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Frédéric Chopin's bicentennial
December 13, 2009 6:48 PM   Subscribe

2010 is the bicentennial of the birth of Frédéric François Chopin - a reluctant instrumental virtuoso, an immortal Romantic composer, and all-around bastard.

If I wanted to introduce a kid to Chopin, I'd play him the attention-grabbing Etude op.10 no.1 in C major (266kb PDF) - here performed magnificently by Maurizio Pollini.
posted by Joe Beese (45 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
If my BF sees this he'll never stop trying to get me to play Chopin.

So I'm gonna blow up his laptop now. K?
posted by The Whelk at 6:49 PM on December 13, 2009


Sounds like Wagner, another immortal Romantic composer who was a real SOB in life.

But both men are dead, and everyone they hurt is dead. And the music lives on, so that's what's important now.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:55 PM on December 13, 2009


I have thought a lot lately about the idea of the genius-as-bastard. We have come to expect great artists, writers and musicians to be terrible, spoiled people. It seems to me that this isn't to do with the level of talent, so much as the amount of heedless self-absorption required to dedicate oneself completely to one's own talents in a society that doesn't value artistic endeavor. So it is that I don't ever look around for biographical information on my favorite authors or musicians -- it almost always disappoints.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:58 PM on December 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


Sometimes what we take as simply being a "bastard" can be put down to psychiatric issues. It can be a tricky line, "is s/he a spectacular asshole or simply mentally ill", but something to consider. Reading about FC's behavior, I suspect a good dollop of neurosis. But his music is divine (and I'm an atheist) - thanks for the post, it's a great excuse to listen to some nocturnes.
posted by VikingSword at 7:03 PM on December 13, 2009


Argh, that "ourchopin.com" site... I wanted to see a picture of Chopin and all I can find is either a 75px × 66px portrait or under "images" you get 8 portraits and have to guess which one it is. Oh well, off to Wikipedia to see a Chopin picture.
posted by crapmatic at 7:03 PM on December 13, 2009


The article's a bit too eager to shit on Chopin, as in it has more negative adjectives to describe him than stories to back up why he's so horrible. The anti-semitism is bad, but aside from that he doesn't sound much different from many a socially-awkward, self-conscious and often disagreeable creative type.
posted by pandelic at 7:04 PM on December 13, 2009


I have thought a lot lately about the idea of the genius-as-bastard. We have come to expect great artists, writers and musicians to be terrible, spoiled people.

I blame Hugh Laurie.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:10 PM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


If I wanted to introduce a kid to Chopin...

If you're going to introduce a child, or anyone for that matter, to Chopin, I recommend stressing the proper pronunciation of his name.

I started playing the piano as a wee lad, and played for years with no one pointing out the proper pronunciation of "Chopin," or helping me make the connection between the name on the page and the composer whose name is pronounced "show-pan."

As a result, my mental process when reading his name continues to be:
1. Mentally pronounce Chopin as "chop-in."
2. Curse, in thought or out loud.
3. Pronounce it as "show-pan."
This is the same process I unfortunately go through when I encounter the abbreviation for "fluid ounces." I somehow came to decide as a very small child that the "fl" in "fl oz" stood for fluoral, a word which does not exist but was likely created when attempting to read the word "fluoride" on tubes of toothpaste. The curses of learning/teaching oneself to read unfamiliar words at an early age...
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 7:16 PM on December 13, 2009


crapmatic: "... off to Wikipedia to see a Chopin picture."

The article is only rated B - but I thought it was terrific. Highly recommended.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:17 PM on December 13, 2009


It's 2010?
posted by netbros at 7:19 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Liszt was supposedly a good guy, and a flamboyant rockstar genius too.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:20 PM on December 13, 2009


I hear Mr. Salinger is a jerk, but I still enjoy Franny and Zooey.
posted by localhuman at 7:25 PM on December 13, 2009


This is the same process I unfortunately go through when I encounter the abbreviation for "fluid ounces." I somehow came to decide as a very small child that the "fl" in "fl oz" stood for fluoral, a word which does not exist but was likely created when attempting to read the word "fluoride" on tubes of toothpaste. The curses of learning/teaching oneself to read unfamiliar words at an early age...

