On 200th Birthday, Chopin's Music 'Not as Pretty as It Sounds'

Lasting gifts of a short life

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Monday is the 200th anniversary of pianist and classical composer Frédéric Chopin's birth. (Though, as a music blog points out, he always claimed his birthday was March 1.) Some critics are taking the occasion to revisit his battle with illness, his tortured romance with George Sand, and his personal quirks. But most maintain that, as Michael Williams notes for the Telegraph, "Chopin's reputation can only rest on the artistic value of his music." Here's why:

  • Impeccable Artist  Michael Williams writes that Adam Zamoyski, Chopin's biographer, thinks the composer "ranks with Bach and Debussy as one of only three composers who never wrote a bad piece of music--verified by contemporary accounts of those who heard him play." Camille Saint-Saëns, another composer, described him as "the sweet evening star that shone only for a moment."
  • Modern and Backward   Chopin, The Economist notes, "was at the vanguard of Romantic music, but his own musical tastes were conservative." He preferred the earlier Bach and Mozart to the more modern Mendelssohn and Liszt, and "refused to imbue his music with a patriotic mission or himself with any grand purpose, preferring art for art's sake. He was also uncomfortable with the muscular nationalism other musicians were embracing." His famous lover, novelist George Sand, "thought him backwards and bigoted in everything but music."
  • Pervasive Influence  Blair Sanderson at The Allmusic Blog says the works of such titanic musical figures as Schumann and Brahms "show clear signs that [Chopin's] melodic shapes, subtle harmonies, and other stylistic innovations had been fully absorbed into the musical mainstream." Looking a little more toward the present, "it is difficult to imagine how the keyboard works of Alexander Scriabin and Sergey Rachmaninov could have existed without Chopin's powerful influence," while, "because his music has been borrowed for standards, from 'I'm Always Chasing Rainbows' to 'Could It Be Magic,' popular music has felt Chopin's touch as well, though to a lesser extent."
  • Less Fragile, More Complex, Than Commonly Thought, argues Anne Midgette for The Washington Post. "Chopin's piano pieces--all of his pieces involve the piano: no symphonies or operas here--are lyrical and lovely, poetic and, therefore, seen as accessible. Yet they can also be harmonically intricate, technically challenging." Though often "branded effeminate, or 'salon music,' ... the work isn't fragile," and has can be "assertive" and "strikingly original." She argues that the composer's apparently old-fashioned tastes in fact allowed him to escape from the shadow of Beethoven. Meanwhile, his pieces hint at a certain "slightly ironic nostalgia" akin to "social commentary." Midgette's conclusion:
Taken together, Chopin's pieces represent a towering hurdle, the benchmark against which a classical pianist is measured--in part because of the difficulty of finding a way to plumb the music's depths while sounding simple ... The waltzes epitomize one of the hardest things about playing Chopin: walking the fine line between emotion and sentiment, between feeling something and looking back, fondly, on the way it felt ... One big secret of playing Chopin may simply be to remember that it's not as pretty as it sounds.
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