Guest post by Walter Witt

We live in a crazy world.  Some would say a world out of control. Fake news from politicians themselves instead of fake news about them. Conspiracy theories pushed by populist (read authoritarian) leaders  – or as the case may be, soon to be ex-leaders.  “End of timers.” “Anti-vaxxers.” “Science deniers.” Unchecked corruption, without the slightest regard for what was once called the rule of law. And, as if that weren’t enough, the world faces the prospect of a never-ending pandemic, a virus simmering among us, killing the elderly and young alike, while people refuse to wear masks just to make a “political statement.” How then, amidst all of this, and more, can music, the simple act of studying the piano, help us resist this real world onslaught? How does studying piano help us improve the quality of our everyday lives?

I suspect there are some of you who are musicians and are simply curious about what I am going to say. Others who are professionals with non-professional artistic interests, interests which you work hard to pursue. Others among you who are parents and wondering how in the dickens you are going to convince your kids to stop surfing Instagram or Snapchat and instead practice the piano for at least 15 consecutive minutes..

Around 10 years ago, my daughter, who was 9 at the time, had taken the delightful habit of dancing while listening to me play a Chopin Etude or a Brahms Intermezzo. One day, while I was practicing, she turned to me and asked: “Papa, who taught you to play like that?” Her question got me thinking. Who was it in fact who taught me to play? And what did I really learn from them, not only about the piano, but about the important lessons of life? Or about myself? And why am I even doing this ‘piano thing’ anyway, sitting at a keyboard while my back gets stiff – what’s the point?

Unbeknownst to my daughter – and, thankfully I did not drop these weighty questions on her then as she would have no doubt run from the room, hands in the air, screaming – I started to put pen to paper and write down my thoughts.

Learn what it means to accept challenges

I realize now what my father, a surgeon but also a pianist and organist equally talented in both instruments, meant when he said: “sitting down at the piano can be the hardest part of playing the piano.” There is a moment when you decide to learn a piece. Something tells you there is no alternative. No more playing around with a melody here or a passage there. It is like thinking of that client or project, mulling it over, but never actually signing the contract.

So you accept the challenge before you. You realize it is time. Sometimes it can take years – like finally saying hello to a neighbour. You meant to do it earlier, thought about what to say, but you never started the conversation. It was too much effort at the time or something else came up. There was always an excuse. But now you are going to learn this piece because you want to yourself, not because someone else wants you to. So you start that long difficult job or project. You say hello to that neighbour. You finally greet the music before you.

When I start a new piece, I invariably think of my beloved childhood piano professor, Mae Gilbert Reese, a student of Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory near Paris. I see her standing next to me. She is saying: “this is the beginning of a journey. I helped get you to this point but you brought yourself here alone. The journey will be difficult. You will stop at points as you travel, stumble over notes, get stuck in a phrase and think you cannot move forward, that there are too many obstacles. Your back will ache. Your fingers will ache. But you know what the piece must sound like. You can hear it. You can see where your destination is, so you go on. You return to the piano and get on with it.”

Then when I start the piece, my reflexes turn on. I am an athlete again. A pianist approaches the entire act just as an athlete does, investing oneself fully in the moment, through a process of constant self-preparation.

Respect your body

There are exercises Mrs. Reese taught me – how to relax your arms, your hands, your wrist, your fingers. Lean over and let your lower back muscles stretch out naturally. Your upper body slowly drops the ground as gravity takes over. Let your hands drop flat on the ground, watch them drop. Soak your hands in hot water for a minute. Do this first. Then sit down at the piano.

Prepare yourself physically first for what is ahead. Always do this, no matter what you do.

Take your time.

When you start a piece, you sight read. It’s the same as looking over a job and preparing an action plan for the project first. Your reflex is to go fast. Resist this reflex. Start at quarter tempo, no more. Simply listen more closely to the harmonies and the structure of the piece as you play it slowly for the first time. You are outlining the job ahead. Think of the composer writing the piece out with his pen, the time he or she took to write each note. So slow down, watch your hands and examine each note. The notes enter your fingers correctly from the start this way. You are starting what could be a difficult task, trying to solve a problem. It is like a relationship which can be difficult. There are emotions to sort out. You have to decide what to do.

Start slowly and later, you can speed up. When you learn to drive you don’t drive on the highway first, especially with a brand new license. You start on the surface streets. There will be time for the highway later.

