Master of the Ivories

By Akrita Reyar | Last Updated: Sep 25, 2014, 18:13 PM IST

Akrita Reyar Purposefully or inadvertently you would have heard the soft strains of music, the strumming of a tune so delicate and smooth that you would have slipped into a reverie. And you may not have realized but you would have fallen under the spell of the hypnotic compositions of the Great Master of Piano – Frédéric Chopin. The unique quality of Chopin’s music is its gentle tenderness. It has a silken quality like the melting touch of satin on skin. It is intimate but not intruding; the perfect setting for a romantic dinner or a quiet get-together with friends. It is also probably the reason why we encounter his creations so often during dinners at restaurants or as playback themes during profound scenes in movies, besides, of course, at concerts.

Born in 1810 in Poland, Chopin was a child prodigy. He began learning the instrument at the age of 6, and before he turned 9 he had achieved such mastery over it that he was already performing at concerts. His early training under Adalbert Zywny was so successful that he even wrote a military march for the Grand Duke Constantine at this very young age. Chopin’s parents realized his intense leanings towards music and sent him to the Warsaw University at the age of 16, where he trained under Jozef Elsenr, who was an important influence in his life. It was also here, during his studies, that he formed some lifelong friendships.

At the age of 18, he travelled to Berlin and Vienna, where he composed his first nine mazurkas, but returned back soon to Warsaw. Promptly, he fell in love with a Conservatory student Constantia Gladkowska and started writing compositions. The beautiful F minor Piano Concerto was supposed to be a tribute to her and though it may not have helped his romantic endeavours, when performed in France it received the greatest applause from none other than Felix Mendelssohn himself. Chopin permanently moved to Paris in 1831, where he continued to compose music but avoided concert level performances. This was more to do with his exceedingly introvert and shy nature, which put him at greater comfort in playing at cozy salons than before large gatherings. He also earned substantial money through his extremely expensive private tuitions especially to the Rothschild family. In 1835, he met the 16-year old Maria Wodzinskis, daughter of family friends. Smitten by her intelligence and talent, he extended the proposal of marriage to her, which the young woman accepted. However, his ailing health created objections from her family’s side and their engagement was called off. A heart-broken Chopin is believed to have put all her letters in an envelope and printed on them the words – “My Sorrow”. He then wrote the moving Farwell Waltz and Étude in F Minor, which he called “a portrait of Maria’s soul”. Chopin’s entire repertoire consists mainly of what can be categorized as small-scale – mazurkas, polonaise and nocturnes. But the dexterous touch of his poetic melodies has outlasted any attempts aimed at trivializing his work. There is such flawlessness even in the pieces that have an exhilarating pace and virtuosity in the dreamy nocturnes that one feels that if there is perfection, it must be this. His love for dance music can be judged by the fact that he penned so many waltzes, though the quick change of pace in them prevents one from really taking to the floor. Apart from operas of Bellini and Bach’s opus, impressions of his native folk culture can be discerned in his creations. Sometimes one can also sense marks of intense nationalism. His patriotism had, in fact, nearly made him join the Polish Uprising of 1931, but he was restrained by the crushing Russian presence. The études that Chopin created are particularly noteworthy, considering that they are extremely technical and complicated. The three sets of these solo studies of piano are considered both revolutionary and artistic masterpieces. The pianist’s 24 preludes were path breaking as from then on they began being considered as not just introductions to some significant work, but as independent pieces in their own right. Among his four impromptus, Fantaisie Impromptu, is probably the most famous. Meanwhile, it was in France, which he had made his permanent home, that another music great Franz Liszt introduced him to French novelist Aurore Dupin known by her pen name George Sand. It was not love at first sight, as he had at the beginning of their acquaintance felt her to be downright ugly and even unwomanly. But in a year’s time he changed his mind, as the free spirited Sand grew on him and he became deeply involved with her. Though Chopin remained single all his life, he shared with Sand his most significant and durable relationship, lasting for about a decade. The piano artist was at his prolific best in her company and she looked after him through the period that he was ill with Consumption. But her lively disposition yearned for newer experiences constantly and she began to drift away from him. Chopin’s terms with her children were also problematic, which only made things worse and eventually they parted ways. Her walking away left a deep scar on his gentle spirit and though he toured England and Scotland after their break up, within a year he passed away. He was only 39. Chopin was noted for his sensitive playing and imaginative improvisations, and while some criticized him from being excessively ornamental or even trivial, his pieces have earned huge following and acclaim for being among the most significant in the Romantic era. Perhaps there is no other artist, of such colossal commendation, who has nearly become synonymous with an instrument. On his 200th birth anniversary, the world is celebrating the gift of the genius Chopin through a series of concerts in famous halls all over the world including the Carnegie, and piano lovers will undoubtedly throng the concerts to experience music at its best. May the spell he casts on us never break. (March 1 is the bicentenary anniversary of Frédéric Chopin)