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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

Schumann had bought enthusiastically into Herder's brotherly vision of human diversity, and expressed it in one of his own household maxims: “Listen closely to folk songs; they are an inexhaustible mine of the most beautiful melodies and will give you a glimpse into the character of different nations.”3 But in another maxim, and with no apparent sense of contradiction, Schumann also wrote that “Music speaks the most universal of languages, one by which the soul is freely, yet indefinably moved; only then is it at home.” To move the soul freely and indefinably, and so to realize its highest aim, music had to be “unmarked” by any defining (thus delimiting) national character. To Schumann, though probably not (at first) to Chopin, German music was unmarked. That is how one naturally tends to hear the music that surrounds one, until one is made aware of the existence of other musics. Thereafter one's own music can be heard as unmarked not by default but only by ideology.

This patronizing ambivalence toward nationalism—as something only “others” possessed or professed, and as something attractive but limiting—on the part of a member of a dominant culture shows very clearly through Schumann's critique of Chopin's composerly “nature” (a word that almost always needs quotation marks when applied to artists and art works):

In his origin, in the fate of his country, we find the explanation of his great qualities and of his defects. When speaking of grace, enthusiasm, presence of mind, nobility, and warmth of feeling, who does not say Chopin? But also, when it is a question of oddity, morbid eccentricity, even wildness and hate. All of Chopin's earlier creations bear this impress of intense nationalism.

But Art requires more. The minor interests of the soil on which he was born had to sacrifice themselves to the universal ones. Chopin's later works begin to lose something of their all too Sarmatian physiognomy, and their expression tends little by little to approach the general ideal first created by the divine Greeks; so that by a different road we finally rejoin Mozart.

I say “little by little”; for he never can, nor should he completely disown his origin. But the further he departs from it, the greater will his significance in the world of art become.4

Chopin shared Schumann's ambivalence. He felt his Polish patriotism deeply and sincerely, and also traded on his exotic origins (his “Sarmatian physiognomy” as Schumann put it, affecting Latin) when it came to promoting himself and his works in European society. But he also very consciously modeled his art, and particularly his craft, on the most “universal” examples. Schumann called him “the pupil of the first masters—Beethoven, Schubert, Field,”5 and went on enthusiastically to proclaim that “the first molded his mind in boldness, the second his heart in tenderness, and the third his hand in flexibility.” It was probably Schumann's own repressed nationalism that caused him to overrate Beethoven's formative influence on Chopin (though it was not an insignificant factor) and prevented him from noticing how much Chopin's florid melodic style had borrowed from Italian bel canto opera, of which Chopin had become an enthusiastic connoisseur even in Warsaw.

More recently, Charles Rosen6 has rightly emphasized Chopin's devotion to Bach, whom he regarded (the way Schumann regarded Beethoven) as the great founder. While (unlike Mendelssohn) he rarely imitated Bach directly, and as a Catholic probably dismissed Bach's vocal music from consideration (if he even knew of it), Chopin's early study of the Well-Tempered Clavier deeply influenced the contrapuntal precision of his style, turning him into perhaps the most fastidious and polished craftsman of his day. In at least two of his publications—a cycle of twenty-four preludes for piano in all the major and minor keys (1839) and a set of studies (Études) published in 1833—he paid Bach's didactic works conspicuous tribute; and when the painter Eugène Delacroix asked him to define musical logic, Chopin responded by playing a Bach fugue, noting that “to know the fugue deeply is to be acquainted with the element of all reason and all consistency in music.”7

Not that Chopin ever wrote a fugue (or even a fugato) for public performance or print. Bach's actual style, let alone the genres in which he worked, was regarded (except by professional Germans like Mendelssohn) as irrevocably obsolete. But Chopin's compositions in “abstract” genres strove for logic and stylistic consistency, and proclaimed the composer's universal aspirations, just as his pieces based on Polish national dances declared his national origins and proclaimed aspirations of a different sort. The two strains, however, were not in stylistic conflict, and the progression Schumann claimed to note in Chopin from the national to the universal was a figment of the critic's imagination. Chopin's most Bach-like composition (Étude in C major, op. 10, no. 1, imitative of the opening prelude in the Well-Tempered Clavier) was written in 1830, and his very last composition, written only weeks before his death in 1849, was a Polish dance (Mazurka in F minor, op. 68, no. 4).


(3) Schumann, “House-Rules and Maxims for Young Musicians,” in On Music and Musicians, p. 35.

(4) Schumann, On Music and Musicians, p. 132.

(5) Ibid., p. 131.

(6) See Rosen, The Romantic Generation, p. 344ff.

(7) The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, trans. Walter Pach; quoted in Karol Berger, “Chopin's Ballade, op. 23 and the Revolution of the Intellectuals,” in Chopin Studies 2, eds. John Rink and Jim Samson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Self and Other. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007002.xml