Think of what are looking at while you are looking at it

When I was a kid, I needed to remind myself this early on. The reason was I did not see well sometimes, even with my glasses, perhaps why I am not as a good a sight reader as I would like to be. It really is a question of eyesight. You need to see what is in front of you on the page. It’s like seeing what’s in front of you in life and focusing on it. If you do this, you are fortunate – seeing something for precisely what it is, and not thinking you see something when in fact you don’t.

Sometimes it is easier to see what you want, in certain instances. All of us do this. It is a human frailty, perhaps linked to our capacity to dream, a gift which distinguishes us from animals, as far as we know. One’s dreams do not have to be an entirely new world or creation either. They can be the slightest of differences from reality.

I can remember taking off my glasses just to see how long I could get around my day without them. So what if things are a little blurry, right? I would leave them off. Unfortunately, my glasses had an annoying way of disappearing that way! So I kept my glasses on. To see things as they are in life – the sharp details of responsibilities. Don’t worry about taking the time it takes to see something and to understand it. Resist the temptation not to look at the hard edges. It may be perfectly human to do so, but you can’t afford to do it, especially in today’s world.

Learn how to listen – really listen!

Most people have no idea what listening means.

My sister and I used to play a game, before I started the piano. My sister would sing a note. I would go to the piano, look at the keyboard, and play the note. Then she would sing a melody. I would listen and sing it back. Then I would play it on the piano. My sister would then turn me around and tap a chord on the piano while I faced the wall and ask me what chord it was. I would go back to the keyboard and play the chord. To end the game, she would finally lift both hands and – in a surprisingly energetic gesture – bring both hands down, randomly, on the keyboard! I would return to the piano, find the notes and play them. I had perfect pitch but more importantly, I learned early on to listen.

Sometimes when I practice a piece, I play the right hand quietly or not at all, moving my fingers like phantoms floating lightly over the keys. Then, as the fingers of my right hand move silently, I play the left hand full voice. I listen closely to what the left hand is saying. I hear new voices that were previously neglected.

Walk in the streets, close your eyes and listen to what you hear. Listen to bits and pieces of conversations as people pass by. A couple are talking about each other’s workday — “this girl in my class is very shy” a woman, a schoolteacher, says to her husband. “I can’t stand my job anymore,” the husband says to his wife. You hear a mother encouraging a child riding her bicycle for the first time. “Very good – keep going,” she says. “Very good.” Then other people approach. You can hear them greeting each other. You listen to their steps as they pass. You listen to the wind moving through the trees. Concentrate on listening to the moment itself. You will be surprised how much better you listen afterwards.

Beware of the pedal

No pedal at first. The pedal has a way of making you think you play better than you do. The pedal is like a hoax that you perpetrate on yourself. It is similar to a good bottle of wine: you wake up at some point, probably with a hangover, and realize that without that pedal, without that bottle of wine, you are not quite as beautiful as you thought you were! Be honest with yourself – no pedal to start.

Look ahead

Always. When you work through a piece, remember that you are going somewhere – that the music has to go somewhere. Think of the notes you are playing but also the next note, the next phrase. Prepare yourself. Position your hand. Construct your fingering for where you are going next.

Get yourself into position first, no matter what you do in life. Otherwise you may have to improvise a passage to survive (this happens to everyone these days!). Think where you are going first, anticipate. Plan on how you are getting there, then act accordingly. Think of where you are going as you go.

Remember to rest

Close your eyes for 5 minutes. Drop your arms by your side — no movement, just like that stretching exercise. I remember how Mrs. Reese would stop me abruptly after a long session on a piece: “I think we’ll stop for a while here, go on to another piece. We will come back later,’’ she would say. She knew that the intensity of music fills you completely. You become saturated. Music, particularly great music, is that way, particularly when you perform it. Stop to rest no matter how large the problem may appear to be. Then start again.

Be conscious of your environment

Always remember the key you are in as you play. You are A minor, or F minor, or E-flat major. Think of the flats or the sharps. It is like your surroundings on a journey. Are you in the city? In the country? Are you surrounded by people? Are you alone? Think for a moment and then play the scale on the piano, just to clear your mind. Stop and think of the place you are in and then return to the problem. You will have a better idea where you are going if you do.

