The Two Sides of Chopin

Today I am going to share with you etudes by Frederic Chopin. But I cannot talk about Chopin and not mention Schubert and Liszt.

This discussion is a follow-up to previous articles I wrote about two Franzes – Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt.

Schubert lived a very short life: When he was 25 he contracted syphilis, and at the time syphilis was a treacherous, painful death sentence. He died at the tender age of 32.

Just imagine a young man aged 25, his life supposedly lying ahead of him, but instead he is staring death in the face. If that were not enough, imagine living in Vienna in the early 1800s and trying to compose your own music when you have heard the ingenious 7th symphony composed by a fellow (Beethoven) who lives a few blocks down the road. Any sound that comes to your head will seem to pale in comparison, and anything you put on paper will somehow seem insignificant. That is exactly what Schubert felt. Understandably, Schubert was depressed. You can hear this depression in his music; it is full of melancholy.

He was an introvert and not a good pianist – the piano was just another instrument to him, a means to his music. His “Fantasia in F minor” is written for four hands (two pianists). If Liszt had composed the piece, he undoubtably would have arranged it for one pianist. (Read more about Schubert here.)

Liszt is the complete opposite of Schubert. He is the Michael Jackson of his time. He tours all over Europe, giving several performances a day. Women go crazy over him. He is the Paganini of piano, a virtuoso. For Liszt, the piano as instrument is as important as the music he composes. (Read more about Liszt here.)

This brings us to Chopin, who is a year younger than Liszt. He leaves Poland at 20 and settles in Paris. He’s a skinny, sickly-looking man. He’s very shy – he will give only 30 public performances in his lifetime (Liszt gave more performances in a month). He is in poor health; in fact he will die young, just like Schubert, at 39. And where Schubert lives in the shadow of Beethoven in Vienna, Chopin is in Paris, a city completely smitten by Liszt.

It seems there are two Chopins: the one who reminds us of Schubert – first, the one in poor health, the depressed one, the one who wrote deeply emotional, melancholic music. Remember, this is the composer who wrote the “funeral march” – happy people who look toward life don’t do that.

And then there is another Chopin, the one who lives in the shadow of Franz Liszt, who is in the same city and travels in same circles as Liszt. Yes, Chopin the virtuoso, trying to push the limits of the piano.

Chopin’s etudes are the Liszt side of Chopin. An etude is a short piece of music that is composed to improve a player’s specific technique. Before Chopin etudes were mainly composed for musicians, not for listeners. Chopin’s etudes changed that. Chopin’s etudes are very Lisztonian, as they push the then newly evolved piano to new, unheard levels. I want to share this small excerpt from the Polish movie Desire for Love. This scene features both sides of Chopin: the “Revolutionary Etude” (the Liszt side) and his “Nocturne No. 20” (the Schubert side).

Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2. If I had to use one phrase to describe this wonderful masterpiece, I’d say it is a “concert of contrast.” Everything in this concerto has an opposite. If part of it sounds soft and lyrical, just wait and you’ll be treated to a forceful, military march-like section. If it’s quiet, don’t worry, it will get very loud very soon. If it sounds gentle and bright, don’t get used to it; deep darkness lies just a few notes away. There is love and of course devilish hate here, too.

This roller coaster of contrasts has its purpose: It is there to reach into your soul, turn it upside down, and squeeze every possible ounce of emotion out of you. The roller coaster of contrasts is life! Life without contrasts would be  bland and boring. Contrasts are what make us appreciate what we have (and what we might have, and what we have lost). We would not appreciate the beauty of sunrise without the darkness of night. Pain is there for us to value the scarcity of joy. And love is there when we transcend blindness of indifference. It is impossible (speaking from personal experience) to listen to this concerto and not be deeply impacted by it.

P.S. I didn’t actually mean to get carried away, but I’ve been listening to this concerto all day long, and it stirred up so much emotion in me that you got the above.

Khatia Buniatishvili – beautiful performance, though I am not sure I can be totally objective here

‪Mikhail Pletnev

‪Barenboim and Boulez

How Franz Liszt Revolutionized Piano and Classical Music

Franz Liszt was a Hungarian composer and pianist. I don’t think you can talk about Liszt without talking first about the evolution of the piano. The piano you see today in concerts hall or in private homes was not always like that. Though the earlier instrument had a similar shape and had a keyboard, its interior plumbing was completely different. In fact it was called a harpsicord – think of it as a harp (wooden frame with stretched strings) with a keyboard.

