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Friday, 1st April 2011

Chopin tidbits

Pardon me --- this blog is not about science or nature at all. Ever since the broadcast of the weekly Sunny Intervals on RTHK in February, friends and people wonder at my affection for Chopin's music. Here are some tidbits about the composer you may like to hear.

Chopin at 19
Chopin at 19

According to accounts, Chopin took part in a charity concert in Vienna in 1831, when he was 21. A run-down of the programme is as follows: Carl Maria von Weber's opera Euryanthe overture, then the 1st movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto in E Minor performed by himself, followed by a singing quartet, and concluded with Chopin playing the remaining 2nd and 3rd movements of the concerto. As he was young, there is no question of breaking up the concerto into two sessions because of health reasons. That this happened must seem strange to concert-goers nowadays. Another interesting point is that the concert had in it a session by singers. It turns out that before 1840, concerts usually consisted of a mix of instruments performance and singing, and a concert dominated by one instrumentalist was uncommon.

This was not the only time Chopin performed his large or lengthier pieces by 'retail'. For instance, he played only the 1st movement of the E Minor Concerto in a concert in Paris in 1832. Then in a concerto given by Berlioz in 1834, he just played the Adagio 2nd movement of his Piano Concerto in F Minor.

By many accounts, Chopin's handling of the piano is characteristically delicate and soft. In 1848, a year before his death, Chopin performed in a charity dinner gathering at the Guildhall in London, where he played his compositions in front of fellow Polish emigrants. There the din coming from the adjacent ballroom made his playing, further weakened by his prolonged sickness, almost inaudible. Nonetheless, the passionate audience was thrilled every time they barely managed to hear any Polish tunes familiar to them. Their applause was thunderous, certainly overwhelming the noise from next door.

Apart from his soft touch in piano playing, another characteristic of note is his uncompromising adherence to tempo. According to one of his students in his late years, Karol Mikuli (1819-1897), the metronome never left Chopin's piano. This may be a surprise for some of us aficionados of older-generation pianists. What Chopin demanded is one hand, the accompanying hand, always plays in strict tempo, while the other frees the true musical expression from any rhythmic bonds, singing either indecisively or entering ahead of the beat and moving quickly with a torrent of impatient vehemence. For us, there may have been an earlier period of people-centric playing to highlight the pianist's character, but lately this seems to have reverted back to music-centric playing. Which is better? I leave it to you.

B.Y. Lee


a) Karol Mikuli on Chopin, 1879.
b) Lin Hongliang, A biography of Chopin, China Social Science Publishing, 2010.

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>