Thursday, 3 March 2022
#ListenWithCaroline: Fryderyk Chopin: Études
I’ve been listening to Chopin’s Études this week. I was originally prompted to do so because 1st March is the composer’s birthday: he was born on that day in Żelazowa Wola in Poland in 1810. But during these grim days in which we have all been trying to come to terms with what Putin is wreaking in Ukraine, there’s another, incredibly poignant reason why Chopin’s music speaks to our times.
Chopin left Poland to seek his musical fortune elsewhere in Europe at the age of 20 on 2nd November 1830, initially spending time in Vienna. It was there, on 5 December that he received the shattering news of the November Uprising in Poland on 29 November which led to a period of sustained conflict between rebel Poles and the occupying Russian imperial army. Chopin’s Polish nationalist sympathies meant that he was destined to live the rest of his life in exile. In September 1831, he arrived in Paris, the city that was to be his home for the rest of his life. He never again returned to Poland.
It was at this turbulent time that Chopin composed his first set of twelve Études (Opus 10). I dedicate a whole chapter of “Listen With Father” to this Chopin work because it is the last music that my Dad chose to listen to before he died. After Dad had moved to the hospice where he spent his final weeks, I found a small pile of CDs on the table in my parents’ house, and on the top was this recording of Murray Perahia playing Chopin’s two sets of Études (Opus 10 & Opus 25).
Ostensibly, as their name suggests, these are practice studies designed to help pianists hone their skills. But there are worlds of feeling in these short pieces, particularly in Perahia’s rendition which is both light and shimmery but also profound. Chopin is often described as a Romantic composer but while listening to his music for my book, I came to realise that he’s a bit of Romantic lone wolf compared with Brahms and Robert Schumann whose music I also devote individual chapters to. If Romanticism is about the legitimacy of our emotions and of giving vent to their full and honest expression, then Chopin’s music is that, but restrainedly so (if that isn’t an oxymoron). It is music that never bursts its banks emotionally: intimate but also controlled.
This sense of intimacy and controlled emotion fits the profile of my unflashy Dad, who felt the need for the unflashy profundity of Chopin at a time when his need of consolation was greatest. And somehow it fits my profile too. I like to think of myself as a person who wears her heart on her sleeve: even now in my more stoical midlife when it should be easier to hold my feelings in check when I need to, I still feel as if I live with emotions that simmer just under the surface, ready to burst forth as they frequently when I was a hyper-sensitive child, prone to tears. But my emotional self constantly battles with the tendency to containment that I grew up with, for saying less than one might. Some might call it emotional constipation, the kind often unflatteringly associated with the English middle classes. But for me it’s the essence of my relationship with my Dad. We didn’t talk about feelings much. But those feelings were there right enough and we both knew it. And knowing it, I found, was enough.
When I listen to Chopin’s Études, and wonder why my Dad chose to listen to them in the most challenging days of his life, I hear music that articulates our inner pain, sadness, and fear but also somehow reassures by its very honesty. It doesn’t spare you from the things you must face….and goodness knows, we are all having to face up to the tragedies of our world at the moment. But Chopin’s music also feels your pain; holds your hand and consoles you. It is gentle truth for the soul.
Thank you so much again for your support of “Listen With Father”. If you are enjoying these updates, I’d be so grateful if you would consider putting the word out to others who you think might enjoy my book, either on social media or elsewhere.
Love from Caroline x
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