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A "Mighty Handful" of French Pianist-Composers, Their World, Their Pianos, Piano Music, and Playing Styles - Part IV

June 15, 2012 - most recently updated October 7, 2020, Easthampton, MA:


Appendix B, concluded:

"The Solo Piano Works" (4-hand works not included), Noriko Ogawa, Bis 1955/56 (6 CDs), 2011, reissues in a box of 5 CDs released individually from 1/2000 to 7/2007, recorded on a Steinway D in Nybrokajen 11 (former Academy of Music), Stockholm, Sweden, with newly issued CD 6, recorded in 2 locations: trs 1-5, in 8/11 at Potten Hall, Suffiolk, UK, and trs 6-8, in 7/09 at the Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore, with a book including all of the original notes by Leif Hasselgren, which are particularly thorough and well written. While some are arranged by their nature, the presentation is generally chronological. Ogawa's touch is excellent for the music, often feather-light, crystal clear and precise, but she also gets an excellent warm ring from the instrument that is generally difficult to obtain with a bright, power-focused Steinway. The real interest of this set is what it includes on CD 6: works not found in others, like the Fantaisie pour piano et orchestra (booklet note by Jean-Pascal Vachon), and interestingly, the 3 fugues that Debussy wrote for concours at the Conservatoire (1881, 1882, 1883) and for the 2 Prix de Rome essais/attempts (1882, 1883, the latter incomplete) that Ogawa had transcribed for piano from the manuscripts found in archives. She and Bavouzet are the only ones to include the Boîte à joujoux, a ballet for children for which a 2-page synopsis (author unspecified) is included in the book. [added 11/2017]

Largely complete (or substantial selections of) solo piano music: Samson François, EMI 5099963875423 (3 CDs), 2012 remasterings of LP recordings made 1961-1970 on unidentified pianos in the Salle de l’Alcazar in Monte Carlo and the Salle Wagram in Paris, all major works except the Études, notes only in French, somewhat fluid and personalized interpretations clearly in the French crisp playing tradition by a pianist highly regarded during his foreshortened lifespan for his performances of the French repertoire, his Debussy, and especially for his Ravel (see below); Roy Howat, Tall Poppies TP 094, TP 123, TP 164, TP 165; recorded 1995-2002; Paul Jacobs, Nonesuch 9 79161-2, 9 73031-2, 9 71365-2, late 1980s transfers from LPs recorded in 1976, 1978, and 1979 (with Gilbert Kalish in the 2-piano En blanc et noir); Noël Lee, naïve V 1001, 2002 transfers from LPs recorded in 1971 on a Hornung & Møller (Danish make) piano, American living in France for many years, with this set having been regarded by many French critics at the time of its initial issue as the best; Georges Pludermacher, Études, Préludes + L’Isle joyeuse, Transart TR 128, recorded live in 2005 on a Stephen Paulello piano, French, in spite of the German-looking name, trained at the Paris Conservatoire; Walter Gieseking, EMI 67262 and 62800; transfers from LPs recorded in the 1950s, German, but regarded by many as an excellent interpreter of Debussy. The Lee and Pludermacher are 2-CD sets that contain many of the major works, the former most of the earlier ones, but not the Études, the latter lacking the earlier works.

