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Music and Art in Paris in 1830-50: Frederic Chopin Research Paper

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Introduction

If one is tasked to look for the following luminaries in the field of arts and music, names like Frederic Chopin, George Sand, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, and Ivan Turgenev, chances are one will find them in Paris, France in the late 19th century. There is no place on earth that can inspire and broaden the horizon of great artists and musical talents like the city of Paris. It is here where iron sharpens iron; where great talents rise to their true potential; where apprentice meets the master; and where one either reaches the stratospheric heights of fame or die miserably. In some cases, both extremes of fate can be experienced in one lifetime. In the Paris of the 1850s up to the turn of the century, there may be great artists and musicians transforming the artistic and literary landscape of this ancient city but no one was more charismatic, eccentric, well-loved and inspired everyone in the aforementioned list than Frederic Chopin.

This study will take a look into Paris in the late 19th century. And this will be done through the eyes of great artists and musicians. Foremost among them is Frederic Chopin. A significant amount of space will be given to analysing his life in the great city because each person that will be described later on may be great in their own right but they have one common denominator and that is Chopin the master pianist. But before going there, the following pages will provide a basic biography of the said artists and musicians before continuing the study on how they interacted with Chopin and how they inspired and influenced one another.

Liszt

He was a great pianist and equally as popular as Chopin in his heyday. Yet both men are a study in contrast. While Chopin was reserved and trying hard not to be a public spectacle – being content to be a teacher rather than a great concert pianist – Liszt on the other hand does not mind being the centre of attraction (Eigeldinger, 1986). Liszt and Chopin were able to transform Paris not only through the demonstration of their piano skills but they were also able to impact the city by teaching the next generation of musicians the tricks of the trade. Liszt made it clear that Chopin’s pupil received top-notch training but had harsher words for the youngsters who came to learn from the master. Liszt was heard saying, “Chopin was unfortunate in his pupils” (Eigeldinger, 1986).

But the students need no help from Liszt to understand that Chopin was indeed the greater of the two. And as a result, “Chopin’s lessons were even more in demand than those of Liszt… they were also expensive since the fees were invariably fixed at 20 gold francs” (Eigeldinger, 1986). Now, a person can praise someone to high heavens and the exalted one will never be one hundred per cent sure if it came from sincere lips or simply a by-product of empty flattery. Yet if someone pays good money for a particular service, it is fully understood that the one shelling out the money is very much impressed.

Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev was one of the greatest literary figures Russia ever produced. He was a novelist, poet, and playwright all rolled into one. His favourite subject was the Russian peasantry and the rising intelligentsia that seeks to transform ancient Russia into one that can compete with others in the modern age. It is an interesting fact that when one thinks of Russian writers the first names that would come to mind would be that of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy but no doubt Turgenev can be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned great Russian writers.

When Turgenev was of proper age he studied in St. Petersburg but decided to continue his studies in Germany. In Berlin, he realized that Russia was far behind other industrialised nations and for Turgenev, it is a problem that can be easily remedied. He wrote about these hopes and dreams for the motherland as he desperately desires for his people to rise up and accept the challenge. When he started to experience some form of success as a writer the Russian government frowned on his progressive ideas. He was jailed and banished to his estate. In 1856 he was allowed to leave Russia and taking the government’s offer he decided to live abroad. Then he met and fell in love with an opera singer named Pauline Viardot, a married woman. But when Viardot moved to Paris in 1871 Turgenev left everything to be with her.

According to fellow countryman Dmytro Cizevskij, Turgenev was the first Russian writer to be recognized as a European writer in his own lifetime (Cizevskij, 1974). While he stayed for a long time in Germany, Turgenev was more comfortable with French writers and even before he decided to settle in Paris he was already friends with Marimee, Sainte-Beuve, and George Sand (Cizevskij, 1974). Since George Sand is the lover of Chopin both writer and pianist had on more than a few occasions discussed their mutual love for Paris and the arts.

