Tuesday, June 23, 2015

BLAME IT ON CHOPIN





I've played the piano since I was ten years old (that's about 200 years, give or take). I have a large musical repertoire. I've seldom met a piano composition that I didn't like.

I found this old video the other day, stored in the dusty archives of my personal piano rehearsal tapes. When I watched it, the music immediately annoyed me - - as it unfortunately always has. My negative opinion hasn't softened over the years.
Note: I was pushing fifty when I made this tape and was out of practice. 

I'm talking about the infamous Polonaise Militaire (Military Polonaise) in A major, Op. 40 No. 1, by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849).
In essence, it's a polonaise in the style of a military march.

Chopin's piano music is brilliant - - actually extraordinary. His keyboard innovations were revolutionary. I love all of his compositions. When I was a music student in Los Angeles I studied most of his etudes, preludes, ballades, nocturnes, mazurkas. And a fair number of the polonaises.

BUT (here's the inevitable "but".....)

Of the two dozen (give or take) polonaises that Chopin wrote, the Military Polonaise has always been my least favorite. In fact, it's my least favorite of all of Chopin's piano compositions. There are times when it actually irks the hell out of me.

Why? 
It's not only brash and brazen, it has absolutely no modulation of tone and no variation of style.
For the layman, that means it's too damn loud and too structurally boring. And - with all of the endless repeats - it seemingly goes on forever. And I mean for-ever.
Incidentally, I play all of the repeats - - exactly as Chopin intended them.

It's the only piano composition I can think of that is marked Forte (meaning "loud") throughout - with no contrasting tones - and it crescendos to an ear-piercing triple Forte in places. It's definitely loud and long.

Are there any redeeming aspects? 
It's fun to play. I enjoy performing it. It's not particularly complicated or difficult - - but you have to have large hands, lots of energy, and plenty of pianistic technique. It's a cacophony in octaves.

An octave is a span of eight keys - which most pianists can easily execute (I hate that word) . I have large hands. I can very comfortably reach a span of ten keys. And, when I'm in practice, I can span eleven keys with my right hand and twelve with my left.

Are you impressed?
I didn't think so.

I was initially hesitant to post this particular video on YouTube. After careful consideration, however, I figured I had nothing to lose.

If it annoys you, don't blame me. Blame Chopin.


 The only known photo of Frederic Chopin,
taken in 1849 - the year of his death from tuberculosis.






23 comments:

  1. Jon,
    Again, I am impressed with your musical talent. Oh how I wish I learned to play the piano. I think you remember me saying that I envied my grade school classmates whose parents made them take piano lessons. Even at that young age I wanted to take piano lessons. Maybe I was a virtuoso in one of my previous lives.
    Ron

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    1. I hated practicing when I was a kid, so I seldom did. My Mom was my first teacher, so it made lessons more tolerable. I have a feeling you're going to be a pianist in a future life, Ron.

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  2. I hadn't quite realised how long it went on for - it is VERY long isn't it? Your playing seemed superb to this layman. I must confess to liking Rachmaninoff.

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    1. It is definitely fun to play, but this particular composition never fails to annoy the hell out of me. I love all the Russian composers - especially Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Medtner,

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  3. What a fine picture. Chopin does look a tad ill in this photograph but, mind you, that was the pose photographers back then were insistent of.

    We're all allowed an annoying blow out from time to time. Jon, you're amazingly talented. And I love the quick and sure way you flick to the next page - got that down to a fine art...!!

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    1. Sometimes it's more difficult to page-turn than it is to play the music itself. I appreciate the compliments.

      In recent years another supposed photo of Chopin has surfaced, but I have doubts that it's really him. I think it's only a lookalike.

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  4. I didn't expect to enjoy this, but your interpretation (I think) made me forget any repetition. (Mostly, I enjoyed your big smile at the end the most!)

    Unlike you, I was a reluctant student. Despite nearly a decade of piano lessons and obligatory recitals, I was happiest when my parents allowed me to quit. Unfortunately, nearly 50 years later I went to sit down at hubby's boards ... and discovered all those squiggles and bars meant absolutely nothing. Seriously scary.

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    1. Yea, I smiled at the end of that performance because I was surprised I got through it without makng a mistake. Believe it or not, I always hated practicing and seldom did. If I ever practiced, I would have been dangerous.

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  5. I never get your limits. Have never heard Polonaise Militaire played more masterfully! Truly impressive, Jon. Closest I ever got to that kind of energy was in school, pounding out term papers on old manual typewriters --which were always played fortissimo-- but didn't sound anything close to the beauty you coax from a piano. Thank you for sharing that very enjoyable video.

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    1. Wow Geo, I appreciate the kind compliment. Unfortunately, my energy is slowly but surely fading.
      I fondly remember manual typewriters and I really miss them.

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  6. I can only imagine the practice you must have put in to perfect this with it's 'cacophony of octaves' I think it is wonderful that you still carry the music within. These old tapes keep your passion alive. And I am impressed your hands can reach where most cannot. We had an old spinet piano that my daughters used as they were growing up. But they gave up their piano, flute, piccolo and clarinet playing. So sad.

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    1. Music has always been one of the few great loves of my life - - that, and writing. I couldn't exist without them. It's a shame that your daughters abandoned their musical endeavors, but perhaps it's still in their hearts.

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  7. That isn't one of my favorite pieces, either, but you did a masterful job with it. Yes, masterful. You have a way of "owning" the keyboard, if you know what I mean. Nothing hesitant or unsure about it.

