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Chapter I

Chopin--Style and Improvements--The Adagio of the Second
Concerto--Funeral March--Psychological Character of the
Compositions of Chopin, &c., &c.



Deeply regretted as he may be by the whole body of artists,
lamented by all who have ever known him, we must still be
permitted to doubt if the time has even yet arrived in which he,
whose loss is so peculiarly deplored by ourselves, can be
appreciated in accordance with his just value, or occupy that
high rank which in all probability will be assigned him in the
future.

If it has been often proved that "no one is a prophet in his own
country;" is it not equally true that the prophets, the men of
the future, who feel its life in advance, and prefigure it in
their works, are never recognized as prophets in their own times?
It would be presumptuous to assert that it can ever be otherwise.
In vain may the young generations of artists protest against the
"Anti-progressives," whose invariable custom it is to assault and
beat down the living with the dead: time alone can test the real
value, or reveal the hidden beauties, either of musical
compositions, or of kindred efforts in the sister arts.

As the manifold forms of art are but different incantations,
charged with electricity from the soul of the artist, and
destined to evoke the latent emotions and passions in order to
render them sensible, intelligible, and, in some degree,
tangible; so genius may be manifested in the invention of new
forms, adapted, it may be, to the expression of feelings which
have not yet surged within the limits of common experience, and
are indeed first evoked within the magic circle by the creative
power of artistic intuition. In arts in which sensation is linked
to emotion, without the intermediate assistance of thought and
reflection, the mere introduction of unaccustomed forms, of
unused modes, must present an obstacle to the immediate
comprehension of any very original composition. The surprise,
nay, the fatigue, caused by the novelty of the singular
impressions which it awakens, will make it appear to many as if
written in a language of which they were ignorant, and which that
reason will in itself be sufficient to induce them to pronounce a
barbarous dialect. The trouble of accustoming the ear to it will
repel many who will, in consequence, refuse to make a study of
it. Through the more vivid and youthful organizations, less
enthralled by the chains of habit; through the more ardent
spirits, won first by curiosity, then filled with passion for the
new idiom, must it penetrate and win the resisting and opposing
public, which will finally catch the meaning, the aim, the
construction, and at last render justice to its qualities, and
acknowledge whatever beauty it may contain. Musicians who do not
restrict themselves within the limits of conventional routine,
have, consequently, more need than other artists of the aid of
time. They cannot hope that death will bring that instantaneous
plus-value to their works which it gives to those of the
painters. No musician could renew, to the profit of his
manuscripts, the deception practiced by one of the great Flemish
painters, who, wishing in his lifetime to benefit by his future
glory, directed his wife to spread abroad the news of his death,
in order that the pictures with which he had taken care to cover
the walls of his studio, might suddenly increase in value!

Whatever may be the present popularity of any part of the
productions of one, broken, by suffering long before taken by
death, it is nevertheless to be presumed that posterity will
award to his works an estimation of a far higher character, of a
much more earnest nature, than has hitherto been awarded them. A
high rank must be assigned by the future historians of music to
one who distinguished himself in art by a genius for melody so
rare, by such graceful and remarkable enlargements of the
harmonic tissue; and his triumph will be justly preferred to many
of far more extended surface, though the works of such victors
may be played and replayed by the greatest number of instruments,
and be sung and resung by passing crowds of Prime Donne.

