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Performing Chopin in the style of Chopin?

Interest in historically-informed performance continues to evolve as scholars and serious-minded pianists gain more knowledge regarding nineteenth-century performing styles. Though much progress has been made in this field, a question still remains: Is there a definitive performance practice that enables pianists to play the works of Chopin in the style of Chopin?

Early twentieth-century recordings, made by pianists trained in the nineteenth century, give an impression that various performing practices existed simultaneously and developed along parallel lines. The performing styles of two renowned pianists, Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) and Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), known for their playing of the works of Chopin, attest to this variety. While both were editors of Chopin's piano works, their playing reveals different approaches to this repertoire. Paderewski used considerable flexibility of timing and liberally applied arpeggios to chords not marked as such (Excerpt 1). Cortot's practice, however, was similar to our modern approach—adhering mainly to the score's notation.

Chopin's environment: notation and performance

Chopin was composing and performing during an era when piano action mechanisms of competing manufacturers were developing simultaneously. Composers witnessed the expanding variety of pianos and how those pianos might serve—or not serve— their preferred performing styles. These advancements inspired musicians to create their very individual performing styles and compositional techniques.

Excerpt 1: Nocturne in F-Sharp Major, Op, 15, No. 2, by Frédéric Chopin, mm. 1-9. Blue arrows indicate arpeggiation marks transcribed from one of Paderewski’s performances (c. 1911).

The sound of the French Pleyel pianos, favored by Chopin, was mirrored in his sentimental pianism. Additionally, wishing to give clear performing guidance in his scores, Chopin made alterations in his autographs or in the first editions of his scores to clarify his various intentions. He added further instructions for his students, specified his improvising alternatives, and indicated what were originally un-notated practices into written form, such as the arpeggiation of chords. In the first edition of his Scherzo No. 2, Op. 31, arpeggio signs, which were not in the original autograph, were given for specific chords (Excerpt 2). Here, whether there were arpeggio signs missed when the plate was made, or whether the notation echoed exactly Chopin's nature and frequent practice of random inconsistencies, the function of these arpeggio marks was to guide pianists as to how he wanted the arpeggiation effect to be applied in this section

Chopin was not the only composer who desired to notate his music as clearly as possible; many other composers were very fastidious about their desired musical results. Liszt, for example, developed various types of accents—accents that were possible on his favored piano, double escapement action Erards and other similar powerful pianos. Brahms used double slurs, hairpins, and sustaining notes extensively. This wealth of detail was particularly effective on his preferred Austrian pianos, Streichers and Bösendorfers, known for their clarity and lightness.1

What might the performance of these composers have been like? According to his students, Chopin never played a piece the same way twice. Additionally, when teaching, Chopin focused on specific performance details. These details, such as phrasing, bel canto, subtle dynamic changes, agogic accents, various touches, and spontaneity, were too specific to be notated in the score.2

Excerpt 2: Scherzo in B-Flat Minor, Op. 31, by Frédéric Chopin, mm. 547-558.

Liszt's secretary and student, August Göllerich, notes Liszt's comments on students' performances and his demonstrations in lessons. These entries articulate Liszt's considerable respect for, and emphasis on, the importance of adhering to a composer's detailed notation and expressive markings.3 Based on Brahms's own performance, an audio cylinder recording of a segment from Ungarische Tanze No. 1 (1889), Jonathan Berger and Charles Nichols's transcription and analysis reveal that Brahms's playing was fairly spontaneous. He applied rubato freely, had long fermatas, inserted improvised passages, was flexible about the rhythms, and included arpeggiation.4

What can we infer from all of this? For Chopin, the notation system was not sufficient to indicate the subtle nuances of his expressions. His scores provided only partial guidance on how he would have played his music. Liszt's styles and dramatic effects were more likely to be directly written in the score with additional new signs and written-word descriptions—details that were possible on pianos with modern mechanisms. Even the precise and complicated notation of Brahms probably provides only his basic performance intentions, and does not include the guidance for the spontaneity he would produce in performance.

These are just three examples of nineteenth-century composers who were developing their performance styles. A closer look at Chopin's music can prompt further consideration regarding the performance of his music.

Diversity in Chopin performance

During Chopin's life, pianos were evolving quickly— similar to today's computers—and musicians were surrounded by new and individual musical approaches. How did Chopin's students, their pupils, Chopin's contemporaries, and their students play Chopin's music?

One of Chopin's most talented pupils, Georges Mathias (1826-1910), was an active concert pianist who played the composer's music.5 He taught at the Paris Conservatoire from 1862 to 1893 and was an important figure in passing Chopin's style to the next generation. The recordings of a Mathias student, Raoul Pugno (1852-1914) reveal musical brilliancy, lightness, and spontaneity. The first sixteen measures of Pugno's recording of Chopin's Waltz, Op. 34, No. 1,6 include an elasticity of pulse that helps these measures introduce the theme that is to come. Pugno pushes the tempo slightly in measures three and four, then has a slightly longer pause at the end of this phrase, before moving to the next (Excerpts 3a and 3b).

Excerpt 3a: Waltz in A-Flat Major, Op. 34, No. 1, by Frédéric Chopin, mm. 1-4.
Excerpt 3b: Raoul Pugno’s phrasing from his 1903 recording which includes accelerating the chords and lengthening the pause afterwards.

