Is Chopin's Music actually moving?
These days the 'deeply moving' seems to be the ultimate seal of approval in the arts. That emotion equals dollars has long been a commercial fact, and film distributors and book publishers are always brandishing review quotes that stress the emotional impact of a product. People have an enormous need to experience emotion in the intense but manageable way that the arts enable, and so it's a kind of short-hand to be able to say something moved us. In the realm of classical music certain composers are perhaps more overtly 'moving' in the common or garden sense than others – Puccini more than Haydn, Rachmaninov more than Debussy, Tchaikovsky more than Stravinsky seems a fair generalisation. But what is the difference? Is the weepy onslaught of La Bohème a grand form of sentimentality? Is Rachmaninov corny, and is my love of those lyrical second subjects a lapse on my part? I certainly don't like to think so. Sentimentality is surely the urging of emotion without any accompanying sense of truth or beauty. Real emotion is a bi-product of a response to beauty. It's a kind of irrefutable evidence after the fact and cannot be forced or faked. Though I hate being 'sold' emotion, the fact that some Radio 3 announcer says 'Gosh, so moving,' after playing a recording doesn't mean to say it wasn't.
What intrigues me is the different ways in which composers are moving and how, in Chopin's music, the Puccini-effect is rare. Similarly Schumann's immolating ardour, or Schubert's heart-easing moments are unusual in Chopin. Indeed, I know some very musical people who don't find him moving at all: 'too many notes,' they say, 'he never gets there.' It's impossible to be objective on this subject, but the writer in me always wants to have a crack, so here goes.
In Chopin there is constant concision. Huge turning points happen in moments. He never strings out the good bits, and his catharses are striking for their economy. Even in extremis, Chopin can be more devastating by implication than effect, notwithstanding his virtuosity and his exquisite cantabile. I would maintain that the burden of the 3rd piano sonata, for instance, coalesces after its conclusion. You only appreciate the huge significance of the sonata ending as it does (snatching victory from the deeply sinister moto perpetuo finale) in the movement's aftermath. From an artistic point of view he has made the affirmation at the end convincing at some deep level of musical and emotional logic, which makes the whole experience more profoundly impressive than any single moment. If the glory of the sonata's ending is convincing, there is also the sense that the victory has been created in defiance of reality (Chopin's illness, the fate of Poland, the tragedy of exile, the loss of loved ones) and represents a spiritual overcoming of the human condition in the domain if art.
This I find moving in a different way to the emotion of moments in music. In some sense Chopin's entire oeuvre is about moving emotion out of the present tense into the sanctuary of the eternal. It's about distillation of experience into a realm where emotions are refined into forms that transcend the flux of life and make it aesthetic. Though indeed there is plenty of violence and turbulence of an almost morbid nature, which purge extremes of nervous suffering, these are storms necessary to clear the air. Sometimes they have the last word, as in the 1st and 4th Ballades; often they disturb the tranquillity of the Nocturnes; but even the tumultuous ending of the Fourth Ballade seems retrospective – a tragic summary of Poland's fate after the idyll of youth: 'it all led to this'. Exile, nostalgia, reverie, nightmare, transport – Chopin's classicism always moves the kind of feeling we get direct in Schubert and Schumann into a different perspective. One might say that he is a lot darker and less sentimental, and more tragically real than Schumann or the Romantic Elgar, and that the kinds of feelings he had were less straightforward, less Hollywood.
That said, Chopin prefigures an almost Elgarian nobility in his patriotic nostalgia and I would site the climax of the Polonaise Fantasie as stirring in a manner that is akin to Elgar's nobilamente vein, but more concise. Chopin is also a magnificent composer of tragic music. In the funeral march of the 2nd Piano Sonata his personal suffering is transfigured into a public lament of utmost dignity. Likewise, his C minor Polonaise – a funeral march 'for all Poland' to my ears – culminates in the most heartrending pathos. His intense identification with Poland's fortunes, the fates of his friends, the homesickness, all these give a voice to something noble and patriotic, rooted in the personal but rising above it.
When it comes to young love, there are pieces that transmit ardour in a straight-to-the heart way, though Chopin's economy means he never wallows in feeling. The Aeolian Harp Etude opus 25 no 1 seems to yield the melody of a man in love, not only conjuring happiness and exhilaration, but somehow evoking the loved one in all her beauty. I imagine that Chopin enjoyed rather less romantic excitation after the George Sand onset and as a result his music may be less liable to represent an idealized rapture than Schumann's, but instead he sublimates the effect of female beauty into his sound. I would even aver that Chopin's exquisite cantilena and harmony make his music curiously the object of desire (for pianists) rather than its subject matter, as if his music and the playing of it were a kind of surrogate consummation.
Chopin's virtuosity can produce enormously concentrated outbursts of feeling, as though he needed to displace intensely violent or panicky feelings. It takes a pianist of great imagination to make the Sturm und Drang element in his music come alive as convincing states of being rather than technically exciting set-pieces, but if the pianist can rediscover what lies behind the end of the 1st and 4th Ballades, or the cataclysmic conclusion of the 24th Prelude or the last three Etudes opus 25, the effect is of a tumultuous reincarnation of experience from an era much more intense and passionate than our own.
Given the heat at the heart of Chopin it's not surprising that his music is at its most transporting when he finds room for the otherworldly. There is a passage in G flat major towards the beginning of the F minor Ballade in which Chopin sidesteps out of the plangent flow of the F minor melody into something of unearthly beauty. We are in a zone beyond regret or nostalgia. There is a similar moment in the late B major Nocturne, before the long trill that brings back the theme, when musically speaking we have gone to heaven. What moves me about such moments, often fleeting in Chopin, is that they suggest the transcendence of an impinging sense of mortality that is ubiquitous in his music.
Sometimes Chopin does confront adversity head on and by a heroic effort of will commutes tragedy into triumph. In 12th Etude opus 25 he drives a magnificent chorale in inexorable arpeggios from darkness to light. It is one of the most awe-inspiring transformations in the piano literature and sets a majestic seal on the extraordinary manifesto of the op 25 Etudes.
Because our responses to music are so personal, it would be perfectly possible never to hear a performance of this étude that connects in the sense I am writing of (which is one of the reasons that commercially motivated endorsements of emotion are so silly). But if I were to suggest a recording that might convert a skeptic or refresh a jaded fan it would be Vladimir Ashkenazy's 1959 Saga version. It produces the kind of musical experience that leaves you trumped for words. Rather than cruise in with another deeply moved endorsement, I'll let words fail me this time and hope you hear it (and feel it) soon.