Is there some mystical blood of Chopin that runs through every Pole’s veins? Or, does every Polish Jew really eat lox and bagels for breakfast? Stereotypes have an odious way of lingering in the human psyche. We love them! They’re as savory as the oozing melt of Vanilla-Pecan-Caramel ice cream on a sweltering, humid day. Yet, deep down we all know just how false these banal pigeonholes truly are. For after the great sugar-rush and surge of dopamine release, we’re left with a jittering void that’s not easily overcome.
I put that theory to the test back in 2011, and sentenced myself to a 10-year ban on performing any of the music of Frederic Chopin (although the lox and bagels have been an ongoing issue). Having a Polish last name myself, I wanted to explore whether there is indeed a special connection to his music as a result of my long dead ancestors.
Before we continue, I must inform you that the ban has now been permanently lifted as of 2018. On June 1, 2018, my previous 10-year sentence was eventually reduced to 7 years – after being paroled for good behavior. For the past 7 years, I have focused all my efforts on the music of the highest Teutonic order – Bach, Beethoven, Schubert among others – not a trace of Chopin! I have avoided anything to with Chopin: Chopin vodka, burned my Chopin specs, sold my Chopin socks on Ebay, locked up all Chopin scores in an fire-proof underground safe and allowed my laptop to auto-correct any use of the word Chopin with “Cohiba”.
Chopin – also known as The Great Fryderyk in some circles and Frigged-up Fred in others – is an enigma in some ways. Why does the music of an anti-Semitic, possibly lactose and gluten intolerant, dubiously effeminate, hopelessly melancholic composer capture us so? Worse yet, how did a man who confused women-who-dressed-like-men with women-who-dress-like-men-looking-like-women, manage to write such captivating music?
Love him or hate him, I don’t know of a single serious pianist who hasn’t in some way appreciated his piano music – from the reverence of his notturni to the dark humor of his scherzi. However, for the sake of this blog entry, we’ll be focusing on Chopin’s consummate achievement in the field of one particular miniature, art form – the Mazurka dance, including a few thoughts about my turbulent relationship with this composer.
Mazurka in G-sharp Minor, Op. 33 No. 1
For the neurotic bunch of us, who live life like the hyper-frenzied barista of a midtown cafe in Milan’s Navigli neighborhood, this weeping Mazurka offers a refuge away from the trivialities of a cosmopolitan lifestyle.
This Mazurka is a poignant snapshot of Chopin’s internal struggle as a poet in exile, embedded within a pulsating reverie of nocturnal bliss. What Chopin does with this Mazurka, has far greater impact than any astronomical taxonomy of supernovas – the music cajoles, allures, laments, whispers and insists. We can appreciate Chopin’s role as the interlocutor, engaging us in a laissez faire dialogue on the isolation of an artist in society living in exile away from home.
SPOILER ALERT: A Northern Italian might even mistake this piece for Donizetti (think, Don Pasquale, Act II), while a Burgundian may delight in the tasteful elegance of each phrase, comparing it to smooth, buttery Chardonnay – what a novelty!
Mazurka in D Major, Op. 33 No. 2
The Mazurka dance lies somewhere near the middle between the gentle sway of a Kujawiak and the vivaciousness of an Oberek. Chopin seems to reserve the marking “Vivace” and “Vivo” for authentic portrayals of the Oberek. However, in the core of every Mazurka, lies a highly-structured rhythm that can capture the essence of a shooting star in only one bar, and the magnificence of a lunar eclipse in every phrase. A dance is nothing more than the universe beating in perfect sync, with each pulse beat falling into a revered “sweet spot” that remains fully protected and bound by Nature’s Laws. However, Chopin’s 16-bar dance patterns are capable of throwing off even the most well-meaning pianist:
“I got it! I got the damned cleat hitch knot!” says the budding skipper to his captain. “Great, now go back and clean the deck!”
In order to capture the primitive rawness of a Polish country dance, one requires a great deal of stamina and concentration, a creative approach to repetitive motives as well as an intoxicating mix of Bohemian flair and Stoic mourning.
