Competition: Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018
Winners' Concert: Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018
Click below to download program book & schedules for all our 2018 applicants. Please note that adjudicator and room number assignments are subject to change. Request for time changes cannot be made. Festival books will be provided to our 2018 applicants upon check in, one book per family.
Dr. Steven Lagerberg, Founder
Allan Park, President
Dr. Adam Aleksander, Vice President for Program Development
Dr. Hanna Cyba, Vice President for Legal Affairs
Judy Baker, Artistic Co-Director
Dr. Yelena Balabanova, Artistic Co-Director
Cathy Carpenter, Recording Secretary
Dr. Mary Chandler, Treasurer, Artistic Co-Director
Yunbo Cassady, Board Member
Conney Vernall, Board Member
Victor Ro, Legal Advisor
Christopher Moorhead, Webmaster
Alison Bell, Past President, Honorary Board Member
Helen Belvin, Past President, Honorary Board Member
Douglas C. Evans
Dr. Shelton G. Berg, Frost School of Music
Ron Losby, Steinway & Sons
Bonnie Barrett, Yamaha Artist Services
National Chopin Foundation Board
Maestro Krysztof Penderecki, Honorary Chairman
Blanka A. Rosenstiel, Founder/ President
Olga Melin, Vice President
Dr. James William Hipp, Treasurer
Rebecca Baez, Secretary
Jadwiga Gewert, Executive Director
Dr. Adam Aleksander, Artistic Advisor
Jeffrey N. Babcock
Luiz Fernando Benedini
Christopher T. Dunworth
Bruno Leonardo Gelber
Michael Tilson Thomas
San Francisco, California
The San Francisco Council was organized in 1987. In 1995 the Council introduced the Chopin Competition for Young Pianists, which provides for young piano students an encouragement for following their artistic careers. To join Chopin Membership in the San Francisco area and to learn more about the Council’s activities please go to their web site www.chopinSF.org.
The Virginia Council, located in Barboursville, has been officially incorporated as of September 2015. This chapter has been associated with of the Chopin Foundation and has held events for the past 12 Seasons. Please visit www.chopininbarboursville.org to learn more about the Council’s activities in Virginia.
2018 NW Chopin Festival Registration period has ended.
Competition: Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018
Winners' Concert: Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018
Click below to download program book & schedules for all our 2018 applicants. Please note that adjudicator and room number assignments are subject to change. Request for time changes cannot be made. Festival book will be provided to all our applicants upon check in.
FESTIVAL BOOK & SCHEDULES
Saturday, February 10, 2018 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
Bellevue Presbyterian Church
1717 Bellevue Way NE
Bellevue, WA 98004
(Open to teachers, contestants & their friends and family only)
Around 200 contestants of all ages will be competing in four different rooms throughout the day and perform their favorite Chopin piece for our panel of nationally and internationally acclaimed pianists/teachers/concert artists.
Sunday, February 11, 2018 2:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Resonance at SOMA Towers
288 106th Avenue NE, Suite 203
Bellevue, WA 98004
(Open to general public, FREE admission with a suggested donation to Northwest Chopin Foundation of $10). Top medalists (Gold & Silver) will perform at our annual Winner's Concert on:
February 11, 2018 2:00 pm - 5:00 pm at Resonance at SOMA Towers
288 106th Avenue NE, Suite 203
Bellevue, WA 98004
Our 2018 adjudicators are:
Dr. Peter Miyamoto, Piano faculty, University of Missouri
Dr. Robert Roux, Piano chair and faculty, Rice University Shepard School of Music
Dr. Lisa Bergman, Concert Pianist and host, Classical KingFM
Charlie Albright, Concert Pianist
Pianist Robert Roux began his career at age 10 with a performance on the nationally televised Lawrence Welk Show. Since that time, he has been a winner of several piano competitions in the United States, including the United States Information Agency's Artistic Ambassador Competition and the International Piano Recording Competition. A Steinway Artist, Roux's performances include appearances at the White House, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Library of Congress in Washington, DC., Merkin Concert Hall in New York, Stude Concert Hall in Houston on the Horowitz Steinway, St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, Villa Pignatelli in Naples and the Salle Cortot in Paris. He has toured as recitalist and concerto soloist in sixteen countries; Nuremberg Nachrichten, Germany's third largest daily newspaper, deemed him "...a smart interpreter of Viennese classicism whom we should bear in mind." Clavier magazine, referring to a three-day American Liszt Society festival, deemed Roux's performance of the Liszt Sonata "...the most stunning playing during the festival...for which the audience offered a well-deserved standing ovation."
Dr. Roux's students have been frequent prizewinners and award recipients internationally. He has been chair of the keyboard department at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music since 1990. He has served on the faculty of the prestigious Van Cliburn Institute, PianoSummer at New Paltz, the Moscow International Piano Masterclasses, the Paris International Piano Sessions, the Association of German Music Schools, the Amalfi Coast festival, and the International Certificate Program for Piano Artists (Ecole Normale in Paris). In 2005 he received the Julia Mile Chance Award for Excellence in Teaching, one of Rice University’s highest honors. As a founding member of the Prague International Piano Masterclasses, he was Associate Director of that festival from 1997 to 2007. His list of teachers and coaches includes Lili Kraus, Adele Marcus, James Bastien, William Race, and Leonard Shure. He is listed in Who's Who in America (2003) and is also interviewed as one of the top teachers in Benjamin Saver's publication, The Most Wanted Piano Teachers in the USA.
Peter Miyamoto enjoys a brilliant international career, performing to great acclaim in recital and as soloist in Canada, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Switzerland, China, and Japan, and in major US cities such as Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. In 1990, Miyamoto was named the first Gilmore Young Artist. He won numerous other competitions, including the American Pianist Association National Fellowship Competition, the D’Angelo Competition, the San Francisco Symphony Competition and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Competition.
Miyamoto has performed as soloist with numerous orchestras, including the Chautauqua Symphony, Erie Philharmonic, Florida Philharmonic, Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, and Knoxville Symphony, working with such conductors as Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, David Lockington, Raymond Harvey, Lawrence Leighton-Smith, William Henry Curry, and Kirk Trevor. A dedicated chamber musician, he has performed with Charles Castleman, Victor Danchenko, Lara St. John, Anthony McGill, David Shifrin and Allan Vogel, as well as members of the Blair, Borromeo, Euclid and Pacifica String Quartets. He is a former member of the August Trio and the Beaumont Trio, and was a founding member of the Quadrivium Players, the resident ensemble at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Dr. Miyamoto holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music, Yale University School of Music, Michigan State University, and the Royal Academy of Music in London. His teachers included Maria Curcio-Diamand, Leon Fleisher, Claude Frank, Peter Frankl, Marek Jablonski, Aube Tzerko, and Ralph Votapek, as well as Szymon Goldberg, Felix Galimir and Lorand Fenyves for chamber music.
Professor of Piano and Chamber Music at the University of Missouri, Peter Miyamoto formerly taught at Michigan State University, and the California Institute of the Arts. After serving as head of the piano faculty at the New York Summer Music Festival 2003-2015, co-founded the Odyssey Chamber Music Festival in Missouri, and in recent years has taught and performed at the Curtis Institute Young Artists Program in Philadelphia, PA and at the PRIZM Summer Music Camp and International Chamber Music Festival in Memphis, TN. Miyamoto has given master classes at major institutions throughout the United States as well as internationally in Canada, China, Greece, Japan and Serbia.
Peter Miyamoto’s first solo CDs, The Chopin Ballades and Fantasies and A Schubert Recital, Brahms Works and A Piano Recital have received critical acclaim in Gramophone Magazine (April 2009), International Record Review (March 2009), American Record Guide (February 2009), Fanfare Magazine (2014) and Audiophile Audition (2014).
Hailed as “among the most gifted musicians of his generation” with a “dazzling natural keyboard affinity” who “made quite an impression” by the Washington Post, American pianist/composer/improviser Charlie Albright has been praised for his “jaw-dropping technique and virtuosity meshed with a distinctive musicality” by The New York Times. Recipient of the prestigious 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant and 2010 Gilmore Young Artist Award, Albright won the 2014 Ruhr Klavier Festival Young Artist Award presented by Marc-André Hamelin (Germany) and the 2009 Young Concert Artists International Auditions.
Albright has appeared as a frequently returning guest artist with such orchestras as the BBC Concert Orchestra (14-concert tour with Maestro Keith Lockhart, chosen as one of the “Best of the BBC 2015”); the Alabama, Baltimore, California, Edmonton (Canada), Fort Smith, Houston, Lansing, Mobile, Omaha, Phoenix, Seattle, San Francisco, Victoria (Canada), and West Michigan Symphonies; the Kymi Sinfonietta (Finland); the National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra (Beijing, China); and the Boston Pops. He has performed worldwide, including at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; the Salle Cortot (Paris, France); the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts (Miami); the Kumho Art Hall (Seoul); the NCPA (Beijing); and Alice Tully Hall (Mostly Mozart Festival, New York). Albright regularly works with artists from all genres, including vocalist/conductor Bobby McFerrin and violinist Joshua Bell. He has collaborated five times with revered cellist Yo-Yo Ma: at the honorary degree ceremony at Harvard University for Senator Ted Kennedy; at a 10th anniversary remembrance of 9/11; at the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison; at the Aspen Institute’s Citizen Artistry conference in New York; and with the Silk Road Project.
Winner of the 2011 Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts from Harvard University, Albright was also named Artist-in-Residence for Harvard University’s Leverett House, a position last filled by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Albright’s numerous awards include First Prize in both Solo and Ensemble categories at the 2006 New York National Piano Competition; First Prize and all other awards offered at the 2006 Eastman International Piano Competition; Third Prize at the 2007 Hilton Head International Piano Competition; Semi-Finalist Award and Best Performance of a Work by Liszt in Stage I at the 2008 Sydney International Piano Competition; and the Vendome Virtuoso Prize and the Elizabeth Leonskaya Special Award at the 2009 Vendome Prize Piano Competition.
Born in Centralia, Washington, Albright began piano lessons at the age of 3. He studied with Nancy Adsit and earned an Associate of Science degree at Centralia College while still in high school. He was the first classical pianist in the Harvard College/New England Conservatory 5-Year AB/MM Joint Program, completing a Bachelor’s Degree as an Economics major and Pre-Med student at Harvard in 2011, and a Master of Music Degree in Piano Performance at NEC in 2012, having studied with Wha-Kyung Byun. He graduated with the prestigious Artist Diploma (A.D.) from The Juilliard School in 2014, having studied with Yoheved Kaplinsky.
A passionate promoter of classical music, is a national Gracie Award-winning radio announcer on Classic KING-FM, appearing daily, streaming worldwide. Bergman is founder of the Mostly Nordic Chamber Music Series in Seattle and as Executive Director of NOISE (Northwest Opera in Schools, Etcetera). She is the Adult Piano Retreat Director at the Icicle Creek Center for the Arts in Leavenworth, Washington where she served for seven years as the Executive Director. She was Artistic Director of the Methow Chamber Music Festival from 2003-2006.
Lisa is also a concert pianist specializing in collaborative piano and chamber music, and is a graduate of the Juilliard School, the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the University of Washington, cum laude. She served as an Artist in Residence and member of the University of Washington Music Faculty (1989-1999) teaching in the fields of accompanying and opera coaching. As a recording artist her discography includes six chamber music CDs and one solo CD. As American Artistic Ambassadors, Bergman and violinist Ann Christensen were selected by the United States Information Agency to represent the U.S. on a concert tour of New Zealand, Nepal, Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia and China. She made her Carnegie Recital Hall debut in 1983.
Bergman is a member of the Hall of Fame for the Washington State Music Teachers Association for “extraordinary service, outstanding musicianship, dedication and leadership which have significantly contributed to the development and growth of music education in the State of Washington.”
Division A Gold: Michelle Cao, Roxy Jones, Yuna Yamagami
Division A Silver: Emily Qi, Nicholas Grote, Chiara Rogers, Kaitlyn Gia Lee, Eunrae Kim, David Gatien
Division B Gold: Stephan Chita, Elsie Lu, Izabella Tu
Division B Silver: Raymond Zhang, Alison Tan, Sarah Zong, Sarah Yang, Ella Sumanaseni, Earnest Wheelwright, Ivory Wang, Olivia Qi
Division C Gold: Adrian King, Young Park, Eashan Vagish
Division C Silver: Sanjay Akam, Sandy Huang, Nicole Yang, Jesse Morris, Daniella Tsang, Benjamin Yu, Daniel Chen
Division D Gold: Emily Park, Janet Phang, Megan Lu
Division D Silver: Andrea Liao, Allyson Lee, Emily Pan, Christopher Marley, Steve Silverberg, Connor Zhang, Kelly Chen
Division E Gold: Caleb Ren, Shichu Liu, Kyran Park Adams
Division E Silver: Annie Yang, Jonathon Lin, Christopher Huang, Robert Yee, Bryan Zhao
Division G Concerto Gold: (Will perform with Orchestra Seattle) Stephen Binondo
Division G Concerto Silver: (Will perform with an Orchestra, TBA) Steve Silverberg
Division A Gold: Andrew Gu, Constantina Tsang, David Gatien
Division A Silver: Catherine Xie, Rachael Kim, Isabelle Yuan, Lucas Tang, Arthur Gong, Harrison Li
Division B Gold: Daniel Jung, Mia Chen, Eashan Vagish
Division B Silver: Young Park, Nicole Yang, Dora Ziyan Chen, Izabella Tu
Division C Gold: Sandy Huang, Steve Silverberg, Edward Zhang
Division C Silver: Jesse Morris, Ellen Li, Quennie Nguyen, Terri Ji, Nile Camai, Alex Zhang
Division D Gold: Jonathan Staley, Elise Winkler, Kevin Yip
Division D Silver: Millicent McFall, Andrew Ma, Solomon Kim, Emily Pan, Deanna Han,
Division E Gold: Michelle Zheng, Alex Camai, William Huang
Division E Silver: Max Randall, Tate Cohan, Vanessa Ma, Peter Preston, Alexander Lu
Division F Gold: Soomi Sung
Division F Silver: Jaesung Kim
Division G Concerto Gold: Edward Zhang
Division G Concerto Silver: Stephen Binondo
Division A Gold: Constantina Tsang, Alison Tan, Catherine Chong
Division A Silver: Andre Ye, Jerry Li, Mia Chen
Division B Gold: Edward Zhang, Eashan Vagish, Adrian King
Division B Silver: Daniel Chen, Dora-Ziyan Chen, Alex Zhang, Jaden Zhang, Daniella Tsang, Allyson Kim, Anna Wang, Paige Everling, Sandy Huang, Kaia Burgos, Nicole Yang, Jeremy Lin
Division C Gold: Shannon Cassady, Bryan Zhao, Stephen Binondo
Division C Silver: Andrew Ma, Mya King, Alex Camai, Emily Pan, Jenna Everard, Emily Kim, Ariel Stiber, Casey Sim, Lauren Yoon, Preston Lee
Division D Gold: Andrew Barnwell, Christopher Son Richardson, Jason Dan
Division D Silver: Val Wold, Micah Hollen, Kennadi Hawes
Division E Concerto Gold: Christopher Son Richardson
Division E Concerto Silver: Millicent McFall
Division F Gold: Hyun Su Seo
Division F Silver: Mari Okamoto, Chelsea Bloomberg
Division A Winners: Dora-Ziyan Chen, Jeremy Lin, Andy Lee
Division A Honorable Mentions: Young Jin Park, Daniella Tsang, Nicole Yang, William Johnson
Division B Winners: Edward Zhang, Janet Phang, Meili Zhang
Division B Honorable Mentions: Emily Park, Quennie Nguyen, Eric Shen, Dante Hays, Sherri Xu, Claire Kim, Alex Muyang Zhang, Jenna Everard, Ann Shan, Jaden Zhang, Jonathan Shu, Allyson Kim
Division C Winners: Alexander Lu, Shannon Cassady, Gene Pak
Division C Honorable Mentions: Preston Lee, Christopher Son Richardson, Tiffany Shen, Jason Dan, David Zhao, Adrian Fan, Leah Deobald, Bryan Zhao
Division D Winners: Andrew Barnwell, Andrew Liu, SukWoo Lee
Division D Honorable Mentions: Amanda Shu, Tristan Greeno, Wilhelmina Esary, Maia Stiber, William Huang, Max Ma
Division E (Concerto) Winner: Meili Zhang
Division E (Concerto) Alternate: Casey Sim
Division F Winner: Daniel Chong
Division F Honorable Mentions: Christine Foster
Division A Winners: Edward Zhang, Jeewon Jung, Daniella Tsang
Division A Honorable Mentions: Sandy Huang, Gloria Shen, Katherine Yue, Katherine Li, Dora-Ziyan Chen
Division B Winners: Millicent McFall, Nathan Lee, Steve Silverberg
Division B Honorable Mentions: Emily Pan, Jonathan Lin, Alex Muyang Zhang, Justin Zhu Cai, Andrew Ma, Adrienna Tran-Pearson, Preston W Lee, Anny Yang, Adrian Fan, Janet P. Phang
Division C Winners: Alexander Lu, Daniel Park Oslin, Jay Tanaka Grinols
Division C Honorable Mentions: William Zhang, William Huang, Jason Dan, Bryan Zhao
Division D Winners: Sun Chang, Alexander Zhu, Nicholaus C. Poelwijk
Division D Honorable Mentions: David Siebert, Megan Lee, Heaven Wei-Lin, Dillon K Ching, Katharine Zorich, Audrey Chen, Noelle Elyse Farr, David Shin, Irene Sue Hwang, Anna Pham, Amber Tang
Concerto Division Winner: Shannon Cassady
Division A Winners: Nile Camai, Sandy Huang, Edward Zhang
Division A Honorable Mentions: Joshua Sun, Allyson Kim, Eric Shen
Division B Winners: Daniel Oslin, Millicent McFall, Adrian Fan
Division B Honorable Mentions: Meili Zhang, Andrew Ma, Casey Sim, Alexander Elizarov, Jonathan Staley, Jasmine Lee, Alex Camai, Ashley Mochizuki, Adrienna Tran-Pearson
Division C Winners: Billy Huang, Karin Chan, Jay Grinols
Division C Honorable Mentions: Nicole Po, Andrew Aday, Ivan Zhao, Max Ma, Andrew Liu, Ethan Marzban, Billy Wu, David Siebert, Nancy Wu
Division D Winners: Conrad Sheridan, Tristan Greeno, David Golub
Division D Honorable Mentions: Alexander Zhu, Geoffrey Liu, Philip Saul
Concerto Division: No winner chosen
In my first book, Chopin’s Heart, The Quest to Identify the Mysterious Illness of the World’s Most Beloved Composer, I summarized that Frédéric Chopin had died from tuberculosis, albeit in an unusual form. In that 2008 work I speculated that he might have had tuberculous pericarditis, a rare and particularly lethal form of a relatively common disease. I also believed he died of congestive heart failure related to this manifestation of tuberculosis. Like selecting a final and important piece of a large complicated puzzle, I believed I had found an elegant solution to complete the picture. Although I had no proof of this theory I believed I had diligently done sufficient research on this subject for it to merit this diagnosis. Still, I knew I was sticking my neck out.
