Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Chopin Filling the House

In this bicentennial year of composer-pianist Frederic Chopin's birth, there will of course be several celebrations. Chopin was one of the great composers for solo piano; unlike what came before, and unlike what followed. Concert pianist Byron Janis has reminisced about the composer, the man, and his legacy.

I remember my mother, the concert pianist and piano teacher, always playing Chopin. He was her favorite. There would be times when she would sit down at the piano in the living room and a series of Chopin Preludes or Nocturnes would fill the house. I might be in the basement, or in my room, or I might be sitting reading at the breakfast nook table, and music would fill the air. This is one of my fondest memories of my youth. My mother's playing would pull at me, and I would stop what I was doing to listen. Sometimes, because I have an apparently innate talent for stealth, I would sneak into the living room without her noticing, curl up on the couch behind her, and listen. She would play on while I listened; inevitably she would startle when she finally realized I was there, and pretend to be mad at me for sneaking up on her (again).

Once or twice when I was very young, I remember lying under the piano itself while she played: really in some ways the best way to listen, because you become fully immersed in the sound.

Of course, since my mother was a piano teacher, she insisted that my older sister and I both study piano. I started piano lessons when I was six years old, and continued through college. I'm not a concert pianist, or even a great pianist of any kind. I know my way around the keyboard, though, more than well enough to be able to compose, or play some easy jazz. I play a diverse array of musical instruments now; yet piano is still "home plate," in a way, and when I sit down at the keyboard, there is a sense of familiarity and known territory unlike anything else. It feels indeed like returning to my musical home.

And of course I learned to play some Chopin. I can still work my way through some of the Preludes, although Chopin's most challenging pieces such as the Ballades remain beyond me, and I never really mastered them. As a pianist, I was always more interested in the avant-garde of 20th C. music (Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, Alan Hovhaness, John Cage, etc.). But Chopin was avant-garde: his music was very original, very different, for its time. And his way of playing, by many reports—which combined classical restraint with emotional power, never letting sentiment cross the line into sentimentality—is an attitude I deeply appreciate. Of the early Romantic composers, I felt closer to Chopin than many others, and played more of his pieces than any other. So of course I once wrote a piano etude of my own, in honor of Chopin's memory.

Artur Rubinstein was my mother's favorite pianist, of his generation. She left me, when she died, Rubinstein's autobiography and dozens of recordings. (The complete Rubinstein Chopin solo piano recordings have been reissued as a huge boxed set.) I still listen to the Rubinstein recordings of Chopin I have on CD; I play them so that the music can fill the house once again. As I listen, I remember my childhood, my mother playing piano, my own playing, many hours filled with the joy and sorrow of music.

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Blogger Pat said...

This a beautiful post, Dragon...in many ways. Thank you. My sister, ten years older, was a very gifted pianist. I sat under the piano to listen to her practice. The talent did not rub off on me, alas, but the love of music did.


12:05 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

My pleasure!

I'd forgotten about your sister. What a great story. And now I know why you love to listen to music, too. :)

1:26 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

The image of you as a little boy under the piano listening to your mother play Chopin on the piano is compelling, Art as is the rest of your story here.

My mother played the piano, too, and in some strange way I both loved and hated it.

I loved it for the music but I hated it because whenever she played my mother seemed to drift away into a sort of trance and we were left to fend for ourselves against all sorts of difficulties.

We have such different experiences of a mother at her piano, don't we? Thanks, Art.

4:31 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

My mom didn't do the trance-out thing when playing, but it's interesting the love-hate feeling you express about the piano. That's not dissimilar from my sister's feelings. I wonder if it's a mother-daughter thing. (Boys have conflicts with dad, girls have conflicts with mom; that sort of thing.) My sister didn't keep up with the piano lessons as long as I did, and she doesn't play anymore as far as I know, although she does have a good ear and loves music in general. She's a very, very talented visual artist in more than one medium, too.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Chopin has never been a composer who excited me. I’ve listened to enough by him but I’ve always been left looking for more. I’ve always leaned towards orchestral music and so it should come as no surprise to know that I have both his piano concertos but precious little else. I may have an old cassette tape with some impromptus or preludes on it.

If I’m going to go for solo piano music then Glass is my first port of call.

Musically the two most exciting words to me are ‘concerto’ and ‘symphony’ in that order. And if it’s a concerto for something out of the ordinary then all the better. When I think of my favourite pieces of classical music it’s the concertos that always come up top; which ones depend on my mood.

In your honour though I’ll just have a wee listen to Sorabji’s ‘Pastiche on the Minute Waltz of Chopin’.

5:57 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

You might also know and like, then, Ligeti's works for keyboard, both solo and in ensemble.

The thing with piano is that it really is capable, in the right hands, of doing anything the orchestra can—minus tone color. Although the piano can be played in so many ways that you can get a wide range of tone colors from it, too. And then there's the techniques Henry Cowell pioneered, of playing inside on the strings directly, too. So it's a whole universe.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Ligeti I know well enough, Art – I have a few CDs – but I tend to favour the choral pieces. I definitely have one CD of his solo piano works. Cowell I have one or two things by (his Piano Concerto really stretches ones ears) but it’s Cage I think of more when it comes to the prepared piano. I probably have far more solo piano stuff than I imagine. Every now and then I’ll discover something I didn’t know I had but my preference is still orchestral followed by chamber and then solo. At the moment I keep coming back to Mahler’s orchestration of Death and the Maiden.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Cowell never really did prepared piano, just the tone-clusters and playing inside on the strings. Prepared piano was Cage's, indeed, and consists of inserting screws and other things in between the strings. (I know you know all this, but not everyone does, so it's worth repeating occasionally.)

Mahler. I just put on a recording of Mahler's Fifth. Probably the only Mahler I own, actually. Not that I have anything against Mahler, he just doesn't appeal to me all that much.

I'm getting back into Debussy lately, as I mentioned, and the others of that lineage.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

It's only orchestrated by Mahler. The composer is Schubert. There are a couple of videos on YouTube. Here's a link to the first part.

2:55 PM  

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