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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin
The Pinnacle of Salon Music

fig. 7-5 Portrait of Chopin by Eugène Delacroix.

Moving as he did in rarefied social echelons to which no other musician had entrée (making him look, not altogether wrongly, like a snob and a social climber to Mickiewicz and other members of the exiled Polish intelligentsia), Chopin cultivated an extremely refined manner that was reflected directly in the style of his performances and compositions. The line between the two was fairly blurry; for as many witnesses report, most of Chopin's compositions began at the keyboard, where they were worked up on the basis of improvisations that he later struggled hard to write down. Although his notation is meticulous, his music continued to evolve in performance as long as he continued to play it (or to teach it), and his manuscripts abound in variants that make them an adventurous player's paradise but an editor's and bibliographer's nightmare.

Having withdrawn from public performance, Chopin had no further need of the orchestra or indeed of any playing partners. After 1831 nearly all his works would be piano solos; the only exceptions were a handful of songs to Polish texts and a cello sonata, one of his last compositions, composed out of friendship with the cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–84). He took great satisfaction in the fact that the public, who rarely saw him, regarded him primarily as a creative artist rather than a virtuoso. Most impressive of all was the awed respect shown him by other pianists, many of whom made a point of featuring his works alongside (or even in preference to) their own. The ability to play Chopin idiomatically is still probably the paramount qualifying yardstick for a concert pianist today.

Although he wrote three sonatas (highly unconventional except the first, a student work), Chopin's piano works consist overwhelmingly of character pieces: twenty-one nocturnes, twenty-seven études (literally technical studies, but actually virtuoso concert works), twenty-six preludes, four ballades, four rondos, four scherzos, four impromptus (including a “Fantaisie-impromptu”), and several one-of-a-kind items composed late in his career: a Fantaisie (1841), a Berceuse or lullaby (1844), and a Barcarolle (1846). The lion's share of his output, however, and in some ways the most significant, were the sublimated ballroom dances: sixteen polonaises, twenty waltzes, above all the sixty-one mazurkas, aphoristic miniatures of which most (forty-two) were written after settling in Paris. The études and preludes are often programmed in sets (two sets of ten études, opp. 10 and 25; twenty-four preludes, op. 28), and seem to have been put in an effective performance order by the composer. The rest are freestanding salon pieces, to be chosen and presented at the performer's discretion.

We too have to exercise discretion in choosing and presenting for examination a tiny sample from such a rich assortment. No such sample can hope to be representative. The only solution seems to be to concentrate on the extremes, hoping that that will serve to suggest the amazing scope of Chopin's seemingly one-sided and restricted output, and show how and why this mysterious stranger became such an emblematic (and emblematically contradictory) figure: of “genius,” of romantic suffering, of artistic perfection, of sickliness and effeminacy, of nationalism, of exoticism, of universality.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007004.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 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007004.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 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007004.xml