In confining himself exclusively to the Piano, Chopin has, in our
opinion, given proof of one of the most essential qualities of a
composer--a just appreciation of the form in which he possessed
the power to excel; yet this very fact, to which we attach so
much importance, has been injurious to the extent of his fame. It
would have been most difficult for any other writer, gifted with
such high harmonic and melodic powers, to have resisted the
temptation of the SINGING of the bow, the liquid sweetness of the
flute, or the deafening swells of the trumpet, which we still
persist in believing the only fore-runner of the antique goddess
from whom we woo the sudden favors. What strong conviction, based
upon reflection, must have been requisite to have induced him to
restrict himself to a circle apparently so much more barren; what
warmth of creative genius must have been necessary to have forced
from its apparent aridity a fresh growth of luxuriant bloom,
unhoped for in such a soil! What intuitive penetration is
repealed by this exclusive choice, which, wresting the different
effects of the various instruments from their habitual domain,
where the whole foam of sound would have broken at their feet,
transported them into a sphere, more limited, indeed, but far
more idealized! What confident perception of the future powers of
his instrument must have presided over his voluntary renunciation
of an empiricism, so widely spread, that another would have
thought it a mistake, a folly, to have wrested such great
thoughts from their ordinary interpreters! How sincerely should
we revere him for this devotion to the Beautiful for its own
sake, which induced him not to yield to the general propensity to
scatter each light spray of melody over a hundred orchestral
desks, and enabled him to augment the resources of art, in
teaching how they may be concentrated in a more limited space,
elaborated at less expense of means, and condensed in time!

Far from being ambitious of the uproar of an orchestra, Chopin
was satisfied to see his thought integrally produced upon the
ivory of the key-board; succeeding in his aim of losing nothing
in power, without pretending to orchestral effects, or to the
brush of the scene-painter. Oh! we have not yet studied with
sufficient earnestness and attention the designs of his delicate
pencil, habituated as we are, in these days, to consider only
those composers worthy of a great name, who have written at least
half-a-dozen Operas, as many Oratorios, and various Symphonies:
vainly requiring every musician to do every thing, nay, a little
more than every thing. However widely diffused this idea may be,
its justice is, to say the least, highly problematical. We are
far from contesting the glory more difficult of attainment, or
the real superiority of the Epic poets, who display their
splendid creations upon so large a plan; but we desire that
material proportion in music should be estimated by the same
measure which is applied to dimension in other branches of the
fine arts; as, for example, in painting, where a canvas of twenty
inches square, as the Vision of Ezekiel, or Le Cimetiere by
Ruysdael, is placed among the chefs d'oeuvre, and is more highly
valued than pictures of a far larger size, even though they might
be from the hands of a Rubens or a Tintoret. In literature, is
Beranger less a great poet, because he has condensed his thoughts
within the narrow limits of his songs? Does not Petrarch owe his
fame to his Sonnets? and among those who most frequently repeat
their soothing rhymes, how many know any thing of the existence
of his long poem on Africa? We cannot doubt that the prejudice
which would deny the superiority of an artist--though he should
have produced nothing but such Sonatas as Franz Schubert has
given us--over one who has portioned out the insipid melodies of
many Operas, which it were useless to cite, will disappear; and
that in music, also, we will yet take into account the eloquence
and ability with which the thoughts and feelings are expressed,
whatever may be the size of the composition in which they are
developed, or the means employed to interpret them.

In making an analysis of the works of Chopin, we meet with
beauties of a high order, expressions entirely new, and a
harmonic tissue as original as erudite. In his compositions,
boldness is always justified; richness, even exuberance, never
interferes with clearness; singularity never degenerates into
uncouth fantasticalness; the sculpturing is never disorderly; the
luxury of ornament never overloads the chaste eloquence of the
principal lines. His best works abound in combinations which may
be said to form an epoch in the handling of musical style.
Daring, brilliant and attractive, they disguise their profundity
under so much grace, their science under so many charms, that it
is with difficulty we free ourselves sufficiently from their
magical enthrallment, to judge coldly of their theoretical value.
Their worth has, however, already been felt; but it will be more
highly estimated when the time arrives for a critical examination
of the services rendered by them to art during that period of its
course traversed by Chopin.