Dude, don't get me started on labs. (lbs)

posted by graventy at 7:36 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


One of my brothers-in-law and his son are both excellent pianists, and I've heard each of them say that Chopin is no fun to play - because it's hard just for the sake of being hard - but that Liszt is great fun to play, even though no one can ever get it right. It's like Chopin wrote piano music just to piss people off by making it hard to play, whereas Liszt wrote music that was great, but that only he could play.
posted by yhbc at 7:38 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


and I've heard each of them say that Chopin is no fun to play - because it's hard just for the sake of being hard

That is a complaint that is VERY often made about Liszt's music in the world of WAM (my favorite way to say art music, or concert music, or whatever. Spread it.). I have literally never heard anyone say that about Chopin, but I have heard it said of Liszt dozens upon dozens of times. This doesn't necessarily mean it's true either way, but...just sayin'.

Chopin fangrl here...I'm pretty much guaranteed to never have to talk to him, so who gives a hoot and hell if he was an asshole?
posted by nosila at 7:54 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


One of your brothers-in-law and his son are both wrong. Chopin is no fun to play because Chopin wrote it as he played it. It was easy for him to play but hard for anyone else. It's very obvious once you get into it that he had a whole schtick, especially all the big reaches and flourishes, that he was very comfortable with but other people would find hard. To play Chopin well you have to basically think yourself into Chopin. That may or may not be something you find worth doing (I don't but my Mom absolutely does).

If I (or anyone else) wrote out in notation something that we find easy that others find difficult, it would be the same kind of thing.
posted by unSane at 7:57 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


How could a bastard make something like this?
posted by mrducts at 8:00 PM on December 13, 2009


He could have been charbroiling angelic toddlers between sets and I'd forgive it all for his having written Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4.
posted by phrontist at 8:01 PM on December 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


As I clicked "more inside," Chopin's Mazurka No. 7 started playing. Get out of my ipod, Metafilter!
posted by Kimothy at 8:28 PM on December 13, 2009


Oh come on. This essay in The Independent is a lame-assed hatchet-job on someone who has been dead long enough not to fight back. Let's all snark on the dead again, whoo-hoo. If you went to the private room of the journalist who wrote this you would probably find something that smelled rather much like that of anyone else.
posted by ovvl at 8:30 PM on December 13, 2009


The Pianist;

Kurosawa's Dreams.
posted by ovvl at 8:38 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, phrontist, my son earned some college scholarship money with Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4. At 6'-3" he has the fingers to for the Chopin reaches. He has three piano muses: My grandfather (who died before I was born but who left some of his sheet music for future generations), Van Cliburn, and Chopin.
posted by Doohickie at 8:44 PM on December 13, 2009


Dedicated to beauty, the most beautiful artist. Dear Chopin.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 8:47 PM on December 13, 2009


This essay in The Independent is a lame-assed hatchet-job on someone who has been dead long enough not to fight back.

But in fairness, it's extremely messy when you're doing a hatchet job on someone who's only been dead a decade or so, and they resist.

If I wanted to introduce a kid to Chopin, I'd play him the attention-grabbing Etude op.10 no.1 in C major

Awesome piece. And here's a kid playing it. I played this one when I was 17.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:10 PM on December 13, 2009


vladimir horowitz loved him
posted by gorgor_balabala at 9:16 PM on December 13, 2009


Chopin is great. Thanks, Joe Beese.

post: “...and all-around bastard.”

Countess Elena: “I have thought a lot lately about the idea of the genius-as-bastard. We have come to expect great artists, writers and musicians to be terrible, spoiled people. It seems to me that this isn't to do with the level of talent, so much as the amount of heedless self-absorption required to dedicate oneself completely to one's own talents in a society that doesn't value artistic endeavor. So it is that I don't ever look around for biographical information on my favorite authors or musicians -- it almost always disappoints.”

I don't know about the whole "artists can be bad in private life because their work isn't well-appreciated enough" direction that this comment seems to go in. Personally, I know the feeling - I hate finding out that my heroes have done terrible things, too - but I think that feeling is the same as the feeling of pleasure one gets from noticing a life well-lived, on the other hand. And I don't think it helps to ignore the bastards; in fact, it seems like the way a person lives her or his life should say at least some small thing about the worth of their art, or at the very least their own conviction about the value of that art, since I guess art has to be taken on its own terms.

