This is something that baffles and fascinates me. I may have mentioned it here in passing before, but let’s talk about it some more.
We’re on a little string of piano concertos here (first Arensky, then Rachmaninoff, then Prokofiev, and the next two weeks [well, this week and next week] [at least]), and Mahler is getting VERY in the way of me preparing for these. I’ve been on a kick with listening to LOTS of different interpretations of his pieces (at the time of this writing, I’m currently finishing up a listen to Boulez’s performance of the eighth with Staatskapelle Dresden et al after my headphones fritzed out) (I need much better home speakers). I’m going to see Ingolf Wunder perform Chopin’s two piano concerti (BOTH OF THEM!!!!) this week, and am featuring the first of the two here. Last Saturday was the anniversary of the premiere in 1830 (October 11), and Friday, October 17 (the day I’ll be posting the Chopin piece) (with a review of the concert next week) will be the 155th anniversary of the great Chopin’s death. All sorts of anniversaries.
Anyway, as far as Mahler is concerned (my obsession lately), as far as most classical music is concerned, he is quite a recent thing, in a number of ways. He was born quite some time ago, but died only 103-ish years ago. We actually have photos of the stage set up for one of the final rehearsals of the eighth, among many other photos of Mahler himself, his family, etc. To my knowledge, only one actual photo of Chopin exists. Mahler is recent in another sense, in that his music is only ‘recently’ beginning to really gain wide acclaim; we can think Mitropoulos and Bernstein and some of those early folk for doing a lot of the heavy lifting and promoting, but Mahler cycles are in no short supply these days, as anyone may know who has tried to find a definitive recording of any of them. We even have Bruno Walter’s recordings of his symphonies, a man who knew the composer and the works probably as intimately as anyone. That’s pretty recent, if you ask me.
However, when I kind of realized the other day that Chopin’s first piano concerto was premiered in 1830, and that it’s not just 1830, but it’s 184 years ago… it blew me away. Somehow 184 years
That’s silly to say, because that’s probably around the time my great great great grandfather was born (or something), but in the relative scheme of musical history, we’re not reaching back as far as, oh, say, Bach, or the Gregorian chants of the Middle Ages. So, relatively speaking, since the Romantic period (with which many people strongly associate Chopin) reaches into the late 19th century, I just kind of associate him with a far more modern era.
But think of how different the world was in 1830. The American Civil War hadn’t even happened yet. It was the same year that Fra Diavolo premiered in Paris, the lawn mower was invented, Ecuador was founded, Symphonie Fantastique also premiered (have you read Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration?), and the first US railroad station opened, Charles Darwin was in college, London Bridge hadn’t even opened, Edgar Allen Poe was still at West Point (are any of these actually good benchmarks?). It was a long stinking time ago.
That being said, though, setting aside some (admittedly drastic) differences in the piano as an instrument and therefore differences in sound and performance, when you sit down today to play a Chopin piece, assuming that you do, you are hearing something almost two hundred years old.
That may seem stupidly obvious, but think of this: we have no way of knowing what Chopin’s voice sounded like. There are recordings of Tchaikovsky’s voice; I’ve heard it. There were no recordings of any audio or video then. No matter how many Charlie Chaplin movies you’ve seen, people back then didn’t live in black and white and walk all choppy and blinky. That’s just the film.
This all does sound ridiculously obvious, but to think…. that although none of us can pull up a YouTube video of an interview with Chopin, nor with anyone who knew him personally, to talk about his music (although Garrick Ohlsson seems darn close), performing his music is damn near exactly what he himself heard when he sat down at his Pleyel or whatever. It’s such a strong connection. People have written words on paper for ages, and you can pluck a book off of a library shelf and read it to yourself, but somehow music is different. Sitting in the National Concert Hall this Thursday evening, this is assuredly what I will be thinking of, that this piece of music (and really any other, it just struck me with this one) is a peephole, a portal back to a specific time in a specific person’s life with specific emotions and ideas and expressions, and no matter how much time passes, we have that score to go back to. It can help us relive a style, an era, an emotion, what was ‘in’ at the time. None of that sounds terribly exciting when I put it that way, but it does in my head. To think that what is filling the walls of a concert hall now is exactly (okay, almost exactly) what Chopin wanted to express, and (almost) exactly what everyone sitting in Warsaw that evening of October 11, 1830 (a Monday, disappointingly) would have experienced. To a certain extent, there’s a timelessness to it. It holds out that early almost pre-Romantic-era simplicity and orchestration.
Again, that’s not JUST with the Chopin piece; every piece is that way. To think of a symphony like Haydn’s 88th (that cheeriest of finales) having premiered in 1787, an era of powdered wigs and the like… it’s fascinating, and even if you think the music itself is less than exciting, it’s a relic, a souvenir that a genius has left us that will forever say “this is something from when I was alive that will never change.” That is powerful and incredible.