Ravel: Vlado Perlemuter, Vox CDX2 5507, incl. the 2 concerti, 1992 transfers from LPs recorded in 1955; essentially French, in spite of the Lithuanian name: raised in France from the age of 3, trained & taught at the Paris Conservatoire & coached with Ravel (He recorded the music again without the concerti for Nimbus, released on two separate CDs no longer available, but this is considered by many to be the better of the two sets.); without the concerti: Samson François, EMI 742356899728, 1985 remasterings of 1967 LP recordings made on unidentified pianos in the Salle de l’Alcazar in Monte Carlo and the Salle Wagram in Paris, somewhat fluid and personalized interpretations clearly in the French crisp playing tradition by a pianist highly regarded during his foreshortened lifespan for his performances of the French repertoire, especially his Ravel; Abbey Simon, Complete Music for Solo Piano, Vox CDX 5012, 1990, 2-CD set, digitally remastered transfers from LPs recorded in the mid-1970s (I am unable to find the precise dates because the information on the back of the booklet and outside of the tray card is obviously for music by other composers.), unidentified piano (probably not a Steinway) with good variety across the registers, and Simon, still alive and renowned for his interpretations of the French repertoire, gets an appropriate resonance from it in his superbly nuanced and sensitive performance, although in a somewhat unusual recording order, ending with the original solo piano version of La Valse, booklet notes by an unidentified author (Simon himself?) are very good, except for an inaccurate statement about the solo version of La Valse; Angela Hewitt, Hyperion CDA67341/2, recorded in 2002, her notes in the accompanying booklet are excellent and thorough, perhaps the best of the lot, and her performance is highly nuanced and sensitive; Georges Pludermacher, incl. the original solo piano version of La Valse, Transart TR 143, recorded live in 2006 on a Stephen Paulello piano, French, in spite of the German-looking name, trained at the Paris Conservatoire; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, London 433 515-2, 1992 recordings; Florian Uhlig, Complete Solo Piano Works, Hänssler Classic CD 93.318, 2012, 3 CDs, unidified modern piano (an inquiry to the mfr remains unanswered). This is the truly complete solo works, because, in addition to the solo version of La Valse, it also includes the 3 Fragments symphniques of Daphnis et Chloé, originally written by Ravel for rehearsal purposes, and La Parade, 1st discovered in 2008 in Ravel’s handwriting, but with a pseudonymic signature: “Jacques Dream”, an atypical popular style work, with the unanticipated bonus of the superb booklet note by Roy Howat. This is a finely played traversal in an appropriate crisp style on a modern instrument that has a good resonance and ring suiting the music well, and he controls the dynamics appropriately: the notes flow from Uhlig’s fingers so smoothly that one almost imagines them being Ravel’s; Bertrand Chamayou, Complete Works for Solo Piano (except La Valse), Erato 0825646026814, © 2016, Steinway serial # 592248, 2 CDs, each ordered as a recital, with works thoughtfully sequenced rather than played chronologically, and ending with a short work not by Ravel; CD1: Alfredo Casella (Ravel’s Conseervatoire colleague and friend, partner on the 2nd piano for the 1919 Vienna première of the original 2-piano version of La Valse [See text above]): “À la manière de Ravel…”, and CD2: Alexander Siloti’s transcription for solo piano of Ravel’s “Kaddish,” No, 1 of Deux Mélodies hébraïques, recorded in Saint-Pierre des Cuisines, a 4th century Christian church, one of the oldest in Toulouse, now transformed into a recital hall for the Conservatoire there: Chamayou, unlike many pianists, makes the Steinway sound appropriate for Ravel, a finely nuanced and played traversal, the most pleasing on a modern instrument, the booklet note is an interview by Nicolas Southon with Chamayou, who has been playing Ravel’s music since childhood.

For Saint-Saëns and Chabrier, these are the sole complete sets currently available on the market. Geoffrey Burleson has undertaken recording the complete Saint-Saëns for the Grand Piano label, which is owned by Naxos, on a Hamburg Steinway D, but only vols 1 – 3 (of the projected 5 that will incl. works he found in unpublished manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale) have been released. Angela Hewitt, a Canadian, who also studied with French pianist Jean-Paul Sévilla, recorded in 2006, playing a Fazioli, a well-chosen selection of Chabrier that includes the Pièces pittoresques, Sévilla having written the excellent notes in its accompanying booklet, Hyperion, CDA 67515. This would be a good place for a reader wishing to make the acquaintance of his music to begin. For Fauré, both sets are excellent, and it is probably just as well to invest in a complete set as to try to find a good representative sample; you can work your way into his music by starting with the Barcarolles, advancing to the Valses-Caprices, the Pièces brèves, and the Impromptus, and ending with the Nocturnes and the Thème et variations. For Debussy and Ravel, the above are suggested good interpretations in complete or substantially so sets. There are also numerous other fine single CDs of selections of their music; for Debussy, see, for example, Hsia-Jung Chang's, and the Howat and Jacobs Debussy CDs are sold individually (the latter's Préludes are a 2-CD set). For Ravel, whose music only requires two CDs, a complete set is the most logical choice.

For additional recommendations, see David Dubal, The Art of the Piano, 3rd ed., Pompton Plains, NJ, Amadeus Press, 2004, Pp. xxi + 693. This mini-encyclopedia divides into two Parts: “The Pianists” (pp. 11-381, and “The Piano Literature” (pp. 387-638; Recording recommendations are here.), and is a fine reference work written by a pianist, professor of piano at the Juilliard School in NYC, radio announcer, and former radio program director. Many of the recommended recordings are unfortunately no longer in print, so are unobtainable, or are costly collectors’ items, but he (wisely) retains them because one never knows when something will be transferred or re-issued. See p. 7 of the Introduction for a capsule description of the French playing style. Dubal is also, following in the footsteps/tradition of Fauré, the artist of the black & white portrait sketches in the book. Perhaps one day one will not have to purchase a CD in order to hear this music because more pianists will have added some of these lovely works to their repertoires?

