Thursday, January 23, 2014

Music Appreciation: Chopin

I never wanted a TV here in the shack but I always wanted a good sound system. I’ve loved listening to recorded music since my sister’s 45’s in the 1950’s, then the big sound from the Telefunken cabinet stereo (our family’s first) my brother brought home from Germany when he got out of the army, to the sound of WLS Top 40 hits from the tiny transistor radio in my bedroom, and to countless systems and formats I’ve owned since then. While building the shack I strung wire for ear high speakers through the studs in the wall, put a sub woofer in the corner, and hooked them all up to a CD player, an FM tuner, and a turntable with a USB port.

But when I got down to serious writing I found music with lyrics distracting. So for most of the day, when I’m working up to my goal of two thousand words, I play instrumental music, saving the lyrical music for pure listening. That shortened my playlist.

I’ve turned more and more to classical music. I actually don’t know much about it, but I know what I like. And I like much of it, and most of the composers I’ve found, Chopin for one. Which, by the way, is pronounced Show pan. Show as in movie show, pan as in frying pan. Show pan. You would only know it was pronounced that way by being lucky enough to hear the name spoken while at the same time seeing it in print. His written name alone would leave you convinced he was Chop-in, pronounced like the slangy verb in the phrase “Choppin’ wood.” Pronouncing it so would fall into the realm of being an honest mistake, don’t you think?

As a farm kid growing up I learned such words primarily while reading alone. As a result, I was prone to honest mispronunciations. At ISU as a nineteen year old I distinctly remember being thrilled at finding myself in the apartment, for the first time, of a very pretty music major, a violinist. She invited me up after I attended one of her chamber music concerts. It was one of the first times I’d heard live classical music. She asked me to pick something to play out of her record collection while she fixed us drinks. She returned to the room with a bottle of wine and two stemmed glasses in her hand, which I thought was positively exotic because of the fancy glasses and also because the bottle had a cork and was neither Boone’s farm, Ripple, nor Bali Hai.

“Did you find something?” she asked.

“Yeah, I did.” I said, pulling an album up out of the many in the wooden crate. “How about this guy, Chop in?”

She laughed. Not just a giggle, a pretty big laugh. “He’s not Chop in. He’s Show pan. SHOW PAN.”

I felt like such a farmer. I might as well have had cow shit on my shoes and alfalfa hay in my hair. And while my musical faux pas didn’t ruin the evening, I sure never forgot show pan.

Forty three years later I bought a Chopin CD for a quarter at the last day of Treasures and Trash, the giant rummage sale the local women’s club has every year in our church It’s a non-descript recording made by Sony in 1994, part of its Infinity Digital series, featuring the piano playing of two Russian pianists Vladimir Shakin and Eva Smirnova. It’s titled The Romantic Piano-Chopin: Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Polonaises. Not an attention grabbing title, and likely not a big seller.

Fredric Chopin himself was something of a snob from what I gather at Wikipedia. One of those child prodigies who never worked or lived, for that matter, outside the world of high toned music, he was born in Poland, later becoming a French citizen. He hung around with the likes of Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann, moving around Europe writing music for, and playing, piano. Chopin was all about pianos, one at a time, occasionally two. At no time does his history suggest he ever once milked a cow or shucked corn.

Musicologists estimate Fredric Chopin performed only about thirty concerts in his short lifetime, preferring the solon rather than concert halls. That’s another way of saying he liked to perform privately in apartments and houses for friends and supporters rather than playing for the wider public. He lived only thirty nine years, from 1810 to 1849. Fredric (I bet he didn’t like to be called Fred) was not what you would call a robust guy. In fact, he was sick most of his life with tuberculosis. Good thing he was a composer and piano player. He would have made a lousy lumberjack.

Chopin was picky about his pianos. He was once holed up in a monastery on Majorca, nice Mediterranean island off the coast of Spain, with his lover George Sand. George Sand, the pen name of a French female author born Aurore Dupin, who published under a man’s name, I think, to improve book sales, was something of a bohemian as was Chopin. While on Majorca, Chopin complained that he could not compose properly on any instrument other than a Pleyal piano, which the company eventually shipped to him all the way from Paris. You have to think it’s a lot easier for a mandolin picker or a piccolo piper to prefer one instrument over another, but pianists? If you’re going to traipse all over Europe it would seem best to get used to other people’s instruments. Not Chopin.