Watch your time

Watch your time when you practice. Keep moving through the piece, otherwise you will become tired. Or hungry. You will call it quits! Your body simply becomes weak. Later on in life, you become conscious of the limited time you have left. It will weigh on you and can even become your greatest suffering. We all must guard against wasting time in life on things we can’t control, no matter how crazy they may seem. Keep track of your time on this earth.

Don’t fool yourself with the easy parts

Whatever you do, don’t play the easy parts first! They are like the downhill slopes on a cross country race. Instead, go straight to the difficult passages. My teacher, Mrs. Reese, would call these the “technical” passages, sections of a piece that seem impossible to start. The ones that scare you and are terrifying to look at, even on the page. The technical passages are the challenges which you will face in life. Go straight at them. Do not flinch or look for the easy way out. You will delude yourself and end up going nowhere.

Take notes

Keep a pencil ready with you to mark your thoughts as you go. Mark comments on your performance but above on the performances of others. As you are play the passages, mark the score and write down your thoughts. Note the dynamics, the crescendos and diminuendos in your life as you live it.

My father was a champion note taker – he had to be, writing histories and physicals on his patients or surgical reports. My father wrote me letters over the years, no matter what continent I happened to be on at the time. They were just short notes, to say he was thinking of me or to let me know how things are. The letters were never long. Nor were they ever in the least way self-aggrandizing. In fact, I never recall a single time in his letters when he mentioned an honour conferred on him in the course of his work, although there were many. I read these letters again sometimes as they have given me comfort through the years. It wasn’t until later however that I realized I had been reading his notes to me, in my piano, every day. “Don’t hurry,” he tells me in the margins of my Cortot edition of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, marked in pencil at the recapitulation. “Steady,” he says, at the beginning of the coda at the end of the piece. I see my father’s handwriting next to Mrs. Reese’s in the margins of the same score. They are invariably clear, concise written words – “hold,” “softly,” “slow down.” Clear and concise. Sometimes they are simple translations from Italian or French for example —‘Spianato’ –Italian ‘spanare,’ to smooth over, simple, plain” …. ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ : The maid with the flaxen hair. My father never spoke French, or Italian for that matter. He understood however the importance of language, of precise meaning, and certainly for the purposes of his piano.

Classical music is a precise business, and a precise business merits note taking. Every note and phrase, the sense of a phrase and what each phrase means, counts. The composer intended each phrase to mean something. So take the time mark even as you are playing. Sometimes I will lift my left hand and mark as I play while my right hand continues playing, circling a note to accent, marking “piano” here, “pianissimo” or “forte ” there. It is like writing a journal. You jot down the relationships which count for you, whether you made the right decision to go somewhere or meet someone. Perhaps you see something beautiful which delights you. Or something else which repels you. Write down your thoughts as you go through life wherever you are. You will come to think differently of the journey.

These “lessons from the piano” will resonate more with some perhaps, and less with others. On the whole however, they are lessons that have served me well, keeping me strong, particularly in difficult times such as those we are living through today. I hope they will do the same for you.

home-page-2Walter Witt is a classical pianist, composer and educator based in Paris.  A lifelong student of the works of Chopin, Walter captivates audiences with his innate musicianship and dynamic presence  at the piano. Together with his advocacy for classical music and its educational importance, these talents make him one of the most  compelling figure in classical music today.

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Long read guest post by Walter Simmons Witt

”It is not the piano that speaks, but a soul.”

Marquis de Custine, in a letter to Chopin, April 1831.

As a pianist and connoisseur of Chopin, I have always been fascinated by how Chopin’s contemporaries perceived him, be they friends, admirers or critics. What insights can be gained from those that heard him play?  A voluminous and sometimes misleading literature on Chopin already exists, in particularly regarding Chopin and Sand and their tortured relationship, of little importance to a musician. What about Chopin’s artistry, his music? What did Chopin’s contemporaries say?

In order to understand Chopin’s music, one must first acknowledge his twin Polish and French roots. Both nationalities defined him. He was a mixture of the Polish “zal,” or spleen, and the French “bon usage et bonne manière.” Anguished, yet aristocratic. Patriotic, yet politely so.   As Jane Stirling, Chopin’s friend and ardent admirer observed: “he was not like other men.” While devoid of any particular depth or subtlety, her description is revealing. Chopin clearly was not like other men. As Debussy himself observed, “By the very nature of his genius, the music of Chopin escapes any classification.”