Addendum, January 2018

Chopin

When I researched and wrote this piece 6 or 7 years ago, there were very few recordings of the music of Chopin performed on period instruments available, at least in the USA, and I have since become aware of and acquired several significant ones, including the complete traversal issued in a 21-CD boxed set entitled The Real Chopin, NIFCCD 000-020, © 2010, performances recorded 2005-2009, by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute (Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina), established by the Polish Parliament in 2001 in Warsaw, the sponsor of the International Chopin Competition that has taken place there every 5 years since 2005; it also sponsors an annual Chopin Festival. It has a museum in Warsaw and also owns Chopin’s birthplace in Żelazowa Wola, now also a museum.

For this traversal, the Instytut used 2 instruments from Chopin’s time that it owns: an 1848 Pleyel, serial # not given, that it purchased in 2005, and an 1849 Érard, serial # 21118, that was given to it by the Ryszard Krause Foundation; the former has its original components, the latter has some restored ones; the accompanying 1/2-inch thick booklet contains photographs and detailed descriptions of both. It includes, as its first CD, # 00, a 31:18-minute historic performance by Raul Koczalski (1884-1948) on 21 February 1948 in Warsaw, on an 1847 Pleyel, serial # 16823, that had been purchased by his pupil Jane Wilhelmina Stirling, and which Chopin himself played in Scotland in 1848 on his last tour before his death, then in the Jagiellonian University Museum in Cracow, but apparently now in the NIFC.

I purchased my copy from a store in Leamington Spa in the UK, Presto because it was not available in the USA, and as far as I can tell, it still isn’t; if you go there and search under Chopin Institute, you will see the c. 100 items available (A similar search at Arkiv Music brings up 0); the set is not among them, but is still available directly from the Instytut or from Amazon.com, at more than double the price.

The Instytut has also issued some 20+ other single CDs using these instruments, in particular 1 of British pianist and conductor Howard Shelley playing the 3 sonatas, NIFCCD 022, © 2010, 79:41, mostly played on the 1849 Érard, with 2 movements of Op. 35 played on the 1848 Pleyel, and a lovely one of 18 of Chopin’s songs sung by soprano Dorothée Mields, accompanied by Nelson Goerner playing the 1848 Pleyel, NIFC CD 023, © 2011, 51:55, that I also own. The Instytut owns several other period instruments as well that have been used in some recordings, and all of those in the set have been issued separately; to find these at Presto, search under “Real Chopin”; they are also available from the NIFC. There is some duplication of works within the set, performed by different pianists, many of whose names will not be familiar to most Americans, but all are superb performances. Some, like Nelson Goerner, impressed me sufficiently to seek out others of their recordings, not necessarily of music by Chopin or performed on period instruments.

Two other single CDs released in this The Real Chopin New Series using these instruments (although the 1848 Pleyel is featured only on the first, in 1 duet work and the solo version of the concerto) that I recently acquired, both featuring Dina Yoffe, one of the pianists included in the set, are particularly noteworthy: NIFCCD 024, © 2011, 62:11, Works for four hands (on 1 or 2 pianos) + solo version of piano concerto No. 1 in f, Dina Yoffe and Daniel Vaiman; and NIFCCD 033, © 2015, 61:36, Solo versions of concert works for piano and orchestra (other than the concertos), Dina Yoffe, 1849 Érard. Both these pianists are Latvian, but not of the same generation, and had their early studies at the same school. The scores of these are not later reductions by other composers, rather they are Chopin’s own scores: pianist-composers worked at the keyboard, and orchestrated works after they were completed, sometimes with the partial help of others, which was the case with a couple of these; in another, Chopin offers more than one option from which the performer may choose for some sections, both of the orchestra equivalent and the solo part. All orchestral scores of these works were published after Chopin’s death.

The notes in the booklet accompanying the latter are by Pawel Kamiński, co-editor (Jan Ekier edited the scores for these works) of the Polish National Edition, the “urtext” one of all of Chopin’s works. “When listening to these recordings, we easily hear (and also no doubt appreciate) how clear, songful, and… natural Chopin’s cantilenas sound suspended high above the soft and harmonious basses; this is an effect that on modern pianos requires the pianist to maintain close control over the proportions to the sounds of the two hands and to apply certain compensatory measures.” (pp. 17-18), something that is very difficult for pianists to achieve. “Here we arrive at the heart of the matter: Chopin’s music has the power to reach the deepest layers of sensitivity of both performers and listeners, to penetrate and move their whole personality.” (p. 19). Yoffe’s performances are magnificent; it is difficult to assess Vaiman’s individually because he only participates in the performances of 3 duet works.

A fine recording of Chopin’s rarely performed and recorded earliest music is by Costantino Mastoprimiano, performed on a c. 1826 Graf, serial # 1092, Brilliant Classics 94066, © 2010, 71:45. Before going to Paris, Chopin visited Vienna twice in 1829-31, where he played Grafs that Conrad made available to him in his shop. This instrument is very significant and unusual in that it still belongs to the descendants of its original purchaser, and is in the house in which it was then installed, the Palazzo Contucci, built in the first half of the 16th century in Montepulciano (in Tuscany, near Siena), with all of its original components, recently reconditioned by Edwin Beunk.