Eugene Delacroix

He was one of many artists who recognised the fact that Frederic Chopin is one unique talent and apparently he too was mesmerised by Chopin’s electrifying performances and so he Delacroix made the following remarks, “True science does not constitute a separate branch of knowledge from art. On the contrary, science when envisaged like this and demonstrated by a man like Chopin, is art” (as cited in Eigeldinger, 1986). Aside from Chopin’s display of virtuosity in front of the piano, there is another reason as to why Delacroix was so gracious in his description of Chopin. It is well-known that Chopin was a very private person and very secretive too. According to Eigeldinger (1986), this can be seen from his reluctance to commit to paper any private thoughts and most especially those things that are dear to his heart. He will only allow himself to be vulnerable through the playing of music. And yet he would occasionally reveal his inner self to some of his friends and included in the inner circle was Delacroix ( Eigeldinger, 1986). This one explains the interaction between two men.

George Sand

By herself, she can easily capture the imagination of the public and would have attracted a few biographers. But being with Chopin made her more a little intriguing. At the same time, she is a wonderful source of information regarding the innermost thoughts of Chopin and without Sand, it would have been impossible to know more about the master pianist. According to Sand, “Chopin speaks little and seldom about his art; but when he does, it is with wonderful clarity, soundness of judgment and intent that could annihilate quite a few heresies were he to speak his mind openly… But even in private he is reserved and only at the piano does he really open his heart” (as cited in Eigeldinger, 1986).

As mentioned earlier even if one will blot out Chopin from the equation, George Sand will still be an interesting historical figure that will surely attract scholars and biographers. As an accomplished writer, she played an important part in French Romanticism. She was unorthodox and equally as comfortable sharing ideas with writers, artists, and musicians or butting heads with someone who dared discuss politics with her. Her novels which are filled with critical views of society and passionate defence of individual freedom earned her the respect and the admiration of various peoples not only in France, but also in Germany, Russia, and England (Godwin-Jones, 1995).

But no matter what others may say, her relationship with Chopin made her all the more interesting. They met in 1937, at a musical matinee (Huneker & Weinstock, 1966). At first glance, they were an odd couple. The sand was no virtuoso pianist and certainly not one knowledgeable about musical instruments because she was no trained musician. But most importantly she was not very attractive – considering the fact that she was linked to other great men such as Alfred Musset the poet and playwright. In the words of Edouard Grenier, “She was short and stout, but her face attracted all my attention, the eyes especially. They were wonderful eyes…” (as cited in Huneker & Weinstock, 1966). And she made Chopin fall in love with her.

But their love was short-lived and they did not live to share their mutual interest in music and the arts well past their prime because Sand will leave Chopin, the real reason for abandoning him was not very clear but one can argue that it was because of Chopin’s deteriorating health and probably the foul mood that comes with it. When Chopin died George Sand was far away.

Chopin

Chopin saw first light in 1810, in Warsaw, Poland. His birthplace was not the cultural centre of the world but there was something in its history that transformed Chopin. Warsaw was the recipient of some of the changes that were sweeping Europe during that time. At that time more and more people are challenging the absolute authority of Kings and Queens. And as a result:

…a fundamental reshaping of European society, penetrated into many aspects of the infrastructure of musical life… in essence, the musical centre of gravity shifted from court to city, as a politically emergent middle class increasingly shaped and directed formal culture. This central transformation carried with many ancillary transformations… The change was associated in particular with the institution of the public concert and with its corollary, the rise of the piano

When Chopin arrived in Paris in 1831 he was ready to do some serious work. Chopin was about to revolutionise the way music is being played but there are many ways to achieve this goal. Aside from playing in front of an audience composed of Paris’ crème de la crème, Chopin also had the opportunity to influence others through his gift of teaching music. And one of the valuable insights he shared to his pupils while living in France was recorded in the following statements, “…Chopin’s teaching was not oriented towards the concert platform. Did he not declare to a female student that ‘concerts are never real music; you have to give up the idea of hearing in them the most beautiful things of art’” (Eigeldinger, 1986).

Now, aside from teaching and performing the surest way to transform the way music will be enjoyed during his lifetime and even after his death was to compose musical pieces that were beyond the norm. In his first years in Paris, around 1833 Chopin composed The First Scherzo and the First Ballade. And this is what Jim Samson has to say about these two significant pieces which marked a milestone in music history and he remarked:

They were the first of his extended compositions to turn aside from the genres of post-classical popular concert music (variation sets, rondos and ‘brilliant’ concertos) as well as those of so-called ‘Viennese’ Classicism (multi-movement sonatas and chamber work). In Scherzo and Ballade Chopin followed a special path. He drew sustenance from classical and post-classical traditions but remained essentially independent of both – to the point of establishing new genres (Samson, 1992).