Over the years thereafter I continued to advocate for an investigation of Chopin’s preserved heart, ideally by means of an international inquiry, and one that would include a DNA analysis of the preserved heart’s tissue. Repeatedly, my calls for this approach were either ignored or rejected.
Unannounced and undisclosed, on the night of April 14th, 2014 a small group of Polish citizens clandestinely gathered in The Holy Cross Church in Warsaw to open the long-undisturbed crypt containing Chopin’s heart. One of the scientists present that night, Tadeusz Dobosz, described the moment as “sublime.” The crypt was carefully opened and the glass container containing the relic was finally revealed. After taking multiple photographs and then finally resealing the jar with wax, the boxed was mortared back into its crypt. The group left the church that night agreeing to insist that the tomb not be reopened for at least a half a century.
No word was leaked about that undercover adventure until a news conference announcement in Warsaw many months later. At that news briefing, Artur Szklener, the Director of the National Institute of Fryderyk Chopin, announced that Chopin had most likely succumbed to tuberculosis on the basis of the opinion of those present during the crypt’s secret opening. He indicated there was a fine granular coating on the surface of the heart very suggestive of a tuberculous process. Upon hearing this I began what turned out to be a difficult process to view the photographs. Eventually, I succeeded in seeing one of those images. What I saw led me to believe I had been correct in my assumption of there being tuberculous pericarditis. I communicated my belief to Director Szklener and others in the group who had witnessed the disinterment of the treasured relic, yet never received a reply. I felt I was sticking my neck out even farther.
For several years I gave a series of lectures on the subject of Chopin’s disease and cause of death and shared my thoughts about this unusual manifestation of tuberculosis being the cause of Chopin’s chronic disease. At the time many still believed cystic fibrosis was the leading suspect, despite the fact that nothing in the visual inspection of either the relic or its many photographs suggested it.
As the years passed I felt that the matter might never be settled and I would be left with only my educated guess. To my astonishment I recently read an article in October 2017 issue of The American Journal of Medicine that was the result of an investigative study written by several of those present at the crypt’s opening as well as by other Polish scientists. The article states unequivocally that Chopin died from tuberculous pericarditis and congestive heart failure. The authors stated there was sufficient evidence for them to come to this conclusion after a painstakingly detailed visual examination of the relic. The article made the headlines around the world.
My fears of having made the wrong diagnosis quickly dissipated and I felt enormously relieved to know that my reasoning was accurate and not proved unfounded. I later contacted the main author of the article, Dr. Michał Witt, a geneticist from Poznan Poland, and congratulated him for leading a fine investigation. He shared with me that he felt I was the first to identify correctly Chopin’s disease and cause of death, and without the benefit of any photographs of the heart.
I take private joy in this small accomplishment. Although my name will not be one of those listed among the scientists who comprised the investigatory group, I will always know that I played a tiny role in solving the fascinating mystery of this perplexing puzzle. For that I will be forever grateful.
Steven Lagerberg November 2017, Paris
Frédéric Chopin would appear to be the poster child for the frequently cited paradigm of the long-suffering artist. There is little doubt that he did in fact suffer. His childhood frailty, his early-established belief that he would not live to an old age, and his recurrent bouts with the progressive illness that began in his early twenties, together with the inexorable decline of his health until his death at thirty-nine, combine to paint a morbid picture of chronic suffering and depression. Some believe that this suffering affected the style of his creative output, resulting in the melancholic mood of much of his music. They even maintain that a depressive illness in the context of a creative mind can be a definite advantage for an artist. The question is then, was Chopin’s creativity aided by his suffering?
The connection between mental illness and creative genius dates back to the time of Aristotle. The ancient Greeks believed that creativity came from the gods, in particular, from the Muses. These were the nine daughters of Zeus, the sky and thunder god who ruled as king of the gods from Mount Olympus. Perhaps that’s why the sculptor, Auguste Clésinger, depicted the Muse of Music, Euterpe, strumming her lyre atop Chopin’s grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The supposed connection between mental illness or what was once called “madness” and creativity probably peaked during the Romantic Age, when it was commonly believed that illness, especially a chronic one, could confer upon its host an artistic advantage. The spooky image of the pale chronically ill and suffering artist was frequently associated with Chopin during his lifetime and his illness credited for much of his genius.
A contemporary of Chopin, Lord Byron, was one of the greatest British poets and a leading figure in the Romantic movement. Dying at the age of thirty-six from what was thought to be tuberculosis, this often mentally unstable man maintained that there were strong connections between his creative talent and his mental and chronic physical ailments, writing, “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” More recently, some psychologists, such as J. Philippe Rushton, make a correlation between intelligence and mental illness and argue that there are particularly strong links between creativity and depressive disorders. He cites examples of writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, artists such as Michelangelo and Van Gogh, and prominent composers such as Robert Schumann and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, whose depressive disorders he believes enhanced their creativity. Is this really true?
I cannot accept that it is. Although it may prove difficult to dissuade some from still believing in the myth of the suffering artist, science has now proven that those in the creative professions are no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, and that illness does nothing to enhance one’s creative abilities. Chopin had an amazing ability to compartmentalize his concerns about his health, his grief over a lost love, and his sadness after leaving his family and his homeland. The prophetic note he left in his diary after that time in Stuttgart when he first heard of the brutal repression of the Polish November Insurrection in 1830, is revealing. He wrote, “I will heal the wounds of the present with the memories of the past.” This hastily-written phrase would eventually become his musical legacy. From then on, he would tirelessly strive to connect his deep feelings of grief, longing, and sadness with his music. Somehow, despite his health travails, his artistic abilities remained undimmed until nearly the very end.
Rather than believing that a depressive illness in the context of a creative mind can at times create a definite advantage for an artist, I feel an artist can manage to take something appalling and make it into art because an artist is an artist. Suffering does not enhance someone’s abilities, yet it certainly may be a subject for one’s creative talent. Artists have access to an unusual creative process that can sustain them through very dark times. They can use their talents to transform life’s pain and suffering into something communicative and alive. Chopin’s success came about despite his long suffering, not because of it. While success and pain do not mix, comfort is the friend of creative endeavor.
Steven Lagerberg August, 2017
Unraveling the often tangled strands of mystery behind someone’s discovery of his or her lifelong passion makes for an interesting story. In the case of Frédéric Chopin it’s an especially fascinating one. First, in that he demonstrated his remarkable musical talent at such an exceptionally young age, and then in how extraordinarily quickly that skill developed. Certainly, this was a testament to his genius, yet even with such inborn aptitude there must have been motivation accountable for his success. Just where did that motivation come from?
Born into a rather ordinary family of modest means – his mother was a house servant and his father a middle school French teacher – the young Frédéric spent many hours sitting beside his mother at the piano as she would sing traditional Polish songs. From her he keenly observed how to play the instrument. What fingering she didn’t teach him directly he later figured out on his own. Interestingly, his love for the subtle shading of piano music might have been abetted by the fact that their piano was a “giraffe,” a tall instrument with an extended vertical keyboard, its thin strings vibrating with their countless overtones literally inches from his sensitive ears.
Undoubtedly, the first reinforcement Chopin received for his noodling on the piano came from his parents. Whether that praise was lavish or merely doled out intermittently, the latter possibly driving him to attempt even greater accomplishments, is unknown. What’s certain is that they soon came to realize they were quickly over their heads in meeting their talented son’s burgeoning need for further musical instruction. Seeking help quickly, when Frédéric was six they hired the colorful Wojciech Żywny, an itinerant Bohemian violinist. Never a pianist, Żywny often made his living traveling from town to town, playing gypsy tunes on his violin. However exotic his character and lifestyle, he was well trained in the music of Bach, Mozart, and Hummel, and perhaps most importantly, he was affordable!
Żywny and the young Frédéric quickly developed a warm relationship, one that would last many years. Not knowing the piano well, Żywny let his pupil keep his unusual piano technique, yet imbued in him an abiding knowledge of and deep love for the music of these old masters. Anxious to please his esteemed teacher Frédéric quickly advanced and at seven began writing his own music. His first piece, a work of amazing ability, he called Polonaise for Piano-Forte. Żywny quickly recognized Chopin’s special talent and began to ignore his other students to give Frédéric his concentrated attention. Żywny’s extra reinforcement would only serve to ramp up his talented pupil’s creativity.
At the age of eight Chopin first performed in front of a formal audience. The impact of that experience on him was life changing. His parents’ admiration and his teacher’s encouragement had been wonderful enough, but the public accolade following this concert brought the definition of praise to a new level for the precocious student. He had played for the Grand Duke Constantine, the Russian ruler of Poland, and in so doing became Poland’s “wunderkind,” the new Mozart. Incredibly, over the brief span of only several years of musical instruction this child wonder possessed sufficient skill to impress not only his country’s leading official but also to become the talk of Poland’s musical elite.
It’s interesting to examine just how the young Chopin reacted to this moment. He was overcome by the audience’s reaction to his performance. His mother, too anxious to attend this concert, had dressed him in a new jacket and a lace collar – perhaps one she had made herself. Later when she asked him what the audience liked best, he replied, “Oh Mama, everybody was looking at my lace collar.” Was this the start of his dandyism? Perhaps, yet despite his many affectations Chopin never became a conceited man, as evidenced by his many self-effacing letters and the views of his numerous friends. At the age of fifteen, he would receive even more royal praise, this time a diamond ring from Poland’s then-reigning tsar, Alexander I. Being in the spotlight as a youth immeasurably boosted Chopin’s confidence and helped reaffirm his obsessive drive to perfect his musical skills.
Beyond loving parental admiration, strong encouragement from his teacher, and high praise from audiences and royalty, what else could propel the young Frederic to even greater heights? For a faint-hearted young man flush with hormones the attention of a pretty girl would certainly fit the bill. His Piano Concerto No. 2 written when he was twenty, with its beautiful Larghetto movement, was inspired by Chopin’s distant idolization of Constantia Gladkowska, a pretty nineteen year-old Polish soprano. Despite the fact that they had met only briefly at a concert at the Warsaw Conservatory, Frédéric was immediately smitten. He found it impossibly embarrassing, however, to express his impassioned feelings for her directly. Rather like secreting a flower into a diary, he poured out his ardent emotions for her in his music, a process that would become his lifelong custom.
When Chopin was twenty, his music was nearly fully formed, self aware, and no external influence would significantly change its character. He was already a highly original and supremely talented exponent of the nationalist element in music. For the rest of life he never wavered in his powerful sense of a Polish national tradition. His profound meditation on the self and on his country’s embattled and moribund condition would sit alongside emotion-packed and highly refined narratives of his joys and sorrows. Maturity would bring with it a retreat from any further need for public adulation and large-scale displays of his talent. Contrarily, instead of trying to carve out a virtuoso’s fame for himself, Chopin preferred to remain within his close circle of friends, and only reveal the secrets of his genius to a chosen few. Unlike that of his childhood years the motivation of his adulthood would shift from the need for either personal or public praise, and transform itself to embrace his pride, his sense of accomplishment, and the challenge of establishing an enduring legacy for his Art.
Steven Lagerberg 2017 Paris
It was like listening to a beautiful piece of music for the second time. Hearing a work performed again often provides me with a different perspective, a deeper understanding of its qualities. This was exactly what my return to Nohant was like during my visit in the fall of 2016. Nohant had once been the ancestral home of the famed French novelist, George Sand. I had previously been to this tiny hamlet in central France back in the summer of 2008. It had then been chosen to be the location for the annual meeting of the International Federation of Chopin Societies and I was a last-minute stand-in for the Executive Director of The Chopin Foundation of the United States, my friend Jadwiga Gewert. Nohant is noteworthy for Frédéric Chopin aficionados because it was the place he had spent six summers between 1839 and 1846. Fortunately, these were mostly pleasant interludes for him filled with lots of compositional creativity that would bestow upon the world some of its greatest musical masterpieces. Sand was productive here as well and with her prolific writing at Nohant she became the most celebrated French novelist of the 19th century, surpassed only by the great Honoré de Balzac. Chopin and Sand, these two very different individuals created distinctly different works of art, and these two trips were each very different experiences for me.
Nohant sits on gently rolling green hills and is surrounded by the occasional slowly crumbling chateau. It’s essentially in the middle of nowhere. This little worn village would otherwise be entirely unrecognized if it weren’t for its famous inhabitants from long ago. Getting there isn’t easy. No direct train or bus service to it exists, so travel requires some combination of rail and automobile. I’ve often learned that traveling to the best places sometimes requires some extra effort.
On my first trip to Nohant I hurriedly picked up a newspaper at the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris just to pass the time before I boarded the train to Chateauroux, a nearby town. I remember being dumbfounded to read an article from The Times of India that described how a prominent Polish scientist at a recent press conference had announced his theory that Chopin had died from cystic fibrosis and not tuberculosis, the disease designated by most all of his many biographers. Furthermore, this Professor Wojciech Cichy proposed an investigation that involved opening the hallowed crypt in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw where purportedly Chopin’s heart was kept, retrieving the ancient relic and then subjecting it to the latest DNA analysis in an attempt to prove his theory correct. What an uncanny coincidence it seemed to me to discover this information just as I was on my way to meet with the world’s leading Chopin experts. I felt the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
By the time I arrived in Nohant mere hours later the many Chopin luminaries were already buzzing with the news of Cichy’s startling proposal. At the time what struck me most was how quickly many of the attendees accepted the cystic fibrosis theory to explain Chopin’s chronic suffering and difficult death. As a quasi-scientist I had always been taught to approach new presumptions rather cautiously, sorting conjecture from confirmation by means of rather well balanced and rational investigation. It became clear to me more evidence was sorely needed to advance Cichy’s theory and that these participants at the meeting of the Federation, while their brains were bursting with extensive knowledge about the man and his music, they were not ideally trained to understand the complicated science of human pathology and DNA analysis. It was then I knew I wished to accept this difficult diagnostic challenge. I would start my own research into Chopin’s illness and write a book about it.
And thus it was on my second trip to Nohant, once again the site of an IFCS meeting in the fall of 2016, that I savored those keen memories of my first visit and couldn’t wait to compare them to this next experience. During the first I had been wholly consumed with the issues entangled with those perplexing scientific claims. Not that I didn’t enjoy the tour of Sand’s beautiful home and its surroundings. I was simply preoccupied with my challenge and was already involved with pursuing various leads and strategies in order to accomplish my goal. In retrospect I was too distracted and caught up in the questions of the moment and wasn’t fully able to relax and absorb the spirit of the place. I vowed this next time would be different and resolved to be more open to the experience and not repeat my past mistakes.
I can say now that I succeeded. This second time I immersed myself in the magic of Nohant. It helped that the tour of Sand’s home took place in the softly subdued light of the evening. And then I was exhilarated to learn that we were to be honored by a magnificent concert by the famed French pianist, Yves Henry, performing the pieces Chopin had composed in that very house on a beautifully restored 1846 Pleyel piano. Beneath the lovely candlelight of Sand’s magnificent dining room, I listened intently to the mellow tones of that gentle piano as Yves played the Prélude, Op. 45, two waltzes from Op. 64, and finally, and to great effect, the Berceuse. As he slowly lifted his hands from the keys there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Just prior to this wonderful concert the members of our group had been treated to a very detailed tour through the home. As it was on my first visit, the exclusive emphasis of the tour guide was focused on George Sand, her life, family history, and the beautiful furnishings of her home. All traces of Chopin except for the horsehair-padded upstairs door to his small room had been expunged from the museum. Even the two rooms where he composed and slept were entirely empty and completely unlit. Immersing myself in that utter darkness I clandestinely remained behind the group to stay for a while in those soothingly silent rooms. I began to fantasize that I was a small butterfly clinging to the wall, my delicate wings gently fluttering with the sweet pealing tones of his piano. I was there with the composer. It was a magical moment.
Following Chopin’s death in 1849, Sand and her son, Maurice, decided to erase any fragment of his existence at Nohant and even went so far as to forbid any mention of his name in the house. Their vindictiveness after the rupture of the relationship between Sand and Chopin may have been partly based on jealousy, as Sand’s fame became increasingly overshadowed by that of the Polish genius. Despite their best efforts, the spirit of Chopin was ever-present throughout the home during that very special evening.
My life had taken a different turn after that first visit to Nohant. In the years thereafter I proceeded to finish and publish my book and began to occupy myself with Chopin-related activities around the world. Doors would open, many new friends would become involved in my life, and I began to appreciate Chopin’s music more and more. What had been a simple serendipitous replacement at a meeting in an obscure village in France had helped to create in me a pleasantly consuming passion.
