Celebrating Chopin: Commemorating the Composer's 200th Birthday

Classic Arts Features   Celebrating Chopin: Commemorating the Composer's 200th Birthday
Penn Ballet's Roy Kaiser describes Chopin's music as "beautiful and haunting." For nearly 200 years, Chopin has been engaging pianists with his lyrical melodies, distinctive rhythms, and complex harmonies.


Pennsylvania Ballet's solo pianist Martha Koeneman finds Chopin's music both alluring and difficult. "The music is so lyrical, so full of nuance, so liberating to play because it flows so naturally." Yet in some works, "huge intervals have to be spanned smoothly and in velvet fashion in one hand at a rapid rate of speed." Melodies are expected to sound light and airy, "as if a little breeze blew them by. That's an illusion that's not easy to create."

Most of Chopin's work is for solo piano, which creates an "intimacy," says Beatrice Affron, Music Director of Pennsylvania Ballet, like that which is felt during a rehearsal. The Company is performing three very different works _ _Matthew Neenan's The Crossed Line and Jerome Robbins's In the Night and The Concert _ _all to the music of this 19th century virtuoso. And whether the work is a prelude or a waltz, his music can make you feel like dancing. Affron says, "Chopin's music always somehow sounds like a dance."

The Company's Choreographer in Residence Matthew Neenan was intrigued by Chopin's music, and began researching composer's personal journey. "Once I started to hear about his life, when you hear the music, it takes on a whole new meaning."


Though born in Poland and raised in Warsaw, Fr_d_ric Chopin lived much of his adult life in Paris. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 39.

Chopin began playing the piano at an early age and was composing by age 7, giving public concerts in his teens and gaining a reputation as a musical star. As a young man, Chopin went to Paris, taking up with what Jeffrey Kallberg, Chair of the Department of Music at the University of Pennsylvania, describes as a community of like-minded performers, writers, and artists, "Eugne Delacroix, the painter, was one of his closest friends. He lived with George Sand, the famous writer, and came to know other writers through her. He was very much in the center of artistic life in Paris, and political life, because he was circulating in aristocratic, ambassadorial circles as well."

It was, says Kallberg, the time of the "pianist composer." Whereas recitals today feature performers playing a selection of works by a variety of composers, pianists then were expected to play their own music. Paris was a vibrant musical center, which attracted musicians from elsewhere in Europe.

Chopin's work was of exceptional quality, with a distinctive style. While he is classified as part of the Romantic period, he disdained the program music of the time that described or referenced non-musical settings and ideas. Kallberg says Chopin preferred the craft and counterpoint of Bach and Mozart to the styles of his musical contemporaries. Instead of writing for the piano as a pure melodic instrument, Chopin invented new ways of drawing complex sounds from the keyboard. "He'd blur sounds together, looking forward to Debussy," Kallberg says. He'd experiment with new kinds of chords, foreshadowing some of the advances of Wagner.

The result? Music that is both sophisticated and challenging to musicians and scholars, while also being accessible to everyone. Affron says, "He brought a wonderful harmonic complexity and _ _in the best sense of the word _ _easy listening, together."

Although some of his music recalls Polish themes, and other pieces seem infused with passion, Chopin resisted nicknames for any of his works, preferring to identify pieces by genre and number. Most of Chopin's compositions were for solo piano; a handful of works were for piano and orchestra, and piano and cello; there were also some solo songs with piano accompaniment. While three of his most important genres _ _his polonaises, mazurkas, and waltzes _ _were derived from dance, he never wrote for ballet.


And yet his music has long inspired creators of dance, among them, innovative Russian choreographer Michel Fokine, who chose Chopin's music for his 1909 romantic work Les Sylphides. This early classical ballet celebrates expressive movement for its own sake, without a plot _ _much the way Chopin's compositions exist as pure musical expressions.

Around the same time, Ballet Russes Founder Sergei Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to arrange pieces of Chopin for the ballet, which was the start of one of the greatest partnerships in classical ballet, leading to the creation of masterworks like The Firebird and The Rite of Spring.

Chopin composed music that choreography can mirror in mood, or play against. Jerome Robbins's In the Night presents three couples in various stages of love, dancing to three Chopin nocturnes.

In contrast, Robbins's work, The Concert, is a comedic ballet about what happens in the audience at a concert of serious music. Onstage, amidst the dancers, the pianist plays a collection of preludes and a ballade, along with a waltz, mazurka, berceuse, and a polonaise.

Pianist Martha Koeneman takes advantage of the rubato _ _a technique particularly associated with Chopin, where time from one note is given to another. "At one point, an audience member sits down next to me. I'm playing, and I'm supposed to turn my head and look at this person. As that happens, there is a little phrase in the melody, that if I stretch it a little, makes it correspond to the face I'm making."

Two centuries after his birth, Chopin's music continues to inspire young forward-looking choreographers today. For his work, The Crossed Line, which premiered in 2004, Matthew Neenan says he was drawn to Chopin's enigmatic qualities, "There's something very mysterious about his work. At first when you think of Chopin, you think it's pretty, it's delicate, it's a lullaby, but when you really look at it, there's really a lot of edge to it."

The Crossed Line explores the bold choices we make and the boundaries we cross in life. And does Neenan go with the music or against it?

"I used to choreograph a step to every note. I thought that was what I had to do. Now I realize I don't. I tell the dancers, 'Let the music find you.'"

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