The Contucci family has long been winemakers, but has also long been involved in cultural activities and music in particular. The recording is filled out with a rarely played and recorded short later work, and is a delightful listening experience. Mastropirimiano is a fine performer on early instruments and has made numerous recordings on them, including 2 others using this one, both featuring soprano Eleonora Contucci, descendent of its purchaser, in music of other composers, and 1 of music by Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), acquaintance of Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy, and Satie, Brilliant Classics 94341, © 2014, 66:43, played on an 1865 Pleyel, serial # 38590 that was originally purchased by pianist-composer Eugène Keterer (1831-1870, studied at the Conservatoire at the same time as Saint-Saëns, d. of smallpox in the siege of Paris by the Germans), now restored and in the Collection Casiglia in Palermo, Sicily.

Other recordings of works in the standard repertoire:

Alexei Lubimov, Ballades, Barcarole, Berceuse, & Fantaisie, Op. 49, Erato 2292-45990, ©1993, 63:11, performed on an 1837 Érard, one of the first recordings of Chopin on a period instrument by another period-instrument specialist, a fine performance, copies can still be found.

Arthur Schoonderwoerd, “Mazurkas, valses & autres danses,” Alpha 040, © 2004, 66:15, and “Ballades & Nocturnes,” Alpha 147, © 2009, 61:49, both performed on an 1836 Pleyel; Schoonderwoerd is one of the finest Dutch harpsichordists and fortepianists.

John Khouri, “The 27 Études,” Music & Arts, CD-1150, © 2004, 56:06, performed on an 1832 Broadwood; a fine recording with a nice sound, though Chopin may not have ever played a Broadwood.

Yuan Sheng, Ballades, Impromptus, 24 Préludes, & Nocturnes, Piano Classics PCL0049, © 2012, 3-CD set, 201:24 (56:18, 78:00, + 66:66), performed on an 1845 Pleyel in the Frederick collection of Historical Pianos (See text above), from which it can be ordered; I was present at the live performances of these that preceded the recordings. Sheng is professor of piano at the Beijing Central Conservatory, and has his BM and MM from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied under Solomon Mikowsky.

November 23, 2019. Hubert Rutkowski recently issued a carefully chosen representative selection of works composed by Chopin throughout his life performed on an instrument made just 2 years before his death: Chopin on Pleyel 1847, Piano Classics PCL 10129, © 2018, Pleyel, 1847, serial # 14444, Collection of Adam & Barbara Wibrowski, rec. at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Art and Crafts), Hamburg, DE, TT, 63:58. As with his Debussy recording (See above), the pianist’s notes in the accompanying booklet are precise and thorough, and explain how the sounds are produced and how they are different from those produced by a modern instrument, and also, how they differ from those of an Érard. They give an exact description of the instrument’s construction, of how it makes its sounds, and how the pianist must work to produce them, both being unique to Pleyels; the accompanying photo shows the straight stringing in this instance. He also discusses its role in the “Chopin style” (See below), and his touch (touché), and the veracity of Chopin’s famous comment that playing a Pleyel took much more work on the part of the pianist than playing an Érard, explaining why. Like his Debussy CD, this one will be ear- and mind-opening for the listener.

Another phenomenon that has occurred since I wrote this is that more pianists in the newest generation have become interested in the sound of early instruments and in learning the playing style of the earlier French pianist-composers to be able to use it when performing on modern ones. A striking example is the winner of the 2015 Chopin Competition, South Korean Seong-Jin Cho, who now lives in Paris and studies at the Conservatoire with Michel Béroff. His Competition-winning performance has been released under his name, Deutsche Grammophon 479 5332, © 2015, 75:52; his touch is as light as a feather, even his forte moments are light, and seems to me the closest I have heard to what Chopin’s playing has been described as being by those who heard him, and that all 5 of these heirs espoused and sought to imitate. Its booklet has good write-ups of the Competition and the Instytut. I discovered him when his most recent recording was released late in 2017: mostly early music of Debussy, 479 8308, © 2017, 72:47; it is an equally impressive display of this technique and how Debussy’s playing was described. I anxiously await a recording on a period instrument… The International Chopin Competition in September 2018 in Warsaw was organized using period instruments for the 1st time, with 5 different ones available from which the candidates could choose up to 3 for different works. Recitals were streamed live on YouTube. I watched those of the sole US contestant, whom I met in Ashburnham in July, where he played the entire competition program on the Fredericks’ 1840 Érard, which he had used for his audition video (Eric Clark; he made it to the 2nd stage, but not the 3rd; its winners are not yet listed in Wikipedia.); I believe all may still be available online.