This most recent visit to Nohant has only deepened my love for Chopin’s Art. Whether I ever return is undetermined and I suspect, really unnecessary for my further appreciation of Chopin and his music. Both of these visits to Nohant have provided me with wonderful evidence and confirmation of how knowledge can manifest itself in a very tangible way and how my extraordinary passion for a specific subject would expand my awareness of the world and its beauty.
Steven Lagerberg October 2016 Paris
More than many composers Frederick Chopin used the fluid medium of music to express his innermost feelings. His works display a virtual kaleidoscope of pathos, ranging from the profound nostalgia and melancholy of his many Nocturnes to the unrestrained ecstasy heard at the end of his Polonaise-fantasie, Op. 61, from the carefree happiness of his Ballade #3 to the terrible fear and fury of the opening bars of his Scherzo, Op. 39. Whatever impassioned feelings he might have found difficult to express in words he often let fly in his music. Why did he decide to compose music in this style?
The young Frederick was fortunate to grow up in a wonderfully supportive family, to have plenty of good friends, and to live in a place where it was common to celebrate life – especially in the countryside - with soul-stirring music, singing, and dancing. This earthy folk music, at times crude and unpolished, yet filled with emotive rustic charm, indelibly imprinted itself on the musical template of this impressionable young man’s mind. In the years ahead his cherished memories of these vivid childhood experiences in rural Poland would remain for him a constant reminder of the once free, but then beleaguered soul of his beloved country.
As a young boy he would frequently sit beside his mother at the piano, absolutely captivated as she lovingly played and sang these songs for him. With his burgeoning love of music he soon found himself tapping out these same tunes on the keyboard with an extraordinary proficiency for one so young. Before he was even a teenager he would hear from many that he possessed a remarkable gift, a great talent for both writing beautiful music and also performing it, one that would bestow upon him a number of awards and empower him with that rarefied ability to attract and enchant audiences.
As a man of nearly twenty he would be repeatedly yet gently told by his family and friends that if he ever were to make something of his astounding artistry he would most assuredly need to leave Poland and attempt to seek his fame in Vienna, Paris, or London. Warsaw wasn’t exactly a cultural backwater, but it certainly wasn’t the musical Mecca from which to launch a successful international musical career. As if he were a frightened fox delicately coaxed from the protection of its den, Chopin, very reluctantly would come to accept this earnest advice to become, quite surprisingly to everyone, sufficiently brave to place his fate entirely in the hands of complete strangers, far away in a foreign country!
Shortly after leaving Warsaw, Chopin was terribly shocked one day to hear about the brutal Russian suppression of the Polish resistance movement. That night he would compose the rousing Revolutionary Etude, Op. 10, No. 12 and then later that same night write a lengthy entry in his diary that included the oddly uncanny and predictive statement, “I will heal the wounds of the present with the memories of the past.” Rather amazingly, for the rest of his life he was to remain true to his word. That statement would become his legacy.
Arriving in Paris at the age of twenty-one Chopin found himself alone in an alien city, without much money, without an audience for his compositions, and lacking many of the connections necessary to succeed in a very competitive artistic arena. He was homesick, lonely, fearful of what was happening back in Poland and totally cut off from his strong base of support. An immigrant, he was a foreigner in a foreign land. To add to all that his health was increasingly becoming an issue for him - his chronic coughing was progressively getting worse and was sometimes bringing up blood. With all these many adverse factors acting against him how could he possibly succeed?
He would write music - music loaded with his innumerable feelings. He would instill in his compositions his emotionally laden sympathies for his family, friends, and the country he had left behind. If his mood seemed somber and melancholy it was because it precisely mirrored the way he felt. If he expressed fear and rage, he had solid reasons for doing so. If he expressed joy and exuberance in his works it was because he dreamed of a future in which his country would be finally free from the cursed oppression of its foreign occupiers and his loved ones would be finally able to live unencumbered from forcefully imposed restrictions.
Chopin’s use of music to express his personal feelings about his homeland found tremendous sympathy and support from not only those in the Polish expatriate community living in Paris at the time, but also from countless others. Chopin’s friend, Heinrich Heine, the famous German poet, would write, “Chopin does not derive his satisfaction from the fact that his hands are applauded by other hands for their dexterity,” he wrote, “He aspires to a greater success, his fingers are the servants of his soul, and his soul is applauded by those who do not merely listen with their ears, but also with their souls.” Chopin’s unique style and soulful music possessed ethereal and imponderable qualities that soon would become universally appealing.
Steven Lagerberg January 2017
Frédéric Chopin created musical works that possess the ability to excite the emotions of millions. Remarkably, these works are appreciated across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Just as the spoken word can communicate complex ideas through shared sounds, written words must convey those same ideas only by using the structure of a linguistic system common to a particular community or nation. Poetry is another form of expression, one that frequently uses images and metaphors, yet it too demands the use of a shared language. Conversely, music has its own language, a nonverbal method of expression that does not depend upon the often-difficult processes of translation and interpretation. Like an extraordinary image or scent, music can penetrate deeply into our souls, directly and convincingly, without the need for any intermediate steps. Being able to compose music that touched people at an elemental level was one of Chopin’s greatest accomplishments. His extraordinary musical “language” enraptures human sensitivities universally. As the acclaimed novelist, George Sand, Chopin’s partner of nine years, once exclaimed, “He made a single instrument speak a language of infinity.”
Many musical theorists, purists no doubt, decry the belief that music constitutes a language, despite the fact that it’s a means of human expression that also uses linguistic symbols and grammar. Unfortunately, understanding just what music is remains muddled by our ignorance. It’s still unclear what our brains actually do with the myriad of nerve impulses created by listening to a musical work. Recent thinking holds that the brain’s right hemisphere is mostly responsible for its elastic interpretation of these complex signals of rhythm, sound, and tone, as opposed to the left hemisphere’s firm and rather unemotional control over our spoken and written linguistic capabilities. However, no one will deny that music can and does communicate with people in all cultures, largely through the sharing of emotions. The question these theorists ask is, “If music is indeed a language, what specifically does it communicate?”
The young Chopin first used his compositional skills to show off his prodigious technical skills as a pianist rather than attempting to acquaint others with his innermost feelings, akin to exhibiting a beautiful rose, but masking its heavenly subtle fragrance. Fortunately, when later faced with an adolescent emotional dilemma he felt another approach might work better. As a socially timid teenager harboring an overwhelmingly romantic crush on Warsaw’s beautiful young singer, Konstancja Gladkowska, Frédéric had unsuccessfully attempted to speak to her directly, utterly failing to communicate his passionate feelings to her. Memorably, he would eventually succeed magnificently in expressing himself to her, but only via his music. The exquisitely sweet Larghetto movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 provided him the perfect medium for expressing his love for this girl. Music, not words, had come to his rescue.
Months later another episode in Chopin’s life would demonstrate how his embrace of music would again transcend words in his life-long endeavor to describe his emotions. Shortly after leaving Poland and after first hearing about the brutal Russian suppression of the November Insurrection of 1831, words failed him again. In nearly incomprehensible entries scratched into his diary that night he struggled to express his outrage and shock at the terrible events occurring in his beloved homeland. Incoherent and scattered, his thoughts left a dark void. Later that same night he would compose his Revolutionary Étude Op. 10, No. 12, a cohesive and stirring piece of wild revolutionary fervor. Once again he discovered he could express his true feelings more easily through the language of music. He would manage to record a prescient affirmation in his diary during that long and emotionally charged night, “I will try to heal the pain of the present with the memories of the past.” For the rest of his life his marvelous compositions would do just that, providing solace and support to his countrymen, conjuring up thrilling visions of a free Poland, and creating nostalgic reminiscences of the music of the peaceful rural Polish countryside he loved so much. Music became the willing translator of his emotions, enabling him to communicate his feelings to an ever-expanding audience. Who could fathom that those emotion-filled musical essays primarily intended for his few fellow Poles would continue to provide fascinating listening for untold generations to come?
Chopin quickly grasped what he was about. He knew his Art and what it might accomplish. He began to comprehend that music in its most fundamental form possessed the power to communicate with all people. He had discovered this in the music of J. S. Bach. He would state, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowing reward of Art.” The success of his music rested upon its simplicity, its originality, and its ability to connect with his audiences on an elemental level.
While spoken languages can be mutually incomprehensible, music can be a powerful means of communication across all cultures, transcending race, religion, and other obstacles to understanding. Indeed, Chopin’s music enjoys universal appeal. Humans possess certain common needs and wants. Successful artists wishing to connect with a wide audience tap into to those basic elements of the human experience and find ways of connecting to them. Chopin essentially stated this when he wrote, “Bach is an astronomer discovering the most marvelous stars. Beethoven challenges the universe. I only try to express the soul and heart of man.” In his music Chopin’s primary focus was on the inner self. That he succeeded so profoundly well was his lasting gift to posterity.
Steven Lagerberg April 2017
Frederic Chopin’s works were composed with precision, seemingly without an unnecessary note. His melodic invention, harmonic innovation, and command of counterpoint are a nearly invincible triad of superlative creativity. In his rare public concerts he was revered for his virtuoso technique, the thrilling beauty of his compositions, and his impossibly delicate touch. Today, there’s no denying the greatness of his music, yet in retrospect that greatness came at a heavy price for those who were closest to him. And the peculiarities of his style continue to rankle some listeners today. Most assuredly a musical genius, he was also a complicated, cold, vain, calculating, and rather snobbish individual, and what’s more, he knew it. “It is not my fault if I am like a mushroom which seems edible but which poisons you if you pick it and taste it, taking it to be something else,” he wrote in 1839. “I know I have never been of any use to anyone – and indeed not much use to myself.” Intricately combined with a wild imagination, Chopin’s egotistical and neurotic character served to help him compose extraordinary music, yet did that emotive and cantankerous spirit spill over into his works?
Chopin’s music is certainly filled with the entire spectrum of human feelings, perhaps too much so for some people’s tastes. Indeed, many of his works project a plethora of rather overwrought emotions, ranging from anger, even rage, to melancholy and grief, all of which might be mixed together in the same piece with the rare passage expressing happiness and joy. Chopin had based a considerable part of his aesthetic as a composer on the sensitive playing style of the Irish composer-pianist, John Field. However, the famous 19th century music critic, Ludwig Rellstab, once wrote, “Where Field sighs, Chopin screams…where Field shrugs his shoulders, Chopin arches his back like a cat…” Obviously, for some like Rellstab, this sensory excess is excessive. They find it emotionally exhausting and would prefer much less of Chopin’s rapid alterations of harmonic and rhythmic tension to a more evenly paced development with less emotional baggage.
It was once popular for music critics to describe Chopin’s works as dainty, delicate, and fragile, even effeminate. Most of his compositions were written for solo piano and many were limited to only a few minutes in length. After finishing his two concerti early in his career, Chopin preferred to compose much shorter pieces more suited to the salon than the concert hall. Charles Ives, the inventive American composer, once wrote rather viciously, of Chopin: “One just naturally thinks of him with a skirt on, but one which he made himself.” This perception of Chopin being feeble, weak, and effeminate undoubtedly arose from the fact that he was frequently very ill. For half of his life he had to deal with frequent episodes of fever, bronchitis, and laryngitis caused by his long struggle with tuberculosis. After long performances he sometimes had to be carried to bed. More contemporary reviewers of his works take a more enlightened approach and point out the strength and boldness embodied in his compositions. Now “effeminate” becomes “charming,” “fragility” becomes “mischievousness,” “fussiness” becomes “perfection.” What a difference a century makes!
As a life-long admirer of Chopin’s music I love the inventiveness and unpredictability of his music. I thoroughly enjoy the broad emotional palette he used to color his works. In fact, I relish the many emotional twists and turns that seem to turn on a dime, the roller coaster effects of its frequent mood swings, and the to-the-point brevity of his compositions. Musical works that go on seemingly endlessly, often being mere exercises in developmental technique, can bore me to tears rather than soothe my soul or excite my feelings. For me, Chopin’s music is timeless and very special. I also believe he never intended to write programmatic music despite the fact that many claim to tie his pieces to stories, myths, and poems. Chopin preferred music of abstract ideas and feelings, transcending visual, earthly images. Programmatic music was simply not part of Chopin’s musical ideology. And unlike Liszt who strove to compose finger-twisting works, Chopin didn’t consciously intend to write music that is incredibly difficult; if it’s difficult it’s because he couldn’t write it in any other way.
That Chopin might have been a rather neurotic and difficult person doesn’t really bother me. His music benefitted from his extreme sensitivity. Indeed, music was the predominant focus of his life such that even the many tragic events of his life, with all their troublesome disturbances, distractions, and turmoil, failed to play a significant role in diverting his concentration from his single-minded devotion to it. I am very grateful his miserable illness with its many debilitating intrusions couldn’t keep him from his noble effort at composition. As a result, the world is a far better place with his glorious music.
- Steven Lagerberg September 2016 Paris
At an early age Frédéric Chopin had developed a meditative attitude that often prompted him to lose himself in the personal and intimate world of the piano. This proclivity for dreaminess and for exploring the mysterious depths of feelings would play an increasingly important role in his creative style. Even by the age of nineteen Chopin was writing to his best friend (Tytus Woyciechowski) that “his need to make music” held the upper hand over his “desire to please.” He rather quickly began to understand that his preferred aim was not so much to astonish his listeners with the brilliant virtuosity of his pianistic effects, as it was to charm them with the intrinsic poetry of the music itself.
Of course, it hadn’t always been that way. As a child Chopin had relished impressing his audiences with his fancy finger work and ornately embellished music. From an early age it became evident that he also loved spontaneity and improvisation. If he forgot his lines while performing in various amateur theatricals and comedies he would remain undeterred. The young Frédéric would subsequently launch into an improvisation, ad-libbing with such gusto – so aptly and so perfectly – that no one in the audience was able to spot his dilemma. Who knew he would someday add these same improvisatory skills to his already extensive piano repertoire?
As an adult Chopin increasingly seemed to find the very idea of a public concert unpleasant. He began to feel that much of it went against the grain of his poetic manner of playing, accustomed as he frequently was to losing himself in reverie. He was turning inward. He belonged to that kind of people who prefer concealment to ostentation, privacy over publicity, not necessarily ideal character traits for those considering a concert pianist’s career. He began to understand that his playing style was not the best for capturing a crowd. As he put it in a conversation with Franz Liszt, “Even if you fail to charm your audiences you still can deafen them. But what can I do?” He would often joke about this by sitting down at the piano with his hair all ruffled up and wildly imitate his flamboyant friend’s dramatic playing style. He would eventually find that the joy creative work provided him made him progressively more and more indifferent to the world. He would focus his enormous talent on just one instrument and ignore the incessant pleas of his friends for him to compose opera works and larger pieces. Yet despite his detachment from the allure of fame he never would lose his profound sensitivity to criticism. George Sand, his companion of nine years, later wrote that Chopin was “cut to the quick by the touch of a rose petal, the shadow of a fly.” He still very much cared about what people thought of him.
By his thirties Chopin had rather completely turned inward, increasingly lost in his own cosmos of composition, forever brooding over the misery of a life lived under the burdens of a wasting disease, failed love affairs, and chronic financial insecurity. This mélange of sentiment eventually would turn into a permanent play of irony, a strange quality that people who knew him well found painful and fascinating in equal measure. As a composer Chopin wasn’t alone in his discontent. His musical predecessors were examples. Haydn had known little domestic happiness. Mozart faced both the constant pressure of his father’s demands and the perpetual need for money. Beethoven became a misanthrope who shunned people. Great creativity doesn’t necessarily afford emotional contentment.
Fortunately for the world, Chopin’s introspective musical journey translated into a wealth of beautiful music, as elegant as the man himself. There’s an analogy to be drawn between Chopin’s physical appearance – with his elegant clothes and fine furnishings – and the elegant style of his works. He hated expressive excess, whether in fashion, music, or art. His close friend, the painter Eugene Delacroix, wrote in his diary about Chopin’s insistence that music never be expressed to a degree that it provoked disgust. He wanted music never to irritate, claiming, “music should remain music” and always “strive to charm.”
A unique and original presence, Chopin has proven difficult to classify for critics of his own day and beyond. His music straddled the transition from Classicism to Romanticism and raised the bar for all subsequent pianists. He was able to draw every last good quality from that instrument to render fully the depth of his feelings and thought. From the frequent and at times tentative changes between major and minor keys in his music emerge the metaphor of a struggle, the struggle of a soul at war with itself. He had faced the challenge of either writing music largely for others or for himself and ultimately decided to turn inward to mine the depths of his inner spirit. Like the unfathomable peculiarities of his personality, the profundities of Chopin’s music defy attempts at definition. Recognizing the scent of a rose doesn’t make it any easier to describe.
Steven Lagerberg Paris, October 2016.
Listening to music can be an active or a passive process, depending much upon one’s mood at the time. Admittedly, some music may be easier to listen to than others, but why is that? What makes some works of music easier to “understand,” as if anyone can really comprehend just what music is all about anyway? And from where does the “pull” of some music come?
The music of Frederic Chopin has a particular attraction for many of us. One of the reasons for that is that his music is filled with the entire range of human emotions. Perhaps it’s because of this that his music is more immediately accessible than that of many other composers. This uniquely human element of Chopin’s music makes it so appealing.
Just like listeners in his day, we contemporary people have the same basic needs – the need for friendship, the need for love, for kindness, and the need for sharing that kindness with other people. I find that Chopin’s Nocturnes especially can provoke these feelings in me. The range of emotions we encounter in these beautiful works is very broad and, rather amazingly, he often was able to express many different emotions in a single piece. It’s possible to obtain great pleasure from hearing these ordered sounds and we ultimately learn that by carefully listening to them we can better connect ourselves to the world of beauty, stimulate our imaginations, and sometimes can even allow ourselves to be transported into another dimension, another world.
Chopin was a traditionalist by training, steeped in the Classical Style, yet he opened the door to Romanticism with his novel harmonics, unusual rhythms, and structural changes to the existing musical forms. Although not overtly a radical, he was a nonconformist who advanced fundamental yet revolutionary changes in piano performance and musical composition.
