks season this Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.
The program – which features guest pianist John O’Conor (below) – includes the Piano Concerto No. 1 by John Field; the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 (“Elvira Madigan”), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra by Igor Stravinsky; and the Symphony No. 1 by Carl Maria von Weber.
Tickets are $15-$80.
For more information, including a full biography of John O’Conor and the purchasing of tickets, visit:
John O’Conor, who has an extremely busy career performing, teaching, recording and judging piano competitions recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear:
John Field is best known as the precursor of Chopin when it comes to composing nocturnes. How right or wrong is that perception and how would you change it? What else should we know about Field, his stylistic roots and his influence, especially through his other piano music, in particular his concertos?
John Field (below) is indeed the originator of the Nocturne form for piano music. He realized that the usual forms of music of the 18th century (sonatas, variations etc.) were not really suitable for after-dinner performances at the residences of the nobility in the 19th century, so he published various short pieces entitled “Pastorale” and other such names until he happened on the idea of the “Nocturne” in 1814 (when Chopin was only 4 !!) when he published his first three.
They were an immediate sensation and he quickly published many more. It is said that one of his Polish students in St. Petersburg went back to Poland in the 1820s, played some of his Nocturnes, Chopin heard them and wrote his own and the rest is history.
Field was a prodigy in his native Dublin where he was born in 1782. His father recognized his talent and spent the enormous sum of 100 pounds to apprentice him to Muzio Clementi in London when he was only barely in his teens. Clementi was not only a famous pianist and composer but also a piano manufacturer.
He soon realized that when Field demonstrated his pianos, he sold more pianos! So he brought him on a promotional your around Europe in 1802. They visited Paris and Vienna and then St. Petersburg, when winter set in and they had to stay there until they could travel again in spring.
But during the winter the very handsome Field became the darling of the salons and all the daughters of the nobility wanted to study piano with him. So when Clementi (below) left in spring, Field stayed on. He spent most of the rest of his life in Russia and died in Moscow in 1837.
What would you like the public to know about the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major by Field that you will perform in Madison?
Apart from Nocturnes, Field also wrote four sonatas and seven piano concertos. The concertos were tremendously popular in the 19th century and his second concerto was often the debut concerto of young virtuosi — in the same way that Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 became so in the 20th century.
The problem with the concertos is that they often lack an advanced sense of form and meander quite a bit — but quite beautifully!
I love the first concerto because it is the most concise and best organized of the concertos. It is full of youthful exuberance and he obviously wanted to show off his considerable technique in the flying fingers of the outer movements.
The middle movement is a set of variations on a Scottish folk song and though he composed this piece while still living in London with Clementi you can already hear the gentle filigree figurations that became such a characteristic of his later Nocturnes.
The Piano Concerto No. 21 by Mozart (below) is best known for its slow movement that was used as the soundtrack to the popular film “Elvira Madigan.” What else would you like to point out about this particular concerto to the public? In your view, where does it rank among Mozart’s 27 piano concertos?
There is no connection between Field and Mozart that I know of. But the Mozart Concerto is another example of a composer showing off his virtuosity. Both the outer movements sparkle with vivacity and charm, and the beauty of the slow movement needs no introduction from me. It is one of the most beautiful movements that Mozart ever wrote. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video — with 39 million hits!~ at the bottom.)
You are very well known internationally as a both a teacher and an award-winning performer. For you, how does each activity inform the other?
I love teaching. I have always loved teaching piano. To some people, it might seem like drudgery, but I hope none of my students have ever felt that.
Nowadays I have incredibly gifted students who regularly win prizes at international piano competitions. But even when I started teaching, I hope I made the music fun for all my less talented students. It is a privilege to give them a love of the art that will keep for the rest of their lives.