By Michael Coolen
I, the undersigned, Fred. Chopin, domiciled in Paris at 34 rue St. Lazare, acknowledge that I have sold to Messrs. Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipsic the rights of the following works composed by me; namely:
Op. 60 Barcarole for Piano
Op. 61 Polonaise for Piano
Op. 62 Two Nocturnes for Piano
Chopin was broke. His relationship with George Sand was tanking. His father died the year before, and tuberculosis was taking an increased toll on his health. Either despite or because of all these sorrows, these compositions illustrate a Chopin who seemed to be rethinking and revising his approach to composition and looking to the future. I think of this period perhaps not as “late Chopin,” but “transitioning Chopin.”
Let’s consider the Polonaise Fantasy, Op. 61, which Chopin called a Polonaise, which he may have labeled as such to guarantee more sales. Others have thought it was a fantasie or a ballade or some hybrid. Certainly, it contained such dramatic changes in form and advanced harmony that his friend, Franz Liszt hated the piece, and thought it was a disservice to art and was so dark that Chopin might becoming insane.
Op. 61 opens with a relatively somber motif which…well, to be honest, Chopin originally began the composition with what is now the slow middle of the piece, using a 3-note melodic figure for the polonaise theme. It was only later that he used it also in the beginning, which provides some insight into the “work” involved in the process of composition. As a result, the piece has elements of both the strict polonaise and a fantasy, so it is aptly named. A fantastic polonaise?
I tend to think of the opening as representing the emotion in the Polish word “Zal,” which speaks of loss and nostalgia and sorrow and being homesick. Liszt stated that “Zal” could be found in all of Chopin’s works. In the polonaise section that follows, Chopin uses fragments of two themes from his childhood. First is the lullaby his mother used to sing to him and the second is a tune that was popular when Chopin first fell in love.
The polonaise is dramatic and chromatic like no other polonaise he wrote. Sometimes triumphant and other times very reflective, Chopin uses a chromatic language never heard in his music before. As we approach the end of the piece, listen for a trill that begins with two notes and eventually involves both hands in a brilliant multi-finger trill that leads into a reflective section. The composition ends with a return to a triumphant and positive “polonaisic” statement that expresses hope and perhaps even a better future.
Barcarolle, Op. 60
Other pianists, even those who have won the Chopin competition like Ms. Avdeeva, have written that this composition is their favorite, not just of Chopin, not just of piano music, but of all the music that has ever been written!
The only barcarolle Chopin ever wrote, the music combines the water sounds of a Venetian boat with that of operatic singing. It begins with an opening that sounds very much to me like a story beginning with Once Upon a Time. The left hand then introduces an accompaniment in 6/8 that sounds like a boat being rowed. When Ms. Avdeeva begins playing the right hand, perhaps think of the parallel notes not so much as a piano playing, but of two sopranos engaged in duet. Chopin was very enamored with operatic Bel Canto singing (and a couple of sopranos over the years), and he tried to emulate it in his music. He was quite aware that singers can do things pianos can’t. Whilst (the right word), the piano can create sounds that no soprano can sing. The piece contains gorgeous melodies and harmonies that leave one feeling very happy and optimistic.
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45
Written in 1841, this short work is dedicated to one of his pupils, Princess Elisabeth Czernicheff. It features forward-looking harmonies and a somewhat melancholic nature. What stands out for me is the relationship between the undulating left hand and the bel canto melodies in right hand. It’s a case of two quite different musical ideas that combine to create an inter-locked and gorgeous third identity, which one might find a little too dark for a Princess.
Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39
Scherzos are supposed to be light and humorous, neither of which is present in this composition. Chopin began composing it 1838 in an abandoned monastery on the island of Majorca. It is fiery, reflective, virtuosic, with a religious-sounding chorale in the middle. Like his four scherzi and his etudes, Op. 39 represents the kind of 19th century virtuosity called the “stile brillante.” Throughout the piece, you’ll hear strong chords, fluttering arpeggi, and lyrical melodies that lead to an explosion of notes ending in the final cadence.
