Frederic Chopin’s non-written ornamentation and the connection to 18th   and 19th and vocal models

INTRODUCTION 

 

The voice was and is the natural instrument par excellence, this is the reason why many composers used it to create models to guideline their compositional aesthetics. Therefore, the rise of musical treatises made to support and enhance the comprehension of such musical aesthetics as applied to the interpretation of a specific instrument.  Theorists and composers such as Francesco Pollini (1762-1846), Sigesmund Thalberg (1812-1871) or later Frederich Wieck (1785-1873) were part of this aesthetic movement that was inspiring by the human voice to create.

Approximately Fifty-year earlier, C.P.E Bach (1714-1788), in the first pages of his treatise “Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu Spielen”, devotes a paragraph to this matter who states: “the whole approach to performance will be significantly aided and simplify by the supplementary study of voice wherever possible and listening closely to good singers”. 

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), sixty years later, came across the same statement: “As regards style, one should follow that of Pastaof the great Italian school of singing”.[1]

According to Chopin’s pupil, Karol Mikuli (1821-1897), beneath Chopin’s fingers, each musical phrase sounded like a song, with such clarity that each note took on the meaning of a syllable, each “slurred figure” that of a word, each phrase that of thought. It was a declamation devoid of all bathos, at the same time simple and noble.[2]  The priority of Chopin’s technique was mental concentration, not technical improvement based on hours of purely mechanical exercises.[3]

An essential factor in understanding Chopin’s musical aesthetic is treating the melodic line as a vocal line[4]; here, the wrist plays a significant role, imitating the breathing of the voice. Chopin’s fingering never focused on technical facilitation but instead on using the hand and wrist to emulate the human sound aesthetic. For him, the wrist was “the respiration in the voice”.[5]

When Chopin taught, he requested that students who could not attain a cantabile sound at the piano take singing lessons. To Madame Vera Rubio (1816-1880), he said, “You must sing if you wish to play”. [6]  Pursuing the musical ideal of the great singers of that time, such as Giulia Grisi (1811-1869), Maria Malibran (1808-1836), Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865), and Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794-1854), who influenced and guided Chopin in the search for this new pianistic aesthetic. 

Chopin gave importance to phrases that represented natural vocal breathing, working on them on these principles. He sought to emulate the vocal effects by using the characteristic colour of each finger for a specific purpose[7], imitating the different colours for different vocal ranges also indicated by Manuel Garcia (1805-1906) in his treatise on singing. 

A common practice in vocal music in those days was the improvisation of ornaments. In his treatise of singing, Manuel Garcia states that: the singer justified in introducing ornaments and changes when an accent does not suffice to colour a melody, recourse must be had to suitable decorations. Italian music, until de beginning of the nineteenth century, was of this kind.  When an idea requires to be varied, this should be done each time it returns either wholly or partially; but great discretion is needed, lest the composition is injured.[8] .  It is documented that Frederic Chopin used it as an interpretative resource in his Nocturnes and Mazurkas and other works.

According to Rosenthal’s pupil Raoul Koczalski (1884-1948), “When playing his compositions, Chopin liked to add ornamental variants. Mikuli told me he had a particular predilection for doing this in the mazurkas”.[9] Moreover, Chopin’s improvisatory art is documented, for instance, in the preface to Chopin’s posthumous works written by Julian Fontana in 1855.

From his earliest youth, the richness of [Chopin’s] improvisation was astonishing. But he took good care not to parade it. The few lucky ones who have heard him improvising for hours on end, in most wonderfully lifting a single phrase from any other composer, never even touching on any of his works—the people will agree with us in saying that Chopin’s most beautiful finished compositions are merely reflections and echoes of his improvisations.[10]

Frederic Chopin’s compositional aesthetic was born of improvisation and the connection between musician and instrument since without the piano, it was difficult for him to compose. In a letter written from Palma in 1838, Chopin writes to Camille Pleyel: “I dream of music, but I can’t write any because there are no pianos to be had here—in that respect, it is a barbarous country.”[11]   

I consider Chopin’s compositional aesthetic could not be far detached from his purely improvisational aesthetic since it is from here that Chopin’s musical ideas are born, even if some of his works are mostly strictly defined. Works such as the nocturnes represent the aria di cantabile of vocal aesthetics that could leave out neither the improvisatory aesthetics of bel canto nor the Chopinian musical idea born from improvisation, which is transforming into the improvisation of ornaments in his written works, but by all means, with “bon gout”. 

 

This musical practice gradually began to disappear with the performers of the 20th-century. Perhaps the discovery of phonographic recording drove 20th-century performers into a new interpretative paradigm, further ground for interpretative spontaneity. It may be that industrialisation had reached music. There was no space for spontaneity, especially in a recording. This practice may have spread to the concert halls, changing the interpretative paradigm, moving away from Chopin’s musical aesthetic based on vocal naturalness. 

 

 

 

“We use sounds to make music just as we use words to make a language.”[12]

 

[1] Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his pupils (United States: Cambridge University press, 1986), 44.

 

[2]  Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his pupils (United States: Cambridge University press, 1986), 67.

 

[3] Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his pupils (United States: Cambridge University press, 1986), 94.

 

[4] Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century treatises refer to vocal models for instrumental performance. the "cantable art," recommended by Bach in his introduction to the Inventions and Symphonies. Auffrichtige Anleitung, Wormit denen Liebhabern des Clavires, besonders aber denen Lehrbegierigen, eine deütliche Art gezeiget wird, nicht alleine (1) mit 2 Stimen reine spielen zu lernen, sondern auch bey weiteren progreßen auch (2) mit dreyen obligaten Partien richtig und wohl zu verfahren, anbey auch zugleich gute inventiones nicht alleine zu bekommen, sondern auch selbige wohl durchzuführen, am allermeisten aber eine cantable Art im Spielen zu erlangen, und darneben einen starcken Vorschmack von der Composition zu überkommen.

 

[5]  Frédéric Chopin, Esquisses pour une méthode de piano.  Quoted from:  Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his pupils (United States: Cambridge University press, 1986), 45.

 

[6] Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his pupils (United States: Cambridge University press, 1986), 45.

 

[7] For a long time we have been acting against nature by training our fingers to be all equally powerful. As each finger is differently formed, it's better not to attempt to destroy the particular charm of each one's touch but on the contrary to develop it. Each finger's power is determined by its shape: the thumb having the most power, being the broadest, shortest and freest; the fifth [finger] as the other extremity of the hand; the third as the middle and the pivot; then the second [illegible], and then the fourth, the weakest one, the Siamese twin of the third, bound to it by a common ligament, and which Siamese twin of the third, bound to it by a common ligament, and which people insist on trying to separate from the third - which is impossible, and, fortunately, unnecessary.  As many different sounds as there are fingers.

Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his pupils (United States: Cambridge University press, 1986), 32-33.

 

 

[8] Manuel Garcia, Art of singing, a compendious method of instruction (Boston, Oliver Diston Company, 187?), 59-59.

 

[9] Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his pupils (United States: Cambridge University press, 1986), 52.

[10] Julian Fontana, preface to Oeuvres posthumes pour piano de Fréd. Chopin (Paris: J. Meissonnier fils, 1855), 1–2; translation from Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin: Pianist and Teacher, As Seen by His Pupils, ed. Roy Howat, trans. Naomi Shohet with Krysia Osostowicz and Roy Howat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 282. 

[11] Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin: Âme des salons Parisiens (Paris: Fayard, 2013), 232. 

[12] Frédéric Chopin, Esquisses pour une méthode de piano.  Quoted from: Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his pupils (United States: Cambridge University press, 1986), 195.

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