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Chopin at an Impasse...

Some composers pace the floor while they are writing. Wagner could be scene in an upstairs window pacing around between phrases of Gotterdammerung, for example. Brahms and Beethoven liked to get their ideas while out for a walk. And Chopin, said George Sand, once spent some 24 hours wrapped in thought, trying to figure out how to compose the next two measures of a piece he was working on.

It has been a long time since I read that anecdote but I’ve never forgotten it. Imagine, a composer struggling that long to figure out what to do with the next small bit of musical information.

Then imagine that composer is an inveterate improviser.

Strange, no? Somebody who can make up an entire piece of music out of whole cloth the instant he sits down at the piano, having that much trouble deciding which notes to put on a page?

We are told that Chopin did not particularly enjoy writing notes. Maybe it was practical. After all, hand cramps can result from putting too many of those black dotes on a page, to say nothing of all the lines and squiggles that go with it. But it was probably more than that.

An improvisation is temporary. It is an experiment, and, if it fails, it fails. You can work with it again. Try different methods, possibilities, go in a different direction. You are thinking at the keyboard, conversing in sounds. Also, in Chopin’s day, there was nobody recording it.

But put it down on a page and it seems so…permanent.

(Actually, this concept is getting harder to explain, now that so much of our written correspondence is not only not physically present anywhere except some server somewhere, and so easy to produce, it now overlaps neatly with temporary, instant conversational speech. But there was a time when it took a great deal of trouble and expense to put something down on a page, and before that, you had to chisel it in stone!)

The psychological effect of the page as a permanent thing is that it seems to say, “this is the way this piece goes.” It could have veered this way and that, but it didn’t. And if it did, the composer has long since crossed it out, added a measure over here, corrected a time signature over there, and, having chosen the sacred text, sent it off to the publisher, and woe unto him if he makes a typographical error. This has been how we have regarded written music in the West for quite some time, with some contemporary exceptions.

So it is not difficult to imagine the strain on a composer to get things right, to connect his musical motives by the most efficient economy, making every note point to a piece’s ultimate purpose (musicologists are keeping score) and to be certain not to leave an ounce of unnecessary musical fat behind. They’ll be talking about it for centuries, if we’re lucky.

Thus Chopin paced. And, if we will believe it, may have taken quite an excruciating amount of time on some of his best compositions—though, that possibility is subject to politics. Those, in particular, who equate speed of composition with the genius of the composer, are not liable to be friendly with this position, and with Chopin there does not seem to be enough corroborating evidence to know just how long pieces gestated. My Dover edition suggests that his first Ballade may have taken Chopin some four years to compose, though a recent biography argues for a more compressed timeline.

As a wise man said, read a book and you will know things. Read many books and you will find you know nothing.

Actually, I said that just now. Maybe somebody else did, too. Anyhow, you can have it.

The point being, that people are still arguing over this.

And yet this strange relationship between improvisation and composition does not strike me as so odd. Perhaps that is because I am both a composer and an improviser myself, and can often feel the two processes seeming miles apart. One is a rough draft, as it were. The other, polished and presentable.

Nonetheless, the two can be in flux. Improvisation, in particular, seems a dying art among classical pianists. It was in force into the 20th century, but since has largely disappeared. Pianists are not expected to present their own works anymore, or to make up variations on the spot for the entertainment of the crowd. Improvisation, the world of art music, has largely stopped being a public art. Now it is just a composer’s sketch pad.

When Chopin improvised, when he worked with a musical idea, when he developed it, tried it upside down, in different keys, in combination with different harmonies, as journey or destination, loudly or softly, purposefully or playfully: how do you suppose that idea made it into the final product (we are ignoring for the moment the multiple written versions of some pieces)? What if that musical idea were gestating for years, even part of an entirely different musical composition that got rejected by its composer and found another home in a completely different context where, due to the composer’s genius, you would never have guessed that it wasn’t there from the start?

Or, maybe he just thought of it that morning.

We don’t really know how music journeys through the mind of a composer. They all have different habits, some of them revealed by sketches left behind, verbal commentary, or veiled by complete silence. And, if they are wise, part of their musical journey will consist in figuring out how they themselves work, and how they get the best results out of themselves. “Know thyself” ran the oracle at Delphi. Even that is difficult. But it is really the only person we can know, anyway.

Chopin left us some fascinating music. Most people don’t think to ask how it got there. But you can sort of see why. It’s complicated. And it’s ultimately unknowable. Perhaps the only ones who need ponder this are other creators, who use it to learn about their own process.

As for the rest, do you like a good mystery that may never be solved?

Maybe some morning we’ll be glad we thought about it for a moment. Perhaps….

 


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