The intensely private nature of Chopin – his desire to keep personal matters to himself – cannot be overlooked. Perhaps due to his status as a refugee, afraid to reveal himself to his French or Polish hosts, as well as his chronic, debilitating illness, Chopin hid his real personality and thoughts behind a veneer of “courtoisie.”   As Liszt said of him, “Chopin’s character is composed of a thousand shades which in crossing one another become so disguised as to be indistinguishable.” Or as the biographer Louis Esnault remarked: “Chopin lent of himself sometimes, but gave of himself never.”

Chopin – of whom the Princess Belgiojoso said “is greater than the greatest of pianists, he is the only one” – was entirely self-taught. Consider this fact for a moment – Chopin had no elementary instruction in the piano or piano technique. Instead, he learned technique by creating it and refining it, ultimately revealing a poetic virtuosity which has never known a rival.

It must also be remembered that Chopin’s fame as a young man allowed Chopin to be welcomed as an equal in the highest levels of society. This is where Chopin acquired the habits of scrupulous politeness, considered essential to the maintenance of style in social relationships. Liszt, who understood this well, was probably not far off when he described Chopin’s bearing as “princely.” Despite Chopin’s intense social activity, however, Chopin craved solitude. From his stay in Vienna, Chopin gives us an opening into his state of mind in a letter to his childhood friend, Titus: “It is only the various dinners, evening parties, concerts, and balls that I am obliged that sustain me a little. I feel so sad, lonely, and abandoned here. I have, of course, to dress for these receptions with a reasonably contended countenance. But I hurry back to my room, where I can give rein to my suppressed emotions by sitting down at my piano, which now is only too well accustomed to the expression of all my sufferings.

As for the level of admiration which Chopin elicited, one cannot do better than the Marquis de Custine, a neighbour of Chopin’s in the “New Athens” district in Paris: “Not only do we love him, we love ourselves in him.” Despite this perhaps overly romantized description expressed by the Marquis in a letter to Chopin following Chopin’s debut concert in 1831, Chopin confessed the following to his beloved friend, Titus: “Outwardly I am gay, especially among my own, I mean by ‘my own,’ all the Poles. But, at the root of my being I am suffering an indefinable torment – full of presentiments, uneasiness, nightmares, when it is not insomnia. Sometimes I feel indifferent to everything and sometimes a prey to the most intense homesickness; I long to live as much as to die and sometimes I feel a sort of complete numbness which incidentally is not without a certain pleasure but which makes me feel away from everything. Then suddenly vivid memories arise and torture me: hatred, bitterness, a frightful mixture of unhealthy sensations which attack me and leave me exhausted.

This startling lucidity and self-awareness can be safely described as Chopin’s Polish “zal.” Chopin reveals, in almost clinical terms, the depth of his nature – a nature exacerbated by illness as his symptoms increased with time. Add to this Chopin’s apparent discomfort with familiarity, – “he did not understand, or would not understand anything, that was not personal to himself” as Sand put it – and we have the elements of Chopin’s character in a nutshell.

As Chopin grew older, his anger and outbursts of rage only intensified. Georges Sand, who had ample opportunity to observe Chopin’s temper, said that “Chopin in a rage was terrifying.” Sand’s thinly veiled and no doubt vengeful characterization of Chopin as “Prince Carol” in her book, Lucrezia Floriani, is revealing: “he showed a charm which was false and glittering, with which he tortured those who loved him. He had the air of one who bites gently for the pleasure of doing it and his bite went deep. Everything seemed strange and uninteresting, he held aloof from everything, every opinion, every idea.

Liszt, Chopin’s friend, admirer and sometimes rival, described it this way: “Never was there a nature more imbued with whims, caprices, and abrupt eccentricities. His imagination was fiery, his emotions violent, and his physical being feeble and sickly. Who can possibly plomb the suffering deriving from such a contradiction?

These are the descriptions of Chopin the man. What of his music and his piano? The number of concerts which Chopin gave was surprisingly few – a handful when compared to today’s typical concert pianist. And yet, Chopin’s reputation and fame was established early on and was widespread. He had no rival, notwithstanding the spectacular fame of Liszt and to a much lesser degree, Thalberg, both regulars on the platform. What was the secret of Chopin’s success as a pianist? Certainly, the opinion of contemporary aristocratic circles magnified Chopin’s reputation. Statements such as those of Princess Belgiojoso led many no doubt to accept Chopin’s greatness as a matter of faith. This cannot explain however the worship of Chopin, or Chopin’s recognition as the supreme master of the keyboard.

