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).

Schubert – In Mozart’s Shadow?

Lately I have found myself completely hooked on Franz Schubert (of all addictions, not the worst one to have). I’ve shared with you his

Impromptus No. 3

Death and the Maiden


and his (finished) Symphony No. 9.

These are extremely diverse pieces, but they have one thing in common: though they elicit a lot of emotions, they don’t radiate happiness. This brings us to the happiest piece I’ve heard from Schubert, his Symphony No. 5. 

I stumbled on it serendipitously on YouTube. At first I thought I was listening to Mozart – it is happy, it is light, there is not a single sad note in it. I was shocked when I learned that it was Schubert. Schubert composed it in 1816 when he was only 19, arguably in his happier days, before he was infected with (then deadly) syphilis. Schubert was infatuated with Mozart and wrote this in his diary: “O Mozart! Immortal Mozart! What countless impressions of a brighter, better life hast thou stamped upon our souls!”

We took my almost-three-year-old daughter, Mia Sarah, to Schubert’s 9th symphony last week. I was very nervous. I was thinking, would she be able to sit through a long concert? (The 9th symphony is called “great” because of its length – it is 55 minutes long.) Is she going to be able to be quiet? Well, this concert goes into my memory bank as one of the happiest. Mia Sarah sat patiently through almost the whole thing. Only one-third of the auditorium was filled, and at the end when she got a little impatient, I picked her up and took her to the back rows where she could roam freely without disturbing anyone. My favorite part was when my wife and Mia Sarah were conducting Schubert’s 9th. In fact, Mia Sarah and I have watched a few classical pieces – she sits on my lap and we conduct them together. I am smiling just writing this.

In Beethoven’s Shadow

“The greatest misfortune of the wise man and the greatest unhappiness of the fool are based upon convention”. – Franz Schubert

A few weeks ago my father, my daughter Hannah, and I went to the Boulder Symphony to listen to Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” (conducted by Leonard Bernstein). Before the performance, Boulder Symphony’s conductor, Devin Patrick Hughes, gave a very interesting lecture on Schubert.

Beethoven’s genius and fame were (unintentionally) very toxic for his contemporaries (like Schubert) and composers who lived long after his death (Brahms and many others). Schubert grew up in Vienna, a few blocks away from Ludwig Van Beethoven and died less than a year after Beethoven. There are conflicting theories about whether Schubert ever met Beethoven. We know that he was a huge fan of Beethoven’s music. He was Beethoven’s pallbearer. He asked to be (and ultimately was) buried next to Beethoven.

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 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.

Schubert was able to at least partially overcome the toxicity of living in Beethoven’s shadow, as he was one of the most prolific composers of all time, composing till his last breath. But living in Beethoven’s shadow prevented Schubert from publishing a lot of his work, as he felt unworthy of publication.

Tragically, Schubert lived all his life in dire poverty and only became famous after his death. Schubert would have been utterly shocked that, 200 years later, his name would be mentioned in the same breath as Beethoven’s. He would also be surprised that today he is known as one of the great symphonists. Schubert did not hear most of his symphonies performed, as they went unpublished.

Schubert’s 9th symphony was rediscovered by Robert Schumann. Today Robert Schumann is known as a great composer (and as the husband of Clara Schumann – another great composer). However, in his time he was a very well-respected and popular music critic. Schumann visited Schubert’s brother in 1838, ten years after Schubert’s death, and discovered the unpublished manuscript of a symphony. Schumann was shocked at how wonderful the symphony was and brought it to Felix Mendelssohn. Today Mendelssohn, too, is known as a great composer, but at that time he was also a very famous conductor. Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Schubert’s symphony, which today we know as the 9th.

There is an interesting lesson here: The greatness of others can be intimidating, and it could injure our own creativity if we let it. We should allow it to inspire us but not allow it to put us down.

I would be remiss if I did not mention how much we enjoy going to the Boulder Symphony. We live in Denver. The Colorado Symphony would be a much easier and shorter commute. But last year one of my readers introduced me to his father, Tony Santelli, who is on the board of the Boulder Symphony. Tony raved about the symphony, and we had to check it out. Unlike the Colorado Symphony, which employs its performers, the Boulder Symphony is run on pure love (most of its musicians are not paid).

I like the unpretentiousness of this experience. It lacks the fanciness, the black ties and clicking of Champagne glasses of your usual urban symphony. The performances takes place in a Presbyterian church that seats only a few hundred people – a very quaint venue with terrific acoustics. During the intermission you can come up and chat with the performers and even with the very talented conductor.

Obviously, I have no frame of reference, but I would like to imagine that in the time of Schubert and Beethoven, many orchestras resembled the Boulder Symphony – orchestras for commoners where people came not to show off their designer dresses but purely because of their love for music.

I am Jewish and, as was well-demonstrated by Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof, Jews crave tradition. If you do something twice, it automatically becomes a tradition. The last two times we went to the Boulder Symphony we stopped by Lark Burger before the performance, and after it we walked to downtown Boulder and the kids loaded up on sugar at a candy store. (I bribe my kids with burgers and sweets so they’ll keep coming with me to classical music concerts.)

Finally, I am writing this at midnight, listening to great music and thinking how lucky I am that a few of you will actually read these words. To these few – thank you.

Franz Schubert – Fantasie in F Minor

Today I wanted to share Fantasie in F Minor by Austrian composer Franz Schubert.  Schubert lived a very short life: when he was 25 he contracted syphilis, and at the time syphilis was a treacherous, painful death sentence (just like AIDS 20 years ago).  He died at the tender age of 32.

Just imagine a young man age 25, his life supposedly lying ahead of him, but instead he is staring death in the face.  Understandably, Schubert was depressed.  You can hear this depression in his music; it is full of melancholy.

Schubert was an addict: he was addicted to composing.  In the sixteen years of his creative life he wrote over a thousand songs, 9 symphonies, 22 piano sonatas, 17 operas, over a thousand works for piano, and many other works.  Most composers were not able to accomplish as much in a full natural lifetime.

Schubert was a very mediocre pianist.  Where Sergei Rachmaninoff or Franz Liszt were virtuoso pianists and thus their piano music was very demanding of a performer’s technical skills, for Schubert the piano was just a vessel to communicate his music and nothing more.

This Fantasie is a great example of that.  It is written for a piano and four hands (or two mediocre pianists).  This is speculation on my part, but if Liszt or Rachmaninoff had written this piece it would have been for two hands (or one virtuoso pianist).  In this observation, I am not trying to detract anything from Schubert – quite the opposite – but I feel these small glimpses into composers’ lives help me to understand and relate better to their music.

Fantasie in F Minor, Franz Schubert – piano, Lucas & Arthur Jussen

As a bonus, Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 No. 4 – piano, Krystian Zimerman

Death and the Maiden

“Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.”

Yes, think of that man. The man was Franz Schubert, and the quotation above is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to a friend. He has just suffered through two years of illness, he is financially destitute, his latest attempt to write the opera Fierabras has flopped, and he also realizes that he is dying (he died four years later). Schubert is in pain, and he goes on to compose a chamber music masterpiece called Death and the Maiden that has pain written all over it. But listen carefully: it is not all pain; there are bright spots of hope that shine through this piece.

Death and the Maiden falls into the category of music that most people (I for sure) have to listen many, many times to understand. It is full of nuances that you won’t hear the first few times you listen to it.

Originally it was written for a quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). About seventy years later, in 1896, Gustav Mahler transcribed this piece for orchestra.

  • Death and the Maiden – quartet

  • Death and the Maiden – Gustav Mahler’s transcription

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