Whether it was George Sand, the Pleyal piano, or the good weather his stay on Majorca turned out to be one of his most prolific writing periods. The liner notes to my cheap CD say that Chopin invented the instrumental ballade and that “his music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition and embodies more fully than any other composer’s the expression and technical characteristics of his instrument.”

Here’s how George Sand described in her own words an episode of Chopin creating music in the presence of she and a friend named Delacroix.

‘Chopin is at the piano, quite oblivious of the fact that anyone is listening. He embarks on a sort of casual improvisation, then stops.

“Go on, go on,” exclaims Delacroix, “That's not the end!”

“It's not even a beginning,” says Chopin. “Nothing will come ... nothing but reflections, shadows, shapes that won't stay fixed. I'm trying to find the right color, but I can't even get the form ...”

“You won't find the one without the other,” says Delacroix, “and both will come together.”

“What if I find nothing but moonlight?”

“Then you will have found the reflection of a reflection.”

The idea seems to please the divine artist. He begins again, without seeming to, so uncertain is the shape. Gradually quiet colors begin to show, corresponding to the suave modulations sounding in our ears. Suddenly the note of blue sings out, and the night is all around us, azure and transparent. Light clouds take on fantastic shapes and fill the sky. They gather about the moon which casts upon them great opalescent discs, and wakes the sleeping colors. We dream of a summer night, and sit there waiting for the song of the nightingale ...’

I hardly know what to say about that. I know nothing about suave modulations and color, let alone identifying notes of blue, opalescent discs, or moonlight in a song. But I do know that Chopin does a couple of things really well. He writes music that goes from fast to slow and loud to soft better than almost anyone. When I listen to his work I end up thinking he waits just the right amount of time between notes. This could be way off base but it strikes me that it is not only the notes that are played in a piece but the spaces in between the notes that make a song really good. When I close my eyes and listen to these piano players performing Chopin’s songs I find myself anticipating the next note, and when it arrives I think it’s exactly the sound that should have been played. It fits with everything else. And the music, just simple piano notes, somehow puts me in touch with how I’m feeling. It’s emotional.

The songs on the CD suffer from bad titles. You’re just never going to have the name of these songs on the tip of your tongue. Take for instance the first song “Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Opus 60.” Come on Fredric. Is that snappy? There are plenty of instrumental songs with names that either roughly describe the music or are at least memorable. Glen Miller has “Moonlight Serenade”, Pat Metheny has “As Fall Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls”, and Chopin has “Polonaise in A-flat Major, Opus 53”? I’d say marketing was not a concern in the early 1800’s. Actually if you heard “Polonaise in A-flat Major, Opus 53” you would probably recognize it. I think I probably heard Liberace play it on the Ed Sullivan Show, where he no doubt pronounced Chopin’s name correctly and I never saw how it was spelled.

On this particular Chopin CD you got your barcarolle, three mazurkas, a polonaise, a berceuse, three more mazurkas, two nocturnes, and you finish off with that famous polonaise previously mentioned. It takes a little research to figure out what is actually coming out of the speakers. A barcarolle is a song named and patterned after the long slow strokes made by a gondolier i.e., person rowing a gondola. A mazurka is a short Polish dance tune, although Chopin insisted his compositions were not pieces to which people should dance, rather they were made for listening. A berceuse is another name for a lullaby. When you listen to it that’s exactly the mood that Chopin creates. And a polonaise (simply the French word for Polish) is another dance in ¾ time “quite close to that of the Swedish semiquaver.” And if you know anything whatsoever about the Swedish semiquaver you’re a better man than I.

So there you have it; Chopin (say show pan): a man and his music. A farm boy review of that madcap Polish/French piano player and song writer from out of the classical past. He’s no Scott Joplin, but he’s worth a listen.

1 comment:

  1. Since I grew up on a farm, I didn't know how to pronounce Chopin either. This was a fun piece to read.

    2000 words a day? Wow. I wrote my books at 1000 words a day.