He seemed to love nothing else except for his music. But when he met George Sand there was something about her that made Chopin alter his priorities. She became a fixture in his life and they were frequently seen together after that fateful meeting in 1837. Sand loved her no doubt that is why it was rather surprising to know that she left him. But for Chopin, Sand’s abandonment may not be the most painful experience. The lowest point came when Chopin was dying and there was no dearly beloved who stood by him or stayed with him during the most trying times. When he died in the early hours of October 17, 1849, he was alone. But his music will survive as long as there is one single piano available to render an interpretation of his compositions.

In Paris

At the beginning of this study it was mentioned that if ever one was asked to search for luminaries in the field of music, art, and literature in the latter part of the 19th century, it would be practical to begin the search in Paris, France. It is in this city where the best and the brightest will congregate to learn, to be inspired, to inspire others and most especially to find a place where they can express themselves freely.

In the preceding discussion, it has been observed that indeed Paris is the popular destination for some of the world’s talented people. In one way or another world-renowned musicians, writers, and artists spent significant portions of their lives in Paris, France. The exodus of geniuses from all over Europe to the city of lights and love so that they can either collaborate, inspire, or love one another. And it was beautifully described by Charles Riley when he wrote, “It draws together the arts and politics, history and the avant-garde, man and woman, the empire and the republic, in one vibrant meeting of the minds” (Riley, 2001).

Riley in his study of Parisian greats was able to piece together a typical day where four talented friends would meet and share each other’s gifts either to amuse, inform, or inspire and he began his narrative in the house of Eugene Delacroix because the painter was an early riser. Then while he is at work he will hear his servant announcing the arrival of George Sand who according to Riley worked all night and finishing at four in the morning she is taking a break from work that is why she visited Delacroix. Now, after hours after writer and painter get reacquainted, Franz Liszt completes his morning ritual and begins working. In the afternoon, when Liszt is satisfied with his output he gets into a carriage – it is now past one in the afternoon – to visit his friend Frederic Chopin. Chopin is still sleeping but the moment he wakes up one of the very first persons he will she would be his friend Liszt.

Chopin entertains his guest by allowing him to play his piano and they would take turns or play duets. Riley surmised that they are gossiping about Sand or Delacroix either one of them may drop in at any moment. By evening the four friends will meet in a salon where Sand will discuss politics. They will ask Delacroix about art collections and then Chopin and Liszt will be asked to play. They will continue to do so well past midnight and then they will part ways but before drifting apart they will offer words of encouragement for projects that are still in progress (Riley, 2001). In a nutshell, this is how great minds and great talents can work together in harmony.

Conclusion

It would have been hard to believe the fact that there was a time when great novelists, artists, painters and writers decided to live in Paris, France. It was a place that could have rejuvenated the writer who no longer has any appreciation for his craft. It is also a place to be free and basically able to express feelings and ideas. In the late 19th century there were unusual numbers of talented people living in Paris. The likes of Chopin, Delacroix, Sand, and Liszt are some of the talented people eager to collaborate and help each other reach their goals.

It is good for music students to make some sort of a biographical sketch of great musicians such as Chopin and Liszt but unlike other fields of endeavour where the students are only left with bits and pieces of artefacts and maybe letters and other documentation, in the study of music one is left with compositions that when played by a master can bring life to the wonderful works of art left behind by virtuosos of long ago. Right now as one listens to a recording of Chopin’s composition such as the Nocturne Op 15 No 2 (in F sharp major) there are no words to describe the experience. And that should be the starting point in any attempt to understand the great master-composer.

References

Cizevskij, D. (1974). History of Ninetenth-Century Russian Literature. (R. Porter, Trans.). Tenesse: Vanderbilt University Press.

Eigeldinger, J. (1986). Chopin: Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Godwin-Jones, R. (1995). Romantic Vision: The Novels of George Sand. Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications.

Huneker, J. & H. Weinstock. (1966). Chopin: The Man and the His Music. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Samson, J. (1992). Chopin: The Four Ballades. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Riley, C. (2001). Aristocracy and the Modern Imagination. Hanover, NH: New England University Press.

ClassicReader.com “Ivan Turgenev: Biography and Literary Works.” 2008. Web.

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