Finally, although this relates to the subject of Appendix G, below, I must mention the most important book devoted to Chopin’s playing style, that he also taught, but no one does today to my knowledge: Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin: pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986, Pp. xvi + 324; translation by Naomi Shobet, with Krysia Osotowicz and Roy Howat, edited by Roy Howat, of the original: Chopin vu par ses élèves, Neuchâtel, CH: Éditions de la Baconnière, 1970 & 1979. This the most comprehensive and detailed compilation of material from available primary sources (i.e., they are not descriptions or paraphrases, but the actual texts/words) addressing these subjects by people who studied with Chopin, including pianists who played and taught his method/style, and a few more related ones, such as descriptions of his playing by his contemporaries, including other composers and music critics, and information about the instruments he owned and played; indeed, it is the most meticulous (I have seen some of the originals, and can confirm those quotes.) and thorough such work of its type that I have ever encountered. While additional documents and sources may have turned up in the succeeding 40 years, I can’t imagine any of them nullify anything in this work; confirmation and expansion are more likely. It is not, however, for the faint of heart, the uncommitted, undetermined, or impatient, or for the casual browser, because it is ex- and in-tensive, and ultra-specific, with countless detailed, encyclopedic, even, notes that include many capsule biographies of earlier pianists, and cross-references. I write fairly densely, and I have never before seen such a tightly packed work.

I would go so far as to say that no pianist who aspires to play Chopin as he played his own music and openly said he wanted it to be played by others should attempt doing so without first consulting this work, giving it serious attention and study, absorbing and putting into practice its contents, because any other playing style that s/he might use would be incorrect and s/he would be more or less guaranteed to be playing it all wrong. You will see what I mean and why if you delve into this book at all, and even a less-informed music lover can perceive and learn a lot from just perusing its 1st portion. Chopin’s playing and his music was/are exquisitely expressive, mostly quietly so, and supremely refined and sensitive, even in the few ff, or rarer still fff moments, and in the concertos (Listen to Grigory Sokolov’s performance of the 1st [Eurodisc 88875194722], for example.). He was adamantly opposed to bombast, bravura, and virtuosic display: Liszt openly admired his playing, but Chopin did not return the compliment, and avoided his performances. He perceived a marked difference between music and noise, and preferred the former. Eigeldinger has gathered together in a well-organized manner an incredible amount of information and quantity of details that were not in any way organized by Chopin himself, since he died before he ever got very far with his Projet de méthode (= planned Method for playing the piano book), all of whose notes are translated in Appendix I, pp. 190-97. This playing style is, along with the playing traditon of the clavecinistes, the basis for the “French” style that the “Mighty Five,” especially Debussy, espoused as well, although only Saint-Saëns could have heard him (Fauré would have only been c. 4 ½ when he died.), but I don’t believe he ever did.

[The previous 2 paragraphs, and the sentences following the ellipsis […] in the one before them, were added in January 2019.]

***

Since I wrote the above section, I have discovered another book that deals with Chopin’s performance style, but also links it with that of the French clavecinistes (See my article elsewhere in these pages about them and the performance of their works, beginning with François Couperin’s L’Art de toucher le clavecin:

Elena Letňanová, Piano Interpretation in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; A Study of Theory and Practice Using Original Documents, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991, Pp. 184, esp. pp. 101-126.

Chopin’s planned Méthode is a merely series of unorganized handwritten notes, with many strike-throughs, many of them rudimentary details, or merely random thoughts of potential organization or topics, with several repetitions, riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors (He was nearing the end of his life.), on 12 individual un-numbered sheets of diverse papers, of different sizes and types, including some of correspondence stationery and music score paper, some with their verso blank, entitled by others: "Projet de Méthode" (PM). The numbers on them were added by someone else between Chopin and Eigeldinger, most likely Cortot (See below), as the latter determined in his 2nd book (See further below). Its contents are given in Appendix A, pp. 190-97, of the translation of Eigeldinger’s 1st book (above section); the original (that I had not yet seen when I wrote this section) only indicates (p. 107, n. 1) its "reproduction" in: Alfred Cortot, Aspects de Chopin, Paris: Albin Michel, 1949, pp. 55-66. Though headed: « Reproduction intégrale du manuscript de Chopin », it is actually a transcription, at the end of chapter III, entitled: « Chopin Pédagogue », pp. 31-66, in which he gives an introduction (pp. 49-55), including mention of this project by Liszt, with a quote from his 206-pp. tribute biography of Chopin (F. Chopin, Paris: M. Escudier, 1852, pp. 190-91; he thought the sheets had been burned), and the detailed description and history of the ms, then referred to as the « Notice pour la Méthode des Méthodes », announcing that he has organized the sheets as best he could. There are photographic reproductions of 2 of the pages ahead of the chapter, (Pls VII & VIII) between pp. 30 & 31.

