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Life of Chopin By Franz Liszt Characters: 24375

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


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 c

ontent 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.

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