This idea is borne out by the contemporary descriptions we have of Chopin’s playing. Gustave Chouquet, director of the Musée du Conservatoire, had the good fortune as a boy to hear Chopin play in the Ancien Conservatoire concert hall in 1835. He compared Chopin to Liszt, who appeared in the same concert hall a few days later. “After praising Liszt’s rendering of Weber’s Koncertstük; Chouquet compared Liszt’s playing with the ‘ineffable poetry’ of Chopin’s.

Chouquet writes: “In 1835, Liszt was the perfect example of the virtuoso. He made the most of every effect as if he were a Paganini of the piano. Chopin, on the other hand, communed with voices within himself, and never appeared to notice his audience. He was not always in form, but when in the mood he played as one inspired and made the piano sing in an ineffable style.

Chouquet repeats the word “ineffable” in his letter – ineffable in the sense of passing beyond the bounds of music. The embodiment, the very meaning itself, of musical revelation.

Writing about a concert given by Chopin in Rouen for his fellow Polish countrymen, Legouvé Orlowski gives us an eyewitness account which merits quoting in its entirety:

“This event is not without significance in the world of music. Chopin, who has retired from playing in public for some years past, Chopin who confines his fascinating genius to an audience of five or six, Chopin who resembles those enchanted islands on which so few here set foot, who recount such marvels that they are accused of falsehood, Chopin whom one can never forget once having heard him.

And indeed, his success was immense. Immense! All those ravishing melodies, that ineffable delicacy of touch, that melancholy and passionate inspiration, the poetry of execution and composition, which grips both the imagination and the heart, penetrated, stirred, enraptured all five hundred listeners, as they do the five or six chosen ones who form his audience and religiously attend to him for hours on end. The atmosphere was electric, murmurs or ecstasy and wonder filled the hall, which are the applause of the soul.”

Even discounting for hyperbole, Orlowski’s description of Chopin is most revealing. It reveals the power of Chopin as a pianist, equal if not greater – impossible to imagine – than the esteem given to Chopin as a composer.

In April 1841, during Chopin’s mature compositional period, following a long period of public silence, Chopin decided to give a concert at Monsieur Pleyel’s salons. He appeared for the first time without an orchestra, as a soloist. Chopin introduced that evening the Ballade Op 38, the Polonaise Op 40, the Second Scherzo, four Mazurkas from Op 41, as well as Etudes, Preludes, Nocturnes. The cream of Parisian society fought each other to attend. Perhaps there is no better witness to Chopin’s playing that evening than that of Liszt himself.

Liszt, in the Gazette Musicale on May 2, 1841, penned the following, taking us into the very heart of Chopin himself:

“A grand piano stood on the platform, everyone sought the nearest seats and settled down to listen, telling themselves in advance that they must not miss a chord, a note, a suggestion, a though that might fall from him who was to play.

They were right to be so eager, attentive to the point of worship, for he whom they awaited, whom they were so desirous of hearing, admiring, applauding was not merely a skilled virtuoso, a pianist who was master of the keyboard, not only an artist of renown, he was someone far beyond all this – they awaited Chopin!

Music was his language, a divine language by means of which he expressed a whole range of feelings which could be appreciated only by the few. The music of his homeland sang to him the songs and sad lays of Poland, lending to his art some strange and mysterious poetry, which for those who have taken it to their hearts, is incomparable..

Without an affected striving for originality, he has expressed his personality both in his style and in his ideas. For new ideas, he has adopted a new style. The hint of a wild and fiery nature, which is a part of his inheritance, finds expression in strange harmonies and deliberate discords, while all his delicacy and grace is shown in a thousand touches, the thousand tiny details of an incomparable fantasy….

Chopin selected those of his works most remote from classical forms. Instead of the Concerto, Sonata, Fantaisie or Variations, he played Preludes, Etudes, Nocturnes, and Mazurkas. He had no need to startle or grip his audience; he was playing in an atmosphere of quiet understanding, not one of boisterous enthusiasm. From the striking of the first chords a bond of closest sympathy was established between the artist and the audience….