This book was translated into English by Cyril and Rena Clarke: In Search of Chopin, New York: Avelard Press, 1952, 1st published in London: Peter Nevill, 1951. See "3; Chopin the Pedagogue!" (sic), pp. 22-46 (transcription, pp. 38-46), without the photographic reproductions, but with a Bibliography (pp. 221-230), and "Discography" (pp. 231-268) "compiled by Cyril […]," that is introduced as a complete list of the published works in chronological order, with many indicated "Not Recorded," and recordings listed in paragraphs, alphabetically by pianist, for the others – Does Ward Marston know about this? – added; rpt Mineola, NY: Dover, 2013 (I saw the US original.).

Cortot, pianist renowned for his interpretations of Chopin’s music, but not a musicologist, owned the autograph manuscript, having purchased it in 1936, until his death in 1962; it is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in NYC, part of the Robert Owen Lehman Collection (Lehman acquired it from Cortot, perhaps from his estate, or an auction thereof.), on deposit (so not owned by the PML) since 1972, call # C549.S6277, Record ID 114348, described as "19 p. of ms, music and text; various sizes; bound"; this information was provided by Polly Cancro, Reader Services Librarian there.

It was prepared and published by Eigeldinger, ed., as: Frédéric Chopin, Esquisses pour une méthode de piano, Paris: Flammarion, 1993, Pp. 141; the WorldCat entry says it’s a facsimile, but no dimensions are given, and the only copies I have located are in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris, and the library of the Université du Québec à Montréal. Some "copies" were made made in 2010, according to another WorldCat entry, but it, too, gives no dimensions. Fortuitously, a few are available in the US, notably at Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, so I was able to look at the latter one; it is a copy of the 1993 original – not the 1st time I’ve uncovered an error in WorldCat. The book is c. 5.5" x 9," so clearly the photographic plates are not copies, but reductions of the images of the ms. It contains a complete transcription prepared by Eigeldinger (pp. 40-79), with 64 numbered notes by him (One of Chopin’s pages has numbered items.), at the bottoms of pages and on interspersed pages, and photographic images of the 19 pp., dramatically reduced, some to c. 5.25" x 6.5", i.e., somewhat like large format post cards, between pp. 48 and 49.

The text is preceded by an "Introduction" (pp. 9-36) that includes (pp. 20-23) a precise description, incl. measurements, of every sheet. These measurements and the types of paper have allowed the dates of the drafting of some to be determined, mostly 1844-46 (p. 21). This book has not been translated into English, though it certainly deserves to be, since it is the definitive publication on this subject. The best and clearest English rendering in print (Some minimal information is found in Cortot’s description, in the original and its translation.) is in Appendix A of the translation of the 1st Eigeldinger book (above section), but it, too, lacks important details (e.g., paper size and type, which a facsimile edition would make clearer. Howat’s note (p. 90, n. 1) in the above Eigeldinger translation gives the best description and the most details in English about the ms; he likely saw it.

Eigeldinger implies (1st book, p. 4) that Chopin may have undertaken this project as the result of his friendship with Eugène Delacroix, basing this on a sentence by George Sand in Impressions et Souvenirs, p. 88: [« Il (Chopin) nous promet pourtant d’écrire une méthode où il traîtera non-seulement [sic] du métier, mais de la doctrine. Tiendra-t-il parole? » (= He promises us, however, to write a method in which he will discuss not only the craft, but the theory. Will he keep his word?)], likely because Delacroix was contemplating writing something about art and painting. « Delacroix aussi promet, dans ses moments d’expansion, d’écrire un traité du dessin et de la couleur. Mais il ne le fera pas, quoiqu’il sache magnifiquement / écrire. Ces artistes inspirés sont condamnés à chercher toujours en avant et à ne pas s’arrêter un jour pour regarder en arrière. » [Delacroix also promises, in his moments of envisioning/imagining, to write a treatise on drawing and color. But he will not do it, although he knows how to/can write magnificently. These inspired artists are condemned to always look ahead and not to stop a single day to look back.] (ibid., pp. 88-89, my translation; also cited (p. 12) in Eigeldinger’s 2nd book [See above]). [Delacroix left preparatory notes and compilations for numerous things that he never completed or wrote, but he did write some articles that were published; all the incomplete items that remain are published in Hannoosh (See below)].

They frequently discussed the connections, relationships, and similarities between the two arts. See Part 2 of my article about sound-color/color-sound synesthesia concerning the relationship between Chopin and Delacroix and Sand, and their discussion, in 1841 (Eigeldinger verifies/confirms this date in his 2nd book, p. 11, n. 1), of this topic for the benefit of George’s son Maurice, whom Delacroix was teaching to paint, one of the subjects of Sand’s text, fully referenced there, after a pertinent quote, and see Addendum 5 in Part 5 of that article about Delacroix’ painting technique and its importance in the history of 19th-century French art as the origin of the Impressionists’ style.