It is to him we owe the extension of chords, struck together in
arpeggio, or en batterie; the chromatic sinuosities of which his
pages offer such striking examples; the little groups of
superadded notes, falling like light drops of pearly dew upon the
melodic figure. This species of adornment had hitherto been
modeled only upon the Fioritures of the great Old School of
Italian song; the embellishments for the voice had been servilely
copied by the Piano, although become stereotyped and monotonous:
he imparted to them the charm of novelty, surprise and variety,
unsuited for the vocalist, but in perfect keeping with the
character of the instrument. He invented the admirable harmonic
progressions which have given a serious character to pages,
which, in consequence of the lightness of their subject, made no
pretension to any importance. But of what consequence is the
subject? Is it not the idea which is developed through it, the
emotion with which it vibrates, which expands, elevates and
ennobles it? What tender melancholy, what subtlety, what sagacity
in the master-pieces of La Fontaine, although the subjects are so
familiar, the titles so modest? Equally unassuming are the titles
and subjects of the Studies and Preludes; yet the compositions of
Chopin, so modestly named, are not the less types of perfection
in a mode created by himself, and stamped, like all his other
works, with the high impress of his poetic genius. Written in the
commencement of his career, they are characterized by a youthful
vigor not to be found in some of his subsequent works, even when
more elaborate, finished, and richer in combinations; a vigor,
which is entirely lost in his latest productions, marked by an
over-excited sensibility, a morbid irritability, and giving
painful intimations of his own state of suffering and exhaustion.

If it were our intention to discuss the development of Piano
music in the language of the Schools, we would dissect his
magnificent pages, which afford so rich a field for scientific
observation. We would, in the first place, analyze his Nocturnes,
Ballades, Impromptus, Scherzos, which are full of refinements of
harmony never heard before; bold, and of startling originality.
We would also examine his Polonaises, Mazourkas, Waltzes and
Boleros. But this is not the time or place for such a study,
which would be interesting only to the adepts in Counterpoint and
Thoroughbass.

It is the feeling which overflows in all his works, which has
rendered them known and popular; feeling of a character eminently
romantic, subjective individual, peculiar to their author, yet
awakening immediate sympathy; appealing not alone to the heart of
that country indebted to him for yet one glory more, but to all
who can be touched by the misfortunes of exile, or moved by the
tenderness of love. Not content with success in the field in
which he was free to design, with such perfect grace, the
contours chosen by himself, Chopin also wished to fetter his
ideal thoughts with classic chains. His Concertos and Sonatas are
beautiful indeed, but we may discern in them more effort than
inspiration. His creative genius was imperious, fantastic and
impulsive. His beauties were only manifested fully in entire
freedom. We believe he offered violence to the character of his
genius whenever he sought to subject it to rules, to
classifications, to regulations not his own, and which he could
not force into harmony with the exactions of his own mind. He was
one of those original beings, whose graces are only fully
displayed when they have cut themselves adrift from all bondage,
and float on at their own wild will, swayed only by the ever
undulating impulses of their own mobile natures.

He was, perhaps, induced to desire this double success through
the example of his friend, Mickiewicz, who, having been the first
to gift his country with romantic poetry, forming a school in
Sclavic literature by the publication of his Dziady, and his
romantic Ballads, as early as 1818, proved afterwards, by the
publication at his Grazyna and Wallenrod, that he could triumph
over the difficulties that classic restrictions oppose to
inspiration, and that, when holding the classic lyre of the
ancient poets, he was still master. In making analogous attempts,
we do not think Chopin has been equally successful. He could not
retain, within the square of an angular and rigid mould, that
floating and indeterminate contour which so fascinates us in his
graceful conceptions. He could not introduce in its unyielding
lines that shadowy and sketchy indecision, which, disguising the
skeleton, the whole frame-work of form, drapes it in the mist of
floating vapors, such as surround the white-bosomed maids of
Ossian, when they permit mortals to catch some vague, yet lovely
outline, from their home in the changing, drifting, blinding
clouds.