Chopin’s Preludes are in a category by themselves. They are not solely, as their title would lead one to suppose, items intended to be played by way of introduction to other items. They are poetic preludes similar to those of the great poet Lamartine, which bathe the soul in golden dreams and lift it to the realms of the ideal. Admirable in their variety, the work and skill and skill that has gone into their composition is not obvious until after a careful examination. Every note seems to be utterly spontaneous and inspired. They have the great attractiveness which is to be found in all works of genius.”

No clearer understanding of Chopin’s pianistic abilities and music in my view has been written. Later, on May 2, Liszt went further, drawing the comparison between Chopin and Schubert: “I have referred to Schubert because there is no other composer with so complete an affinity with Chopin. What one has done for the voice, the other has done for the piano. Chopin composes for himself and plays for himself. Listen to him as he dreams. As he weeps. As he sings, with tenderness, gentleness, and melancholy; how perfectly he expresses every feeling, however delicate, however lofty.”

“Chopin is the pianist of pianists.”

Despite the reviews and his success, Chopin continued to be filled with self-doubt. Before Chopin’s final concert in Paris, February 16, 1848, he wrote this: Such excitement surprises me. And now comes the question of playing, which I only do to satisfy my conscience, for it seems to me that I play worse than ever. I shall play a Mozart trio with Allard and Franchomme (cellist and friend of Chopin who succeeded Fontana as Chopin’s secretary).

The description of this concert from the critic of the Gazette Musicale leaves me in a state of wonder as to what it must have been like to witness this moment: “The ‘sylph’(Chopin) has kept his word. And with what a success, what enthusiasm!
If I possessed the pen that calls forth Queen Mab:
“In shape no bigger than the agate stone,
On the forefinger of an alderman,”
“it would be difficult to give any idea of a talent so completely ethereal that it transcends all earthly things. To understand Chopin we need but to know Chopin himself. All those present at the concert were as convinced of this, as we were ourselves..”

Unknown to the audience was that they had just heard Chopin’s final performance in France, his swan song. After this concert, Chopin collapsed with fatigue, perhaps from the stress of his relationship with Sand at Nohant and certainly from the worsening illness which had finally caught up with Chopin’s body. Not long afterwards, Chopin left for England, in the care of Jane Stirling.

While in England, Chopin played at several private houses, including a concert on July 7 1848 together with his friend and musical confidante, the singer Pauline Viardot. “She sings my Polish songs. It went off very well. But I don’t know whether I shall get a hundred guineas out of it.” He adds: “Coughing the way I do, I often wonder on a morning if I am going to cough up my soul.”

His remaining concerts were few. In Manchester, he shared the stage with three other singers and with other repertoire than his own – The “Barber of Seville” by Rossini, “Prometheus” by Beethoven, and “Rübezahl” by Weber.   Between these items, Chopin played an Andante, no doubt his Andante Spianato Op 22 (the only work which Chopin marked using the word “spianato,” or “smooth”), a Scherzo (we do not know which), some Etudes, a Nocturne, as well as the Berceuse. The newspapers in Manchester dutifully reported Chopin’s concert: “Chopin appeared to be about thirty years of age. He has a very distinguished bearing, an almost sorrowful expression, and appears to be in delicate health. His melancholy and fragile appearance disappears when he takes his place at his instrument, which from then on seems to absorb his entire interest.”

Subsequently, in Glasgow, a late afternoon performance was given at Merchants’ Hall, with his intimate Polish friends the Prince and Princess Czartoriski in attendance. “I have come back to life again, thanks to the presence of the Polish element, which gave me the strength to play.”

Finally, Chopin played at the Hopetown Rooms on Queen Street, in Glasgow, at the insistence of Jane Stirling. It is doubtful we will ever know the extent of Stirling’s relationship with Chopin, nor the extent of her actions to help Chopin behind the scenes. We do know from Chopin’s correspondence that Stirling suggested that he marry her. This no doubt crossed the line for Chopin and his distaste of familiarity.

It is not difficult to imagine that Chopin knew, as he stepped in front of the relatively small audience in Edinburgh, that this could be the last time he would perform in public. He performed the demanding F minor Ballade, arguably Chopin’s greatest work and a monument to art itself. The piece must have put a strain on his weakened physical resources. He also played smaller works, including Nocturnes, Etudes, Preludes and Waltzes. The account in the local Edinburgh Courier was not particularly flattering: “Chopin’s compositions may be counted among the best in the classical style. His execution is the most delicate that one could possibly hear. He does not, however, possess the power or the brilliant technique of a Mendelssohn (note that Mendelssohn resided in England) or a Liszt. In consequence, his playing has less effect in a hall of considerable size. But as a performer of chamber music, he has no equal.

