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.”
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.