Saturday, October 10, 2009

Home is where the heart is

I have a penchant for collecting odd facts - for trying to learn the inside story about people and things. Over the years I have amassed enough useless trivia to tie up a good part of my cerebral cortex which I realize could have been put to better use but which makes for rather quirky blog posts from time to time when some of that flotsam drifts to the surface. This is probably one of those posts.

One time I was curious about what musical instruments were actually played by famous classical composers. I don't know why I was curious; I should have been content to simply listen to their beautiful music.

Most of them shared the piano as the instrument they were most proficient on. That's probably no surprise to any of you. There were exceptions. And most played other keyboard instruments, too.

Beethoven was very hot stuff on the piano before he went deaf - enough, when he was young, to impress the famous Mozart, who himself knew a thing or two about keyboards. Both men also played the violin of course, but did you know they were both quite proficient on the viola as well? A viola is different enough from a violin to count as a separate instrument - more different than a piano vs. an organ, for example. (A viola, a bit larger than a violin, is tuned like a cello, both using the odd C clef.)

Mozart hated the flute, loved the clarinet. Beethoven probably loved and hated things as well.

This (of course) turns one's mind to pianos in general and other people (besides Mozart and Beethoven) who did most of their composing for (and sometimes performing upon) that instrument. Brahms. Schumann. Mendelsohn (although Felix was a violin virtuoso.) And, of course, Liszt and Chopin.

This post is really about Chopin, I guess, although I don't think he played any other instruments except organ, which isn't really a stretch for a virtuoso piano player like Chopin. And I can only find where he played organ once. I digress.

Frederic Chopin was, quite simply, the greatest piano composer and piano player who ever walked the earth. Devotees of Franz Liszt will disagree, but they know nothing. Chopin was even better than Billy Joel.

Like all geniuses of the period, Chopin caught TB and died at age 39. Mozart died at 36 but not of TB. Never mind.

All of these boys were pretty quirky. I could choose any of them to write a quirky post about, but you already know about the quirks of Mozart and Beethoven. And perhaps even Liszt. But you probably didn't know how demented and off-center Chopin was. Well, perhaps "demented" is a bit much. You may have even thought him shy and polite. Should you want to continue believing this about him, you need to stop reading here.

Chopin's mother, the former Justyna Krzyżanowska, (I forgot to mention Chopin was Polish) was the aunt of a boy who would later become American Civil War General Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski. I suppose that would have made the general and the Polish composer cousins, come to think of it. Ah, well, Chopin died in 1849, so no matter - they obviously didn't hang out together. Some of you are probably amazed at my Polish spelling and diacritical abilities. It is a gift.

Chopin, it has been written, was an artistic and social snob; an impeccably dressed dandy who hated contact with the rest of the human race.

But the music transcends the social shortcomings of the man. Like no other piano music you have ever heard. Unearthly, almost. And yet...

Andras Shiff: "A very strange person, very hard to like. An anti-semite."

Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz: "A moral vampire."

Of course, Mickiewicz and another Polish exile called on Chopin and he wouldn't even answer the door, so there is that bit of resentful baggage bugging him.

"His addiction to solitude went hand-in-hand with a fanatical dandyism, but his need for exquisitely tailored waistcoats, gloves, and boots was probably dictated by something deeper and darker than mere vanity."

For musician/biographer Schiff, the freshly laundered white gloves that Chopin put on each day signaled Chopin's horror of human contact.

Chopin treated Schumann almost sadistically, ridiculing his music as "no music at all." Liszt and Chopin had shared an apartment together, but Chopin soon came to despise and envy Liszt's talents, calling them vulgar. (Liszt was a very showy and animated piano player. The ladies liked him. A lot.)

Chopin himself had more than his share of fainting females, but not much is known of his sex life before his famous affair with George Sand. The two were together 10 years and she definitely got the best of him, leaving him devastated. He was, by all accounts, devoted to her, but she dumped him when he was 37, as death was approaching.

He hated crowds, performed only in small venues, gave probably only about 30 truly public performances in his whole life. Some say his playing was so quiet and personal that a large auditorium was out of the question anyway. He was happiest performing for only a small gathering of intimate friends - and he did have friends.

His music is intricate and difficult to play (though not as hard as Franz Liszt's - who was accused of composing music only 3 or 4 people in the whole world could play) but at the same time has a captivating subtlety to it. My own favorite Chopin piano composition is his Fantasie Impromptu (he mostly only named his compositions by genre) which demonstrates both the incredible complexity of fingering, as well as the sweet simplicity of the theme. Listening to this piece makes you forget the social shortcomings of the man himself.

And the title of this post? What's up with that? A final Chopin quirk was that he was afraid of being buried alive. So, by prior arrangement, his heart was removed after his death and his body buried without the heart. (He is buried in Paris.) His heart went home to Poland and is still today entombed in a pillar in a church in Warsaw.

His heart is still trapped in his music, too. Listen to my favorite piece if you have 4 minutes and 33 seconds to spare.
Astonishingly, because it was in the infancy of photography, there exists an actual photograph of Frederic Chopin from 1849, the year of his death. Here it is.

"Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art."


  1. Berceuse was part of my childhood, so that's my all time favourite. :)

    There are some who say that Chopin would have died even sooner if George Sand hadn't taken care of him and brought him to Nohant. And I thought he left her, no? Nohant is just up the road from us, just to give you another piece of trivia. Her books feature many of the places hereabouts.

  2. He changed a bit, over the years, didn't he? It's odd, isn't it - the scourge of TB has largely been eradicated but we've managed to introduce others.

  3. I am partial to the Nocturnes, because my mother used to play them for me when I was little.

    I disliked my 6 years of piano but am grateful because then I was able to play Chopin (some of the easier pieces, anyway) - not that I am very good anymore, because I don't practice much.

  4. What Chopin I've heard is definitely beautiful, but I can't say it touches me. Personal preference, but then I'm a vocalist. I suspect it's one reason I prefer Mozart to Beethovan and Schubert to nearly everyone.

    Since we're talking about useless trivia, I'd heard (but haven't verified independently) a story about Schubert (who only lived 31 years and managed to write 600 lieder songs, nine symphonies, etc. etc. many of them gorgeous including the timeless Ave Maria [more appropriately called Ellens Dritter Gesang] more appropriately called. He died of typhoid and/or complications from syphilis, however). The story I heard was that he was asked to write music for someone's (Louise Gosmar) birthday party while at a restaurant, turned over the menu and wrote out the music on the back. Then, completely forgot about it. When reminded about the party (where he was supposed to play the music), he heard it for the first time as it was sung and was struck that it was so beautiful. Not a "great" classic but a favorite of mine.

    Sometime, I need to clean up some Schubert music I sang for a friend getting her degree in broadcasting. I have three Schubert songs in there.

    Not particularly pertinent to Chopin, but, hey, useless trivia. One can't have too much.

  5. Turns out I didn't have 4:whatever to spare.

    I was sure that I had at least on Chopin song on my iTunes, but I guess that was the old computer.

    Anyway, interesting post! The girl's name was George?


  6. P.S. I have something for you at my place.

  7. I don't always like knowing personal schtuff about famous/infamous people. Yes his music is wonderful, but he was a strange one. Thanks for sharing. I think.

  8. @A. - I guess he was the one finally to leave. But she had long since stopped looking at the relationship as romantic and considered herself a nursemaid rather than a lover.

    @Sheila - Some say he had cystic fibrosis rather than TB, a disease not then recognized I don't think. But TB is still with us in poorer countries and among American Indians.

    @Lidian - I think you should start playing/practicing again, after all those lessons. You were undoubtedly very good and could rapidly become so again. I can't believe you stopped. :(

  9. @Stephanie B - Oh, but Chopin revered vocal music most of all, and cultured the friendship of great singers of his day. It is even thought his music is so unique because he sought to sing through his piano.

    Schubert died, of course, when Chopin was still a teenager. Who knows what Schubert could have accomplished had he lived longer. The same could be said for Mozart, I suppose. Both accomplished a lot in their short lives.

  10. @At Angelika. Well, thank you. :)

    Yes, George Sand's parents thought she was a boy until she was 18, but by then it was too late to change her name.

    I lie. French author and feminist Amandine Aurore Lucille Dupin, the Baroness Dudevant,took the pen name George Sand because women were not supposed to do men things like write back then. Don't ask me why. Other famous authors did it too. George Eliot's real name was Mary Anne. Honest.

    Now you are going to ask me about Mary Shelley and I don't have an answer for you. So don't. :)

    @Ettarose - I hope I didn't spoil his music for you. :)

    Thank you.

  11. You're not wrong about the male pen names.

    Currer, Acton and Ellis Belle were the Bronte sisters, but I think they are remembered by their real names.

    I suspect whether we remember an author's pen name or the "real" name better has more to do with their success while alive than it does anything else. And pen names were prevalent among men, too. I'm sure you know who Samuel Clemens and Charles Dodgson were, Max, but many people do not. The pen names of others, for whatever reason, often haven't withstood the test of time even if the authors have. Go figure.

  12. George Sand, the Brontë sisters (Bell), Lewis Carroll (Dodgson) and Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot) were all acclaimed in their day, and yet the two Georges are the remembered pen names. Though, having written it like that, I now wonder why George Sand used the English spelling.

  13. A, my memory is getting creaky, but I didn't think the Bronte sisters didn't really get much notice until after Emily kicked off and most of the focus was on Charlotte Bronte (who lived, by far, the longest). Over time, I think, Emily Bronte has become far more appreciated but I thought she was all but overlooked during the time she was there to appreciate it.

    However, you make a good point. Perhaps the pseudonym vs. real name memorialization had to do with how assiduously the maintained the former (or kept to it consistently). Again, though, as before, it is strictly speculation.

  14. I wouldn't ask about Mary Shelley because I don't really care...

    I'm more interested in the pen names of people I actually read. Like if James Patterson wrote under another name, I'd be curious about that book.

    I've seen the Frankenstein movies, I don't need to read Shelley's book. LMFAO!



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