“Surge and thunder”

Chopin stamp
A Chopin stamp issued in 1927.

Today, I return to the beginning.

As described in my first post this past March, “Why Augenblick?”, it was a New York Times piece by Anthony Tommasini that inspired this blogging venture of mine.  He opens the article describing how, as a 12-year old, he bought an LP of Artur Rubinstein playing Frédéric Chopin’s four Ballades, and how he was transfixed by the opening measures of Ballade #1 in G minor:

“…something stunning happened, just for a moment: a short gesture, a softly sighing three-note melodic fragment landing on a dissonant-seeming chord that at first sounded as if it were wrong. Yet the harmony lingered, and the pungency of the clashing notes was strangely beautiful, almost comforting. This led into what seemed the saddest melody I had ever heard. The main business of the ballade had started.

I remember how powerfully I reacted to that moment with the sighing phrase.  I still get shivers when I hear it or play it.”

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
He’s buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris with, among others, Oscar Wilde, Colette, Molière, and Jim Morrison of the The Doors.

My encounter with the article was noteworthy for two reasons.  First, it prompted consideration of my own shiver-inducing moments in music and, in turn, the creation of this blog.  And second, it eventually helped me concentrate my attention–which is, alas, more and more fractured the older I get–on the Ballade itself.  At the time, I’d been working–off and on–at learning it for several months and, quite frankly, it gave me fits.  (Music critic James Huneker referred to it as “the Odyssey of Chopin’s soul; in it are the surge and thunder of the poet.”  Yikes: how should an amateur contend with that?!)  It’s easily the biggest, most difficult piece I’ve ever worked on and I doubted, i.e. despaired, that I’d ever get to a point at which I felt I’d gotten it.

In the last couple of weeks, something changed.  The tumblers clicked into place.  It’s still far from perfect, but I finally feel that it’s within my grasp.

Artur Rubinstein made this recording over 50 years ago, in April of 1959 and it is, I expect, the same one that hooked Mr. Tommasini back in the basement den of his family’s home on Long Island.  (Although I’m not wild about the quotes that open the video, I chose this version because it includes the score; the performance begins at 0:43).

For me, there are several incredible moments/passages in this piece.  One, running from 2:40 to 2:56, starts with four measures of a sweet, almost wistful phrase that are immediately followed by a repetition of the phrase played in more rapid, agitated fashion.  Another is the coda, to be played presto con fuoco (‘very fast, with fire’) that starts at 8:49.  I practically get short of breath listening to it, let alone playing it.

Chopin was himself a virtuoso pianist and the overwhelming majority of his compositions–the ballades, sonatas, preludes, études, mazurkas, nocturnes, waltzes, polonaises, impromptus, and scherzos, among others–were for solo piano.  Indeed, there’s nothing he wrote that didn’t include a part for piano.  The instrument was the sole focus of his artistic talent and passion, and you can certainly hear it in this Ballade.


Trivia tidbit: Chopin died exactly 164 years ago today, on 17 October 1849, probably of tuberculosis.  At his request, Mozart’s Requiem was sung at his funeral mass several days later.

6 comments

  • Chopin did apparently die of tuberculosis and I was told he was with George Sand on the island of Majorca at the time. It is said that the peasants burned his bed because of their fear of consumption after he died. This is all from memory but I think I have it right. However, that is not what it says in Wikipedia where they give an account of his death in Paris.

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    • Frank, I have an interesting book on the medical conditions of various composers that I’ll show you. You’re absolutely correct that Chopin and George Sand spent time on Majorca (November 1838 – February 1839), where, after some initial improvement, his pulmonary status deteriorated. The book’s author cites mitral stenosis, cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis (secondary to TB or CF or something else) and cor pulmonale as possible contributors to Chopin’s many years of ill health and ultimate death.

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  • Yikes! indeed. A wonderful piece. And maximum respect for grappling with it. Vaguely, across the years, I recall one of those ‘tumbler click’ moments after wrestling with a 9 against 6 or similar in a sonata. It is an ‘Ah’ moment, isn’t it? I wish you many more.

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  • In my unprejudiced opinion, you are such a talented artist that there’s no piece you can’t master if you put your mind to it. How did you find out who else was buried with Chopin?

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    • I’d always known that Jim Morrison was buried in Père Lachaise (apparently fans still flock there to leave graffiti and various mementos at his grave), but had not known that Chopin was there too. I thought, “Wow, Jim Morrison and Chopin iin the same cemetery…what an odd pair. Who else might be there?” Google and a web site called Listverse did the rest!

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