Some of these efforts, however, are resplendent with a rare
dignity of style; and passages of exceeding interest, of
surprising grandeur, may be found among them. As an example of
this, we cite the Adagio of the Second Concerto, for which he
evinced a decided preference, and which he liked to repeat
frequently. The accessory designs are in his best manner, while
the principal phrase is of an admirable breadth. It alternates
with a Recitative, which assumes a minor key, and which seems to
be its Antistrophe. The whole of this piece is of a perfection
almost ideal; its expression, now radiant with light, now full of
tender pathos. It seems as if one had chosen a happy vale of
Tempe, a magnificent landscape flooded with summer glow and
lustre, as a background for the rehearsal of some dire scene of
mortal anguish. A bitter and irreparable regret seizes the
wildly-throbbing human heart, even in the midst of the
incomparable splendor of external nature. This contrast is
sustained by a fusion of tones, a softening of gloomy hues, which
prevent the intrusion of aught rude or brusque that might awaken
a dissonance in the touching impression produced, which, while
saddening joy, soothes and softens the bitterness of sorrow.

It would be impossible to pass in silence the Funeral March
inserted in the first Sonata, which was arranged for the
orchestra, and performed, for the first time, at his own
obsequies. What other accents could have been found capable of
expressing, with the same heart-breaking effect, the emotions,
the tears, which should accompany to the last long sleep, one who
had taught in a manner so sublime, how great losses should be
mourned? We once heard it remarked by a native of his own
country: "these pages could only have been written by a Pole."
All that the funeral train of an entire nation weeping its own
ruin and death can be imagined to feel of desolating woe, of
majestic sorrow, wails in the musical ringing of this passing
bell, mourns in the tolling of this solemn knell, as it
accompanies the mighty escort on its way to the still city of the
Dead. The intensity of mystic hope; the devout appeal to
superhuman pity, to infinite mercy, to a dread justice, which
numbers every cradle and watches every tomb; the exalted
resignation which has wreathed so much grief with halos so
luminous; the noble endurance of so many disasters with the
inspired heroism of Christian martyrs who know not to despair;--
resound in this melancholy chant, whose voice of supplication
breaks the heart. All of most pure, of most holy, of most
believing, of most hopeful in the hearts of children, women, and
priests, resounds, quivers and trembles there with irresistible
vibrations. We feel it is not the death of a single warrior we
mourn, while other heroes live to avenge him, but that a whole
generation of warriors has forever fallen, leaving the death song
to be chanted but by wailing women, weeping children and helpless
priests. Yet this Melopee so funereal, so full of desolating woe,
is of such penetrating sweetness, that we can scarcely deem it of
this earth. These sounds, in which the wild passion of human
anguish seems chilled by awe and softened by distance, impose a
profound meditation, as if, chanted by angels, they floated
already in the heavens: the cry of a nation's anguish mounting to
the very throne of God! The appeal of human grief from the lyre
of seraphs! Neither cries, nor hoarse groans, nor impious
blasphemies, nor furious imprecations, trouble for a moment the
sublime sorrow of the plaint: it breathes upon the ear like the
rhythmed sighs of angels. The antique face of grief is entirely
excluded. Nothing recalls the fury of Cassandra, the prostration
of Priam, the frenzy of Hecuba, the despair of the Trojan
captives. A sublime faith destroying in the survivors of this
Christian Ilion the bitterness of anguish and the cowardice of
despair, their sorrow is no longer marked by earthly weakness.
Raising itself from the soil wet with blood and tears, it springs
forward to implore God; and, having nothing more to hope from
earth, it supplicates the Supreme Judge with prayers so poignant,
that our hearts, in listening, break under the weight of an
august compassion! It would be a mistake to suppose that all the
compositions of Chopin are deprived of the feelings which he has
deemed best to suppress in this great work. Not so. Perhaps human
nature is not capable of maintaining always this mood of
energetic abnegation, of courageous submission. We meet with
breathings of stifled rage, of suppressed anger, in many passages
of his writings: and many of his Studies, as well as his
Scherzos, depict a concentrated exasperation and despair, which
are sometimes manifested in bitter irony, sometimes in intolerant
hauteur. These dark apostrophes of his muse have attracted less
attention, have been less fully understood, than his poems of
more tender coloring. The personal character of Chopin had
something to do with this general misconception. Kind, courteous,
and affable, of tranquil and almost joyous manners, he would not
suffer the secret convulsions which agitated him to be even
suspected.