Andante Spianato et Grand Polonaise Brilliante, Op. 22
This piece was composed between 1830 and 1834. The Polonaise was composed first for piano and orchestra in 1830–31. In 1834, Chopin wrote The Andante spianato (spianato means “even” or “smooth”) for solo piano as an introduction to the polonaise after Chopin received a long-awaited invitation to perform in Paris. After a spianato beginning that includes a bel canto melody that no soprano could ever sing, the polonaise enters so triumphantly it might result in an audience member being startled into standing. After that, hold on to your program, because it’s breathless “stile brillante” music until the end. Don’t forget to breathe. No fainting allowed.
Four Preludes, from Preludes, Op. 23
For me an almost perfect choice of programming, demonstrating both Rachmaninoff’s love of Chopin’s music, while demonstrating his own personal approach to writing his Preludes. No. 7, 8, and 9 are brilliant, powerful, and brief enough they stand alone. Only number 10 changes the mood, and it is evocative of a kind of Russian Zal.
Rachmaninoff, Russians and Their Bells
Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36. (1913 and rev. 1931)
“All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. This love for bells is inherent in every Russian. … …In the drowsy quiet of a Roman afternoon, with Poe’s verses before me, I heard the bell voices, and tried to set down on paper their lovely tones that seemed to express the varying shades of human experience.”
Rachmaninoff wrote this in 1913, not only the year he wrote the sonata, but also the year he undertook writing his choral symphony, The Bells, based on a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. In Russia, bells have held intense spiritual and cultural power for many centuries. Regarded as living beings, their pealing was believed to protect hearers from plagues and other misfortunes.
The sonata was dedicated to the man who helped Rachmaninoff through bouts of severe depression and mental blocks years earlier. Although conceived in three movements, the Second Sonata flows as one astonishing piece, its bravura technical demands matched by that dark emotional rollercoaster of intensity which runs through so much of Rachmaninov’s music. The work was so dense that Rachmaninoff decided to revise it in 1931. And other pianists have also done the same over the years, including Horowitz, Van Cliburn, and several living pianists, including Yulianna Avdeeva. Tonight, Ms. Avdeeva plays her own version, which is based on the original version from 1913 with some adjustments from the revised version from 1931.
Fasten your seatbelts.
The sonata begins with an introduction featuring a powerful chromatic line that explodes in the lower register. This is followed by a descending chromatic figure that will appear again and again in various forms, slower, faster, louder, softer. Although only Mensa members of the audience will follow the sonata form of the movement, all will certainly be able to hear the hint of bells that begin about 4 minutes into the piece, followed cascading bells that begin circa 5 plus minutes into the movement. Bells and more bells. Hope and belief. Followed by a return to the opening chromatic line.
About 8 minutes into the movement, a quiet melody occurs, which is the start of the second movement. This is followed by an achingly beautiful melody which is repeated, leading into another lyric theme that is both a bell, and, if you listen carefully, is accompanied by bells chiming in the left hand. This heart breaking melody returns in an even more impassioned form. I must confess that every time I hear this theme and the bells that accompany the melody that follows, I have an attack of what the Germans call Fernweh,”far-sickness,” a heartache, a feeling of being homesick for a place I’ve never lived.
The melody that started the 2nd movement returns, announcing the start of the third movement, also in sonata form. Grip your seat and remember to breathe. You’re on your own. If you think you hear a bell, you probably do, if you think you’re hearing a fragment from the opening descending line, you probably are. If you hear sections that are alternately hopeful and filled with despair, you’re right. If you see an audience member writhing in anguish, it’s probably a Mensa person who can’t follow the form. When you hear the start of a rhapsodic theme, you probably will know you’re coming to the end. Hold tight. Redemption is around the corner.
Michael Coolen is an emeritus professor of music from Oregon State University who taught Music Appreciation, sometimes twice in a row for 32 years. During that time, he learned to present music compositions in a way to engage the students hearts as well as their minds. His notes for this evening’s recital reflect that approach.
Michael Coolen is a pianist, composer, actor, performance artist, and writer living in Oregon. In addition to three Fulbright Fellowships and four National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, he has won awards from the Oregon Poetry Association and the Oregon Writers Colony. He’s a published composer, with works performed around the world, including at Carnegie Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Museum of Modern Art, the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the Christie Gallery.