Either way, I still think the supreme example of artistic bastardy is Rainer Maria Rilke. John Berryman (fantastic poet himself, by the way) was dead right in his third Dream Song when he said: "Rilke was a jerk." Rilke was a guy who convinced his (relatively humble, in financial terms) fiancee to pay all costs associated with the publication of his first book - right before promptly dedicating it to a wealthy duchess and running off with her instead.

Alvy Ampersand: “I blame Hugh Laurie.”

A propos of nothing, an odd observation: I don't mind the show House and actually used to watch it regularly. But I've just finished the third season of the (often wildly hilarious) sketch comedy show A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, and I don't think I can ever watch House again without finding it extremely disorienting. I just can't get the image of Hugh Laurie as a gangly, bug-eyed, affable, smiling comedian with a crisp English accent out of my head. (I don't really have the same trouble when I watch Qi, thankfully.)
posted by koeselitz at 9:18 PM on December 13, 2009


I have to mention a favorite movie about Mr. C, I'm sure it's got his life completely wrong, but it's still a lot of fun and it has a great cast including Judy Davis, Emma Thompson, and a young Hugh Grant: Impromptu.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:18 PM on December 13, 2009


Is it just me, or does the article want us to think he was a better musician on account of being a fuckwad?

I mean, I'm usually right in there defending Miles Davis or Salinger or Gaugin or whoever, saying it's okay to like him even if he was a massive fuckwad. But drawing a positive connection between the two seems like a bit much.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:33 PM on December 13, 2009


This is how I was introduced to Chopin when I was just a kid. I found it hilarious.

Nacha Guevara is awesome in her own right.
posted by dirty lies at 9:35 PM on December 13, 2009


The composer's personality matters insofar as we, the listeners, accept the Romantic binding of the moral and the beautiful that I believe we owe to Schiller and his dialectic between the real and the ideal. Ignoring for a second the fact that Schiller would have considered instrumental music a naive art, if we regard music as offering the same pleasures as nature does, in its purity and unity of form and purpose, then we must be surprised when the composer does not share nature's innocence; if we regard music as an attempt to reconcile human reason with natural purity, what Schiller would call "sentimental" art, then we must be surprised when the composer falls prey to the moral ills that reason and free will visit upon us.

If you throw all of that Romantic horseshit out the window, then the fact that Chopin was a bit of a dick comes as no special surprise.
posted by invitapriore at 9:43 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you're going to introduce a child, or anyone for that matter, to Chopin, I recommend stressing the proper pronunciation of his name.
I did the same thing with Goethe. Read him and then met a German and thought I'd talk to them about his work. Go-ethy? never heard of him.
posted by tellurian at 9:52 PM on December 13, 2009


I'm sure it's got his life completely wrong, but it's still a lot of fun and it has a great cast including Judy Davis, Emma Thompson, and a young Hugh Grant: Impromptu.

Ah, beat me to it. I was quite taken with this movie when I first saw it.

Just a few hours ago I was on YouTube and it "recommended" this to me.
It's the first time I'd run across a YouTube presentation with the music scrolling along as it plays. I like that.

And then there's perhaps his most haunting work for me, that posthumous nocturne, this time played by Sarah Chang.

When I hear that main theme it's impossible not to feel a cold chill on my neck. But in a good way.
posted by NorthernLite at 10:08 PM on December 13, 2009


This is the same process I unfortunately go through when I encounter the abbreviation for "fluid ounces." I somehow came to decide as a very small child that the "fl" in "fl oz" stood for fluoral, a word which does not exist but was likely created when attempting to read the word "fluoride" on tubes of toothpaste.


I do this too.

posted by emmling at 10:39 PM on December 13, 2009


I have thought a lot lately about the idea of the genius-as-bastard. We have come to expect great artists, writers and musicians to be terrible, spoiled people.

I don't expect this, particularly. I think it's confirmation bias- the hundreds and thousands of brilliant artists who are perfectly nice people get forgotten, because it's just not interesting copy. Same goes for the "tortured genius" cliche.

(And then there's the urge to "bring them down a notch" by twisting objectively "good" actions into something negative: eg Hollywood stars are far far more involved in charitable causes than the average person, but it's only because they "want attention.")

