Friday, September 7, 2018

Chopin's Piano

On November 1838, Chopin, George Sand and her two children, along with Sand’s Chambermaid, travelled from Barcelona to Palma, on the island of Majorca. That famous journey – one that probably contributed much to the island’s current tourist industry – has been firmly etched in our romantic imagery. Having visited the monastery and the cells in Valldemossa, I always have a vision of Chopin composing against the backdrop of its beautiful surroundings. Also well known is how the extreme weather on the island proved detrimental for Chopin’s delicate health, and what had originally been a holiday on a sun-soaked island turned into a near-disaster for Chopin, a man used to the luxuries and comfort of city living.

It has always been assumed that Chopin composed most of his works, most notably many of the Preludes, on a piano shipped to him by Pleyel. However, Paul Kildea’s new book, Chopin’s Piano – A Journey Through Romanticism, now tells us that the composer most probably did most of his composing on a piano made locally (in Palma) by piano maker Juan Bauza.

Even as late as January of 1839, Sand wrote in a letter to a friend, “Chopin is playing on a poor Malorquin piano”. Pleyel’s much finer instrument was at that point still held up in customs. When it did arrive, Chopin’s playing on it “filled the lofty, echoing vault of the cell with a glorious sound”, and Bauza’s little instrument was “pushed ignominiously to one side, where it would remain for a very long time.” By January 22ndof the same year, Chopin already wrote to Pleyel, “Dear friend, I am sending you the Preludes”, further proof that the bulk of compositions had already been at least sketched out. In the same letter, Chopin also mentioned completing a Ballade, two Polonaises, and the third Scherzo. In the short time between the arrival of Pleyel’s instrument and the sending of the aforementioned letter, Chopin would have played through the Preludes and other compositions, making minor adjustments, probably writing in pedal markings, before he sent the works off to Pleyel.

Unlike the well-oiled operation of Pleyel in Paris, Bauza’s facilities, operations, procedures, and record keeping must have been terribly backwards by comparison. Because of its isolation, Bauza also had very little material to work with, and would have had to improvise as he went along. Nevertheless, under such deprivations, he produced a piano “no more than four feet high, with six and a half octaves of ivory keys and ebony accidentals.” Of course he had no idea that his modest instrument would be associated with some of the most groundbreaking and original music ever composed. 

I started reading this book expecting a biography (of sorts) of Chopin, with emphasis on his Majorcan sojourn. I was only partly correct. The first hundred-plus pages of the book constitute a biographical sketch of the composer, with some detail of his journey to the island. The bulk of the volume, however, dealt with the provenance of the Bauza piano after Chopin, as well as how Chopin’s music, more specifically the ingenious Preludes, has been perceived and interpreted in the years after his untimely death.

There was an interesting discussion of the possible tuning of the Bauza piano. At the time, there was furious debate over the merits of meantone temperament versus equal temperament tuning of keyboard instruments. The author presupposes that Bauza’s piano would not be of equal temperament. With the famous Prelude No. 15 in D-flat, which highlights the difference between A flat and G sharp, the middle C-sharp minor section would probably sound more menacing and ominous on Bauza’s instruments. On today’s pianos, the pianist must find other ways to recreate these storm clouds, since A flat and G sharp would sound exactly the same in either key.

Much of Kildea’s book deals with the perception and interpretation of Chopin’s music following his death. Because of the composer’s poor health, it was assumed, even by his greatest contemporaries, that “Chopin’s frailty instilled in him a uniquely feminine sensibility.” By the 1860’s, this view had been firmly entrenched. The author outlined in some detail approaches to Chopin by some of his most notable exponent – from Liszt, Clara Schumann, Anton Rubinstein, Tausig, Hans von Bülow, to Alfred Cortot, Richter and Arthur Rubinstein in the 20thcentury. There is some discussion as to shifting ideas about what constitutes “authentic” Chopin playing. Kildea writes that our ideas about playing Chopin have changed so much over the years that if the composer himself were to play for us today, we would probably comment that while it is very beautiful, it is not the “real” Chopin.

What is more surprising to me was the story of Bauza’s piano after the composer’s death. On January 31st, 1911, pianist Wanda Landowska (at the time she was still performing standard repertoire on the piano) made a pilgrimage to the monastery in Valldemossa after performances on the island. There she found, not the famous Pleyel piano so associated with Chopin, but Bauza’s modest instrument, untouched for over seventy years. After much effort, she acquired the precious relic in May of 1913. Much of the last half of the book was dedicated to the story of this piano and Landowska’s association with it. After World War II, Landowska, then exiled in America, was trying desperately to recover her properties, library and instrument collection from French authorities. In 1946, when Landowska was living in the United States, she received a letter informing her that many of her instruments had been recovered, included among them the “piano de Chopin”. 

In spite of her success in the United States, Landowska could not afford the shipping charges, the Bauza piano and nine other keyboards remained in Europe. Gradually, the trail for this holy relic went cold. One source asserts that Landowska brought the piano to the United States, and “took the piano with her to Coral Gables, Florida, where she spent her remaining days.” Others found no evidence that the pianist ever brought the piano to America. The author finishes the volume by conceding that no further clues are in sight as to the fate of the Chopin’s Bauza piano.

I believe the author tries to use the Bauza piano as a springboard for giving readers a cultural history of Europe and the United States. To me, the book appears to be part biography, part cultural history, and part detective story. Perhaps because of this shifting focus, it is sometimes difficult to follow the thread of the author’s narrative and logic. Nevertheless, Chopin’s Pianois an interesting read, as well as a welcome addition to the relatively small number of English language literature (other than the many simplistic music appreciation type books) about the composer. 

For those who are interested in a more straightforward biography of the composer, they could do worse than to go to Adam Zamoyski’s outstanding Chopin: Prince of the Romantics. Kildea’s book, well researched and written as it is, would probably be more rewarding for someone who already has some knowledge of the composer’s life. George Sand’s Un hiver àMajorquegives a colourful account of their sojourn to the island, and is widely available in an English translation. Franz Liszt’s The Life of Chopinis highly subjective and perhaps unreliable as a biography, but would perhaps give us a view of Chopin from the perspective of another great composer, as well as a glimpse into the times. Musicologist Alan Walker’s Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Timesis due to be released in October of this year. If this book is anything like Professor Walker’s monumental three-volume biographies of Liszt, I think Chopin lovers will really have something to look forward to.

Patrick May
September 7, 2018