Why does some music become stale and impossible to listen to? I no longer enjoy Bizet’s Carmen, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker or Swan Lake or even Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. I get a powerful urge to turn off the radio when I hear them. They have lost their potency and are merely annoying. Chopin, on the other hand, seems to live eternally. Is it because the composer died early and his music remained young with him?
Piano music is intimate and seems to have been written for you alone. Chopin’s genius was in making the instrument perform like a whole orchestra while seeming to reach out from across the room. It is in turn passionate, tender, moody, exalted and stormy. It flows without any hint of sentimentality. This is romantic music in the original sense of the word rather than the pallid “candlelight and roses” meaning it has acquired in popular culture. It is pure sound without a story to prop it up.
Chopin created or reinvented new musical genres like the ballad, nocturne, prelude and dance music like the mazurka, waltz and polonaise. Many lent themselves to adaptation into popular music without any loss of originality or vitality. The ballet “Les Sylphides” evolved from the Grande Valse Brilliante.” I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” comes from a fantaisie-impromptu. “No other Love” from an etude. They have migrated easily and there are more.
Chopin’s music is also infused with patriotic fervor and nostalgia. He was born in the Duchy of Warsaw in 1810. His mother was Polish, his French father taught in the local lycee. Chopin moved to Paris in 1831 and never returned to Poland but always retained a strong attachment to a country that disappeared from the map several times during the 19th century. For 123 years there was no sovereign country called Poland. On three separate occasions it was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria and became a phantom country. This only reinforced Chopin’s fierce patriotism and fueled his music. He never ceased to mourn his native country. In France Chopin had a troubled and tormented relationship with the author George Sand. In his and her writings their relationship is often expressed in petty and acrimonious complaints but this too was sublimated and found an outlet in his music.
Chopin died of tuberculosis in 1849 and was buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. His tombstone features the muse Euterpe weeping over a broken lyre. Later his sister took his heart back to Poland where it is preserved.
Editor’s notes: Pictures by Simone’s daughter, Dina Cramer. Your comments and responses to Simone’s posts are deeply appreciated.