Around 1700 the harpsichord gradually transformed into a pianoforte, which had the same look as the harpsicord, but instead of the strings being plucked they were hit by little leather-wrapped hammers. The frame that held the strings was still wooden, and the strings were held at low tension. This is the instrument used by Mozart and the young Beethoven. The sound of the pianoforte is different from the sound we accustomed to hearing today: it is lighter, and the instrument did not have a double escape mechanism and thus could not repeat sounds rapidly – it speaks instead of signing. Each note is very clear and distinct, and the pianoforte has still not completely lost the sound of the harpsicord. Think of Mozart’s piano concertos or sonatas, which were written for pianoforte.

Mozart died in 1791, just as the fortepiano (or simply, piano), the instrument we are all familiar with, was starting to emerge. But from the late 1700s to the early 1800s the piano underwent a significant transformation. This transformation had a major impact on the music that was composed; and, in a musical feedback loop, composers impacted the instrument. Beethoven was one of the early adopters and beneficiaries of the piano’s evolution and played an important role in the evolution of the instrument. At one point he had broken 78% of the strings in his piano. He complained to the piano manufacturer that pianos wore out very fast.

The biggest differences between the pianoforte and fortepiano (the modern piano) are, first, that the frame the harp strings are tied to is not wooden but metal; the low-tension strings have been replaced with high-tension ones; the instrument has a range of two additional octaves (14 extra white keys); and the hammers are covered with tightly compacted felt instead of leather. These changes transformed a delicate instrument into an incredibly powerful beast that can replace an orchestra but that at the same time retains the gentleness of its ancestors.

This brings us to Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Liszt was born sixteen years before Beethoven’s death. He was a child prodigy and a virtuoso pianist. He was the first rockstar of Europe – he was Michael Jackson before Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson.

As luck would have it, on a trip to Paris, Franz Liszt stayed in a hotel right across the street from Erard Piano – a trailblazing piano maker that invented the double escapement movement that sped up the piano and significantly reduced the limitations of previous generations of pianos. Erard was also the first piano maker to fit pedals under the piano.

As the story goes, young Franz wandered into the Erard store and started playing on one of the instruments. Mssr. Erard smitten by the boy’s genius and also recognized a unique marketing opportunity. He made an endorsement deal with young Franz, providing pianos for all of Liszt’s performances. Liszt went on a three-year tour, giving several performances a day. No town was too small – he loved the attention and the applause. However, this tour was suddenly interrupted by his father’s untimely death.

In 1832 Liszt attended a concert of the Italian violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini. The violin had undergone its most dramatic improvements two hundreds years before the piano did, and it was a mature instrument by that time. After Liszt heard Paganni he remarked, “What wonderful things might be done with the piano if its technical possibilities were developed as those of the violin have been by Paganini.” He decided to become the Paganini of piano. For three years he stopped appearing in public and practiced non-stop (putting in Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours).

Liebestraum No. 3

Today I wanted to share with you a short solo piano piece by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, called “Liebestraum No. 3” (“Dream of Love”).  I almost (almost) want to issue a personal guarantee that this piece will grab your soul, squeeze it, turn it inside out, and put it back together.  This is probably one of the most popular pieces of music composed by Liszt, and thus it is easy to find performances by the who’s who of the music world.

  • Evgeny Kissin

  • Arthur Rubenstein

  • Liberace

As a bonus I want to introduce you to Daniil Trifonov – a 25-year-old Russian pianist.  In 2011, a few weeks after he won the Arthur Rubenstein competition in Tel Aviv he was awarded First Prize, Gold Medal, and Grand Prix at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow (this is like the Olympics for musicians).

I’ve never seen anyone be hijacked this thoroughly by music and to internalize it as much Daniil does.  Just watch his face – he laughs and cries, experiences physical pain and joy, and in some moments his face looks like that of Gollum from Lord of the Rings. 

Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1

I want to share with you Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  As one of my favorite childhood memories, I remember walking home with my father on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  I was maybe nine years old.   There was the sound of classical music coming from the fourth-floor window of our apartment building.  Our neighbor was listening to music very loud.  My father said with admiration, “She is listening to Liszt.”   This was the first time I had heard of Franz Liszt.

I remember father explaining to me the “z” in his name and it was spelled differently from list, which in Russian means “leaf.”   I don’t remember the music, but I do remember a certain respect in my father’s voice for the neighbor and her preference in music.

Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1

In the musical note section I want to share with you Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performed by Lang Lang.

As one of my favorite childhood memories, I remember walking home with my father on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  I was maybe nine years old.   There was the sound of classical music coming from the fourth-floor window of our apartment building.  Our neighbor was listening to music very loud.  My father said with admiration, “She is listening to Liszt.”   This was the first time I had heard of Franz Liszt.  I remember father explaining to me the “z” in his name and it was spelled differently from list, which in Russian means “leaf.”   I don’t remember the music, but I do remember a certain respect in my father’s voice for the neighbor and her preference in music.

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