Chopin’s music incorporated most all of the elements of Western music from its very origins. From Bach, he obtained structure and depth, from Scarlatti, precision, from Mozart, elegance and beauty. From Schubert he garnered melody and sentimentality, from Schumann he took fantasy and imagination; from Beethoven he found boldness and force. Chopin took the fabulous fingerings of the great violin master, Niccolo Paganini, and transformed them into wondrous works for the piano. From Italian Opera, especially from the works of his friend, Vincenzo Bellini, he incorporated the beautiful aria and that particular singing style we now associate with his own music. And to all of this he added the exotic rhythms and chromaticism of his Slavic culture. Chopin’s musical style beautifully melded elements from what went before and then added many unique twists of its own.
As I listen to Chopin’s music, I strive to identify the various emotions I’m hearing, despite how quickly they can change, and then I try to identify how well different pianists manage to express those many emotions in their performances. My experience informs me that there are three parts to any piece of music – the composer, the performer, and the listener. Music only comes alive for me when these three entities are carefully combined. That’s why well- informed listening can make this a truly magical process!
Steven Lagerberg Seattle, 2016
“A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it, it just blooms.” (Anon.)
For good or bad, competition is a part of life. Life’s sometimes difficult struggles for survival and success are begrudgingly accepted by most of us as being integral to the human experience, disagreeably necessary for the relentless progress of our species. Yet when it comes to music competitions, is all that strenuous effort and scuffle really necessary? Must they really be gravely intense games of survival of the fittest? What’s the point of music competitions?
Musical contests are notably different from many others, especially from those where athletic skills are measured. Once the technical skills of playing the right notes at the right time are mastered, then the competitive outcome or the artistry of an individual’s performance becomes essentially a matter of taste. Yet the decision to choose a winner can often be a rather nebulous and arbitrary process and not always completely fair. Sometimes the often-slight differences between the finalists in any given contest can be lost on many listeners. Contentious issues like these have long troubled many. The great Hungarian composer, Béla Bartok once quipped, “Competitions are for horses, not artists.” Was he right?
When it comes to pianists, the path to a professional stage career does not necessarily include taking part in piano competitions. There are many examples to demonstrate that a path to a fabulous career need not demand stumbling through the often-rocky trail posed by these sports-like rivalries. Many of the world’s greatest pianists have either chosen not to participate or did not win any competitions. Richter, Gilels, Gould, Anderszewski, Kissin, and Andsnes, all leapt onto the stage without the assistance of a competition “trampoline.” Some might sensibly claim that these distinguished artists achieved their success during completely different times with different realities. Regardless, the dilemma whether to participate in these contests is a question considered by nearly every serious young pianist who aspires to present herself or himself to the world.
In the 1970s and 1980s the road leading through one of the great competitions was a comfortable and effective shortcut to the stage. Despite the scandals and controversies around jury verdicts, a strong showing in the Chopin Competition or the Tchaikovsky Competition, or a high place in Brussels yielded an almost automatic possibility of a rapid start to a career. The laureates of these lofty contests, superb pianists such as - Pollini, Argerich, Ohlsson, Zimerman, Van Cliburn, Sokolov, Ashkenazy, and others, have formed a true pianistic pantheon.
Currently, there is a piano competition fetish. Competitions have multiplied to the point where, unfortunately, many have been devalued. For some, objectivity has been challenged and the reliability of the ratings doubted. The once-venerable competition has ceased being a magic vehicle to instant success. Yet despite the symptoms of a breakdown, there are an unfathomable number of competitions in the world today, and their number continues to increase.
No one now would absolutely negate the value of a piano competition. As a means of gaining exposure, as a way of comparing oneself to others, and as a method of challenging oneself to greater heights of accomplishment, competing can often be a very good thing. The stress of these competitions does not always need to be a destructive process. The intense pressure of a competition, whereby pianists largely toil in solitude in preparation for a high-stakes performance, is essentially a concentrated version of the life of a performing artist. Experience and exposure are at the heart of the process of growing artistically. Though young pianists on the road to success now might use a completely different map from that of previous years, a piano competition remains a place to which well-trod paths lead. For most, it may be a necessary itinerary on the way to self-discovery and success. Participating in a competition does not necessarily create character, but it certainly can help to expose it.
When the original members of our Chopin Foundation, Northwest Council, created the Chopin Festival, they intended it to be a friendly competition, a celebration of Frédéric Chopin’s music and the students who choose to undertake the difficult challenge of learning to play it. It was also meant to be a celebration of our community’s piano teachers and a showcase for that talent. Our competition, spelled with a small “c,” was intended to encourage as many young pianists as possible to love this music and make it a permanent part of their lives. After these many years, I truly believe we have succeeded!
I remember hearing the Dalai Lama once making a remark about the issue of competition and it sums up my ideals for our Festival.
“There is competition, but if it is used in a good way. It is positive to go first provided the intention is to pave the way for others, make their path easier, help them, or show them the way. Competition is negative when we wish to defeat others, to bring them down in order to lift ourselves up.”
Steven Lagerberg November, 2015 Paris
The oldest and most highly esteemed piano competition in the world, the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, was initiated in 1927. Except for a twelve-year hiatus imposed by the terrible conditions in Poland during and immediately after WW II, this event has been held every five years. Legendary pianists such as Bella Davidovich, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Garrick Ohlsson, Krystian Zimerman, and Yundi Li all launched their celebrated careers following their victory at this prestigious event, a competition whose results truly can carry weight for a future career.
Of course, a prerequisite for a favorable outcome for any pianist who enters the Chopin Competition includes lots of hard work, but it also entails setting lofty goals for oneself, and then having the necessary courage and conviction to follow one’s dreams. Fundamentally, these exalted aspirations must be given wings by exceptional talent and accompanied by both intellectual and emotional maturity.
Even those possessing these prerequisites can discover their acceptance to the Chopin Competition in Warsaw to be a formidable hurdle to surmount. Most of the pianists who apply to this competition aspire to a professional piano career. For all pianists, the rocky path to a stage career, whether or not they choose to participate in a grueling competition like this one, is like no other. No other type of musician is so relentlessly sentenced to the complex fate of a soloist – a loner on the stage – a fact of life that raises the question, “what kind of life is that?” Then there are always those unforeseeable matters, those items besides one’s necessary mastering of all the notes, things that might include being at the right place at the right time, meeting the right people, and even overcoming stage fright. All this requires motivation, long-term dedication, excellent instruction, rigorous attention to detail, and often more than a bit of luck.
Unfortunately, despite possessing loads of talent, a pianist’s success at the Chopin Competition is not guaranteed. Furthermore, a favorable outcome at this competition, while potentially being a tremendous boost to a pianist’s career, is also no guarantee of a triumphal professional career. A few pianists have failed to capitalize on their achievement in Warsaw. Yet despite the harrowing difficulties and constant uncertainty, they keep coming to Warsaw from all over the world.
There is no shortage of young pianists who are willing to subject themselves to the pressure of this competition. In January 2015, four hundred pianists submitted DVD recordings for the jurors to sort through. From these one hundred and eighty were picked to travel to Warsaw for the Preliminary round in April. Eighty were then selected by this same jury to compete at the Competition in the Philharmonic Hall in October. Ultimately, there were ten finalists, six of whom who were awarded monetary prizes by no less than the President of Poland himself. All are superb pianists, each offering something uniquely their own to the marvelous music of Frédéric Chopin.
Entering the Philharmonic’s venerable auditorium can be a mystical experience. It certainly has been for me. Reduced to rubble in World War II, this hall - along with much of Warsaw - was painstakingly rebuilt following the conflict by a proud nation. I cannot think of another large historic musical venue that has suffered this same fate or represents so much to the character and honor of its people. The critical role Chopin’s music played in supporting the pride and endurance of a nation severely tested through that horrible war must not be under appreciated. An abiding love for Chopin’s works is an essential component of the Polish soul, and is indelibly etched into the public consciousness of this brave nation. Witnessing this phenomenon is like none other in my experience.
This last was my third attendance at the International Chopin Competition. I have discovered each to be outstanding, yet by virtue of my years of intense involvement in the search for the illness that inexorably felled Frédéric Chopin and then after my fairly recent confirmation of the actual cause of his untimely death, this time I felt as if I were returning home. Once treated as an outsider, I was now warmly welcomed back to Warsaw as a trusted colleague and friend. I couldn’t have been happier. For me, the exceptionally high quality of this year’s pianists just added to an absolutely superb combination of intellectual satisfaction, world-class musical appreciation of Chopin’s genius, and the deepest camaraderie. What could possibly be better?
Steven Lagerberg October 2015, Warsaw
Frédéric Chopin composed many of his Nocturnes in such a way that the initial theme was often repeated at the end of the work, reprised yet changed ever so slightly from its original presentation. Its subject would be subtly altered by its experience of transitioning through the entire piece, ultimately emerging from its origins enriched, more mature and self-confidant. A short while ago I stood in front of the majestic column in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw where Chopin’s preserved heart still rests behind an enormous gray marble plaque. I realized I had been in that same place fifteen years earlier, yet so much had happened to me during that interval that - like one of Chopin’s modified themes, I wasn’t the same person. I had come full circle. This is the story of that cycle of transition.
In 2000 my wife and I traveled to Warsaw to attend the International Chopin Competition. Knowing no one there and never having been to Poland, I only then had recently realized how well Chopin’s beautiful music connected to my inner self. His emotionally saturated music spoke to me like none other. Up until then my appreciation for his works had been a strictly private matter. Suddenly, I found myself seated in a large and magnificent auditorium surrounded by hundreds of rapt listeners hanging on to every note, every phrase, intent on extracting as much as they could from the music, as if just being present there in that hallowed hall might allow them to share some special affinity, however fleeting, with Chopin’s musical genius. I was awed by that experience…and forever changed.
While in Warsaw, like most tourists, I visited the Holy Cross Church and dutifully viewed the revered relic’s column, knowing little about Chopin’s life story and puzzled by the apparent division of his body. I knew of a few saints whose bodies lay scattered across the globe, yet why this particular man’s heart was in Warsaw and his body in the Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris was an unsolved mystery for me. I was also struck by the near constant stream of Chopin admirers arriving from all over the world who made their long pilgrimage to this faraway secular shrine. And then I was terribly moved to experience the presentation of Mozart’s Requiem in that same cathedral on the anniversary of Chopin’s untimely death at the age of only thirty-nine. It was if the entire Polish nation that very cold night had been crammed into this ancient place to praise this odd little man for his enormous contribution to its culture so many years ago. To witness the enormity of Poland’s adulation for this man was mind-boggling.
At the Competition I met several wonderful people, among them, Jadwiga Gewert, the Executive Director of the Chopin Foundation of the United States. Somehow, I must have confided to her my love for Chopin’s music, and then somehow, she managed to persuade me to start a branch of the Chopin Foundation in Seattle. Rather surprisingly, I subsequently did just that, and to Seattle’s great fortune its chapter endures and thrives to this day.
Thus began my acquisition of knowledge of Frédéric Chopin. I first started reading everything I could lay my hands on about his life and times, and then slowly and methodologically built up my knowledge of his musical works. It took years actually, but it has been one of the most pleasant adventures of my life.
By the time I returned to Warsaw for the 2005 Chopin Competition I had come to know many others from across the world who also knew and loved the music of Chopin. I also had visited most of the sites in Paris frequented by this self-exiled Polish patriot. My wife and I had recently acquired a home in that wonderful city and one of my favorite pastimes there was to ferret out as much information as I could about this interesting man. He had spent half of his life in the City of Light, acquiring his fame, establishing himself as one of the world’s foremost pianists, and ultimately died an agonizingly slow death in a ritzy apartment in the posh Place Vendome.
So when Jadwiga wrote me in 2008 requesting that I take her place at the Nohant conference of the International Federation of Chopin Societies, I immediately offered to go. Nohant is a tiny hamlet in central France that was the ancestral home of George Sand. It was a restful comfortable country place where she and Chopin spent many pleasant summers and where he was able to compose some of his greatest masterpieces. As it was one of the few places Chopin had lived that I hadn’t yet visited, I was keen to discover it.
Fascinatingly, while on the train to Chateauroux, the closest railway link to Nohant, I read an online article from the Times of India stating that a prominent Polish scientist, a Professor Wojciech Cichy, claimed that Chopin suffered from mucoviscidosis (what we term cystic fibrosis in the U.S.) and that he planned to prove it by doing a DNA analysis on a piece of Chopin’s preserved heart. He had proffered a proposal to the Polish authorities requesting their permission to obtain access to the long preserved heart. Receiving this information just hours before I was to meet with the world’s leading Chopin scholars proved to be a revelation for me. Little did I know then that my experience in Nohant would serve to launch my journey of discovery into the many mysteries of Chopin’s heart.
In Nohant the conferees had prolonged discussions about Cichy’s remarkable theory. However, it became clear to me that although most of the attendees were indeed experts on the subject of Chopin, few if any had any background whatsoever in science. Their knowledge of disease, and specifically of cystic fibrosis and tuberculosis, the two leading candidates for Chopin’s chronic illness, was abysmal. It soon became apparent that the only one present at this meeting who had both the knowledge of the historical Frederic Chopin and a fairly extensive understanding of disease and scientific analysis was myself! I soon decided that my combined knowledge of Chopin and science could possibly allow me to pursue this topic and ultimately solve the mystery of Chopin’s illness. It was at that moment I decided to write a book.
In the months and years that followed my visit to Nohant I reviewed all the medical literature on the subject of Chopin’s illness. To my pleasant surprise, there was quite a bit of it, but not all of it was written in English, so I painstakingly translated many articles from Polish, German, and French medical journals. I read all of Chopin’s available correspondence, thoroughly searching for any clues to his illness. I boned up on DNA analysis and forensic pathology, seeking to become as current as possible. I regularly corresponded with Professor Cichy as well as many other scientists around the world and discussed in great detail how a scientific investigation of the tissue obtained from Chopin’s heart might be analyzed. I even spent months researching whether it would be possible to obtain the necessary information from any one of several hair samples taken from Chopin. Unfortunately, it’s not. And then there was the terribly frustrating endeavor to unearth the remains of Chopin from the tomb in the Pére Lachaise Cemetery. Running into an absolute quagmire of French bureaucracy, after some months of getting nowhere I soon gave up. I was to learn that for a foreigner to gain access to one of France’s leading historical figures is simply impossible.
Once the structure of any proposed scientific inquiry became clearer it was time for me to meet with the relevant Polish authorities in an attempt to convince them to allow such an investigation to proceed. In 2008 they had quickly squelched Professor Cichy’s proposal to gain access to the heart, citing cultural, religious, personal, and even economic objections. I knew I would need to have all of the relevant bases covered if I were to have any success at all.
By 2011 my book, “Chopin’s Heart, The Quest to Identify the Mysterious Illness of the World’s Most Beloved Composer” was published. Subsequently, I began a long series of e-mails, letters, and personal visits by which I attempted to persuade the Director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw, The Polish Minister of Culture, the Archbishop of Warsaw, Chopin’s then two remaining relatives, and others to sanction an analysis of the heart. Their combined opinion was one opposed to any investigation of the heart, and privately they shared with me their worry that if the heart were not to be found in the crypt, the Polish tourism industry would almost certainly be severely hurt. Even Polish scientists balked at condoning such an analysis, claiming much of their economic support for their research was derived from government sources and that by publically supporting such an inquiry they would be jeopardizing the primary source of funding for their work. Intimidation, secrecy, and bureaucratic infighting reigned supreme in Poland! I realized it would be an uphill battle to obtain authorization for such an investigation. Nevertheless, I persisted and played the often-uncomfortable role of the squeaky wheel. Now in retrospect, I believe it worked!
In March of 2014 one of my friends in the Fryderyk Chopin Institute notified me that something appeared to be up. It appeared that there was a super secret plan to open the crypt containing the heart. Soon thereafter all correspondence ceased between the Polish authorities and me. No reasons were ever offered to explain this break, but I had been expecting that a news blackout might indicate that an investigation was imminent. It wasn’t until months later at the end of that year that I learned from an Associated Press source that Chopin’s crypt in the Holy Cross Church had indeed been clandestinely opened and pictures taken. I was shocked. I was also extraordinarily curious to know more.
What I subsequently learned was this: eleven people, all Poles, gathered in the Holy Cross Church just after midnight on the night of April 14th, 2014. Those present included the President of Poland, the Archbishop of Warsaw, the sole-surviving relative of Chopin, the Director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute and his Assistant Director, along with two scientists, a cameraman, a masonry specialist, and a couple of others. Many tense moments were spent attempting to open the stone cover to the crypt. This proved to be an unusually difficult task, requiring more than an hour of painstakingly delicate work. If the stone were to be broken or damaged it most certainly would have been obvious to those visiting the church the following day. These officials came prepared, however, bringing with them an identical replacement stone cover with an identical inscription just in case of any potential calamity.
Once the stone was pulled out and set aside, the box containing the relic was removed and placed on a table especially set up to position the heart for its inspection. Strong electric lights were switched on. The glass jar containing the heart was carefully lifted from within its protective wooden boxes, the outer one made of oak and the interior one crafted from fine ebony. There was a tarnished silver medallion on the top of the ebony box. It had been beautifully engraved with the composer’s name along with his birth and death dates, yet surprisingly, the birth date was inscribed as February 28th, 1810. Modern analyses have set the date for Chopin’s birth as being March 1st, so this was an unexpectedly curious finding. The wax seal appeared intact, the embalming fluid clear amber, and the heart itself perfectly preserved. For everyone present in that hushed sanctuary that night it was a very exciting moment.
Multiple photographs were taken of the heart from every conceivable angle and then the two scientists closely inspected the glass vessel. Neither of them was an expert in clinical medicine, one a geneticist, the other a research pathologist. Finally, for safekeeping additional wax was added to the existing seal and the jar placed back into its two protective containers. The original stone crypt cover was retrieved and cemented into place. From start to finish the entire process took less than two hours. As they slowly left the church and walked out into the cool air of an early spring morning those who had been present agreed then and there that Chopin’s crypt should not be touched for fifty years .