If anything, I would think artistic people would be, on the whole, more generous and caring than average. Sure some make money, but if that's all you want it's a terrible way to try to make money. The thing about real, good art is that you never just do it for yourself. Art is for others to enjoy and appreciate- so artists dedicate their lives to enriching the lives of others. Sure, some are bastards outside of working hours, but then so are a lot of people.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:58 PM on December 13, 2009


I think Countess Elena raises a very important point. There is a school of thought that says integrity is essential "whole". That is, you are either essentially honest or dishonest, - you can't be dishonest in one area of your life, but honest in another. Stephen Covey makes this point strongly in his '7 Habits' book. I seem to recall a quote by Dag Hammarskjold to the affect that you can't tolerate/allow weeds to grow in one part of the garden, but not in other parts. Yet I see so often great artists, like Chopin, who create sublime works of art, yet turn out to be essentially unlikeable, unpleasant and down-right malevolent human beings. How can that be? Perhaps drjimmy11 is right and it is just a case of 'confirmation bias'. But the point remains, do you need to be an "a**hole* to be a genius, a creator of beauty, or can a 'nice guy or gal' ever create a true work of art?

In the spirit of the original post, I recommend the Hungarian pianist Gergely Bogányi and his recent recording of the complete Chopin's Nocturnes on Stockfisch. Pure genius. And I have no idea whether Bogányi is a nice person or not :-)
posted by vac2003 at 12:58 AM on December 14, 2009


Meanwhile, a certain subset of the current generation is being introduced to Chopin in a somewhat different way.
posted by darksasami at 1:08 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


It would be pretty silly to try to reduce anyone's life and character and talents to some simple formula. We are each a weather system with our own butterflies causing hurricanes and our own hurricanes wiping out entire species of butterflies. Given our circumstances, we're all potential or actual bastards.

Chopin was a child prodigy given great praise by the time he was about 7 years old, and he played for the Tsar when he was 11, so he might have felt a great sense of entitlement before his balls had even dropped. But did the weirdness of childhood stardom make him a future bastard, or did being a budding bastard from the start give him the ability to be so successful so young, or was it all caused by a stage mother or father, or was it all in his genes, or was it his TB, or was it his love life, or was it all of this, or was it little of this and much of something else? In any case, the Chopin that matters now is what today's musicians make of his lines and dots on the page.
posted by pracowity at 3:51 AM on December 14, 2009


So it is that I don't ever look around for biographical information on my favorite authors or musicians -- it almost always disappoints.

Go ahead, throw the first stone. Do you expect some kind of superhuman example of perfection? Just because an artist creates a masterpiece does not mean that their life is is just as accomplished. As you said, mastery comes at a personal price.

Sometimes I wonder if the 'eccentricity' of artistic genius is really just a reaction to being constantly judged in the same way as your art.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 5:42 AM on December 14, 2009


So it is that I don't ever look around for biographical information on my favorite authors or musicians -- it almost always disappoints.

Ray Bradbury is an exception... Nice, family man, never embroiled in much controversy that didn't stem from his works.

Classical composers are all motherfuckers, tho.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:56 AM on December 14, 2009


If you're going to introduce a child, or anyone for that matter, to Chopin, I recommend stressing the proper pronunciation of his name.

I used to mentally mispronounce his name as well, at least until I watched as another reputedly unpleasant artist said his name in the manner I would think it forever after:

"You know... Fredrick Fucking Chopin?"
posted by Pragmatica at 6:51 AM on December 14, 2009


Once I learned about his former mistress and all-around silly girl George Sand, Chopin earned bonus points in my book. Sand used to sit under Chopin's piano whilst he played.
posted by spamguy at 7:27 AM on December 14, 2009


"Yeah, Fred Chopin... Christ, what an asshole!"

Why?
- He could be grumpy sometimes. (Usually before the first coffee of the day).
- He argued with his girlfriend. (I heard she had a sharp temper, too).
- He bitched about being ripped-off by his publishers, using foul language. (An emotional topic).
- He didn't fight in the revolution. (Instead he played benefit concerts, but that's not as sexy as shooting a gun).
- He didn't like playing live concerts. (Sounds like Glenn Gould).
- He had tuberculosis. (?).

