Chopin at the Opera

There’s nothing quite like cinema to change your viewpoint.  Film has changed my perspective on Frederic Chopin more than once.

portrait of Chopin by Eugene Delacroix

Chopin by Delacroix

I’d grown up with his music around me, aware of him almost from the beginning.  Anyone learning how to play piano must reckon with a few titans of the keyboard.  One inevitably encounters them, particularly Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin.  Each one is a combination of pleasures and challenges, of requirements to be met and rewards offered in return.

I was dimly aware of the biographical details, a little bit of context.  Chopin is the most ethnic of the four keyboard giants, which is to say, the only non-German admitted to the pianistic pantheon.

And the complexities abound, for when we think of Chopin’s ethnicity, we are really examining two cultural milieu.  As a child Chopin lived in Poland, his Mother’s birthplace, the land of the Polonaise and Mazurka.

As a man Chopin came to Paris, his father’s homeland and the artistic capital of the world for most of the 19th Century, the home of sophistication, style, subtlety.

In my head I always saw two tendencies in conflict.  The Eastern European side, with which I identified as a Hungarian, seemed vulgar and clumsy compared to the restraint and elegance of Paris.  I assumed that the Polish youth would be awed by Paris.  Of course, that was a projection of my own insecurities, my own sense of being the cultural outsider in Toronto, even though I have no accent, nor any reason not to be fully assimilated.


Hugh Grant as Chopin, Judy Davis as George Sand

Then I saw Impromptu, a refreshingly unpretentious 1991 film that encouraged me to shake free of the pretentious views I’d held onto for so long.  It offered a new look at several artists –Chopin, and also Franz Liszt, George Sand, Eugene Delacroix—not as icons, but simply as people.  Whatever you may think of its merits, there are moments in the film that have a wonderful ring of truth.

I’ve had another such wake-up call with a recent film.  Chopin at the Opera is a difficult creation to classify, something in the borderline between documentary, concert and colloquium.  A series of experts across many disciplines talk about Chopin while we hear excerpts played and sung.

Their focus is wonderfully narrow, with a focus on a new series of ideas about Chopin.

In 1830 when Chopin was forced to emigrate at the age of 20, we know a few things from indirect evidence.  Chopin loved the opera.  This has a ring of truth to me as I picture a  recent arrival in Paris, perhaps not able to keep up with the sophisticated conversation of his new home;  what better refuge for the talented young pianist, than an artform practiced in foreign languages?  Whether he understood the operas in Italian or not, their Babel likely mirrored his own disorientation, a stranger in a strange land.

Chopin at the Opera

Chopin at the Opera looks at the mutual influence of opera upon Chopin, and  his own influence upon the culture of his time, especially singers such as Pauline Viardot who sang versions of Chopin’s piano music.  Did you know that Viardot made virtuoso vocalises from some of Chopin’s Mazurkas, achieving fame throughout Europe?

At the same time, the film also issues a series of wonderful provocations about Chopin’s music.  His melodies are at times like bel canto solos.  I find I am hearing Chopin in an entirely new way, and re-thinking Rossini, Bellini & Donizetti as well.

The film is a colloquium in multiple languages (German, French, English), reminding me again of what Chopin must have experienced in his brief life.  Piano & voice engage in dialogues, not placid concert performances, but intense discussions of how to perform, a study in how one discourse informs the other.  We spend much of the film channelling George Sand’s love of Chopin, both in a series of calm readings from her memoirs, and in the use of her home as the setting for the film.

I am mightily stimulated by this little film that tosses out so many provocative phrases:

“CHOPIN HAD NOTHING TO SAY… and that’s why it’s so brilliant”…And I think he’s right.  The speaker –in German—was contrasting Chopin to other composers who employ programmes or texts, and felt that—like Bach—Chopin created absolute music.

“It’s as if Chopin wanted the voice but to do away with language, disengage himself from words”….And another invoked Mendelssohn’s compositions answering “ohne worte”.

“In his time people wanted to associate titles, meanings, texts… but that wasn’t Chopin’s aesthetic at all.”  Again we’re thinking of absolute music, but this time they’d portray Chopin as a kind of anti-romantic holdout, refusing to be tainted by sentimentality or literal-minded readings of his music.

Last year was Chopin’s year.  2010 was the year to commemorate the bicentennial of his birth.  2011 is now Liszt’s bicentennial, also McLuhan’s centennial, so maybe I am a bit late.  Schmidt-Garre made Chopin at the Opera in 2010, presumably as part of the commemoration.  I shall have to spend a little longer with this material before I figure it out.  I am thoroughly stimulated, and suspect you would be as well.

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