Carmen Manea

National University of Music Bucharest

Thoughts on Chopin’s Bicentennial


          To benefit from a proper reception by one’s contemporaries is a rarely attainable goal for an artist. Masterpieces become assimilated and critically assessed in later times, usually a few generations after their authors’ passing. Chopin, the creator of a rich and original musical idiom is no exception to this rule. The present study seeks to highlight the conceptual scope of Chopin’s oeuvre as well as its pertinence for the present time. Furthermore, it argues for an active reception on the part of its interpreters, researchers and audiences. As we celebrate two centuries from his birth, we find that Chopin’s spirit is still among us, along with his quintessential force of expression, his effervescent vitality and everlasting longevity.
          A critical approach to our composer’s work involves an intimate knowledge of its complex originating factors and an attentive survey of its stylistic and esthetic components, together with a valorization of the numerous contributions made by renowned musicologists and 20th-century pianists. The latter, in particular, have passed on the tradition of Chopin’s interpretative art and enriched its expressive potential. I believe that it is only through such an analytical inquiry that we may begin to understand the importance of Chopin as a musical creator of universal genius and innovator of the modern pianistic art. It is precisely this approach that I have employed in my own research and publications on Chopin, more specifically in the three volumes, Aspiring to Plenitude in Chopin’s Oeuvre (2006), Chopin Forever (2008) and At the Piano with Chopin (2010).
          Aware of the fact that stylistic value is relevant when used as a vehicle for a work’s intention, I have focused on a few unitary cycles for piano (Etudes, Preludes, Polonaises, Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Ballades, Scherzos) and other works (Sonatas and Concertos), which I construe as emblematic for Chopin’s oeuvre as a whole. Aiming to re-evaluate and confer new dimensions upon his work from the perspective of the present, I have considered both the external factors and the inner drive to self-affirmation that have shaped Chopin’s creative persona. My research, grounded for the most part in the composer’s work, his correspondence and a variety of secondary sources, emphasizes the highly spiritual register that underlies his compositions. Chopin’s oeuvre puts forth an individual, and unique idiom along with a dynamic and patriotic ethos. Its esthetic concretion distinguishes itself through a simple, yet deeply expressive character. In other words, his oeuvre embodies a harmonious balance between, on the one hand, rich symbolism and structural-compositional complexity and, on the other hand, the beauty of the musical idiom. Thus, it stands unparalleled in its care for detail together with the creation of an individual style. Chopin’s work appears relevant to us today in light of its pervasive associative character, which brings together the real and the imaginary, the candor and revolt of the sublime, all on a path that leads from the personal to the absolute.
          His style – a synthesis of Romanticism, classical equilibrium, ethos and innovative elements – contains particularities which have influenced the subsequent development of universal musical art. The axis of stylistic innovation – manifest at the level of melodic line, form, rhythm, metaphor, harmony, polyphony, tonality, modulation etc. – is testimony to Chopin’s original thinking and musical expression. It is the continuous expansion of ideas and the refinement of the musical idiom that make Chopin’s oeuvre endure through the ages.
          This original creation solicits him in a double function: as a sensitive musician, capable of striking metaphors, and as a refined intellectual. To strictly classify his oeuvre under one category constitutes an ultimately fruitless endeavor. His compositions combine a lively idiom with a highly esthetic vision. Therefore, his musical universe presents itself to us as unified in its multiplicity. Its motifs organize themselves according to an inner logic, the structure of the musical microcosm aiming to reproduce that of the macrocosm. Chopin’s work imposes itself today through a polished architectural structure, the expressive and fluid character of its musical discourse and through stylistic clarity and concision.
          Chopin remains faithful to the Polish ethos, comprising both local idiosyncrasies and eternal values such as heroism, devotion, diligence and generosity. His work gives homage, in this respect, to the dynamic and imperious character of existence. By means of their stylistic and esthetic traits, Chopin’s compositions bear witness to his time, yet manage to capture the trans-historical feel of national identity. Through multiple themes and modes of expression, his oeuvre synthesizes an ars poetica while paying heed to Chopin’s own experience.             
          The essence of Chopin musical style is metaphorical. The musical lexicon becomes, for the artist, a conceptual core that contains a plurality of significations which are metaphysical in nature. In the late works, in particular, the reflexive idiom co-exists with idioms such as the lyrical, narrative, heroic-dramatic, pianistic and folkloric, previously addressed by Polish musicologists. In other words, Chopin creates a synthesis from the dynamic nature of physical processes and the eternal essence proper to his spiritual vision, the latter making itself manifest in his pianistic oeuvre. In addition, my research has brought to light a series of fundamental myths, which the composer transposes in his own musical language: the myth of Poland, or of the return to the elemental; the myth of history; the erotic myth; the oniric myth; the myth of the creator; finally, the myth of perfection in art. In this regard, we could not envision a stronger and more resourceful narrative force of expression than the one present in Chopin’s Ballads. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine an artistic creation more subtly refined, originating in a higher musical and plastic instinct than that of the Preludes, Scherzos, Etudes, Nocturnes and Impromptus.
          From the perspective of the present, with its knowledge of Romanticism in music, Chopin’s role strikes us as fundamental. Unlike his contemporaries, artists prone to programmatic works, the Polish composer succeeds in placing music in a central, autonomous position, independent of literature. From this perspective, we might conceive of him as primus inter pares. Chopin’s masterpieces conquer time, by perpetuating their capacity to elicit emotional and spiritual responses from our contemporaries. The current need for his music on the part of interpreters and audiences alike does not stem merely out of subjective inclination or intellectual curiosity, but rather, helps them to make sense of their own tensions and existential queries. Transcending time, Chopin’s oeuvre is central to universal cultural consciousness; it may be likened to a fresco which recovers its original shine via periodic restoration, a patient and passionate fresco which summons us all to actively engage it.