Understanding just what they saw that night proved to be difficult and more than a little awkward. It was difficult in that that only two of those present were scientifically trained, and awkward in that those scientists felt that outside assistance might be necessary to arrive at a firm pathologic conclusion. Knowing there would not be another opportunity to examine this relic in their lifetimes, they desperately wanted to get it right.
Overall, the heart was exceeding large for man of Chopin’s size. And from the start it was obvious to the two scientific investigators that something was amiss with the pericardium, the outer covering of the heart itself. It was thickened unevenly and there were yellowish deposits scattered across its surface. Closer inspection revealed granular particles in the tissue. It was also obvious that the original pathologist removing the heart from Chopin’s body and closely inspecting it - we must assume it was Chopin’s personal physician at the time of his death, the esteemed Dr. Cruveilhier - had made deep cuts into the areas of the three heart valves, looking for anomalies there, but finding none, sewed up the incisions with what appeared to be catgut. The unfortunate person whose life was powered by this compromised heart died from congestive heart failure complicated by tuberculous pericarditis.
My book had postulated that Chopin died from complications of tuberculosis. Specifically, I had mentioned the possibility of tuberculous pericarditis, a rare but devastating disease. Wishing to confirm my diagnosis just in case Chopin’s heart were ever to be examined in my lifetime, I had slowly amassed what is probably the world’s largest collection of case reports and postmortem photographs of the hearts of those individuals who had succumbed to this unusual disease. These hundreds of medical pictures subsequently proved invaluable in helping to determine the cause of Chopin’s demise.
Just how I obtained the photographs of Chopin’s heart for now needs to be kept a guarded secret. I have also promised the Director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw that I will not publish these pictures nor disseminate them. However, since the pictures were talked about in some detail at a public news conference in Warsaw this past January, I will not refrain from discussing them. I would have wished for far greater transparency during this entire process, but alas, one cannot have everything.
When I walked into the Holy Cross Church just before the start of the 2015 International Chopin Competition and stood once again before the column containing Chopin’s heart my mind became flooded with a myriad of emotions. My eyes watered as I realized I had come full circle with this relic, from knowing absolutely nothing about it fifteen years earlier to now being one of only a handful of people in the world who had been privileged to see it.
During the years of my research I had met hundreds of fascinating people, traveled to places I would never have dreamed of, and learned so very much more about this interesting man, his life, his music, and yes, of course, about his chronic illness. I felt that I really could now understand how this inexorably progressive disease affected this amazing man, but I still remain incredulous as to how he was able to compartmentalize his suffering and continue with his composing. For even when he was suffering the most, he managed to produce some of the most beautiful music the world has ever known.
Opportunities like this don’t come around very often and few of us are fortunate to find resolution to the mysteries we might come across during our lifetime. I have been one of the lucky ones and for that that I will be forever grateful. Like the opening theme of a Chopin Nocturne I have been changed and come full circle.
Steven Lagerberg November 2015, Paris
In 2008, after reading an online article about the long-preserved heart of Frédéric Chopin, I decided I would attempt to determine the identity of the illness that killed this beloved Polish composer. It was an illness that he endured for more than half his life. No one had clearly identified what this malady was, yet I thought I would challenge myself to see if I could figure it out.
I read every book and article on the subject I could find, including several written in French and Polish. I contacted musicologists, historians, and medical professionals. I taught myself forensic pathology. I read all of Chopin’s biographies and listened to all of his music and really began to get a handle on this man. Finally, in 2010 I figured I’d gone about as far as I could go without laying my hands on his actual heart, a relic preserved in an amber liquid and hidden away in a crypt in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. Sharon and I visited that crypt later that year and while standing in front of it I decided then and there to write a book about the subject.
It wasn’t easy. I hadn’t written much of anything since college and my writing skills, if I had any, were very rusty. My mother had written a book when I was a teenager and I had spent many interesting hours with her in our kitchen during her struggles putting it all together. From her I learned about persistence and about the passion it takes to succeed at such a task. It took me about six months of very pleasant yet very hard work to write it. It took me much longer to get it published.
After reviewing all the theories I could find about the nature of Chopin’s illness and entertaining a few more on my own, I had come up with more than ten possible diseases. Slowly, I worked my way through them all, wishing not to blow this diagnosis. After all, I was going public with my conclusion and I would be terribly embarrassed if I got it wrong. My deduction was that Chopin died from tuberculosis, although from a peculiar and rare form of that disease. I postulated that tuberculosis affected his heart, covering it with a thick layer of exudate that finally caused it to fail. But to prove that I needed to see his heart.
And so began many years of my attempts to get at his heart. Along the way I met hundreds of interesting people, visited places I never otherwise would have seen, and frequently had to put myself “out there,” something fairly difficult for a little boy from Fargo. There were many times along the way when I felt it would be best if I simply gave it up. Discouragement was my ever-present partner.
Nevertheless, for the past few years I conducted a relentless public campaign to analyze Chopin’s heart, contacting outstanding Polish scientists and Chopin scholars, trying to persuade them to take up this same quest. It worked! I had successfully persuaded them to investigate. Earlier this year (2014) thirteen prominent Polish leaders met in secret at midnight to open the Holy Cross crypt and view the heart of a man who had died of a mysterious illness one hundred and sixty five years earlier. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them, but not being a Pole made it essentially impossible for me to be included.
The conclusion of the two scientists present at the viewing was that it was tuberculosis that had felled Chopin. I felt very happy that I had arrived at the correct diagnosis, but at the same time felt very frustrated at not being able to see the heart myself. Those thirteen people were each sworn to secrecy and were under strict orders not to discuss this matter with anyone – ever. Until a couple of days ago the case seemed absolutely closed. Then I remembered my mom’s persistence in the face of adversity. Eventually, through the power of personal relationships, I was able to obtain a stunningly clear color photograph of the heart of Frédéric Chopin. I was the fourteenth person in the world to see it.
After carefully studying this photo I have come to the conclusion that Chopin died from tuberculous pericarditis. This disease encased his heart in a thick layer of a stiff tissue that eventually caused his heart to fail. I feel vindicated. My medical training, my persistence, and my stubbornness (for once in my life!) had paid off.
For me, this case is now closed. I accomplished what I set out to achieve. The feeling of personal satisfaction is enormous and the long journey I took to get to this point now seems very worthwhile. The most poignant twist in the enduring legacy of Frédéric Chopin will be my knowledge that this melancholic man’s final illness only served to make his long-standing heartache for the fate of his beloved Poland that much more real.
Steven Lagerberg November, 2014 Paris
Frédéric Chopin once exclaimed, “Bach is an astronomer, discovering the most marvelous stars. Beethoven challenges the universe. I only try to express the soul and the heart of man.” Expressing oneself is part of being human. Whether it’s a plaintive cry for help or a dry discourse on some obscure subject, people express their wants, their needs, ideas, opinions, as well as their loves and hates throughout their lives. What they say is one thing, but how they express themselves often differs enormously from person to person.
It’s not much different with the composition of music. Although the language of music may be far less transparent than the comfortable clarity of the written or spoken word, it certainly can and does communicate, often conveying its emotional content to even deeper levels. What Frédéric Chopin expressed in his music and how he expressed it differed significantly from prior composers. The extended emotional palette of this highly-strung, artistic, and spiritual composer’s music formed a new system of musical expression - one that still communicates with people today.
Different composers had very different styles. Bach’s compositions explored the many mathematical complexities of musical form and those of Beethoven reflected that composer’s views on the concept of the hero and the brotherhood of Man. Robert Schumann wrote music expressing the multiple aspects of his troubled personality. Liszt chose to focus on bravura and the projection of his extravertism. Instead, Chopin’s emotionally effusive works reflected the various stages of love’s internal sorrows and the outbursts of sadness connected with the fall of his native country. He preferred to confine himself to the inward-looking world of personal experience. His outpourings of grief for a lost love and his besieged country helped transform a timid and excitable young Pole into an exiled and hot-blooded patriot, pining for his beloved Poland and composing nostalgic and grieving meditations, in turns both dreamy and angry.
In reflecting on the power of music to communicate, the famous Irish writer and poet, Oscar Wilde, once said, “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.” Quite clearly, music can penetrate deeply into one’s psyche.
As a youth Chopin was well known among his family and friends for his gifts with mimicry, both in his words as well as in his music. In a little informal gazette Frédéric wrote with his younger sister, he immensely enjoyed writing puns, amusing characterizations, and satirical short plays. This manner of expression extended to his burgeoning compositional style. He loved to improvise musical pieces that mimicked the mannerisms of various friends or teachers and then would delight in asking his listeners to identify the persons whom he was describing. Years later his friends would claim he was uncannily accurate in capturing the essence of those he was attempting to mimic. The young Chopin quickly excelled at creating various emotions and expressing a kaleidoscope of colors in his music. He would put this talent to good use in the years to come. After experimenting with a range of styles Chopin initially settled on the style brillante, often accompanied by flights of improvisation. This virtuosic and improvisational style certainly brought with it fame, yet at the same time it complicated the arduous process of crafting the final version of a piece. He obviously had an improvisational facility for arriving at the basic ideas for his works, yet such discoveries were often followed by a long and arduous path toward achieving the finished version. As his friend, Eugène Delacroix would later comment, “Chopin’s improvisations were far more daring than his finished pieces.” In his compositional efforts he had to struggle continuously with weighing the classical influence of order and restraint alongside his strong artistic will to express greater and greater emotional content with complete freedom of expression. Despite those inherent difficulties, he managed to express himself sincerely and succinctly.
Increasingly, Chopin’s works began to reflect his physical appearance and lifestyle, mirroring his wardrobe of elegant clothes and his apartment filled with fine furnishings, and emulating a man who took delight in a noble bearing and disdained all that was common. His economy of musical expression and his meticulous treatment of details perfectly suited his vision for his Art. Like Mozart, every detail clearly mattered to Chopin. Using his sophisticated restraint and impeccably refined taste, especially in his late works - such as in his Ballade no. 4 in f minor - he was able to combine beautiful melodic gestures and dynamic contrasts with prolonged emotional tension to create works of an unmistakably organic unity. In those final offerings, using phenomenal technical mastery, superb subtlety and grace, Chopin expressed the crystalline song of his soul.
Steven Lagerberg Paris, 2014
Musical historians have always had difficulty categorizing the music of Frédéric Chopin. Is his music best described as Classical? Or should it be better categorized as being Romantic? After all, he began composing many of his works right during the birthing of Romanticism, with its characteristic emphasis on self-expression, individual uniqueness, and the various moods of the human personality. Its warm breezes were just then beginning to blow to the corners of the globe, sensations seemed more vivid, emotions more heated, and melancholy went from being simply depressing to something to be savored. Chopin’s intellectual and emotional constitution was a perfect match for this electrically-charged period, but he stubbornly remained shielded from Romanticism’s immoderate aspects by his profound respect for tradition and classical order. Although this beloved Polish composer can be numbered among the Romantics, he was one of the few who embraced the many positive and beautiful attributes of Romanticism while turning away in utter disgust from its excessive and more exotic aspects. In his compositional style Chopin went his own way.
It might be best to think of Chopin as the reluctant Romantic. He had been assiduously trained in the classics, the works of Bach, Mozart, Clementi, Hummel, and Moscheles figuring prominently in his training. He became familiar with much of Beethoven’s output and taught his students several of that composer’s pieces. He knew several works by Schubert. Yet when it came to the music of his contemporaries – Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, Strauss, and others, he remained at least indifferent and often quite critical. He considered Schumann’s works too coarse, Mendelssohn’s too predictable, and those of the boastful Berlioz to be excessively grandiose, outlandish, and vulgar. His life straddled two distinct periods of musical style, but he found his solace by revisiting the works of the old masters. Prior to his public concerts he often prepared himself by playing some of Bach’s Preludes and then might proceed to launch into one of the great Master’s fugues - or else he would play something by Mozart, always Mozart. Chopin looked to the past for his inspiration while he wrote music for the future.
Generally, each of the piano works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven span a time frame of twenty to thirty minutes. Chopin was one of the only composers of his period to limit the length of his major works to less than ten minutes. Consider his Scherzos, Polonaises, the Fantaisie, the Barcarolle, the Ballades, or the Polonaise-Fantaisie. This economy of time is telling. He quickly abandoned the then-popular forms of variations and extended developmental passages in favor of composing shorter works that allowed him to concentrate his ideas. He discovered that in these more succinct pieces he could still say all he wanted. Some of his Mazurkas and Preludes last only minutes, yet express much more than many longer works by other composers. Conciseness can speak volumes.
It is enlightening to examine the differences between Chopin and one of his closest friends, the great French painter Eugène Delacroix. These artists would frequently talk for hours about their Art, discussing their ideals and philosophies. Delacroix employed classical themes for many of his works, yet rejected the clarity of line and form of his predecessors. Instead, he used more freely expressive brushstrokes, often with blurred lines and exotic forms of color. His style would later greatly influence the Impressionists. Chopin used classical forms as well, but went far beyond the Classical style in his use of chromaticism and in his range of expression. His works would have a strong influence on the music of Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin. While Delacroix became one of Romanticism’s main proponents, glorifying the French Revolution and lauding the rights of the Common Man, Chopin chose to support the landed aristocracy, cringed at any change, and took pains to distance himself from the lower classes. These two Romantic artists were similar in style, yet poles apart in their politics. One championed disorder and revolt and the other clung to the established order, yet together their Art moved their respective disciplines in a similar direction.
Chopin’s music is a delightful blend of Classical balance and Romantic expressivity. His was a wholly unique style, extraordinarily original for its time, yet still capable of deeply communicating to listeners today. How he achieved this matchless synthesis of two great musical styles and remain so popular nearly two centuries later is one of the great mysteries of music.
Steven Lagerberg Paris, 2014
For just a moment I’d like for you to imagine that you are suffering from some chronic illness, one you will be forced to endure for two decades of your life, yet one you will never come to know by its name. You will never be able to identify this mysterious malady, despite the fact that it nearly kills you several times, gruesomely does kill your 14 year-old kid sister with a massive hemorrhage while she’s lying on your kitchen floor, raises holy havoc with your career, your multiple attempts for some semblance of a love life, your ability to travel, and an illness that will bring an end to your existence before your 40th birthday. Life is tough. And then, on top of that, you want to be famous? You wish to be the most famous pianist and piano composer of the century? In your dreams…
You will never know what hit you. And all this despite silly restrictive diets, ghastly treatments that include the application of leeches, the use of painful purgatives and gruesome blisterings, and notwithstanding your stoical visits to a long line of doctors, some distinguished, but most not. Yet through all this you will suffer your health ordeals with the greatest of equanimity and grace, poking fun at your own foibles, minimizing your suffering, and joking about the unpredictable vicissitudes of life. Eventually, you learn to cope and to endure your ailments with great patience. One day you would discerningly write to a friend, “The better health people usually have, the less patience they have in bodily suffering.” Undaunted by the delicate state of your health, you attempt to pursue your lofty ambitions, your dreams, your loves, minimizing the effects of this mysterious illness despite its countless episodes of sheer life-altering misery. Your genius remains undismayed by these accumulating health problems, and you pleasantly discover you possess this remarkable ability to pen music of the utmost beauty and tranquility.
Nocturne in D-flat. Op. 27/2
Yours is an illness that will begin when you are but a teenager, one that too quickly robs you of your youth (you’re coughing up blood by the time you’re only 21), and one that inexorably threatens the unique genius of your burgeoning creative abilities. An infirmity that you frequently try very hard to hide, telling others, “Don’t say I’m ill, my friends and family would get a thousand scare.” An illness that frequently pushes you right to the edge of your life, such that thirteen years prior to your eventual demise at the hand of this cruel killer, your local newspaper feels the need to print a story for its readers, among them your many concerned friends, proclaiming that you really haven’t died, that you are, in fact, still alive. This close scrape with death frightens you, prompts you – at the tender age of 27 - to write your will, and leads you to express your uncertainties and your faith in the only way you know how. Listen to how you describe this ordeal and then offer a hymn-like prayer for staying alive.
Nocturne in G, Op.37/1
It’s not that you haven’t tried to obtain some answers, a correct diagnosis, or a reasonable plan of treatment for your un-named and unidentified problem. You consult doctors all the time, at times frantically obtaining multiple consultations in a row, only to learn with dismay that these much-praised medical practitioners haven’t a clue what’s wrong with you, and have little to suggest other than to recommend, “fresh air and rest.” Imagine being beset by some serious ailment and being told to, “Just get some rest.” And always wary of the medical establishment, you characteristically shun their by now routine recommendations for blistering, purging, and bleeding. It proves to be a wise move…and you will live longer because of it.
These days most people would be outraged to discover that they might have been misdiagnosed, given some worthless, or even harmful treatment. Even it were only for a rather simple and self-limited illness. Imagine what their reaction might be after being left clueless for twenty years to the nature of a now certain-to-be fatal illness!
Yet this absolute cluelessness was the reality for Frédéric Chopin, our brilliant yet doomed Polish composer. He would write, “I can’t find any comfort, I have worn out all feeling – I only vegetate and wait for it to end soon.” This was the terribly bleak yet very real situation Chopin faced as he lay slowly and painfully dying in his elegant Paris apartment at the prestigious Place Vendôme. Not certain what it was that was slowly but surely strangling him, at times struggling to talk, even to breathe, he rather alarmingly found himself surrounded by an increasingly anxious cluster of his closest friends. When he first had become aware of his faltering ability to speak, he had carefully instructed his stiffly formal medical practitioner, Dr. Jean Cruveilhier, to cut open his chest after his death, to remove his heart, and then place it in a crystal urn. But why? Why did he do this?
