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Notes on Interpreting Chopin

by Angela Lear

Chopin's music has always posed a challenge to pianists. His compositions have retained a universal popularity and continue to be performed worldwide. They have been recorded and re-recorded in their thousands, so Chopin is apparently well-represented – but has the challenge to his interpreter been successfully met?

To gain further insight into Chopin's unique musical language and stylistic practices it is essential to comprehend as far as possible his expressed intentions. Our knowledge and appreciation of this most elusive and poetic of composers is greatly enriched by the combined study of not only his autograph manuscripts and related material (i.e., draft scores, early editions and annotated scores), but also statements made by his associates, friends and pupils, who knew his playing and teaching principles. In addition to general correspondence, reviews and reports of his concerts are revealing, although not always laudatory! – notably from supporters of the "piano pounders", as Chopin called them. To this list I feel it essential to include Polish folk-music and historical development of the Polonaise, Rondo, Krakowiak and Mazur.

As concert pianists lead busy lives is it really necessary to undertake the time-consuming task of such studies? To answer that question so often addressed to me I would like to cite just one example of the wide disparities that exist between Chopin's expressed intentions and the interpretative approach commonly adopted when executing his famous "Black Keys" Study in G flat major, Op.10 No.5. Performances of this remarkable Study are generally executed in brilliant style: Allegro con brio/Presto with highly-charged forte dynamics, heavily accented and liberally pedalled to suit the desired virtuosic display. This approach is, however, in direct opposition to Chopin's original score markings and his concept of its interpretation. His score markings clearly show leggierissimo e legatissimo (extremely light and delicate with a very smooth effect), carefully balanced against the staccato l.h. accompaniment. The first forte marking appears at bar 33, lasting two bars. Exaggerated dynamics and excessively fast tempo markings imposed on this Study are not to be found in the autograph manuscript. Chopin's performance directions are certainly easier to ignore than achieve. There is also the problem of maintaining too fast a tempo from the outset to include the closing double-octaves that descend in a flourish of triplets. No slowing down of pace is indicated, not even a poco rit.! The illustration shown below of the opening bars of this Study is from Chopin's autograph manuscript and is reproduced by kind permission of The Chopin Society, Warsaw .

Opening measures of Chopin's Étude in G flat major, Op.10 No.5

The celebrated E major étude, Op.10 No.3, also shows the disparities that exist when comparing Chopin's autograph manuscripts with various edited publications. It was originally given the tempo Vivace by Chopin, who later added ma non troppo. (Illustrated below) A labouring or variable pulse that disregards the 2/4 time signature (notated in quavers and semiquavers) is incorrect, even if widely accepted. It is not in 4/4 time and the passages (from bar 46) have no fortissimo or doppio movimento indications. The poco piú animato (often marked at bar 21) is not given in the original ms. Chopin's ardent dislike of the sentimentalisé approach and exaggerated tempo deviations are well known. Additional tempo changes also break down the musical logic and structure of the whole, subverting Chopin's expressed intentions.

Opening measures of Chopin's Étude in E major, Op.10 No.3
Opening measures of Chopin's Étude in E major, Op.10 No.3
Reproduced by kind permission of The Chopin Society, Warsaw

Where Chopin's score markings are correctly stated in publications his compositions still fall prey to alterations in performance, perpetuated by generations of pianistic "tradition' and stylisation. Unfortunately the various "revisions' imposed on Chopin's scores from pianists seeking to remould or "re-compose" his music remain unchallenged. Chopin had very definite views on adherence to his score details: "Chopin could not bear anyone to interfere with the text of his works. The slightest modification was a gross error for which he would not pardon even his closest friends, not even his fervent admirer Liszt. The composer considered these alterations as a veritable act of sacrilege". (Reported by Marmontel) [Chopin: Pianist and Teacher by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger]

He would occasionally pencil an altered dynamic or variant into the scores of selected pupils but it was only his prerogative as the composer-pianist to make any such alterations. On the subject of the sentimentalisé/Romantic approach, we know that he shunned all forms of excess and was not a Romantic composer in the Lisztian sense. His unique musical language and aesthetic belongs to earlier forms of art-music and Classicism. He revered the music of Bach and Mozart above all other composers – the significance of which should not be underestimated. To perceive Chopin as the archetypal Romantic languishing in a violet-scented mist of indecision about his scores is a misconception borne of spurious legend.

It is vital from an artistic and aesthetic standpoint that interpreters remain within the "guidelines' marked on scores by the composer. To clarify these "guidelines', albeit simplistically, I refer to score indications that form the basis of an interpretation: e.g. that given sotto voce/pianissimo markings are not substituted for a preferred mezzo forte/forte, or broad largo/lento tempos exchanged for the faster pace of an Allegretto.

Uncontrolled tempo deviations, which appear under the guise of unwritten accelerandos alternating with ritenutos, are a poor substitute for the subtle use of rubato. It is evident from his manuscripts at least that Chopin left nothing to doubt, crossing out rejected score details with thick webs of diagonal lines that render it impossible to decipher previously written details. To further avoid misunderstanding he would write a message on his score for the engraver to clarify his precise intentions.

Wayward performances showing an obvious ambivalence towards the text are often acclaimed, perhaps due to obvious misunderstandings about Chopin's music, or for commercial reasons . Displays of meaningless digital dexterity and the flashiness of excessively fast tempos and dramatised dynamics that debase his music are facile recipes for acceptable Chopin interpretations. They are not only seriously misleading to the public but commit a grave disservice to the composer. The true art of Chopin playing presents a challenge that needs to be reviewed and reassessed.

"Simplicity is everything. After having played immense quantities of notes, and more notes, then simplicity emerges with all its charm, like Art's final seal. It is no easy matter." [From a statement made by Chopin to his pupil Friedrike Streicher-Muller, who studied with the composer from October 1839 to March 1841]

Great music should surely ennoble the spirit, create a moving experience and provide a lasting impression to reflect upon after the final notes have been heard. To allow the composer to be revealed through the re-creation of his music must be the ultimate aim of an interpreter.

Copyright © 2010, Angela Lear

Videos of Angela Lear "in concert" playing Chopin are available on YouTube