Arts: In search of the real Chopin

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He lived his entire life in celebrity's glare and by his death 150 years ago fantastic myths had grown around Poland's greatest musical genius. Here is the authentic Chopin remembered by his friends, colleagues and pupils - and, below, two great modern pianists explain his legacy. By Michael Church

People have tended to mythologise Chopin's life, inventing lurid drama when the facts were as grey as his clothes. While his apocryphal - and grossly sexual - correspondence with Delfina Potocka gets new wind thanks to Tony Palmer's forthcoming film, here are some authentic memories by those who knew him, or heard him play.

I found him seated at the piano with a pen in his hand, and on a small table next to the piano a manuscript with the ink still wet. I remarked that he looked as if he had been working very hard, as he looked pale, his hair was dishevelled and there were smudges of ink on his face and his long thin fingers. He pointed to the manuscript and said: "You guess correctly. I have been busy since 11 o'clock this morning at that Nocturne, and now I feel it does not exactly suit me." He thereupon played it to me and entranced me with its beauties.

Franz Liszt, composer

It was unforgettable to see him sitting at the piano like a clairvoyant, lost in his dreams; to see how his vision communicated itself through his playing and how, at the end of each piece, he had the sad habit of sliding one finger the whole length of the keyboard, as though to tear himself forcibly from his dream.

Robert Schumann, composer

His hands would suddenly expand and cover a third of the keyboard. It was like the opening of the mouth of a serpent about to swallow a rabbit whole. Ferdinand Hiller, composer

He disliked being without company. In the morning he liked to spend an hour by himself at his piano; but even when he stayed at home in the evenings, he needed to have at least one of his friends close at hand... What was in the hands of others elegant embellishment, in his became a colourful wreath of flowers; what in others was technical dexterity seemed in his playing like the flight of a swallow. Ferdinand Hiller

He produces new effects, like Paganini on his violin, and accomplishes things nobody could formerly have thought practicable. Felix Mendelssohn, composer

He kept his elbows close to his sides and played with only finger touch - no weight from the arms.

Alfred Hipkins, piano-maker

A remarkable feature of his playing was the entire freedom with which he treated the rhythm... I once ventured to observe that most of his mazurkas appeared to be written not in 3/4 time but in 4/4 time, the result of his dwelling so much longer on the first note of the bar. He denied it strenuously, then he laughed and explained that it was the national character of the dance which created the oddity. Charles Halle, pianist

He always advised the pupil not to work for too long at a stretch and intersperse it with reading a good book, or looking at paintings, or taking an invigorating walk.

Emilie von Gretsch, pupil

The pianist's fingers seem to multiply ad infinitum; it does not appear possible that only two hands can produce effects of rapidity so precisely and naturally.

His inspiration is all of tender and naive poetry; do not ask him for big gestures or diabolic variations; he wishes to speak to the heart, not to the eyes; he wishes to love you, not to devour you.

Review in `La france musicale'

Cunning must be the connoisseur indeed, who, while listening to the music, can form the slightest idea when wrong notes are played.

London critic in 1845

You should judge Listz [sic] only once you have had the opportunity to hear Chopin. The Hungarian is a demon; the Pole is an angel.

Honore de Balzac, novelist

Mould the key with a velvet hand, and feel the key rather than striking it. Sing with the fingers. Flying in the face of nature, it has become customary to attempt to acquire equality of strength in the fingers... There are as many different sounds as fingers.

As soon as you know a piece from memory, then practise it at night in the dark. When the eyes can see neither notes nor keys, only then does the hearing function with all its sensitivity. Nothing is more detestable than music without hidden meaning.

Chopin's advice to his pupils

`Opera was an inspiration for him'

"Chopin wrote his concertos under the inspiration of opera. In his day, Rossini would have been performed a lot in Warsaw, and Chopin was in any case in love with a singer, and would have listened to opera day and night. Many people will hate what we are doing, but others will like it a lot, because they've spent their lives waiting - as I have - to hear the works performed in this way."

Kryztian Zimerman's current project is to recreate a Chopin atmosphere which he believes is authentic, and to this end he has created the Polish Festival Orchestra. He pays for them, feeds them, and looks after all their creature-comforts on the tour which brings them to the Festival Hall on 20 October. As everywhere else on this four-month stint, his all- Polish orchestra will present just two works - Chopin's piano concertos. Twenty-five years ago, Zimerman launched himself by winning the Warsaw Chopin Competition. Celebrating his professional jubilee by returning to the music of his great compatriot was, he says, "something I had to do".

To meet Zimerman in person, at his mountain lair near Basel, is to get the full force of his tenacious self-sufficiency. The basement of his house is stuffed with Steinways in varying stages of dismemberment; he customises his pianos to suit his own ferocious standards, and he makes the machinery to manoeuvre them about; he is also his own recording engineer.

So it is no surprise to find that he will be conducting the Polish Festival Orchestra from the keyboard.

"I wanted to recapture the sound of 60 years ago," he explains, "when violins really sounded like violins. I have no difficulty in imitating on the piano the effect today's string players create: it's very precise, with a lot of articulation. But the way a violinist like Menuhin played had a timbre no pianist could imitate." Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, he rented the best period violins on the market. Youthful energy was another quality he looked for: players who could empathise with the zest of these works by the teenage Chopin. which has hitherto been lost.

`All I can say is that he is God-sent'

WHAT SORT of man was Chopin? Put the question to Mitsuko Uchida, and you get a long and uncharacteristic pause: "I wish I could find one word to sum him up. He is both cool and hot. You feel, particularly in the late works, that he has lived with extraordinary intensity. But what is missing is ordinary human warmth - the quality you find above all in Mozart. Beethoven is so conceptual that you just struggle with him, and you can nail Schubert through the curious relationship he had with death. Everything Bach wrote reflects the purity and happiness of a man who knows there is a God. But Chopin? All I can say is that he is God-sent."

She identified with him as a teenager. "At that age, and for the wrong reasons, Chopin seems infinitely closer to one in spirit than Beethoven or Mozart." She became intrigued by his complexity, but was also put off by what she saw, and still sees, as his periodic flashiness. Then she went in a different direction, and for 20 years didn't play him at all.

"But I had a lot of him in my pocket, and that's why I'm glad to play this concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 17 October [the anniversary of his death]." Her programme will be unusual, beginning with a Bach suite, ending with Chopin's Third Sonata, with carefully spliced studies by Chopin and Debussy in between. "I love most his aspect which is least talked about - as a Classical composer. He wasn't an inventor of form like Haydn and Beethoven, but you don't need to be to be great. Most of his pieces - even the Scherzi and the Ballades - are variations on a very simple form. And though sonata-form was not his strength, his B minor Sonata ranks with the greatest.

"Quite apart from the beauty and poetry of his music, what I love is the sheer precision. Unlike composers who think it's enough to fill the spaces between their beautiful harmonies, Chopin never loses his contrapuntal voices, even when they're very intricately interwoven. This is one of the signs of a true composer - and this he learned from Bach. That is why my programme starts as it does."