week4: chopin; sylvia plath, eugène delacroix


joy, joy, joy.—so it’s this simple? i don’t even feel the need to make a face. there are wonderful little big things in music; and there are as well perfectly oriented things that are neither vertical nor horizontal, but seem to levitate on the slouching axis of a sigh—chopin’s first piano concerto is both of those things. and for that gratitude pours forth continuously…

i think i’m developing what might turn out to be quite the instinct for timing: i’ve been anticipating this piano concerto since week47 of the previous cycle—two months ago—which was when i had originally scheduled the hernia surgery i had just last week. then as now, i was a bit nervous for the aftereffects of the general anaesthesia; and since my sense of humour is entwined with a certain indisposable nervous energy, i couldn’t help but hope whatever is left of the anaesthesia in my system could be repurposed for the embellishment of berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. alas, the surgeon canceled—fifteen minutes before showtime. i was given the option between a date in mid-july or end of august. that i chose the end of august i would like to think was because of the new job i had just started, but my first thought was not about the job but of having my bed-ridden last days of august be attended to by chopin’s Piano Concerto #1 in E Minor—most of the musical experience is a matter of timing.

Such is the charm, loveliness, delicacy, elegance, and brilliance of the details that one again and again forgives and forgets their shortcomings as wholes. “” frederick niecks on chopin’s concerto in e minor

this is the fourth august that i’ve returned to this recording. a whole year hyphenates each occasion, so i have time to forget about it thereby enjoy the twin joys of discovering a new and familiar melody each time. august is the most chopinesque month.—the heat is just as demanding as any other summer month but one has had one's fill of it. by august, the long hours of daylight are taken for granted and whatever seasonal activities we didn’t get to will have to wait till next june.—what better time than this for a bit of reclining, soaked as we are by our ceaseless laundromatic humidity? august is summer at a safe distance. this instinct to recline could very well be the working definition of chopinesque: a stillness amidst an incredible amount of activity; the barely audible pindrop amidst a cacophonous din; consolation for the prostrated, etc.

perhaps it’s a minor distinction, but this stillness is not identical to the one i described in week44 with rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 in C Minor. chopin’s orchestration for this concerto has been described almost unanimously as lousy and repetitive—a fair critique, that misses the mark: this a monument for the solo instrument, bolstered by only the most minimal scaffolding of orchestration.

The orchestral prelude to the allegro maestoso is one hundred and thirty-eight measures of piano music poorly distributed among other instruments. In fact, it is an orchestrated potpourri of music that the piano will play later and better…. “” herbert weinstock, Chopin: The Man and His Music


rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, on the other hand, is a more proportional dialogue between the solo piano and orchestra—begun with those alarmingly ominous opening notes into which the orchestra is introduced. in contrast, this e-minor concerto begins with what is seemingly a drawn out affair of a full orchestra mumbling the national anthem of a country that no longer exists. when the solo instrument is finally introduced, the reaction is, in my experienc almost always gratitude to be relieved from the din. the first notes on the piano are exclamatory, as if the orchestra’s fatigue that verged on lousy has regained its attention and inspiration in the hands of this keen instrument. the rest is history, august history.

To Chopin, writing a concerto meant furnishing a modest orchestral  framework for a privileged instrument, the piano—which would keep its place in the foreground not by means of vain and noisy pyrotechnics but through the discreteness of the orchestral accompaniment. “” robert cushman, notes for the recording



Stereovox Stereophonic Recording, Printed in France // Chopin (1810-1849) Piano Concerto #1 in E Minor, Op.11

Pianist: Orazio Frugoni //Wiener Volksopernorchester //Conducted by Michael Gielen

1st movement: allegro maestoso (fast, lively, majestic)

2nd movement: romanze — larghetto (fairly slow tempo)

3rd movement: rondo — vivace (fast, lively)

(a girl named “Chopin”)———

Were a genius like Mozart to arise in our day, he would rather write Chopin concertos than Mozartian ones. “” robert schumann

i was reading through some of sylvia plath’s letters to her mother when she was fifteen and read into a passage that is particularly pertinent to this week’s program. in it she writes home from camp as part of her daily writing exercise, and to reflect upon the tranquility of her most recent evening:

Dearest Mother, and Warren

[...] Last night we had retreat. One music loving girl named “Chopin”, played some music on-her accordion. [...] After flag lowering we sat down on the beach and watched the perfect tawny red sun sink slowly out of sight in the West. [...] I am now basking on my bed in the sun during rest hour. It is so perfectly warm and comfortable! [...] I am tanned and perfectly happy. xxxxx Sylvia “” sylvia plath, july 5th 1945

‘tawny red sun’....is the colour i have in mind of late summer; the colour of the glacial glass condominiums in liberty village drenched in the last hour of daylight; the colour of the west as i make the left turn to bike over the strachan ave bridge, in that same blazing hour.

‘i am tanned and perfectly happy’—these are the prerequisites for an evening of chopin.

(delacroix’s chopin)———

There is an episode in semiquavers (twenty-four bars after the first theme), marked tranquillo, which is particularly Chopinesque. “”  ashton jonson, A Handbook to Chopin’s Works


chopinesque?—as my foremost intrigue in composers is in regards to style rather than technique, any hint of a word like ‘chopinesque’ taunts me to a long and penetrating investigation. (the wager is that there will be time enough for that). in the meantime one might be satisfied with intimations, gestures, shy sly hints at the stylistic identity of this titan of romantic music. i’ve already said what i think is chopinesque: in short, a tête-à-tête in a cozy parlour, a little night music, wading into night with eyes wide open….

yet none of my long (and short) windedness could compete with the most abbreviated glance at eugène delacroix’s portrait of chopin. it seems to catch the subject in motion, turning—towards or away?—from the demanding gaze of its audience. the head is leaned back, and nose unbowed, gestures of self-importance; but the expression of the face has placed the importance of its gaze on an indeterminate distance. as if capturing a thin slice of a moment, the expression is personal and familiar, despite the obstinate angle of his turning. that is chopinesque. this feeling of the most familiar intimacy with the ornate filigree of grandeur…

 i’ll leave it at that. that’s it for chopin, till the next august finds me tanned and perfectly happy—yes, black folks do tan.

i am inexhaustibly grateful for whatever those innumerable forces are that mangle our order with swipes of chaos. grateful that it brought me to chopin. my tug-of-war between order and entropy over the last few years have favoured an increase in entropy. that is one part shitty decision making and one part good ol’ second law of thermodynamics. nevertheless, gratitude pours forth continuously that there is a surplus of musical experiences in whose tawny red sun one is still able to bask:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,

Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,   

To me the meanest flower that blows can give   

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

 “” william wordsworth, Ode to Intimations of Immortality