Although Chopin has long been considered to have suffered from the life-draining disease of tuberculosis – all of his many biographers have gone along with this traditional story line - others recently have expressed their doubts, and have suggested alternative hypotheses to explain his illness.
Nevertheless, it was still a shock when in the summer of 2008 news headlines around the world announced that a leading Polish cystic fibrosis expert, a Professor Wojciech Cichy, had made the extraordinary claim that cystic fibrosis and not tuberculosis had been the illness most likely suffered by Chopin. What was even more shocking to learn was that he and his Polish team had already announced their audacious plans to retrieve and reopen the glass urn containing the composer’s preserved heart presently concealed in a column in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. If that weren’t enough, they also planned to dig up the remains of his younger sister, Emilia (remember, the sister who died on his kitchen floor?) And all of these rather gruesome and creepy activities were to take place on the eve of the bicentennial celebrations of Chopin’s birth in 2010. Just think, the most revered relic in Poland, strangely absent during this special celebratory year!
Chopin’s heart, preserved in alcohol, some say the finest French cognac, this last-surviving vestige of the composer’s remains, now two hundred years since its first rhythmic quiver, continues to lure thousands of adoring visitors from every corner of the world. But why is his heart in Poland? Why isn’t it a thousand miles away back in Paris with the rest of his body, buried beneath that lovely carved angel in the Pere Lachaise cemetery?
As a physician I am used to observing people, whether alive or dead, usually in one piece, and most certainly in one place. Aside from a few scattered saints, few of us wind up having our parts widely strewn about the globe! When I first learned of this strange body part separation as I attended the 2000 International Chopin Competition and stood before that very column where his heart lay interred, I immediately suspected there was an interesting story behind Chopin’s partitioned parts and determined to get to the bottom of it, or, as I joked at the time, to get to the heart of the matter! I was soon to learn that the complete story of Chopin’s heart remains an untold mystery.
So what’s all this medical fuss about? Why is TB being doubted as the cause of his prolonged disease and death?
Well, one of the reasons is just that – Chopin suffered from a very prolonged illness. Twenty or more years, to be precise. How could someone always considered so embarrassingly frail from the very beginning of his childhood, this skinny guy who never weighed much more than 90 pounds, have possibly survived up to twenty-four years with this inexorably progressive wasting disease? As Chopin himself once lamented, “Why should God kill me this way, not all at once, but little by little?” (After an especially bad bout of illness you decide to write your own funeral march).
Piano Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35, third movement
Much of our current doubt about TB being Chopin’s illness stems from the strange findings of Dr. Cruveilhier’s autopsy of sorts. I say “of sorts” because that’s what it was. So who was this doctor and why place any importance on what he might have said? He was Dr. Jean Baptiste Cruveilhier, the Chair of Pathologic Anatomy at the University of Paris, the author of one of the world’s best anatomical atlases (even today, it’s still ranked at the top of the list), and once the personal physician to the French royal family. At the time he was considered the best specialist in tuberculosis and pathology in all of France.
“At the time” is the key phrase here, however, as you must remember this was the 1830’s and 40’s. Even the name “tuberculosis” had only just appeared around 1840. Despite the fact that TB – then commonly known as “consumption” - was one of the leading causes of death – there was scarcely any science to explain the disease. Its cause, the broad range of its clinical manifestations, and its method of transmission would continue to baffle doctors for years to come. In his autopsy report, forever lost to the flames of the Hotel de Ville fire of 1871 in Paris, Dr. Cruveilhier had written that Chopin died from “tuberculosis of the lungs and larynx.” Yet in a letter to Chopin’s eldest sister he would also write, “the autopsy did nothing to disclose the cause of death…. it is a disease I have never encountered before.” Later, this same sister would remember the good doctor writing her and stating that Chopin’s “heart was enlarged” and that examination of his lungs did not “disclose evidence of pulmonary consumption.” What are we to believe?
These diagnostic inconsistencies, however puzzling, have managed to perpetuate the controversy surrounding Chopin’s illness and now form the rationale for the search for a more suitable answer.
Let me now set the scene for you for Dr. Cruveilhier’s hastily conducted “autopsy.” Chopin’s last days were truly awful. Cruveilhier was there for much of it, especially that terrible last day. Progressively unable to speak, unable to continue breathing, his color darkening, Chopin dies in the early morning hours of October 17th, 1849. He was only 39 years old. Hours later a good friend, a talented Polish artist by the name of Kwiatkowski, spends some time drawing two views of the composer’s profile in death. Later still, someone snips a few locks of Chopin’s chestnut-colored hair. And then it was a sculptor’s turn to fashion the death masks and the delicate molds of the composer’s hands. Fascinatingly, a cast of the composer’s hand may be the important clue that can finally settle this controversy about his illness.
Then was Dr. Cruveilhier summoned back to perform the chest opening procedure and remove the heart? No.
The only reason for him to remove the heart rested with Chopin’s sister’s promise to her cherished brother that she would return this symbol of his “soul” to their homeland. You see, Chopin’s dying wish had been to ensure that his heart would be returned to Poland. But Dr. Cruveilhier was certainly in no hurry to perform the absolutely token task of removing this now lifeless organ from a slowly cooling cadaver. It wouldn’t be until the third day after Chopin died that Cruveilhier would find the time for this perfunctory postmortem courtesy and autopsy. His rushed procedure most likely was very brief and not anywhere up to his usual standards. Its main purpose was not so much to figure out why his patient had died – autopsies as we know them were not done then, and remember, there were no investigative reporters standing around – its purpose was simply to remove Chopin’s heart and quickly plop it into its glass urn. Yet Dr.Cruveilhier’s hesitant and unclear observations hurriedly jotted down during that cursory task have formed the basis for the tuberculosis story for nearly two hundred years.
If you begin looking for alternative theories as to what malady Chopin suffered, you will come across quite a few - at least ten by my latest count. However, I believe only three deserve serious consideration, and they are – alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency (a genetic form of lung disease – and while its name might be unfamiliar, it’s not that uncommon a disease), cystic fibrosis, and then of course, tuberculosis. There are many more possible diagnoses mentioned in the literature, but I won’t strain your ears with any more medical jargon.
Instead, I wish to add a brief footnote about the heart itself, still carefully sealed in that glass jar. Just prior to some of the most terrible fighting seen during WWII in the bombed-out city of Warsaw, a Nazi chaplain – isn’t that a strange pairing of words? – a Nazi chaplain by the name of Schultze, somehow convinced the panicked priests of Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church to allow him to break open the crypt containing Chopin’s heart and to spirit their cherished old relic away in the dark of night - luckily so, as only hours later in that ensuing morning’s fierce battle the magnificent Baroque church was almost completely demolished. Despite the good chaplain’s most earnest promises to the contrary, within a week Chopin’s heart would wind up in the hands of Warsaw’s commanding Nazi general. Within days, this infamously evil German general – Heinz Reinfarth - would ceremoniously parade the heart up and down the streets of that totally ruined city – complete with Nazi flags and a spirited German brass band - using it as a powerful propaganda ploy in a last-ditch attempt (this was 1944, and the Germans were on the verge of losing the war) in a last-ditch attempt to quell the anger of the growing Polish Resistance movement. Well, it worked – at least for a while. It must have acted like kryptonite on the Chopin-loving Poles to see their beloved composer’s heart being manhandled by Nazi troops….Just after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 they issued a decree proclaiming that from thenceforth there would be no further broadcasting or performances of Chopin’s music anywhere in the country – any exception would be punishable by death! Just imagine, you could be killed for playing this music…
Mazurka Op. 63 #2 (this was one of the last pieces Chopin composed…he said it almost killed him to write it. Strangely, one hundred years later you could be killed for playing it…)
Some years after the war the church was painstakingly rebuilt and Chopin’s heart was returned to its original location to be re-interred by a Polish musicologist by the name of Bronislaw Sydow. His records - including his detailed description of the heart – so vital for our current understanding of what killed Chopin – were seemingly lost to history. Lost, until – after a very long and at times frustrating search – I was recently able to find them. And, interestingly, Sydow’s uncomplicated observations lend some support to the current cystic fibrosis theory.
When I was a young boy I remember a distant friend of mine having cystic fibrosis, and so, rather unknowingly, I witnessed the course of his life as I grew up. While most of us were running around playing hide-and-seek, baseball, or soccer, he was mostly confined to an oxygen tent, never once being able to participate in the usual play of childhood. Unfortunately, he never lived to see his 15th birthday. I suspect this is the tragic condition most of us think of when we hear mention of this dreaded disease.
When I was in my medical training and serving in a large pediatric hospital, I’d see these sick youngsters on the cystic fibrosis ward, or rather, I’d hear them hack and wheeze, desperately fighting their latest in a long line of terrible lung infections. Most of them were destined for a brief life, even with what then was the best medical care in the world. Today, many people – including many physicians - have the same impression that I had then. But like so many things in medicine, things change, and so in the past few years we have learned that there can be many forms of cystic fibrosis, some forms unexpectedly showing up in apparently healthy adults. As an example, a fairly common diagnosis among young men now presenting to infertility clinics is cystic fibrosis. For another, those in their 20’s or 30’s being medically worked up for their chronic digestive disturbances or nasal polyps can also be profoundly surprised to learn they might be suffering from a form of this genetic disease. Scientists have recently discovered that there can be these varying clinical presentations of this multifarious disease with many of its victims not diagnosed until adulthood.
This discovery of milder forms of this illness, not manifesting symptoms until the late teenage years or even adulthood, and an ailment allowing those afflicted to survive often into their 40’s and 50’s led the Polish investigative team to their present hypothesis that Chopin had one of these still serious yet lesser forms of cystic fibrosis. A milder adult onset form of the disease could explain the muddled confusion of Chopin’s many doctors who likely had never seen such an illness. (An interesting footnote to this is that compared to all other countries, Poland holds the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest rate of cystic fibrosis). Cichy and his team reasoned if they could only get to that heart tissue preserved in that Warsaw Church, they’d likely solve this riddle. And since they were at it, they’d also look at the remains of his younger sister, Emilia, making the assumption she too probably died from the same disease. They even planned to go after the two then-living relatives of Chopin, two elderly women, hoping to get them to provide, at the very least, a couple of DNA mouth swabs.
This team stubbornly believed their main challenge would come from the Catholic Church. They reasoned the Church would put up a holy fuss about dis-interring this old relic of a heart, despite the known fact that Chopin never was really recognized as an ardent or even practicing Catholic. Yet if necessary, they were prepared to take their request all the way to the Pope.
They knew their quest wouldn’t be easy, yet they fervently wished their scientific reasoning would eventually win out, convince the naysayers, and allow them to proceed with their investigation. And public opinion? Well, what of it? Their results would justify their means.
How about their payoff? Aside from the many public accolades they would accrue if they succeeded in coming up with an answer, they stated their primary reason was an attempt to comfort those young people of the world currently afflicted with the disease of cystic fibrosis. As Professor Cichy stated to the press, “If we can prove Chopin suffered from cystic fibrosis, it would be a huge inspiration for our patients, especially children, to know they can accomplish a great deal like he did.”
These were truly noble intentions. So what happened? Did they ever get to examine Chopin’s heart? What went wrong?
Well, as with most human endeavors, things got a little messy. One of those Chopin relatives told the press she would keep her mouth shut – literally – and never allow any DNA swabbing, from anywhere! The Catholic Church, to the team’s great surprise, also kept quiet. Popular opinion, however, was anything but quiet, there being a veritable firestorm of messages sent to the Polish government from outraged music lovers from all over the globe. There also were letters from concerned scientists - among them mine - stating that the science, advanced as it is, was just not there yet when attempting to determine the clinical presentation of cystic fibrosis from the DNA evidence. That is, even if Chopin’s remains had revealed the genetic possibility for cystic fibrosis, that information wouldn’t be sufficient to tell how bad Chopin’s disease was. Not even close. But that was with 2008 technology. Remember how things change? It’s now 2011, scientific methods are much more sophisticated, and just might yield much better answers!
To the research team’s great astonishment, the final decision on this request came not from the Church, but from the Polish Minister of Culture and the Director of the Institute of Fryderyk Chopin. It came down to a couple of men doing a quiet and careful analysis of this proposed investigation and then saying that they had reviewed the latest scientific possibilities and that they had decided for now not to allow the investigation to proceed. It’s not worth all the fuss and bother, they said, all the disruption, all the public attention, if in the best of circumstances, the only answers that could be obtained by such a study would merely be a long string of maybes and vague possibilities. Despite my keen desire to know what it was that killed Chopin, deep in my heart I had to agree with them. Is Chopin’s heart forever fated to be kept hidden? Fate was an extremely important concept for Chopin. Listen to his eloquent way of describing Fate written when he was only 26.
Etude No. 12 in C minor Op. 25/12
So for now, Chopin’s heart sits quietly in its crystal jar, awaiting a time, perhaps a little farther down the road, perhaps as soon as later this year, when such an analysis might possibly provide better answers to our many questions. Frustratingly, though, a precise diagnosis for Chopin may always remain elusive.
Do we know for certain what Chopin died from? No. Could it have been cystic fibrosis? Yes. Could it have been TB? Yes. It could have been something else too. So, what difference would it make if we knew?
It’s difficult to determine the degree of influence Chopin’s long struggle with illness had on his compositional style. The peculiar hues on the palette of his existence, arrayed as they were with the separation from his family, exile from his homeland, rejection by the great loves of his youth, a devastating chronic illness, and the prospect of an early death combine to color our final portrait of the man with rather dark and somber tones. Our lasting impression of Chopin must then come from consideration of the many influences posed by this unusual combination of emotional despair, chronic disease, and phenomenal talent.
Although Chopin’s musical style changed remarkably little over his years, his later works display less of the showy brilliance of his youth and possess a more contemplative character. Ten years prior to his death, he would write to a friend to say, “It would be good if I could still have a few years of big, completed work.” Fortunately, he did and was able to crank out such gems as the lovely Barcarolle, the Berceuse, the Sonata for cello and piano, his major Sonata, Op. 58, a brilliant Polonaise, Op. 53, the meandering Polonaise-Fantasie, an introspective Scherzo, the 4th Ballade, and many others. There can be little doubt that many of these late works gained more of this reflective style following his increasingly frequent encounters with the ordeals of a life-changing illness.
Many of his works are structured in such a way so as to pit two diametrically opposing themes against each other. Often one theme is terrifying to the extreme, virtually screaming at times, while the other glides gently along like a lullaby, nearly a nocturne. Is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that some of these might have represented his long struggle with his own mortality?
If tuberculosis was the illness that killed Chopin, then the present historical record remains intact. Our vision of the dying Romantic – a la the poet, Byron – the desperate artist struggling to escape the strictures of his earthly torments, will live on. Despite his evident frailty, Chopin somehow must have successfully battled this inexorably fatal disease better than most. In fact, he would later write, “I have outlived so many people younger and stronger than I, that I think I must be immortal.”
If, however, cystic fibrosis is discovered to have been his fatal opponent, then it’s a little different story. We then would think of a gentle genius genetically programmed to live a life of progressive misery, fatally trapped by an illness to this day still poorly understood. And hope might then be given to countless millions who are similarly afflicted with any one of a number of genetic diseases. For them to see what might be achieved despite their common infirmity might be truly inspirational.
Chopin personified what it then meant to be Polish – misery concealed, suffering suppressed, strength arising out of adversity, character from endurance. He must indeed have had a remarkable ability to compartmentalize his anxieties, his grief, and his everyday troubles, in order for him to concentrate on his passion for composition. He at times has been portrayed as a rather weak man, indecisive, and a dandified snob of the Parisian salons. That he sometimes was an arrogant and haughty person, I have no disagreement. However, no one can convince me he was weak or cowardly in the face of his fatal illness! He was a man who despite his pain and suffering, could write music as joyful as this!
Etude Op. 10 #5, Etude Op 25 #9, Waltz in G flat Major
A chronic illness can transform a person’s life, especially if it becomes the anticipated cause of one’s premature death. That is, if you know you’re dying and that you’re going to die at an early age, both you and your life are going to be very different. Such a fatal illness suffered over a long period of time and one associated with chronic pain and physical disabilities, can have a profound effect on one’s personality and character, and consequently assumes a major role in any historical assessment. I believe Chopin’s chronic suffering did play such a major role in his abbreviated life, affecting his relationships, his decisions, and without doubt, his composition. His slow dance with death lasted decades. You can hear it in his music.
In any summary appraisal of a person’s life the well-documented accomplishments, personal connections, and eccentricities of the adult overshadow the often-apocryphal tales of one’s childhood. For most, the straightforward stories of one’s adult years hold sway. As the seasoned farmer carefully evaluates the ripening grains in his wheat field just before the harvest, he probably gives little thought to the spindly green shoots repeatedly beat down by the rains of the previous spring.
Whether that adult emphasis is explained by the ephemeral nature of our youth as compared to a long life filled with many unexpected twists and turns, or simply the widespread custom of placing the biographical focus squarely on our mature years, I’m uncertain. The sometimes poorly documented and often exaggerated tales of youthful exuberance may serve for some to downplay the importance of those early years. Yet they can add indispensible color to what would be an otherwise rather dull linear narrative of a person’s character development and adult achievement. Unquestioningly, however, our formative years create the person we become. Each of us owes our singularity to our childhood experience. Frédéric Chopin’s youth spanned exactly half of his entire existence. Lessening its importance in any assessment of his life blinds us to a better understanding of his work.
Many view the strained and serious-looking visage suspiciously peering out at us from the famous Daguerreotype of Chopin, taken two years before his death, and easily imagine a very melancholy man. They would be correct in that judgment. Chronically ill with a fatal illness and saddened to see his once-prodigious talent dwindling away, he indeed was.
Few may be familiar with the joyous story of Chopin’s wonderfully warm and entertaining childhood. When we eventually come to comprehend that story, it’s then little wonder to us why so many of his works reflect the nostalgia for his prior life in Poland. Unfortunately, he would spend his more dreary adult years battling disease and being economically bound to a tight schedule of teaching the bored daughters of the Parisian aristocracy. And then who doesn’t know about those nine peculiar years living with that narcissistic novelist of France, George Sand? Chopin’s adult existence was lived largely internally and shared only in his music.