The incipit for Eigeldinger’s 1st book (p. 11 in the original) is a quote from an entry in Delacroix’ Journal (= Diary), written after a conversation he had with Chopin in his apartment in the Square d'Orléans, with Charles-Valentin Alkan (who also lived there, as did George and Maurice Sand) present, on 7 April 1849 (c. 6 months before Chopin’s death, on 17 October), that was followed, at c. 3:30 p.m., by a walk with Chopin on the Champs-Élysées to L’Arc de l’Étoile [= Triomphe]: « La vraie science n’est pas une partie de la connaissance différente de l’art. Non, la science envisagée ainsi, démontrée par un homme comme Chopin, est l’art lui-même. » ("True science does not constitute a separate branch of knowledge from art. On the contrary, Science, when envisaged like this and demonstrated by a man like Chopin, is art itself." [translation, p. 1]). This text is found in Delacroix’ Journal, Michèle Hannoosh, ed., Paris: José Corti, 2009, 2- Vols, Pp. 2520, Vol. I, p. 439). This was a wide-ranging conversation about the components and forms of music and about major composers past and present.

In addition to examining and discussing the PM, Letňanová (b. 1942), Slovakian pianist, accompanist, and professor, has researched in sources not seen by others, specifically, writings by some of Chopin’s last pupils who lived in Poland and Central Europe (A few other such are included in the Eigeldinger’s 2nd book.). She organizes the information she located into the categories: Performance, Method, including Fingering, Repertoire and Lessons, Interpretation, Phrasing, and Pedaling, followed by a brief Conclusion.

She writes that Chopin believed that the earliest lessons should begin with the attack, describing in detail his soft, delicate one (characterized [p. 114] as a "deep, singing attack"), as opposed to the strong hard one taught in prior and other contemporary methods. If a student began the latter way, he asked: "What is that? A dog barking?" (p. 103) He also began by making them relax their hands, wrists, and fingers, the latter more flat rather than rounded tensely like a paw with claws, as most methods taught. The keys should be struck with their pads rather than their tips, because it is easier to control the expression. The hands should be placed lightly on the keys of the E major scale, rather than the more generally taught C major one, because it is a more natural fit/position. (pp. 105, 108; sheet 8r of the ms) Total independence of all the fingers must also be taught from day one (pp. 106-7); his first exercises for beginners focused on that.

  • "In the field of application or fingering, Chopin’s new ideas were renounced by authorities in Paris from the beginning; but gradually these new ideas found their own audience and then were spread by students and carefully, even reverently, protected. From the time of J. S. Bach, a great reformer of keyboard rules, only Chopin audaciously overstepped the fingering rules by free application of the first finger on the black keys, when this procedure eased execution and helped maintain the ‘tranquility’ of the hand and the evenness of the passages." (p. 112)

Letňanová also devotes many words (pp. 116-119) to how Chopin understood and executed tempo rubato (not a new concept with Chopin, as some think), that has caused much discussion and disagreement over the years. He likened music to phrasing in speech and singing, as did many earlier composers, putting words in small groups, separated by punctuation, commas and semi-colons; he wrote some of those very marks in his scores (though many printings eliminate[d] them), samples of which are shown (p. 121). This is the base of his famously unique expression that few modern pianists realize or replicate.

  • "In the interpretation of his works, one should think constantly about this unity between the principal idea (melody) and the lace (ornamental, small notes). If the ornaments [tradition carried down from the clavecinistes] are executed heavily or inappropriately, with the same importance as the main motive, in the same tempo as the structure before, then they produce banality, spoiling the formal perfection of Chopin’s music." (p. 119)

I would venture to say, as I did above, that no pianist should attempt to play Chopin’s music without reading the pages devoted to him in this overlooked work, and Eigeldinger’s edition of the PM, which are Chopin’s own words, carefully and extensively elucidated by a pianist who is also a teacher, meticulous musicologist, and Chopin scholar, and whose other sections with other contemporary related items (incl. some original Chopin mss) and works in mss by others in his 2nd book are equally informative. Chopin was decidedly a Romantic, but one grounded in the earlier Baroque (He warmed up, to play and to teach, by playing some of JSB’s "great 48.") and Classical (Aloys Fuchs , 1799-1853; Austrian musicologist and collector, gave him an autograph score of scales and other exercises by Beethoven [2nd Eigeldinger book, pl. 44]; how appropriate!, as a souvenir when he was in Vienna in June 1831 that he kept for the rest of his life, because he admired him.) composers, and who focused on discrete, refined, sometimes delicate even, and sensitive expression in the music, abhorring the other kind of Romantic: dramatic, flamboyant, superficial display, to which too many pianists today convert it, and thereby betray it/him. Audiences may "eat it up," but they haven’t heard the "real" Chopin and truly appreciated him.