Mazurka, Op. 17 No. 4
Have you ever watched the beating shoreline closely and wondered about the origin and destiny of each wave? For within the peaceful solemnity of each wave there also lies a rumbling, tremendous force that consistently scrambles whatever grit it comes into contact with.
Here we have a Mazurka that begins without any true beginning and ends defiantly without a definitive end. Instead it employs an unstable exotic, modal form of tonality and harmonic orientation right from the start that defies resolution in any traditional sense. Within the ebb and flow of each group of chords lies the “eternal sigh” of a struggling humanity, a characteristic symbol of the default human condition found all throughout antiquity to modern times. It’s the sigh of a people displaced by the tragedy of war or the sigh of resignation, followed by a loss of faith. Sophocles captures it in Antigone, and Matthew Arnold in Dover Beach.
Each downward interval of a third is highly characteristic of this “eternal sigh”: Here is the predicament of a man finding himself on alien soil and trying to make sense of the emotional numbness, sense of betrayal, social upheaval and somatization that accompanies settling on new ground. Indeed, this was one of the first sets of Mazurkas that Chopin wrote soon after relocating to Paris.
But wait – we’ve been played! In this Mazurka, our expectations are played on again and again, through an ever-shifting denouement. Longfellow was a master of it, but so was Chopin’s comrade Mickiewicz. Chopin’s Mazurka reminds you of the neighborhood cat “Al”, who insists upon trying out every neighbor’s meal in the ‘hood before coming back home to nap. Above all, like Al, this music demands a great deal of patience from its listening audience. Just relax and revel in the long, improvisatory, meandering, chromatic lines representing a painful longing for home that can leave even the most discerning listener bewitched.
While I don’t see you, I don’t shed a tear
I never lose my senses when you’re near,
But, with our meetings few and far between
There’s something missing, waiting to be seen.
Is there a name for what I’m thinking of?
Are we just friends? Or should I call this love?
As soon as we have said our last good-byes,
Your image never floats before my eyes;
But more than once, when you have been long gone,
I seemed to feel your presence linger on.
I wonder then what I’ve been thinking of.
Are we just friends? Or should I call this love?
Uncertainty by Adam Mickiewicz
Mazurkas, Op. 59 series
In terms of dictation and form, the Mazurkas of Chopin belong somewhere in between the taut emotional outbursts of Turgenev and the streamed consciousness of Kanye West’s most recent superhero monologue. One doesn’t find any thrusts of arrhythmia or sudden accentuation, even in the most blithe Oberek, nor will you find any incohesive, pitiless patterns even in the most drawn-out fioritura.
Notice how the melody clings to the high “E” for dear life in No. 1 or begs the “F#” for mercy in No. 3. What we have here is the true essence of the Polish word “Żal”, for which no direct English translation can be found. The word runs a spectrum of emotions from the nostalgic and inconsolable to the downright vindictive and subversive, defining the zeitgeist of 1830s Poland, a troubled country which ceased to exist on the map. Of the 59 Mazurkas, from Mesto to Maestoso, the majority have this explicit trend of reaching out towards a higher sphere of possibility, symbolizing the incredible resilience of a people destined to overcome any obstacle thrown in their path.
Alas, what are the results of my 7 year experiment?
Well, so much has happened in the world over the last 7 years – just take the recent turn of political events entirely outside of my sphere of influence – riots, sex scandals, trolls, Scaramouch. My return to Chopin took me away from a potential lifetime of Teutonic solitary confinement, and allows me to continue exploring the myriad ways that the piano can spring to life.
I continue to affirm that Frederic Chopin is a very complex individual and that there is so much more to understanding the complexity and universalism of this music than merely working out the foot patterns of a Polish folk dance. He is shining example of a poet ensnared in a difficult time period of history and deeply disturbed by the uprooting of his home country. His music encapsulates this as a frozen snapshot of very turbulent times. Although a complete ban may have been excessive, today I can express the joys of sorrow in other ways: “When Chopin gets under your skin, go smoke a Cohiba!”