I am getting the impression here that Chopin is behaving sort of like a normal person, although rather hard-working and probably a bit high-strung. Not as charming and sociable as his friend Liszt (who could be a bit thoughtless and superficial at times) but at least he was sociable enough to get along with a modest circle of friends reasonably well. He did have an introverted personality, but I really hope that that is not a personality defect.

So what qualities makes a person an asshole (or bastard)?
I could suggest: habitual lying and excessive cruelty. I don't think Chopin had these particular problems.
posted by ovvl at 4:39 PM on December 14, 2009


There is a school of thought that says integrity is essential "whole". That is, you are either essentially honest or dishonest, - you can't be dishonest in one area of your life, but honest in another.

I am not entirely comfortable with this idea. It does not take into account the complexity of human nature, and the fact that human beings are both gregarious and individual. Most humans make various subtle compromises in honesty every day, which are required as a demand of living in a human society. I have met people who do not fit into these restrictions. Some are Saints, and some are Bastards.

The idea of the Myth of the Artist as a creature who lives outside of the bounds of society is certainly reflected in the Western Romantic Era, and extends into today.

Like many people, artists are dedicated to their work.

If you call one up in an emergency if you need a ride to/from an airport/hospital, some will say: "Sorry, I am working on my painting/novel/screenplay/symphony right now.".
Some will say: "Uh, Okay".

If you call up a non-artist, some will say: "Sorry, I am feeding the kids/watering the lawn/doing something else right now"
Some will say: "Uh, Okay."

(Stoners should say: "Uh, sorry, I'm too high right now")
posted by ovvl at 6:29 PM on December 14, 2009


If anything, I would think artistic people would be, on the whole, more generous and caring than average. Sure some make money, but if that's all you want it's a terrible way to try to make money. The thing about real, good art is that you never just do it for yourself. Art is for others to enjoy and appreciate- so artists dedicate their lives to enriching the lives of others. Sure, some are bastards outside of working hours, but then so are a lot of people.

No, it really varies. I mean, yeah, at one end of the spectrum you've got your artists who create because they love people and want them to be happy. At the other end, though, you've got artists who create because they hate the world and want to build something better — the Dave Sims and (depending on whose biography you believe) Salingers and Gaugins. I think you were right before: there's just no generalizing here.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:41 PM on December 14, 2009


ovvl: “He bitched about being ripped-off by his publishers, using foul language. (An emotional topic)... So what qualities makes a person an asshole (or bastard)? I could suggest: habitual lying and excessive cruelty. I don't think Chopin had these particular problems.”

Well, er... I don't think "using foul language" was really what induced the author of that article to refer to Chopin's relations with his publishers as an instance of him being a bastard. I think maybe the trouble actually had more to do with the fact that he used the word "Jew!" as an insult. And, well, as far as qualities that make a person an asshole go, "hatred of Jews" and "outright racism" come pretty high on my list. And I don't think living in another time is an excuse; I know of plenty of people coeval with Chopin who weren't racists.

Although I should say: I think you're right in that this private racism, which indicates that Chopin was somewhat small-minded, and the rest of the complaints about his character amount to something more like "not fun to be around" rather than a sweeping "complete asshole." Anybody who is self-aware enough to admit that they're unpleasant to be around, as Chopin apparently did, at least has some capacity to understand what you're going through when you're with them. There are much worse people out there.

Anyhow, all the more reason to stop seeing particular people as "artists" as distinct from other people who are "not artists." There aren't separate standards for people just because they slap paint on a canvas; most importantly, art is about the same thing that humankindness is about. Some people conclude that they can do more good and be done more good if they neglect particular aspects of their relationships; it sounds like Chopin made that conscious decision, and his wife dealt with it in her way, and good for them. (The racism thing is quite unfortunate, but it is good that Chopin admitted and accepted his deficiency and seemed to have an honest view of it.) There are people who don't have the serenity or the practical wisdom to run their own lives, and sometimes great writers or painters fall into that category; that's unfortunate, but I have a feeling that practical wisdom can often be a sign that someone is wise in other areas, too. So it's nice to discover that people I perceive to be great women and men turn out to have managed their private lives well.
posted by koeselitz at 8:33 PM on December 14, 2009


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