    It's probably trite, but the piano music I listen to most often is Beethoven. I listen to other stuff, but Beethoven is my fall-back choice, and I usually listen to the same works over and over, until it fills me.

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    1. Thank you, Susan.
      I love Beethoven, too (he was my mother's favorite composer). I've recorded a lot of his piano music - including numerous sonatas - but most of them are on audio cassette tapes. I'm going to eventually (hopefully soon!) transfer them to the computer so I can share them.

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  8. Jon, with all the current vagaries of my computer I've only just noticed this posting which you did a little while ago. I'm wondering if I dare attempt to play the video as they often paralyse the whole works for hours on end. But I must try it sometime so I'll come back later and have a go with crossed fingers.

    Chopin, one of so many composers who died in their thirties leaving one wondering how their music would have developed had they lived, say, a couple more decades - whereas with another too-early deceased composer, Mendelssohn, with some truly great works created in his juvenile years or twenties, one wonders if his music would have UNdeveloped further!
    But Chopin was uniquely fascinating with his emphasis - no, EXCLUSIVE interest - in the piano.
    I'll be back here another time.

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  9. I never fail to be astonished by what these composers accomplished at such young ages: Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin (and many more). One can only imagine what more they would have created had they lived longer.

    I'm having some disasters here in the mountains of Tennessee. Last night one of the water pipes broke and my kitchen was flooded. I had to turn off the main water valve so now I have no water - - during the hottest day of the year. And it's nearly impossible to get a plumber to come out here. My disgust and apprehension know no bounds.

    I can only hope that your obstinate computer will allow you to return here soon.
    Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could have one day without problems??

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  10. I've played the video, Jon, and I'm frankly astonished at your interpretation - and not in the negative way you accord to the composition. I don't dislike the piece as much as you do. I'm particularly fond of the central section which, in the wrong hands can sound hackneyed, as you probably think the entire piece is. But in your hands the whole thing is alive and gutsy. I especially like your keen awareness in 'punctuating' modulations, showing how they are steps up to a climax - sometimes by the most minuscule of pauses, which you may not realise you're doing. But it's a style of which I am especially fond - Kempff and Ashkenazy are just two of the pianists of my day who are/were acutely aware of key changes and bring them out beautifully, while so many other players just glide over them as matters of insignificance. I'm a great supporter of bringing out the different aural 'colour' of keys and you do it impressively. I don't doubt that you still play in that same key-conscious style.
    Btw: Playing this video, as with any video I view on this computer, there's a total disjuncture of sound and vision. I've grown used to it now - though it's particularly annoying when watching a blogger speaking to camera,. But aurally, at least, it's all there.

    You mention Schubert, above, among the composers who died cruelly prematurely. I think his early death was the greatest tragedy in that respect in all music. (There are others - George gershwin being another notable example) Okay, some would bestow that 'honour' on Mozart who lived just four years longer than Franz did, but many would argue (though I have reservations) that Mozart, with what he did manage to write, became the undisputed greatest composer of all. (I actually wouldn't choose him if I were forced to live with only one composer for the rest of my life. I'd pick Bach.) But Schubert, with what he was writing in his final years was beyond astonishing, and one can hardly imagine how he would have developed had he lived as long as, say, Beethoven. I have little doubt that had he done so he might well have earned the accolade of the greatest composer ever. But dreaming of 'what ifs' is rather a futile exercise. Things are as they are and we must accept them. Poor Franz! -who, as it is, would possibly be in the list of the greatest half dozen or so composers in history anyway.

    I'm writing here having already read your ensuing post re your current troubles. I wasn't sure I could add anything helpful to that which might make you feel better, though it certainly puts my own problems into perspective. Where you live may well have seemed like an idyll until you moved there. Now it's obviously so far from that. I do hope you can get settled and put this behind you without the fear that it may all erupt again. Good luck in achieving just some semblance of quietude, for which I know you'd be extremely grateful. Best wishes from Albion.

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  11. My piano videos are usually my least popular blog posts. There are only a handful of music lovers who appreciate them. That's why I'm so delighted that you finally got a chance to see it. I value your opinions and insight - and I'm so glad that you liked my interpretation. I never studied this piece with a teacher, I learned it by myself (like most of the other things in my piano repertoire). Anyway, your positive reaction is very encouraging.

    I have indeed long considered this piece to be hackneyed, but - - upon recently watching this video several times - - my initial opinion has softened. My performance surprises me and, I think, does the composition justice. That's a breakthrough for me - since I am EXTREMELY self-critical. I try not to analyze too much when I'm performing. I simply play by instinct, and I try to keep in mind the composer's intentions.

    Anyway, thanks a lot for your input.

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    1. If you do post more videos of your playing, Jon, they will most definitely be popular with me - providing that I'm able to view them, of course. I hope you will.

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  12. Chopin always looks too frail and depressed to have written anything like that, doesnt he. I like it, even though it is bombastic. I just love Chopin, almost everything he wrote.

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    1. It's impossible to dislike Chopin, since his music is so pleasing and soothing (well, all except for that annoying polonaise). It's a tragedy that he died so young.

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  13. Do you ever have the urge to sit down at a public piano anonymously and have a go like his guy did?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8xmSlMb1dg

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    1. The dude in the YouTube video is Henri Herbert, and he is really giving that piano a wonderful workout. It's too bad that some of the people around there didn't seem to be very appreciative.

      I've done that a few times on public pianos, believe it or not, but I never felt very comfortable in impromptu situations.

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