Perhaps to escape Scotland and the desires of Jane Stirling, Chopin arranged a concert in London as a way to return to Paris. It was his last public performance, a benefit concert for his fellow Polish countrymen. Chopin knew his days were waning. He played only a few pieces, including what we believe to be the first two Etudes of the Op 25. He left the concert afterwards scarcely able to breathe.  Clearly Chopin desired his final musical act to be that of a patriot – a final effort made on behalf of the Polish people, whose soul Chopin immortalized in his music.

Complementary with written accounts, the artistic representations of Chopin can give us insight into Chopin, notably those of Delacroix and Ary Scheffer, as well as the Italian painter Luigi Rubio. A reproduction of these well known portraits is included here. I leave it to the reader to decide for him or herself which image reveals the most. The only verified photograph of an ailing Chopin, taken not long before Chopin died, does little in my view to give us any real insight into Chopin’s true nature.

As a pianist and lifelong performer of Chopin’s music, I believe that words alone are not adequate to describe Chopin. I am not talking about translating Chopin’s music into words, since every listener of Chopin has his or her own impressions.  There may be no point after all to verbal descriptions of music – playing it and hearing it are the point.

I have known some pieces by Chopin for decades and play them regularly. However, each time I play a piece by Chopin, even a shorter work such as a Mazurka or an Etude, a new idea is generated. It doesn’t have to be a large idea or a radical new way of playing the piece either. It can be as small as a pause between notes in the middle of a phrase or within a chord. It can be so small that you simply feel something but can’t articulate it. There was something different. That is all you know.

For me, this applies is particular to Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. The introduction of the Fourth Ballade, the first seven measures alone, is a masterpiece. If Chopin had stopped there, it would have been enough. Each time I play the introduction, I don’t want to leave. My left hand lingers on the F, the E, then the C, holding on to each note, ever slightly. The exposition in F minor begins, gently rocking and moving me forward at the same time. It is aching yet mysterious. So I brace myself and play the phrases cleanly and directly.

Then Chopin starts me on a journey.  It begins with the addition of thirds, a simple harmonic structure. And yet, the theme is transformed. Chopin picks me up and I see over the horizon, into a new world ready to explore. Then other harmonies approach – sixths, then octaves. Again, I enter new territory. The Fourth Ballade is like a never ending exploration. It is accessible, yet never completely fathomable. There is nothing like it in music, as James Huneker observes – nothing so intimate, so intoxicating, so provocative.

Chopin uses harmony in the Fourth Ballade like a palette of colors of infinite richness added to a sketch. Sometimes though, Chopin gives us only that – a sketch. Take the Prelude No. 11 for instance. It is a brief instant, the hands barely trace the outlines of a melody with soft harmonies. And yet this single page of music in my view is worth a dozen symphonies.

Or the Mazurka in A minor. A note changes in each chord, creating the leading tone. Then, liking the snuffing out a candle, Chopin extinguishes the piece. He simply stops. It is one of the most remarkable endings of any piece I know. When I play this mazurka, I think of a conversation between two people. I watch their faces as they talk. They are sharing something which happened long ago about which only they know. Their words overlap and weave together. And I know the scene before me, unique in that particular moment, will end and I will no longer be able to appreciate its beauty. It is painful to look at. So I close my eyes. The scene is no more. The piece simply stops.

Chopin was not a greater composer than Bach or Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert, an absurdity in itself. But for me, Chopin is unique. He understood as no other composer did what the piano can do. Chopin gave us the full emotional range of what a piano can express. Judging from the descriptions left to us by Liszt, or by the Marquis de Custine, Chouquet and others, I have no doubt his contemporaries felt the same way as well.

This is the English translation of an original article for the French magazine Histoire.

avatars-xsmrnf1veyiqv3qe-66unuq-t500x500Walter Witt is a classical pianist, composer and educator based in Paris. A lifelong student of the works of Chopin, Walter captivates audiences with his innate musicianship and dynamic presence  at the piano. Together with his advocacy for classical music and its educational importance, these talents make him one of the most compelling figures in classical music today.

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Header image: 3D image of Chopin by Hadi Karimi


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