Good old Chopin. He is definitely up there. In the top five. In my opinion.
His piano pieces are little symphonies in miniature. They often start with deceptive simplicity and apparent harmlessness. Then the music builds up to something more ominous and dramatic.
Critics have not always been kind to Chopin. During his lifetime he seems to have irritated a number of people, though not always for obvious reasons. At various times he was accused of being offhand, supercilious, reclusive, unmanly, babyish, frivolous and lightweight; and dismissed as capable only of ‘salon music’. Being Polish-born and only half French may have given him some problems in the haut-bourgeois Paris society which became his milieu.
Wagner, whose generosity and expansiveness when composing were not always matched by similar qualities in his social dealings, dismissed Chopin as “a composer for the right hand”. This verdict fails to grasp – perhaps intentionally – the nature of Chopin pieces, which are supremely lyrical. In style, they can seem like a piano version of bel canto singing, which is why most of the obvious action does happen on the right of the keyboard.
In tune with the fashion for hatchet jobs on figures from the past, a number of recent biographers have attacked Chopin as a disdainful snob, disloyal to his native Poland, or as hopelessly effete. The uninhibited emotionality of his music arouses enthusiasm in some, but seems to produce negative reactions in others.
It is interesting how individuals like Chopin, who deviate from normality but not in a readily definable way, are capable of provoking hostility of a kind which, with hindsight, seems irrational.
Still, his position seems safe, for now. 2010 – the 200th anniversary of his birth – was Chopin Year, and the composer received plenty of favourable attention, particularly from his homeland, Poland. His music is rightly celebrated for its astounding depth, notwithstanding its surface floweriness. Chopin pieces contain little storms of emotion, but often calm down again towards the conclusion.
And sometimes there is a funny little coda at the end.
● Two things are required for successful performances of Chopin: (a) complete mastery of the keyboard, (b) faithfulness to the original emotional messages. Because of the impressionistic quality of the composition, this still leaves a wide range of possible interpretations.
A few major pianists fail with the first of the two criteria – personally, I like to hear all the notes – but at least as common is falling at the second hurdle. There are a couple of key themes in particular which one must be able to reproduce with conviction, if one is to do Chopin justice: nostalgia and courage.
Performances featuring (a) but not (b) can be interesting as demonstrations of virtuosity, but are otherwise as dull as looking at Gauguins in black and white.
Based on which pianists can and can’t do (b), I suspect that one ideally needs to have either East European or Jewish* in one’s make-up to get this part right. As someone with elements of both in his ancestry, I ought to be eligible to give it a go myself. Unfortunately, however, I do not play.
● Like all putative group differences, the one about playing Chopin is likely to be statistical, if true. The Spaniard Pedro Carboné is an excellent Chopin interpreter; while on the other hand there is one prominent Hungarian pianist who, as far as I am concerned, does not cut the mustard Chopin-wise.
By far the best young Chopin player on the scene, Rafal Blechacz, is a Pole. Blechacz’s performances are, quite simply, breathtaking. His playing of Chopin seems at times so correct that it’s almost macabre. Perhaps this is how the music was meant to sound, though of course there is no way of knowing. Technically the playing is flawless but, more importantly, the emotional messages are clearly there. One hears an urgency, and power, which it’s tempting to believe are authentically Chopinesque, but which very few pianists seem capable of reproducing.
Even the greatest performers have idiosyncrasies that one can quibble with. Blechacz’s playing occasionally comes across as a little too contemporary. One hears echoes of Rachmaninov, sometimes even McCartney. The performances can seem a trifle on the hard side, perhaps emphasising precision over reflectiveness. However, for all one knows, Chopin himself leant towards stern correctness, rather than in the romantic direction as heard in (say) Tamás Vásáry, another of the great Chopin players.
Blechacz** may sometimes seem to lack heart, but Chopin was accused of this himself. Perhaps the popular image of him as a dreamy poet is wide of the mark. A cousin on his mother’s side, General Krzyzanowski, fought in the American Civil War. Pictures of the General suggest a thoroughly robust character.
Whatever minor reservations one may have, it has to be admitted that Blechacz’s Chopin playing is astounding. I do not think Irish pianist John O’Conor was exaggerating when he described him as “one of the greatest artists I have had a chance to hear in my entire life”.
Blechacz’s performances of Debussy, I have to say, leave me cold. Technically perfect, they seem to miss the essential Debussy qualities of dreaminess and shimmering. On reflection, I don’t recall having heard a non-Frenchman play Debussy convincingly.
It’s interesting, incidentally, that French pianists seem to ‘get’ Debussy, as you would expect, but apparently not Chopin. It suggests Chopin’s heart was in Poland, not in Paris. (As indeed it now is, being immured at Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church, while the rest of his remains are buried at Père Lachaise.)
