Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

I have been longing to share my love of this piano piece by Frederic Chopin (1810-49). So much of his music will be well known to you, since his waltzes, etudes, nocturnes and mazurkas are played widely; less so, what I am posting about today, so I hope it will be something new to many.

Although Chopin did write some instrumental music, notably two concertos, he wrote nothing in his brief life which did not include the piano. And brief it was: he was never particularly healthy, even from a young age, causing Berlioz to observe that “he was dying all his life”. It was probably tuberculosis that killed him, in an apartment immediately opposite the hotel from where the late Diana, Princess of Wales, made her last fateful journey nearly 150 years later.

Chopin was refined, even delicate, impeccably dressed and mannered, somewhat at odds with the writer George Sand, a dumpier, trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking sexual predator with whom he had a troublesome love affair, which did not end well. Although the woman who was probably the most central figure in his life, she was not even at his deathbed.

Chopin was a highly accomplished pianist who preferred the setting of the salons of Paris to the concert hall, and was quickly recognized for his talent – “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” was Schumann’s early assessment of a prodigy whom many viewed as the successor to Mozart. Apart from being born in Poland, there is nothing obviously nationalistic about his work, but it is filled with the broadest spectrum of emotions, always imbued with simple and delightful tunes, even if sometimes fiendishly difficult, as in today’s example.

Chopin wrote four ballades, a term he was the first to apply to a music composition, having been normally associated with poetry and song. The first of these is a piece full of drama, the impact of which grows on every hearing. It does not appear to have any particular reference or story behind it, but unquestionably you can detect a story of sorts unfolding, with elements of despair, yearning and hope all in the mix. It starts simply enough, with a joyful climactic moment a few minutes in, preceded by the sweetest of melodies; before launching into a blistering phase of speed and technical wizardry. The last eighty seconds, ending with an agonizing downward scale, will have you on the edge of your seat.

Unlike Vladimir Horowitz in this 1968 recording. Don’t despair in the first minute: the quality of the film is not great at the start, and it is by no means note-perfect; but his impassive, and expressionless, approach, somehow conveys a far greater understanding and enjoyment of this work than any back-arching ceiling-gazer. You may wonder what all the fuss is about at the opening, but perseverance will be rewarded.

Tenderness, drama, colour and extraordinary clarity. I make no apologies for calling on Horowitz: if ever there was a case of ‘less is more’, surely this is it.


This article first appeared on Nick Hely-Hutchinson’s own blog Manuscript Notes.

Nick worked in the City of London for nearly 40 years, but his great love has always been classical music. The purpose of his blog, Manuscript Notes, is to introduce classical music in an unintimidating way to people who might not obviously be disposed towards it, following a surprise reaction to an opera by his son, “Hey, dad, this is really good!“. He is married with three adult children.

‘Divine Fire’ at Craxton Studios Hampstead, Saturday 3 November 2018

The fascinating story of Fryderyk Chopin and the authoress George Sand is brought vividly to life by Viv McLean (piano) and Susan Porrett (narrator) in 7 Star Arts’ mixed-genre production ‘Divine Fire’.

Interwoven with some of Chopin’s most beautiful and popular piano works, ‘Divine Fire’ traces the relationship from their first meeting in Paris in 1836 until their parting in 1847. The story unfolds through a compelling, dramatic narration of events by the RSC and National Theatre actress Susan Porrett, interspersed with mood – evoking piano pieces – fiery scherzos, heart-rending ballades, stirring Polonaises and poignant Nocturnes – played by the great Chopin interpreter Viv McLean.


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‘An absorbing, moving and beautifully presented evening of words and music’

‘Divine fire’ was Sand’s own description of the intensity of her attraction to Chopin, suggesting a love that transcended the purely physical to a more spiritual plane, a meeting of bodies and minds.

The concert takes place at Craxton Studios in Hampstead, a fine example of English Arts and Crafts architecture and interior design. Originally built for an artist, the house was the long-time home of Harold Craxton, acclaimed concert pianist and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. Craxton’s home became a creative hub for musicians, artists and writers – a tradition which continues to this day as the studio is regularly used for concerts, auditions, recordings and filming.

Viv McLean performs on Harold Craxton’s own Blüthner grand piano.

Divine Fire at Craxton Studios, Saturday 3 November at 7.30pm

‘The great strength of this format is the subtle interweaving of words and music…..Viv McLean’s understated, modest delivery always allows the music to speak for itself, while Susan’s words lend greater focus, encouraging us to listen to the music even more attentively.’

Read an interview with actress Susan Porrett about the creation of Divine Fire

‘Divine Fire’, created by actress Susan Porrett, with music performed by pianist Viv McLean, is a biographical journey in words and music through the lives of Fryderyk Chopin and authoress George Sand, focusing on the period of their first encounter in Paris up to Chopin’s final days. Theirs was a tumultuous love story, stormy and passionate, which continues to fascinate and enthrall today. The story-telling and readings are interspersed with performances of some of Chopin’s best-loved works for piano, including Nocturnes, Ballades, Polonaises, and the iconic Fantasie-Impromptu Op 66.

pianist Viv McLean & actress Susan Porrett

I asked Susan Porrett to explain what makes the story of Chopin and Sand so compelling for her, and how ‘Divine Fire’ came to be created:

What interests and excites you about the story of Chopin and Sand?

The lives of the two lovers were so full and rich in incident – my challenge was to distil the essence of their complex relationship into ‘Divine Fire’.

I found the writing of it very absorbing, and most of all I enjoyed reading George Sand’s lively and interesting letters to a variety of friends and selecting passages from her beautiful descriptions of Majorca.

What makes the relationship and correspondence between Chopin and George Sand so fascinating?

From its tender and romantic beginning to its unhappy ending, their nine-year relationship grips the imagination. Sadly, for Chopin, the nature of George Sand’s love for him gradually changed whilst his did not; they grew apart and their affair ended in bitterness and recrimination. After Chopin’s death, almost all of George’s letters to him were given back to her and she destroyed them; one or two of his to her survived – the last one he wrote to her is included in ‘Divine Fire’.

What is it like working with Viv McLean?

Working with Viv McLean is a joy and a privilege. The first concert we did together was ‘Touches of Sweet Harmony’ – a tribute to Shakespeare in words and music. Apart from his great talent, he is so modest and sympathetic.  It was, in fact, the wonderful feeling that Viv brings to his playing of Chopin that inspired me to devise ‘Divine Fire’.

‘Divine Fire’ will be performed at St Mary’s Perivale on Sunday 13th October before touring the north of England. Full details here

My review of ‘Divine Fire’ at Bridport Arts Centre