Nocturne, Op. 15, No. 2, provides an example of Pugno's arpeggiation practice. Unlike Paderewski, whose arpeggios were often exaggerated and needed more time to execute, Pugno's arpeggios were generally fast and functioned like ornaments. The shape and continuation of the music was not distorted, and the arpeggios add extra elegance to the music (Excerpt 4).

Excerpt 4: Nocturne in F-Sharp Major, Op, 15, No. 2, by Frédéric Chopin, mm. 1-9. Blue arrows indicate arpeggiation marks from transcriptions of Pugno’s performance.

French pianist Alfred Cortot was an editor of Chopin's music and studied with one of Chopin's pupils, Émile Decombes (1829-1912). Cortot tended to be fairly strict with the rhythm and consistency of tempo. In the same Nocturne, his rubato is moderate and his use of extra arpeggios was selectively limited (Excerpt 5). Unsurprisingly, Cortot took Chopin's sostenuto indication at the beginning piece seriously, playing in a very slow tempo and emphasizing the legato line.

Excerpt 5: Nocturne in F-Sharp Major, Op, 15, No. 2, by Frédéric Chopin, mm. 1-9. Blue arrows in m. 6 show arpeggiation marks from Cortot’s performance; the arpeggiation mark in m. 8 is Chopin’s.

It is possible that Cortot's approach was influenced by another of his Paris Conservatoire teachers, virtuosic concert pianist Louis Diemer (1843-1919). For the most part, Diemer's rubato was moderate, and he was quite precise in observing the score's notations. The exception to this, and unlike Cortot, was his habit of playing some left-hand bass notes earlier than the right-hand note of the same beat. A good example of this practice is his 1904 recording of Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2 (Excerpt 6).

Excerpt 6: Nocturne in D-Flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2, by Frédéric Chopin, mm. 1-6. In measures 3, 4, 5, and 6, red stars indicate where Cortot plays the first left-hand note earlier than the corresponding note in the right hand.

Liszt's interpretations of Chopin's music demonstrated faithfulness to both the notes and expression marks. When Liszt saw Chopin's indication of sostenuto in Nocturne, Op. 15, No. 2 (Excerpt 5), he assumed that "perhaps this melody ought not to be played daintily, but should be performed in a broad singing style, every note being meaningful."7 Liszt's respect for a score's indications can be heard in the recordings of his students. Arthur Friedheim's (1850-1932) 1912 recording of Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 is an excellent performance, but it does not show a sense of spontaneity beyond what Chopin's score indicates. There is hardly any clear rubato, neither are there extra arpeggios—notes are played together when they are vertically aligned on the page. His interpretation is very similar to what many present day competition pianists aim for.

One of Chopin's contemporaries, Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), who studied with Carl Czerny, had a different approach. His performance of Chopin is charming, concentrating on the tension of the melody and the color of the tone. In his 1906 recording of Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2, the tempo and rhythm are freely played and arpeggiation is randomly applied. He adds rubato, agogic accents, and small dynamic changes which are difficult to transcribe (Excerpt 7).

Excerpt 7: Nocturne in D-Flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2, by Frédéric Chopin, mm. 9-11. The blue arrows show right-hand arpeggiations transcribed from Leschetizky’s recording. Red stars indicate where he also plays the low D-flats in m. 1 early.

Clearly, there was not a uniform way nineteenthcentury pianists played Chopin. These early recordings provide a glimpse of the variety of performing styles. Some pianists tended to follow the scores strictly—as pianists do today; others preferred to add various un-notated practices in their individual ways. This variety may have been the result of the practices learned from the masters with whom they studied, or may have been an artist's individual style.

Is it possible to play Chopin in Chopin's style? Chopin was among those composers for whom a notational system cannot adequately capture the composer's wishes. His detailed notation provides basic information regarding his musical intent, while his own performance and teaching provided more inspiration and knowledge regarding the sentimental expression, unique sound, and spontaneity he desired—components that cannot be adequately notated.

It is difficult to determine Chopin's performing style for each of his piano works. Early recordings provide inspiring examples of the many possibilities available for performing Chopin's repertoire. Perhaps his music can be played with a little spontaneity and can incorporate some of the practices we know his students used, while at the same time respecting the score's notation.

Camilla, C. (1989). Brahms's Pianos and the Performance of His Late Works. Performance Practice Review, 2(1)

Eigeldinger, J. J. ed. (1988). Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen By His Pupils (N. Shohet, K. Osostowicz, & R. Howat, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 42-57.

3Jerger, W. (Ed.). (2010). The Piano Master Classes of Franz Liszt, 1884-1886: Diary Notes of August Göllerich (R. L. Zimdars, Trans.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Berger, J. and Nichols, T. (1994). Brahms at the Piano: An Analysis of Data from the Brahms Cylinder. Leonardo Music Journal, 4, pp. 23-30.

According to Clara Wieck, Georges Mathias played all of Chopin's music at a young age (Eigeldinger, p. 170).

The recording is available on YouTube and The Piano Library Label, B00004SNOT.

7Jerger, p. 42.

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