He was the third of four children and the only male, ensuring he would be forever fussed over in a home filled with women. The family was not poor, yet not by any means wealthy. By all accounts, it was a happy home. Chopin’s father, Nicolas, was a Professor of French and an administrator at the Warsaw Lyceum, a prestigious private boarding school for boys located in the luxurious Saxon Palace. His position came with many fringe benefits. The Chopin family initially lived in a lovely section of the palace and then later moved to an adjacent building located directly across the street from the entry gates to the esteemed University of Warsaw. Young Frédéric literally grew up in a palace and a stone’s throw from Poland’s finest center of learning. Location is everything.
Wealthy landowners from all parts of Poland were happy to send their sons to Warsaw and to entrust Nicolas Chopin with the responsibility for their education. Many of these young men would become Frédéric’s friends. Whether out of friendship alone or perhaps to curry favor from Chopin’s respected father, many of these boys and their families invited Frédéric to their homes for extended visits over school breaks and during the summer months. These were no ordinary homes. Most were expansive palaces or villas occupied by the educated cultural elite of Poland’s aristocracy. As word of young Frédéric’s piano talent spread across the country many of these families were anxious to witness for themselves this wunderkind, another Mozart in their midst. In other words, he was a very popular boy.
During the seven years of his teenage youth Chopin managed to traverse and get to know many different regions of Poland, from Gdansk to Cracow, from Poznan to Wroclaw. It seems a surprisingly extensive itinerary for the routine trips of a young student, especially if one realizes the only then-available means of travel was by a horse-drawn vehicle – carriage, buggy, or four-horse coach. Warsaw’s main station was conveniently located only several blocks from the palace and just across the street from Chopin’s favorite pastry shop. He would become very familiar with both.
Frédéric most often traveled in the company of his young friends and their relatives. At other times his older and unfailingly responsible sister, Ludwika, accompanied him. Increasingly upset by the inexorable progression of their youngest daughter’s respiratory illness as well as Frédéric’s incessant coughing, Chopin’s parents would sometimes send Emilia along, hoping that she too would partake of the benefits of some local health spa or simply enjoy the country air. Whatever the means of travel and whoever rode along, these were adventuresome travels filled with plenty of excitement and unique experiences. Chopin was a very receptive and knowledgeable traveler who wrote extensively, recording every detail of his many excursions. Most importantly for his future, his copious notes reflected his keen fascination with the folk music he heard while traveling across the hills and valleys of Poland.
It’s difficult to imagine just how life changing some of these trips were for our brilliant young composer. Along the routes of his many travels Chopin’s increasing fame preceded him. At most any stopping place throughout Poland he was feted and treated like royalty. Everywhere he was asked to play, often receiving requests to improvise on themes derived from local folk songs he knew so well. He loved to respond to these heartfelt requests, frequently playing for hours and hours on whatever piano was available. In doing so he connected to the heart and soul of his nation, and never would forget the great warmth and admiration given to him by his fellow countrymen.
In the aristocratic homes of his many friends he learned the ways of the rich, famous, and cultured. He rapidly learned how to use his phenomenal musical skills to his best advantage. He had been exposed to the finest cultural life Poland could offer and he thrived on it. Years later, after he had arrived in Paris, many would be puzzled by the aloof and aristocratic ways of this enigmatic young Polish émigré and wonder how a meager schoolteacher’s son managed to acquire such a royal bearing. Although Chopin was no aristocrat by birth, he certainly acted like one.
Chopin’s triumph with these many casual concerts at locations throughout Poland would later lead to his success in convincing his rather stubborn father to allow him to continue to study music. His father had long envisaged another plan for his only son, distinctly preferring he concentrate on a career in law. Very reluctantly, he would come to relax his insistence, but only after Frédéric promised to pursue both a traditional education and his passion for music. By the time he was seventeen, however, it was obvious to all that young Chopin’s future success was to be found in music. There would be no going back. His future was decided.
By the time he reached adulthood Frédéric Chopin’s musical style was essentially established. Although the following years would add further refinement and beauty to his works, there would be no major change in their elegance or finesse. For the remaining half of his life the amazingly rich resources of his wonderful childhood experiences allowed him to mine their depths to discover the precious musical treasures yet to come.
Paris, January 2014
They were born at about the same time (Chopin in 1810, Liszt in 1811) in roughly the same geographical corner of the world. Both were child prodigies whose lovingly supportive families eagerly provided them with highly skilled musical instruction. Both would eventually achieve world-class fame for their phenomenal piano talent. Yet despite their similar backgrounds and shared musical interests, Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt could not have had more dissimilar personalities. Together, they were a study of contrast. Apart, Liszt was a virile, impetuous, and dramatic playboy, Chopin a frail often-moody fellow with a peculiar melancholic charm. While the young Chopin’s education had been steady, formal, and rather broad, Liszt’s was cut short by his early stardom as a Wunderkind, his demanding stage career never allowing him to study anything beyond the piano. They both found early success in their respective countries playing this difficult instrument, yet the enticing allure of international fame ultimately drew them both to the musical Mecca that was then Paris. Serendipitously, these two famous pianists would become close friends…for at least a while.
Their first meeting took place at Chopin’s first concert in Paris, February 26, 1832. Liszt was rhapsodic about Chopin’s brilliant technique; Chopin admired Liszt’s immense range. Their friendship building, they frequently appeared together at charity concerts and salon soirees and received the highest accolades for their performances. Little by little, however, the fabric of that friendship began to fray. Liszt would eventually become extremely jealous of his friend’s rapidly growing fame as an excellent composer, bitterly lamenting that he himself was seen simply as a piano virtuoso.
Liszt’s own early compositions rarely garnered the words of praise usually reserved for his friend’s works. For his part, Chopin often disdained Liszt’s keyboard pyrotechnics and what he deemed to be his friend’s blatant catering to the popular crowd. Yet he too would suffer jealousy, especially over Liszt’s amazingly powerful abilities. Once, during a conversation with Liszt he said, “Even if you fail to charm your audiences you can still deafen them. But what am I to do?” Chopin enviously realized his delicate and nuanced performances of his own works could never match the soaring energy with which Liszt performed them. In a letter to a friend, Chopin wrote: “I write not knowing what my pen is scribbling because at this very moment Liszt is playing my études, and transports me beyond the limit of rational thought…I would like to steal from him his way of performing my own creations.”
The friction created by their female companions also accentuated their differences. Liszt’s mistress, Marie d’Agoult, an author known also by her penname, Daniel Stern, had her many differences with Chopin’s romantic companion, herself also a popular writer known to her many readers as George Sand. These two highly talented and complex women would often involve their famous partners in a web of awkward circumstances by virtue of their frequent social intrigues. However, far more damaging to their relationship was Liszt’s unauthorized use of Chopin’s apartment for a romantic tryst with the wife of Camille Pleyel, Chopin’s close friend and favored piano supplier. Unexpectedly returning to find Liszt and his lover amorously entwined in his own bed, the fastidious and proper Chopin became infuriated and never forgave his Hungarian friend.
The last straw for Chopin followed his April 26, 1841 concert in Paris. Liszt had written a rambling review that was later published in a leading newspaper. However, this time Liszt’s usually glowing opinion of Chopin’s performance seemed unusually uncertain, leaving itself open to wide interpretation. Of course, with his notoriously sensitive personality, Chopin took immediate offense. George Sand would later comment in her Histoire de ma vie about how his psyche often seemed like “something skinned alive,” and how he “was cut to the quick by the touch of a rose petal, the shadow of a fly.” Evidently, it never took much to ruffle the Polish composer. To the two famous pianists their distinctive differences now appeared to create an insurmountable barrier to their continued friendship. Chopin and Liszt rarely spoke again. Their brief final meeting took place in December of 1845 and sadly, only allowed for the simple exchange of greetings.
A few weeks after Chopin’s death in 1849 Liszt had a unique monument erected in memory of his fellow artist. He also rushed to begin writing a book, the first ever written about Chopin’s life and works. As he grew old Liszt frequently would perform Chopin’s works and never passed up an opportunity to praise his former friend’s genius. Although the light of their friendship had long since been extinguished, Liszt continued to shine a beacon on the music of his former colleague.
Their shared passion for the piano enabled these two truly remarkable men with markedly different temperaments to forge a bond of friendship. Unfortunately, their competitiveness, jealousy, and envy drove them apart and thwarted any lasting collaboration.
September, 2013, Paris
Although Frédéric Chopin was born over 200 years ago his music remains prized and popular throughout the world. His works consistently appear in the concert hall repertoires of most all the major classical pianists and countless music teachers consider his pieces standard fare for their students. The question is, why? What’s the attraction of this music, music written long ago for another age, and by an unassuming chronically ill man from a faraway country? Why do his works still retain such universal appeal?
The answer, I believe, lies in Chopin’s exuberant use of sentiment and feeling in his composition. He resolutely opposed writing music that is devoid of emotional content. Given its intense impact over an extended period of time, the emotional palette of Chopin’s music should be considered to have formed a previously unknown system of musical expression. Creating merely mechanical music without feelings or psychological states was not for him. Instead, his extremely diverse works span the gamut of human emotions, ranging from the deeply personal and psychological experiences he communicated in his nocturnes to the sweeping and brilliant polonaises that reflected the epic and often-tragic events of Poland’s complicated history. He understood very well how to merge his own personal experience with popular feeling, and then inimitably combine them with music that also appealed to the interests of his nation. That was unique for his time and remains so today.
Passionately patriotic to the last, Chopin had a great love and sympathy for other people. In fact, he was probably one of the most humane composers the world has ever seen. The humanistic and very emotional nature of his music allows it to connect with people in a very intimate and idiosyncratic way. With Chopin’s music it’s always distinctly personal.
Chopin’s emotionally charged music is direct and honest, sometimes even painfully so. He abhorred affectation. Though privately a very reserved and undemonstrative person, as an artist his aim was truthfulness, and in his music he expressed himself with a majestic simplicity. The greatest composers, those whose music has been revered down through the ages – Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, all managed to express themselves in this same openhearted and transparent way.
The abundant emotional content of Chopin’s music also contributes to the great difficulty pianists can encounter while performing it. While some prefer to play with extreme emotionality, daubed with false pathos and morbid passion, others go to the opposite extreme and perform it empty of all emotional content. They consciously shift the emphasis to technical brilliance. I think the display of a pianist’s prodigious virtuoso technique, although often exciting and wondrous to observe, is sometimes only a camouflage for a rather weak performance, one filled with pretentious self-confidence and too much tinsel. It can overwhelm the music itself. Speed isn’t always such a good thing when it comes to playing Chopin.
Franz Liszt, the consummate piano virtuoso of all time, knew a thing or two about how to perform his friend’s works. Chopin greatly admired, even envied, how his Hungarian competitor played his Études. To his lasting credit Liszt used his legendary abilities wisely when it came to performing Chopin’s works, not emphasizing speed at the expense of missing the music’s more subtle features. In fact, Liszt later wrote how he felt Chopin’s works should be performed, “In his compositions, boldness is always justified; richness, even exuberance, never interferes with clarity; singularity never degenerates into uncouth fantasy; the sculpturing is never disorderly; the luxury of ornament never overloads the chaste eloquence of the principal lines.” His sound advice still remains applicable to today’s budding young pianists.
The conflicts mostly affecting Chopin were those dealing with love’s sorrows and outbursts of sadness connected to the fall of his native land. Grief greatly inspired this Polish patriot, living in voluntary exile and forever pining for his country, to pen his contemplative and nostalgic meditations. With their desire for revenge and their hallucinatory flashes of spiritual vision, these ruminations are essentially dreams he transformed into odd structures with strangely inspired harmonies. Examples of such an outpouring of feelings can be easily seen in his brilliant Preludes. Twenty-four short works, collectively they display every conceivable emotion, yet each exists as a separate whole, perfect and complete. These are not mere mathematical exercises in compositional technique. In them Chopin found a brilliant blueprint for success in communicating his deepest emotions.
Another reason why Chopin’s music continues to resonate widely with audiences, and especially with today’s pianists, is that it’s music written expressly for the piano and its emotional content can only be best expressed by the piano. In fact, unlike lots of other music, its complexities and nuances are best discovered on the piano and do not transfer well in any attempt at orchestral arrangement. I think that’s why playing Chopin’s works on the piano can be an exclusive and intimate act of kinship with this composer, a connection not always possible with the works of other composers.
Opinions vary when it comes to identifying the main emotion permeating Chopin’s works. Some identify it as sentimentality, others as melancholy. We do know Chopin’s own verdict when he was asked to identify the key mood of many of his compositions. The trouble is, however, he selected a word difficult for many to pronounce and nearly untranslatable in any language other than Polish! The word he used to describe the inspiration for his own music is “żałosc,” (pronounced “zha’vursht”). The closest I’ve ever come to being able to translate it properly is “grieving sorrow.” I suggest the next time you encounter a Polish-speaking person that you ask their opinion of the word…and then be prepared for an extended explanation!
Whatever the description of the emotional content of Chopin’s music, what’s obvious is that he used this universal human connection to perfection, and with it captured the hearts and minds of countless millions of music-lovers the world over. I believe it’s likely that in another two hundred years, people might still admire the emotional characteristics of Chopin’s magnificent works and in so doing, rediscover the incandescent spirit of the human heart.
Paris, December 2013
Listen to any one of Frédéric Chopin’s marvelous nocturnes, let your mind wander a bit, and then see if you can sense a particular color accompanying the music. Once you start considering colors, it can be hard to stop. You might eventually be able to discern many, varying over a wide range of hues and in the degree of their brilliance. While listening to some of these nocturnes you might imagine some rather intense blues, an array on your palette extending from a moody dark indigo to the much more pale and iridescent colors of a morning sky. Hearing one of his scherzos or perhaps a polonaise might stimulate you to visualize intensely bold reds or shimmering golds. Chopin’s strong use of chromaticism in many of his works, especially evident in his mazurkas, no doubt helps us embrace this idea of color, yet there’s probably more to it than that. He was the first composer to try and present folk melodies in a true, unadulterated form, filled with their original color and rhythm. His works contain tragic grandeur, romanticism, lyricism, heroism, drama, imagination, the hidden stirrings of the heart, dreams, majesty, and simplicity, expressed in the most colorful way possible. Of course, not all music elicits such a sense of color in its listeners. When it does, however, it certainly adds to the enjoyment and excitement that can come from the experience of hearing it. The music alone is beautiful enough; adding the dimension of a color show to that experience can render it breathtaking.
Some of the peculiar characteristics of Chopin’s music are as difficult to pin down as the tints of mother-of-pearl or as the fascinating irregularities of the songs of birds. His startling harmonies that might first render his works to appear rather crude, on more careful listening can reveal a world of colorful interpretations. His luxuriant treatment of his diverse works provided the world with rich, glowing, and perfectly polished pieces often filled with the pensiveness of color. Chopin’s favorite color was violet, with all of its inherent nuances of tint. That in itself tells us something about the man.
Aside from Chopin, there are other composers whose music has this color-inducing effect on me. My own list includes Mozart, Liszt, Wagner, Scriabin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, the great French composer, Olivier Messiaen, Ravel, and even Duke Ellington. I just cannot listen to their music without conjuring up color. I’m sure you might be able to think of other composers whose music does this for you too. Try it sometime. It makes for a fun challenge.
Why do some composers write color-inducing music and others don’t? Has it simply got to do with how much chromaticism they employ? Must their music be “exotic” to our ears to be construed as colorful? All that certainly helps, but there’s often more to it than that. Some of this puzzle might be better explained by knowing a little genetics.
There exists a fairly common inherited condition called synesthesia and it just might help explain how some composers write music the way they do. Specifically, I’m referring to something called color synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory neural pathway in our brains triggers an involuntary second sensory experience. In this case, hearing a sound activates a sense of color. That is, some people have the ability to visualize a specific color whenever they hear a particular sound or group of sounds. Although they might disagree on the colors associated with various musical keys (and they do!), they all tend to agree that loud tones are brighter than soft ones, and that lower tones are usually darker. Individuals who possess this associative ability are called synesthetes. They are not rare. It has been estimated that one out of a hundred people may possess this talent.
Most likely, it isn’t just talent that confers this gift. The brains of synesthetes probably contain many more neural connections than normal, allowing their owners to connect their sensory pathways in a myriad more ways than most. They’re hardwired for this. It’s not all good; the incidence of epilepsy and seizures is much higher in these individuals. Sometimes synesthesia can be a musical Trojan horse!
Although he wrote extraordinarily colorful music, Frédérick Chopin was not known to have possessed this capability. If he did, it’s not evident in his correspondence or that of his many friends when they wrote about him. However, his friend, Franz Liszt, certainly did, often writing about the phenomenon rather extensively and arguing with others about which colors were associated with which notes. Alexander Scriabin was once thought to have been a synesthete, but recent research indicates he was only an “intellectual synesthete,” a person who deliberately contrives to associate certain colors with certain keys. Was Chopin like Scriabin? I don’t believe Frédéric ever feigned this color competency like Scriabin did. I would rather think, like Scriabin, he simply found the use of colorful imagery fruitful for his compositional style.
Composers who are strongly considered to have been synesthetes include most of those on my preceding list, excluding Chopin, Scriabin, and Ravel. Billy Joel, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and pianist Hélène Grimaud are synesthetes. I’m told that the Welsh singer/songwriter called Marina and the Diamonds is too. There is plenty of documentary evidence pointing to these people having this very special ability. Undoubtedly, there are other composers and artists, some now long gone, whose colorist talents may be forever unknown. Whether these others possessed the true neurological condition of synesthesia or simply utilized carefully planned methods of enhancing the tonal range of their compositional experience is uncertain. It does remain clear, however, that those composers who were more keenly aware of the possible associations of color and music wrote some astounding pieces with the astonishing ability to induce a similar experience among many in their audience.
