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ClassicsOnline Home » SIEPMANN, J.: Life and Works of Chopin (The)
Fryderyk Chopin is the pianist-composer par excellence. Regarded as one of the most mesmeric performers of his day, he lives on in his music—his waltzes, mazurkas, études, preludes, nocturnes, three piano sonatas, two piano concertos and much more. Here, his life, from his birth in Poland, his famous affair with the French writer George Sand, and his death at the age of 49 in Paris, is told with his music featuring prominently.
The Life and Works of Chopin
Jeremy Siepmann – Narrator
Anton Lesser – Chopin
Other parts read by Neville Jason, Elaine Claxton and Karen Archer.
It’s strange but true that Chopin, while writing some of the most romantic music ever composed, felt himself out of sympathy with almost every aspect of the Romantic movement (the only two composers he loved unreservedly were Mozart and Bach). His most notable musical contemporaries, on the other hand—Liszt, Schumann, Berlioz, Bellini, Meyerbeer, and to a lesser extent, Mendelssohn—not only subscribed to Romanticism, they virtually invented it (though that honour, if we’re to be properly inclusive, would probably have to be shared by Beethoven, Weber and Schubert). They all had in common the time in which they lived (though only Chopin grew up on the periphery of the European heartland), but their responses to it could hardly have been more various.
Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt were all born at around the same time—Mendelssohn in 1809, Chopin and Schumann in 1810, Liszt in 1811—and all of them were pianists. The piano stood at the heart of the Romantic movement. Its popularity was unparalleled. It came in all shapes and sizes and was cheap enough, at the lower end of the financial spectrum, for almost every middle-class home to have one. And the Romantic movement was emphatically a middle-class phenomenon. Where Classical music, so-called, had once been an adornment of the ruling classes, and a well-manipulated agent of political distraction, it was now taken up by the rising bourgeoisie as a symbol of genteel prosperity and a badge of economic power. To an altogether new extent, music passed out of the palaces and into the marketplace. Composers were decreasingly dependent on aristocratic patronage. They now relied for their livelihood on the sales of their work, or, more commonly (as in Chopin’s case) on their income as teachers of the well-to-do.
Music in the Classical era (roughly 1750-1820) was based on preconceived notions of order, proportion and grace. Beauty and symmetry of form were objects of worship in themselves and combined to create a Utopian image, an idealisation of universal experience. In the Romantic age, which lasted roughly from the death of Beethoven to the outbreak of the First World War, this was largely replaced by a cult of individual expression, the crystallisation of the experience of the moment, the unfettered confession of powerful emotions and primal urges, the glorification of sensuality, a flirtation with the supernatural, an emphasis on spontaneity and improvisation and the cultivation of extremes—emotional, sensual, spiritual and structural. Where a near-reverence for symmetry had characterised the Classical era, Romanticism delighted in asymmetry. Form was no longer seen as a receptacle but as a by-product of emotion, to be generated from within. While the great Romantic painters covered their canvases with grandiose landscapes, lavish depictions of atmospheric ruins, historical scenes, portraits of legendary heroes and so on, the great Romantic composers, Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner most of all, attempted similar representations—in sound, but not by sound alone. Notes, rhythms, tone colours, melodic fragments were consciously related to specific ideas, to characters and their development. Music took on an illustrative function to a degree never previously attempted. In its cultivation and transformations of folk music it became an agent of the nationalism that fired the souls of almost every composer of the time. Another feature of the romantic imagination was a taste for extravagance. Grand opera anticipated the Biblical spectaculars of Hollywood, and the symphony orchestra assumed gargantuan proportions.
