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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

Chopin's prodigious gifts manifested themselves very early, and inevitably took him away from his homeland, which then offered a musician little scope for a career. He published his first polonaise in 1817 at the near-Mozartian age of seven and made his public debut with orchestra the next year, playing a concerto by Adalbert Gyrowetz (or Jírovec), a very old-fashioned Bohemian composer whose Haydnesque works upheld the unmarked “universal” style. Ironically enough, his first recognition from on high came from Tsar Alexander I, elder brother of the “northern autocrat” Chopin would later so come to hate, who heard him in Warsaw in 1825 and rewarded him with a diamond ring.

Only after finishing high school in 1826 did Chopin enter the local conservatory for full-time music instruction. As a pianist he was already fully formed. His main interest now lay in composition. The first composition that gained him wide notice, a brilliant set of variations for piano and orchestra on “Là ci darem la mano,” the duet from Don Giovanni on which Liszt would later base his mighty “Don Juan Fantasy” (Ex. 5-6), was composed in 1827, while at the conservatory. (This was the composition that Schumann so prophetically reviewed in 1831, in Chopin's arrangement for piano without orchestra, published as op. 2.) Chopin's foreign debut with orchestra took place in Vienna in 1829. And here he made a fateful discovery, when he noticed that the audience reacted with greatest interest not to his variations on the work by Vienna's favorite son, with which he sought to flatter them, but to his Krakowiak, a concert rondo based on a catchy syncopated Polish dance. As in the case of many another Eastern European composer, Chopin's style became more national as his career became more international. Exoticism sells, especially when presented as nationalism (nationalism with “tourist appeal,” as the musicologist James Parakilas adroitly termed it in a recent study of Chopin). It provides opportunities, but (as we know from Schumann's ambivalent appreciation) it also fetters. This is a dilemma that all “peripheral” artists have had to face since the establishment of Germanic centrality in “classical music.”

His success in Vienna gave Chopin hopes of a stellar career like Paganini's. He returned to Warsaw where (like Paganini before him) he composed a pair of concertos (in E minor and F minor respectively), plus a Fantasia on Polish Airs with orchestra, for use on the road. The concertos combined sparkling pianism with tourist appeal: both their finales are in the style of folk dances (a duple-time ozwodny in no. 1, which was actually completed later; a triple-time mazurka in no. 2), and in the first concerto the opening theme has the characteristically stilted gait of a polonaise. Second themes in both concertos employ the texture and florid ornamentation of Field's dreamy nocturnes, which Chopin would later develop into a major genre of his own. A little later, back in Vienna at the start of his first big tour, Chopin wrote a Grande polonaise for piano and orchestra in the Eroica key of E-flat major. It marked his most determined effort to win popular success on a Paganinian (or, later, Lisztian) scale.

He never won it. Disappointed by his reception in Vienna on second exposure, he cancelled a scheduled Italian tour and made for London, Field's territory, “by way of Paris,” as he put it in a letter home. After a few concerts en route in southern Germany (where he was much distressed to receive the news of the sack of Warsaw by Tsar Nikolai's army and resolved not to return to Poland until it was free) he arrived in the French capital in September 1831. And there he stayed.

Or Exotic?

fig. 7-3 Chopin, drawing by E. Radziwill at the Chopin Society, Warsaw.

Or Exotic?

fig. 7-4 George Sand's property at Nohant, La Mare au Diable: Bois de Chanteloup, drawing by her son, Maurice Dudevant.

Paris, then in the first flush of Louis Philippe's July Monarchy, appealed to Chopin not (as sometimes assumed) for any reason pertaining to his father's origins, but rather by virtue of its lively intellectual life as the cosmopolitan capital of the nineteenth century, and its high bourgeois salon culture. After his brilliant debut (26 February 1832), at which he played his F minor concerto and his Mozart variations, Chopin found himself a social lion. Patronage came his way from the Rothschilds, the most prominent family of European bankers; the most prestigious hostesses showered him with invitations to grace their salons; and his appearances there made him the most sought-after piano teacher in the city, servicing a high-paying clientele of society belles, some of them very talented and gratifying to teach. Henceforth Chopin was able to renounce the concert hall. From 1838 until 1848, when forced back onstage by material need, he gave no public performances at all.

With the larger public he now communicated solely through publication. He became friendly with Liszt, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Bellini, with literary figures such as Balzac and Heine, and with painters like Delacroix, who produced a famous portrait of him in 1838 that now hangs in the Louvre (Fig. 7-5). Their deference surrounded his name with an aura. So did his ten-year liaison with the writer George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), who made veiled references to him in her novels beginning in 1836, and with whom he wintered rather scandalously at Majorca, the Spanish island resort, in 1839. Beginning that year, Chopin spent his summers, and did most of his composing, at George Sand's baronial estate at Nohant, about 150miles southwest of Paris. In the city, he lived in luxurious seclusion.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007003.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 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007003.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 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007003.xml