[The above 13 paragraphs and their accompanying quotations (some of which may be more than you wanted to know…, but the pieces of the puzzles have been assembled and the records have been set straight) were added on 15 August 2019.]

***

I have just discovered that famous 20th century writer André Gide (1869-1951), was also an amateur pianist, and wrote and published a book about his experiences with Chopin's music: Notes sur Chopin (Paris: L'Arche, 1949, pp. x + 116). The first 40 pages were compiled and composed for this publication; the remainder are extracts from his « Journal » (= Diary) that date beginning in 1893 and ending in 1939 (pp. 45-83), and are it turn followed by unpublished « Feuillets et Variantes » (pp. 87-104), and a letter (pp. 107-110) that a reader sent to him after having read the Notes. There is nothing earth-shaking in these pages, and they are mostly his personal impressions in learning to play certain works, e.g., Impromptus, Préludes, Barcarolle, Berceuse, but the opening pages focus on Chopin vs. Liszt: improvisation and sensitivity – « Chopin est un artiste […] » (p. 1-2) – vs. virtuosity for showmanship's sake, and how most pianists perform Chopin's music as if it were that of Liszt: « Eux jouent Chopin comme si c'était du Liszt » (p. 2). One way of looking at this difference is to compare an étude by Chopin with a "Studie über die Etüden von F. Chopin" by Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938), but because they're études, there is also a skills-building component in both that is absent from pure showmanship.Thus my comments about this phenomenon are nothing new; nor has the clearly long-standing and prevalent bad practice, of which neither would have approved, been corrected. Also interesting is Gide's frequent comparison of Chopin with poet Charles Baudelaire's works. The book has been translated into English, but I have not seen that version.

[The above paragraph was added on 7-8 October 2020.]

I recently serendipitously came across, on the shelves of a bookcase in the home studio of a pianist friend, in which she hosts house concerts, when I was attending one, a biography of Chopin with which I was not familiar: Adam Zamoyski, Chopin; Prince of the Romantics, London: Harper Press, 2010, Pp. xii + 356. Unable to locate a copy in a local area library, I took out its now out-of-print predecessor: Chopin; A New Biography, Garden City, NY, Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1980, Pp. 374, from Smith College's Josten Performing Arts Library, and read it in its entirety (within c. 48 hours!). The © for both is held by the author.

At first glance, I had guessed that it focused on the details of the life of the composer, the person and the personality, rather than the music, might well contain information not present in other biographies, and might explode some legends and myths. I was correct on all fronts (We learn, for example, that Chopin, like Schubert, may have contracted a venereal disease when he was young, while “philandering in the company of [Norbert Alfons] Kumelski” in Vienna in 1830-31 [p. 87 (orig.)/77 (new)], reported in an 18 November 1831 letter he wrote to the latter.), purchased a copy of this edition, and read it in its entirety. You would likely enjoy reading it once, too.

Its 3-paragraph Preface confirms this, and states (p. xi) that the author “[…] rework[ed] the text thoroughly […],” but this is, in fact, a significant overstatement. After the opening chapter, which begins with the 10 October 1849 funeral (rather than the ancestry and the birth that opened the original, and follows here), the text is mostly somewhat rearranged and redistributed and only (s)lightly altered, until the last chapter, which incorporates the former Epilogue, is necessarily revamped, and contains some new additions. The original 14 chapters, all but two of whose titles are changed, are transformed into 16. Some of the middle chapters (5-10 [orig. 5-9], for example) are entirely unchanged. In other chapters, many paragraphs remain unchanged, while a few are modified, including some occasional trimming. Much of the reworking is, in fact, purely cosmetic: reformatting, breaking up long paragraphs, and incorporating previously set off quotations into the text itself by breaking them up.

This is hands-down the best general and readily readable biography of Chopin that I have encountered (See also my review elsewhere in these pages of a longer, more recent, and more scholarly biography). While written in an “anecdotal” style, every fact is carefully and meticulously documented with its source given in the accompanying note. The author consulted many documents in Polish, including diaries and letters of secondary and even tertiary characters in the action, that his predecessors had likely not seen. His mother was a member of the noble Czartoryski family, who were close friends of Chopin as expatriates in Paris, and had a Polish center in their home, the Hôtel Lambert, when he was there. It is written more for the general reader than for the scholar, but the documentation is all there: the notes occupy pp. 310-37. It also includes photographs that I have not seen elsewhere. An excellent capsule description of Chopin's playing style is found on pp. 98-99.

[The above 4 paragraphs were added on March 2, 2020.]

For part 5 of this 5-part article, click here.