Chopin: Iconosphere of Romanticism

You gotta love the title of the book.

It’s actually CHOPIN: Iconosphere of Romanticism, emblazoned simultaneously on the cover in Polish as CHOPIN: iconosfera romantyzmu.  This is an art-book, recording an exhibit from 2010 in Warsaw, edited by Iwona Danielewicz with the assistance of Andrzej Dzięciołowski, published by The National Museum in Warsaw.

There’s a certain justice in the bilingual cover even if the composer’s second culture is French not English.  His father is the Frenchman, while his mother was Polish.  The first twenty years of his life were spent in Poland, while the other half (almost exactly) of his short life was spent mostly in France.  The book was published in 2010, another of the many celebrations of the bicentennial of the composer’s birth.

I’m a big fan of attempts to put artists into context.  I admire the ambition behind such endeavors even if I retain a healthy skepticism.  So for example I keep reading about Chopin with Liszt, usually decoded via the modern understanding of these two, where Liszt’s virtuosity is something spoken of apologetically.  That may be part of the background, but I don’t believe that’s really putting it in context, not if we bring a 21st Century distaste for virtuosic display.  While Chopin is spoken of as subtler than Liszt (in this book, reflecting the usual critical prejudice), was that because he was more tasteful, or merely because he couldn’t bring an equivalent skill-set to the table?

(I leave that up to you)

It’s a given that Chopin is presented as part of the Romantic movement in the first half of the 19th Century.  Considering the title (especially when I focus on the word “Iconosphere”) this project is meant to conjure a movement.  While I eat this sort of thing up –who doesn’t like beautiful pictures?—I have some hesitation.  I don’t think of Chopin as a Romantic, at least not when we think of the quintessential romantics such as Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz & Liszt plus their transitional antecedents Schubert & Beethoven.

The book is a celebratory feast but…. a feast celebrating the thin ascetic seems a bit incongruous. Perhaps it’s because I put Chopin in a special category.  His piano music transcends categories.  I think of his cycle of Preludes Op 28 in context with Bach’s Well-tempered Klavier, another cycle of compositions that seems universal in the way it encompasses all of the key signatures, seemingly so pure as to be independent of period or context.  He’s one of the mountains of keyboard pedagogy that must be climbed.

So pardon me if I simultaneously eat up the romantic pictures, even as I think they’re redundant.  Chopin doesn’t require the imaginative gloss, charming as it is.

I feel a bit guilty speaking of a book that I couldn’t find on Amazon, but only on Google.  Thank goodness for libraries.

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