His character was indeed not easily understood. A thousand subtle
shades, mingling, crossing, contradicting and disguising each
other, rendered it almost undecipherable at a first view. As is
usually the case with the Sclaves, it was difficult to read the
recesses of his mind. With them, loyalty and candor, familiarity
and the most captivating ease of manner, by no means imply
confidence, or impulsive frankness. Like the twisted folds of a
serpent rolled upon itself, their feelings are half hidden, half
revealed. It requires a most attentive examination to follow the
coiled linking of the glittering rings. It would be naive to
interpret literally their courtesy full of compliment, their
assumed humility. The forms of this politeness, this modesty,
have their solution in their manners, in which their ancient
connection with the East may be strangely traced. Without having
in the least degree acquired the taciturnity of the Mussulman,
they have yet learned from it a distrustful reserve upon all
subjects which touch upon the more delicate and personal chords
of the heart. When they speak of themselves, we may almost always
be certain that they keep some concealment in reserve, which
assures them the advantage in intellect, or feeling. They suffer
their interrogator to remain in ignorance of some circumstance,
some mobile secret, through the unveiling of which they would be
more admired, or less esteemed, and which they well know how to
hide under the subtle smile of an almost imperceptible mockery.
Delighting in the pleasure of mystification, from the most
spiritual or comic to the most bitter and melancholy, they may
perhaps find in this deceptive raillery an external formula of
disdain for the veiled expression of the superiority which they
internally claim, but which claim they veil with the caution and
astuteness natural to the oppressed.

The frail and sickly organization of Chopin, not permitting him
the energetic expression of his passions, he gave to his friends
only the gentle and affectionate phase of his nature. In the
busy, eager life of large cities, where no one has time to study
the destiny of another, where every one is judged by his external
activity, very few think it worth while to attempt to penetrate
the enigma of individual character. Those who enjoyed familiar
intercourse with Chopin, could not be blind to the impatience and
ennui he experienced in being, upon the calm character of his
manners, so promptly believed. And may not the artist revenge the
man? As his health was too frail to permit him to give vent to
his impatience through the vehemence of his execution, he sought
to compensate himself by pouring this bitterness over those pages
which he loved to hear performed with a vigor [Footnote: It was
his delight to hear them executed by the great Liszt himself.--
Translator.] which he could not himself always command: pages
which are indeed full of the impassioned feelings of a man
suffering deeply from wounds which he does not choose to avow.
Thus around a gaily flagged, yet sinking ship, float the fallen
spars and scattered fragments, torn by warring winds and surging
waves from its shattered sides.

Such emotions have been of so much the more importance in the
life of Chopin, because they have deeply influenced the character
of his compositions. Among the pages published under such
influences, may be traced much analogous to the wire-drawn
subtleties of Jean Paul, who found it necessary, in order to move
hearts macerated by passion, blazes through suffering, to make
use of the surprises caused by natural and physical phenomena; to
evoke the sensations of luxurious terrors arising from
occurrences not to be foreseen in the natural order of things; to
awaken the morbid excitements of a dreamy brain. Step by step the
tortured mind of Chopin arrived at a state of sickly
irritability; his emotions increased to a feverish tremor,
producing that involution, that tortuosity of thought, which mark
his latest works. Almost suffocating under the oppression of
repressed feelings, using art only to repeat and rehearse for
himself his own internal tragedy, after having wearied emotion,
he began to subtilize it. His melodies are actually tormented; a
nervous and restless sensibility leads to an obstinate
persistence in the handling and rehandling and a reiterated
pursuit of the tortured motifs, which impress us as painfully as
the sight of those physical or mental agonies which we know can
find relief only in death. Chopin was a victim to a disease
without hope, which growing more envenomed from year to year,
took him, while yet young, from those who loved him, and laid him
in his still grave. As in the fair form of some beautiful victim,
the marks of the grasping claws of the fierce bird of prey which
has destroyed it, may be found; so, in the productions of which
we have just spoken, the traces of the bitter sufferings which
devoured his heart, are painfully visible.
Published:
Jan 6, 2016
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