Birthday Post: Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric ChopinWe are now in the third year of the birthday posts. Ugh! Am I allowed to say that it is a real pain? It is generally the shortest post of the day and by far the hardest to do! But I won’t stop because I like having it. It’s a nice way to start the day. And it isn’t always a pain. But birthdays are really uneven. Some days I have a half dozen people who I’d really like to write about. And some days, there are really no people who I want to write about. Today is one of those days. The first year, I did Justin Bieber. The second year, I did Robert Bork. Those are two people I hate. So who’s it going to be today? Even as I type this, I haven’t decided…

Oh, hell: on this day in 1810, Frédéric Chopin might have been born. You read that right. He might have been born on 22 February. But probably not; you can’t trust church records. Regardless, Chopin is one of those names that everyone just knows. People take this to mean that he was a great composer, but I really don’t think that’s true. Or at least, he wasn’t great in the sense that Schubert was great. He was, by all accounts, a great pianist. Sadly, too much of his work is exactly the kind of stuff that a pianist would compose for himself. “A young man trying to impress beyond his abilities. Too much spice. Too many notes!”

Well, not really. But there is certainly more style than substance. He did, however, expand over the course of his life. Here is “Fantaisie-Impromptu,” which he wrote in his early twenties. It is one of his most famous pieces, although it wasn’t published until after he was dead. He didn’t apparently think that much of it, even if it does work. Note that the middle section is where Harry Carroll got the main melody for “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”:

In his late thirties, he wrote “Waltz in C-sharp minor (Op 64/2).” I think it is a far more thoughtful work. But then again, it was paired with the Minute Waltz. So who knows?

What really bugs me about Chopin is the fact that he pretty much only composed for the piano. Not that he had any obligation to do otherwise, but it is kind of boring. It also limits many aspects of his composing. Ultimately, his music reminds me of this bit of Kipling:

When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

Happy birthday Frédéric Chopin!

Afterword

Both of those pieces were played by the Russian pianist Valentina Igoshina. Chopin is hardly difficult for modern pianists, but I very much like her approach to his work.

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