Apart from a superb recording of the Preludes, there has been relatively little Chopin output from Mr Blechacz since he bowled over the judges at the 2005 Warsaw international piano competition.
It must be tempting to diversify. On the other hand, a career as one of the greatest Chopin players of all time beckons. I hope it will come to fruition.
** the -cz is pronounced -tsh
● The word “racism” has become one of the most loaded and dangerous terms in the modern vocabulary. One would therefore hope that those who are influential in determining its meaning are extremely careful about how they use it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have been the case.
Over the last couple of decades there has been a definite creep away from the original sense, so that the word now – functioning typically as an accusation – seems to cover a very broad array of things, some of them ill-defined.
The motive for the creep may seem hard to understand, unless one postulates that some people, particularly perhaps left-leaning intellectuals, have a desire to prohibit discussion by widening the range of ideas considered offensive – thereby restricting the lives of other (rival) intellectuals.
In Chambers’ 21st Century Dictionary (1996), the definition given is close to the common-sense meaning, involving as a crucial element an evaluation about superiority.
Belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race or races over others, usually with the implication of a right to be dominant.
Ten years later, in the 2006 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, we have the following.
The belief that each race or ethnic group possesses specific characteristics, abilities or qualities that distinguish it as inferior or superior to another such group. [italics mine]
The newer definition starts with a reference to a belief in group differences, a reference which doesn’t occur at all in the earlier definition. Nevertheless, this second version of “racism” still crucially involves a belief about superiority/inferiority.
The current online OED* definition, by contrast, makes the meaning depend primarily on the issue of group differences, so that this now supposedly becomes the crucial component. The belief in superiority/inferiority – the element which, by itself, constituted the original definition – has been relegated to secondary importance (“especially ...”):
The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. [italics mine]
Extrapolating from the current trend, it seems we may soon get a definition that dispenses with the phrase “all members of”. (This would not be surprising, considering that the usage is already with us.) This would rule as ‘racist’, for example, the suggestion that the average Belgian might be intrinsically different, however slightly, from the average Swede.
To evaluate any discussion of possible average innate differences between nations or ethnic groups as racist seems ludicrous and pointless. It censors meaningful discussion of the topic, reducing it to a choice between complete avoidance or recitation of platitudes. It also makes research in this area impossible, given that the merest hint of transgression of the taboo means no external funding, and negligible chance of publication.
I am not blaming the compilers of dictionaries for the corruption. They only record – or ought only to record – the usage they observe. For responsibility, look to journalists, academics and other members of the ruling class.
* retrieved 1 June 2013
● The change in emphasis may reflect the preferences of the il-liberal elite. Perhaps superiority is no longer regarded as an issue, now that the ideology has decreed that no one may feel superior to anyone else, on any grounds. (Except members of the il-liberal elite, but they only because their positions were assigned to them by exercise of the collective will, at least so the theory goes.)
The stress now is on homogeneity. Not only is no one superior; no one is intrinsically different from anyone else. None of us have any significance as individuals, only as members of undifferentiated groups, any apparent differences having been socially determined. (We are of course permitted to make trivial choices to express our pseudo-individuality – e.g. hair colour, sexual orientation.)
● Based on personal experience, I regard it as probable that there are innate variations between different nationalities, in terms of averages.
For example, it seems fairly clear to me that the personality of the average German – allowing for the effects of language and customs – is slightly, but noticeably, different from that of the average Brit, though it would be difficult to define precisely how. I do not believe the difference can easily be explained solely by reference to cultural backgrounds.
I am not of course expecting anyone to take anecdotal data as proving there are genetic attributes which vary between nations or races. My working theory about this issue is based on the best I guess I can make, given limited evidence. I am open to the idea that the theory is wrong, and that observed differences are entirely derived from environment rather than genes.
However, to label as taboo any discussion of the possibilities is anti-rational.
● An institution which adopts the strategy of censoring or forbidding the discussion, for whatever reason, is breaking a putative principle of objectivity, which ought to hold in academia, at least as an ideal from which one tries not to depart. Breaking the principle, knowingly and actively, is a move that will surely colour the institution’s attitude in other areas, and undermine its objectivity on a wider scale.
● South Korean rapper and YouTube sensation Psy is endorsed by the United Nations?
David Cameron and Barack Obama have learnt the moves of Gangnam Style?
But of course.
Where would we be if our political leaders did not demonstrate a working knowledge of filesharing dance culture?
And always twirling, twirling, twirling ...
Lack of funding means I am limited to making brief comments on complex issues. Those with access to state finance, who could provide more detailed expositions from a similar perspective, do not.
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