To all or most of this, Chopin felt implacably opposed. Yet his music, in its overall tone, in its ravishing sonorities and its highly emotional expression, is as
romantic as music gets. Chopin has won his continuous and undiminishing popularity through his crystallisation of emotions and states of mind which can be recognised and felt by everyone, from whatever background, throughout the westernised, indeed throughout the so-called developed, world, whatever its geographical placement. It was a part of his genius to do this, in most cases, without any recourse to exaggeration. In his music, emotions are never caricatured or overblown; the nationalism of his mazurkas, even of the most ‘military’ of his polonaises, is never jingoistic. There is nothing synthetic about his music. While never without sentiment, it’s never sentimental. Its sincerity is beyond reproach. His gift for melody was unsurpassed. His gift for harmonic colouration hardly less so. While he was a revolutionary, he was never self-consciously a futurist. He didn’t strive for originality; it was a by-product of his questing, experimental cast of mind. While the work of a man with an altogether exceptional intellect, his music is never self-consciously intellectual, much less academic. Unlike Liszt, he wrote a great deal of very fine music indeed which could be played by ordinary people. But he never condescended. That he also wrote some of the most difficult and virtuosic music ever written is another matter; but one closely related to the time in which he lived, which was a time of expansion, of aspirations to the superhuman, of a stretching of boundaries. Unlike most of the reigning virtuosos of the day, however, he was not competitive. He was not out to outdo Paganini. He was seized by the dream of infinite discovery, of expanding the boundaries of the known—and first, last and always, with expanding the expressive possibilities of the piano.
And he was the only piano composer who unwaveringly derived his aural inspiration from the intrinsic character of the instrument itself. All other important piano composers, especially after the example of Beethoven, have envisaged the instrument as a kind of surrogate (Brahms’s piano music is full of ‘horns’, Debussy’s full of ‘flutes’, Liszt’s of shimmering ‘string’ effects). And Chopin is the only great composer who wrote exclusively for the piano. Beethoven and Liszt, by contrast, repeatedly and deliberately wrote beyond the instrument’s capabilities, thus forcing the course of pianistic evolution. Chopin never does this. But his music is so perfectly conceived for the instrument that there is never the faintest hint of frustration. In a century entranced by transcriptions, arrangements, orchestrations etc., only Chopin’s music resists. All attempts to orchestrate his music have succeeded in lessening rather than enhancing its quality.
Notes by Jeremy Siepmann
The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue
Complete Piano Music Volume 1 8.554527
Ballades • Berceuse • Fantaisie • Trois nouvelles études
Complete Piano Music Volume 2 8.554528
Etudes Opp. 10 & 25
Complete Piano Music Volume 3 8.554529
Mazurkas Nos 1–26
Complete Piano Music Volume 4 8.554530
Mazurkas Nos 27–51
Complete Piano Music Volume 5 8.554531
Nocturnes Op. 9, Nos 1–3 • Op. 15, Nos 1–3 • Op. 27, Nos 1–2Op. 32, Nos 1–2 • B.I. 108 • B.I. 49
Complete Piano Music Volume 6 8.554532
Nocturnes Op. 37, Nos 1–2 • Op. 48, Nos 1–2 • Op. 55, Nos 1–2Op. 62, Nos 1–2 • Op. 72, No. 1 (posth.)
Complete Piano Music Volume 7 8.554533
Piano Sonatas Nos 1–3
Complete Piano Music Volume 8 8.554534
Polonaises Opp. 26, 40, 44 & 53 • Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61
Complete Piano Music Volume 9 8.554535
Polonaises Op. 71 • B.I. 1, 3, 5, 6, 13 & 36 • Andante spianatoGrande Polonaise, Op. 22
Complete Piano Music Volume 10 8.554536
Preludes • Barcarolle, Op. 60 • Bolero, Op. 19
Complete Piano Music Volume 11 8.554537
Rondos • Variations • Mazurkas
Complete Piano Music Volume 12 8.554538
Impromptus • Scherzi • Allegro de concert
Complete Piano Music Volume 13 8.554539
Complete Piano Music Volume 14 8.554540
Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2
Idil Biret / CSSR State Philharmonic / Robert Stankovsky
Complete Piano Music Volume 15 8.554541
Fantasia on Polish AirsAndante spianato and Grande Polonaise • Krakowiak‘La ci darem la mano’ Variations
Idil Biret / CSSR State Philharmonic / Robert Stankovsky
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SIEPMANN, J.: Life and Works of Chopin (The)