“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.”
− Oscar Wilde
There is a scene in Roman Polanski’s film “The Pianist” where the main character, Władysław Szpilman, is caught hiding out amongst the ruins of an abandoned building by a German officer. The officer speaks to him a while and upon learning that Szpilman is a pianist, asks him to play on a grand piano they find. The decrepit Szpilman slowly makes his way to the piano and as he sits down he closes his eyes and exhales—his breath visible on the cold November air. His shaky hands move to the keys and he begins to play the first powerful notes of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor. The scene continues on in the moonlit room: Szpilman’s hands gracefully flying across the ivory keys playing out the disarming Ballade, which cuts through the otherwise silent night, as the officer looks on noticeably moved by the beauty of Chopin’s song and by the skill and raw passion unmistakable in Szpilman’s playing.
The music of Fryderyk Chopin, much like the paintings of the romantic artists of his time, possesses the ability to paint a scene within the mind of the listener, such as the one in Polanski’s film described above. A scene that is illustrated in varying shades of dark blues, deep indigos and somber yet sometimes menacing grays. One that touches the listener on so deep a level it evokes within them an ache and a yearning that until that moment had lain dormant, simply waiting to be unveiled. When asked what he would call the feeling which he encompasses in his compositions, Chopin simply explained that it was sorrow. Through his genius and passion he chained himself to the bittersweet sensations of his melancholy–and being a true masochist, he reveled in it and thrived off of it, facing the darkest corners of his heart and each shade of emotion found in between. He could not escape this place, would not free himself from his sorrow, for from this darkness he created some of the most beautiful music ever written.
Chopin was acknowledged as having the ideal personality of the Romantic artist, as he was: introverted, extremely sensitive, of poor health and had a tendency towards melancholy, which perpetually kept him in a state of pain and suffering. Although he was regarded for his distinction and manners he guarded the inner tumult of his soul from the outside world, confiding the darkest secrets of his heart to his beloved piano. He once wrote to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski: “Outwardly I am cheerful […] but inside me I am tortured by all sorts of forebodings, anxieties, dreams or insomnia, longing and indifference, the impulse to live, followed by a wish to die–a kind of delicious trance or unconsciousness. Sometimes sharp, vivid memory will torment me.” His ill temperament was often blamed on the Tuberculosis he suffered from for most of his life–thrusting him into bouts of moodiness, maddening hallucinations and the shadow of death seemed to haunt him wherever he went. His lover of nine years, George Sand, often confided to friends that he was possessive and senselessly jealous and after the end of their relationship claimed that he had been killing her with pin pricks for the nine years that they were together. Sand also wrote of Chopin in her Histoire de ma Vie, saying: “His [Chopin’s] psyche was as if ripped alive from the skin; a touch of a rose petal, a shadow of a fly was enough to draw blood.”
The complexity of Chopin’s personality surely explains his genius and therefore it is hardly a surprise that he mastered the Nocturne–a genre typically tied to the mood of the night, when emotions are heightened and nothing is quite as it seems. There are achingly exquisite dark tones bountiful in his Nocturnes which reveal a certain loneliness and fear, but at the same time they give birth to a captivating beauty. They are laced with a heart-wrenching melancholy that tugs at the heart and the very soul itself, reducing one to tears. Nocturnes are the epitome of Chopin’s style and a mirror to the inner madness he drowned in.
His Prelude’s, though often ridiculed for not being an intro to anything at all, are described in Notes On Chopin by André Gide as “having in them the correct type of beauty needed to solve some kind of problem”. They are honest, holding nothing back as they run through an entire gamut of emotion; from a delicate loveliness to tragic despair and finally to pieces that burst violently and showcase his manic nature and in turn his troubled and suffering soul.
Chopin’s nature was that of a tortured artist, one that was forever trapped between his vivid imagination and his existence. He bestowed us with the honour of a view into his most private moments through the torrent of emotion that rushed out with each thunderous note as his fingers rained down upon the ivory keys. With his remarkable ability to beautifully translate his whole internal world of emotion into the poetry of sounds, it is obvious that Chopin was not only an extraordinary artist, but also a true genius.
Fryderyk Chopin: 1 March 1810 – 17 October 1849
Poniatowska, Irena, and John Beauchamp. Fryderyk Chopin: Człowiek I Jego Muzyka = Fryderyk Chopin : The Man and His Music 1810-2010.
Warszawa: MULTICO Oficyna Wydawnicza, 2009. Print.