Next time you have the opportunity to hear good music, think of color. It may not be the first thing you feel while you’re listening to it, but if you’ll concentrate for a while you might just begin to fathom a particular color or two, or with luck you’ll conceptualize a torrent of tints and shades that greatly enhance your listening experience!
November, 2013 Paris
Your mother never told you it would be easy and it wasn’t. Yet here you are, seated on a stage some thirty feet below a bank of spotlights at the dazzlingly white keyboard of a magnificent concert grand piano. Far enough away so as not to be glaring, these overhead lights are still so bright you can feel the gentle warmth of their brilliant glow. You’re drawn to their fiery luminosity like a mesmerized moth to a flame. As often as you dare during your near-flawless performance of an incredibly beautiful piece, you lift your face celestially toward their seductive radiance, your closed eyes distinguishing only apricot-colored hues. A multitude of shaded listeners sit soundlessly, rapt in their attention to the swift stream of your adroit fingering, entranced to observe and hear every nuance of your performance. Only seconds after you allow your graceful yet now suddenly purposeless hands to hover silently above the keyboard and your shoulders to slump slowly backwards, you become aware of the rapidly rising din of your audience’s feverish adulation. Slowly standing and turning to face a dark tumultuous sea of passionate fans, you find it impossible to suppress a shiver as successive waves of near-deafening cries of praise wash past your sensitive ears. You are a concert pianist, an artist, a celebrity…a star.
This reverie could be the enticing image thousands of contemporary young pianists envision when they dream of a career of being a concert pianist. Could it have been similar to the boyhood dreams of Frédéric Chopin? From an early age Chopin received high praise for his exceptionable piano talent and it’s obvious from his letters he very much enjoyed the flattery even if he then lacked the maturity to understand fully the amazing depth of his musical skills. At his first large public concert, dressed to the hilt in a black jacket with a lace collar, short pants and stockings, the eight-year old piano prodigy eagerly anticipated the impression he would make. His mother, who had been unable to attend, asked him after his concert what he thought the audience enjoyed most, and he replied, “The white lace collar you made, Mama.” Vanity aside, it would not be long before he came to recognize his remarkable talent.
By 1825 at the age of fifteen the young Chopin’s musical skills had advanced to the degree that he was featured in a major Warsaw concert honoring Tsar Alexander, the rather diabolical ruler who later would become the supreme leader of Poland during the Russian occupation. Chopin performed his own Rondo in C minor, Op. 1 on an odd instrument called an aeolomelodikon and, much to his everlasting delight, he was rewarded with a diamond ring by the tsar as a token of the latter’s enjoyment of the music and esteem for the boy. As only a teenager Frédéric Chopin had become a local celebrity. Would a heralded international concert career be next?
First, the musical world would need to catch up. In 1825 the concept of a piano concert performed by a single artist did not exist. Concerts then customarily involved a variety of artists performing a wide array of musical selections, often played on several different instruments. Second, after leaving behind his phenomenally strong base of support in Poland, Chopin would rather painfully discover that while performing in foreign lands he would need to attract and maintain public acceptance. He had sought and, indeed, rather desperately needed recognition and reinforcement in Vienna, yet largely failed to achieve either due to his troubling self-doubt and inherent hesitancy to promote himself. He was genuinely rather shy and modest, not always the best attributes for one seeking his fame in the unsheltered arena of the concert pianist. Although his performances in Vienna received generally favorable reviews, there would always be those critics who would complain that his tone was “too light,” that his playing was embarrassingly inaudible for much of the audience. To the sensitive young composer, this discouraging criticism, however accurate, would greatly contribute to his increasing dread of a performance career. This fear would only worsen. As Chopin once confided to Liszt, “I am not suited to public performances – the auditorium saps my courage, I suffocate in the exhalation of the crowd, I am paralyzed by the curious glances, and the sight of strange faces compels me to silence; but you, you were born to it.” It was a poignantly honest and remarkably accurate assessment.
Chopin burst forth upon the 1831 Paris musical scene like a rare and exotic blossom in a greenhouse filled with more common flowers. At the time he envisioned a future of composing, teaching, and occasional performances given at small private soirees attended only by his close friends in the most exclusive salons of Paris. He had little desire to support himself by continuing to perform at large public concerts. Whenever he did, it was invariably because he would reluctantly consent to the incessant pleas of his many friends and then afterwards, he would always vow never to do it again. Either he could not or would not bring himself to project his instrument’s sound to the farthest reaches of the formal concert hall, preferring instead to play pianissimos on his cherished Pleyel piano in the more intimate private salons. Their relaxed setting allowed him to refine his nuanced light touch technique before a small and adoring audience. It was not until around 1840 when his friend Franz Liszt first launched the format of the solo piano concert and began his eight-year concert tour of Europe that Chopin seriously entertained the possibility of his own concert career.
However, it would soon become obvious he was not destined for the hectic life of a traveling concert artist. In addition to his unquestionable aversion to the demands of the large performance hall, by the late 1830’s his slowly advancing chronic illness had already taken a heavy toll on his ability to perform. Rarely could he get through a performance without a serious and embarrassing coughing attack. To his attentive audiences he appeared like a pale ghost of a figure seated at the piano, coughing incessantly. Reluctantly, he had discovered that the relatively subdued life of a composer-pianist suited him far better than the more physically strenuous life of a public entertainer. In all, Chopin would give fewer than thirty public concerts, his friend Liszt, probably thousands. To his lasting credit, he realized he was no Liszt.
Had Chopin somehow overcome his disdain for the concert hall and pushed ahead with a demanding stage career despite his physical frailties, his compositional output undoubtedly would have been drastically reduced. Those wonderful last works – the Barcarolle, the Ballade No. 4, the Berceuse, and his Cello Sonata, would probably never have been written. His reticence for public exhibition and his illness’s mandate for reclusion directed him toward a more private life, one filled with only enough time for his small circle of friends, his teaching tasks, and fatefully, for his beloved composition.
Everyone can concede that the desire to escape the strictures of youth and enjoy the pleasant dreams of power and prestige can be remarkably robust during adolescence. From an early age Frédéric Chopin possessed a fervent desire for the public acclaim offered by large concerts. For some, this heroic quest might be little more than another coming-of-age story, a commonly told tale. Yet Chopin was not alone in his dream. His family, teachers, and friends all supported him with his difficult decision to pursue a concert career. They did not feel that the young man’s choice arose merely from narcissistic dreams of stardom. Rather, they felt his choice was well grounded in a disciplined and logical estimation of his nascent ability, phenomenal talent, and remarkable ambition. In other words, he was the real deal.
Initially, Chopin appeared eager to acquire the skills necessary for a life of demanding public performances and, like Liszt, go on to pursue his dream of international fame and fortune. Unfortunately for him, his personal modesty, his unique playing technique, and his debilitating illness effectively closed the door to that exciting yet challenging opportunity. Luckily for the world of music lovers he chose the path of composition. Chopin’s great wisdom was recognizing his strengths as well as his limitations in selecting the path that best allowed his genius to thrive.
September, 2013, Paris
Attendees at most any classical piano concert in the world often witness the collective sigh of happy recognition whenever the first few notes of a work by Chopin are played. The entire world knows and loves his music. It’s as if Chopin’s works represent a common language of the human spirit. Yet what is it about these simple notes on a page that can create this universal appeal? How do they elicit such an immediate and heartfelt response? What makes his music so personal and expressive? Well, for many, Chopin’s fragile melancholic melodies draw them into an introspective reverie like a moth is attracted to a flame. His curvilinear musical phrases, unusually chromatic and filled with inner tension, coherence, and continuity, have the power to mesmerize an audience. The effect can be overwhelming.
Chopin composed his Nocturnes with flowing and sometimes dreamy, song-like melodies, many very much in the style of the Italian Bel-canto (“beautiful singing”) opera he loved so much. There is beauty, charm, and an abundance of color in these works, as well as a general intangibility and ethereal uniqueness. It is music filled with lights and shadows, the highs and lows of emotion. To achieve this effect Chopin arranged minimalist melodies that frequently emerge out of complex figurations and broken chords. Sometimes a latent melody is brought out through a differentiated touch and subtle, more or less continuous pedal work. Melancholy and nebulous, the original melodies of his Nocturnes are swathed in the semi-darkness of their noble harmonies.
Many assume that the melodies in Chopin’s Mazurkas represent actual Polish folk tunes. They are mistaken. Experts have poured over the thousands of known Polish folk tunes and strongly disagree. Although his Mazurkas are patterned after many common folk tunes and share their rhythmic tempos and character, they uniquely reflect Chopin’s own recollection of various melodies and rhythms, and are not copies of actual works. Unlike Bartok, Liszt, Vaughn Williams, and others who faithfully recorded their respective country’s folk songs, Chopin created his own melodies.
Chopin’s teenage summers spent visiting his many friends and relatives in the Polish countryside obviously left a lasting impression on him and helped create the archetypal musical paradigm that would furnish him with a lifetime of inspiration for these unusual works. In Chopin’s hands, the deceptively simple folk tunes of poor village musicians became quirky, exotic, and stunningly complex songs of courtship, romance, and the dance. Accompanied by the incessant thrumming drone of the dudy, Poland’s version of the ancient bagpipe, the unique melodies of his Mazurkas represent the pinnacle of compositional invention.
George Sand, the famous French novelist who spent nine years with the composer once described his compositional technique. She commented, “Chopin’s creative activity was astounding and sudden. Musical ideas would come to him unbidden, unpredicted, and unforeseen. Sudden and unexpected, they arrived perfectly formed and brilliant. He found them when sitting at his piano or taking a walk.” He lived an intensely inner life, one laden with his own musical ideas and one rather disinterested in contemporary politics, other composers’ works, history, or science. While still a student in Warsaw, the young Chopin wrote to one of his favorite teachers, promising, “to start a new era in art,” yet he never established any theoretical underpinning for his ideas. It was as Sand had observed - they just happened.
Chopin’s larger works present moments of majestic solemnity, titanic power, and tragic horror. There is a classical purity in these works that are often imbued with a distinctly Slavic influence and a typical rhythmic progression toward a volcanic climax. In only a matter of a few measures the emotional contrasts can be extreme. Melodies follow one after another with many of their chords adorned with countless ornaments and extra notes to accentuate their beauty. Chopin scaled new heights of musical achievement in some of these pieces, especially the highly praised Ballade No. 4, Op. 52, completed in 1843 when he was thirty-three. Exalted and powerful, this work was described by John Ogden: “It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.”
The intimacy and emotional intensity of Chopin’s melodies allow his works to be appreciated and enjoyed by many. That a simple succession of notes can penetrate to a person’s core within mere seconds is testament to his uncanny ability to create tunes of a very human character. It was Chopin’s natural aptitude to be able to connect so easily with so many that continues to provoke profound admiration among musical and non-musical people alike, and that keeps his music alive after these many years. It is music for the ages.
September, 2013, Paris
Upon the mention of Chopin’s name most people probably think of a great composer of piano music. Some immediately flash on the image of the frail musical genius, one of the greatest pianists of all time. Others might relate his name to a particularly favorite musical work, perhaps humming a few bars of one of his popular nocturnes or waltzes. Very few think of him as a piano teacher. Yet being a piano teacher is how Frédéric Chopin made a living.
He never planned it that way. As a youth, he dreamed of the excitement of the concert stage, the eyes of his listeners glued to his blazingly fast fingers and their ears to his delicate pianissimos, amazing trills, and cleverly nuanced phrasing. Unfortunately, the harsh realities of his subsequent concert hall experiences would painfully teach him to shun large public concerts. Whether it was caused by performing his Concerti with second-rate poorly rehearsed orchestras or by playing in halls too large to allow the low volume sound of his light-fingered technique to reach the ears of those seated beyond the first few rows, the adult Chopin eventually came around full circle to fear the concert stage, once even fainting dead away backstage just before he was to go on.
Chopin began teaching only after he reached Paris and after the trying lessons of his concert appearances began to sink in. He once confided to one of his students, “concerts are never real music; you must give up the idea of hearing in them the most beautiful things of art.” Yet he never became bitter about it. Far from disparaging teaching or considering it to be a poor substitute for giving formal concerts, he threw himself into piano instruction for the next nearly 20 years, enthusiastically spending his mornings and most of his afternoons with his cherished students.
And there were many. Upwards of 150 students would claim to have been taught by Chopin. As it was most advantageous and fashionable to claim to be one of his pupils many of those assertions were false, yet he didn’t seem to mind and once in response to a stranger’s boast was heard to say, “I never gave him lessons; but if it’s of any use to him to pass as my pupil, then let him be. Let him remain one!
He didn’t accept children or beginners. His lessons were very expensive. He also wasn’t immediately very friendly. However, once the ice was broken his students would report that the atmosphere of his studio was exceptionally warm and caring, creating an intense state of receptiveness in them all. He gave every detail his keenest attention, knowing just how to encourage his students and inspire their self-confidence. Contrarily, he could react to inattention and laziness with fits of anger, once breaking a chair in response to one his pupil’s stubborn inability to learn a phrase! Yet despite being self-taught and never receiving any formal piano lessons (his only piano teacher, Adalbert Żywny, was a violinist), by all accounts Chopin was a masterful teacher.
Did his students succeed? A couple went on to concert careers, notably George Mathias and Camille Dubois. Pauline Viardot, also one of his favorites, was already well into her successful singing career before she began taking lessons from him and so never continued them. By far Chopin’s favorite pupil was a 12 year-old Hungarian boy, Carl Filtsch. From all reports he was a precocious musical genius. Chopin accordingly lavished his prize student with three lessons a week, exclaiming, “Never has anybody understood me like this child, the most extraordinary I have ever encountered. It’s not imitation, it’s an identical feeling, instinct, which makes him play without thinking, with all simplicity as if it could not be any other way.” Chopin likened this student to what Mozart might have been at the same age and famously promised he would retire from any further performances once Carl was grown. Unfortunately, Carl never lived to take advantage of that promise and would die from tuberculosis at the age of 15, immediately after performing a brilliant series of concerts in London, Paris, and Vienna.
Most of the rest of Chopin’s students were the dilettante daughters of the wealthy upper class, most of whom were content with a few lessons and only a casual interest in the piano. With the Revolution of 1848 and the exile of many wealthy French families from the country most of these novice pianists quickly abandoned Chopin’s studio. Liszt’s comment, “Chopin was unlucky with his students” was uncannily accurate. The loss of these students combined with the precarious state of his health at that time ultimately made it impossible for Chopin to make a living by teaching. He also was too sick to perform. Sadly, he would lament, “Where has my Art gone?”
How will Chopin be remembered? Without You Tube videos or any recordings of his performances, the nearly two centuries-old written accounts of his unmatched technical virtuosity at the keyboard will likely fade away and be lost to history, leaving only clustered notes scattered on a series of scores and a long succession of very talented and dedicated teachers who, like Chopin before them, enjoy spending their lives striving to capture that music’s particular magic for yet another generation of students.
Steven Lagerberg 2013
It’s difficult to discuss the music of Frederic Chopin without any consideration of the man himself. His compositions are so much more than arbitrary percussive patterns of sound; they are intensely personal statements of his own emotional experience. Filled with passionate highs and lows, a complex mix of melancholy, nostalgia, anguish, and fury, his works reflect universal human feelings expressed in a very personal way, much like the singing human voice. It then comes as no surprise to learn that Chopin highly admired the Bel Canto operatic aria, the Italian-originated vocal style of the 18th century. He loved its light and clear tone, its silken legato, graceful phrasing, and elaborate, yet not excessive use of ornamentation, and he carefully managed to transpose its idiosyncrasies to the piano. This singing tone of his works transformed the instrument and gave it a new voice, a voice now heard around the world.
The unparalleled immediacy of his compositions whose emotional content can connect so quickly with listeners has served to endear his works to millions and will undoubtedly similarly continue to excite and soothe generations yet to be born. Chopin’s highly esteemed reputation appears now to be growing and seems nearly indestructible as more and more listeners become captivated by his legendary life story and the distinctive originality and beauty of his exceptional music. Few composers, even the great J. S. Bach, have enjoyed such remarkably persistent renown. This popularity, however well deserved, owes much of its success to the carefully crafted image of Chopin as the archetypal composer of the Romantic Age, a portrayal arising from the many first-hand apocryphal accounts of his persona and performances published during his lifetime. The glorified representation of the suffering genius at the piano, communicating emotional sensitivities while passionately inflamed by his heroic struggle with a morbid illness, has quite dramatically served to strengthen his legend and guarantee its longevity.
Chopin was a small frail boy with an impish sense of humor who became a small, shy, and chronically ill adult who expressed himself largely through his music. The steady decline of his health following his self-imposed exile from Poland, and with it the abrupt loss of his close family support, and then the painful rebuff of his youthful love, all combined in an indistinguishable manner to imbue both his personality as well as his music with an indefinable yet uniquely characteristic tone of melancholy. That he retained his wry sense of humor, his lively spirits, and was able to pen music of joyful abandon, as evidenced in his playful mazurkas, while facing such an uncertain future is both impressive and inspirational. Chopin personified what it then meant to be Polish – misery concealed, suffering suppressed, strength arising out of adversity, character from endurance. The peculiar hues on the palette of Chopin’s existence combine to color our final portrait of the man with dark and somber tones. Our lasting impression of him and his musical legacy must come from consideration of the many influences posed by this unusual amalgamation of emotional despair, chronic disease, and phenomenal talent. Attempting to separate these uniquely blended factors in an attempt to recognize which might have had the greatest effect at any given time in his brief life presents an enormous challenge. A new generation of pianists now searches for a unique means of personal expression. To discover how one man was able to find his own particular voice among the clamor of many competing styles can be instructive. Knowing how Chopin imprinted his music with depth, originality, and meaning can only help today’s young pianists better understand the potentially immediate and personal connection music can have with an audience. Chopin’s music continues to sing to us all!
Steven Lagerberg 2012
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