Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chopin: Four Scherzi, Berceuse and Barcarolle

After last week's derisive post on Paganini, I thought I'd shift to a composer who writes difficult-to-play music that doesn't threaten the very health of the musicians who play his works.

Chopin. The poet of the piano. Today's Four Scherzi are masterpieces, full of emotion, tension, lyricism and complexity. They were among Chopin's last publications before his untimely death from consumption at age 39.
Maurizio Pollini, piano
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
Chopin: 4 Scherzi, Berceuse, Barcarolle
Deutsche Grammophon, 1991
What is a scherzo, exactly? Usually the word refers to one of the middle movements of a traditional symphony; typically it will be a lively dance-like piece in 3/4 time.

Unfortunately, the word scherzo also means "joke" in Italian, leaving us to wonder if Chopin was being ironic or serious in using this name for these deeply emotional one-movement works for solo piano:

How are seriousness and gravity to be clothed if jest is to go about in such dark-colored garments?"
--Robert Schumann, referring to Chopin's Scherzo #1 in B minor

Listener notes for Chopin's Four Scherzi, Berceuse and Barcarolle:
Scherzo #1:
1) This has the angst and loaded emotional content of a Beethoven piano sonata, doesn't it? I don't really know what to call a work like this (a sonata in miniature?), but it is certainly not a joke. Not in any way.

Scherzo #2:
2) Listen to the passage from 2:20 to 3:09. Doesn't it sounds like four hands playing, not two?

Scherzo #3:
3) This is another particularly beautiful work. The more I think about this CD and the arresting music on it, the more I think this might be my all-time favorite classical music CD!

4) Another arresting composition, flawlessly performed by Mr. Pollini. This work is quiet, relaxing and beautiful; it also sounds almost improvisational in nature. Particularly interesting to me is the increasingly complex melodic line played by the right hand over a simple repeating left hand phrase.

A completely unrelated side note: After listening to music that is so incomparably beautiful, I can't help wondering: what have I done (or what will I do) that will ever be worth remembering?

At times it can be extremely difficult for me to listen to great music like this because its greatness almost definitionally proves the basic fact of my own insignificance. Do you find this to be the case when you listen to great music too?

Music is a highly emotional medium to begin with; when it also reminds you of how insignificant you are, it can be psychologically devastating to listen to it. Of course, this entire avenue of thought is fundamentally unhealthy--and more importantly, it is not at all the point of listening to classical music. But nevertheless, I can't help but recognize, from time to time, the simple and highly likely fact that most likely I will do little worth remembering at all. In fact, it's quite possible that I--and you, and most everyone we know--will over the course of an entire life do absolutely nothing that will be remembered.

That's pretty discouraging isn't it? Unless of course you join the struggle to write, create, produce, or offer up something of value that remains after you leave this life. Otherwise, yes, it is the basic nature of things that we will all likely be forgotten.

Wouldn't it be easier to just stop listening to Chopin if it makes me dwell on this? Perhaps.

But should I? No. Why give up something so beautiful? In any event, it would only be treating the symptom. One must either accept one's place in the collective memory of the world, or one must engage in a fierce, daily struggle to change that place. I think this is why I write.

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