Changing Chopin: The Metamorphoses of Performance History
29 August 2018
Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea change Into something rich and strange (Shakespeare, The Tempest) Chopin was primarily a salon performer- a pianist for intimate gatherings. He recoiled with revulsion from the declamatory style cultivated by Liszt and other contemporary virtuosi, whose playing was designed for vast audiences in large halls. For Chopin, public concerts were “never real music- you have to give up the idea of hearing in them all the most beautiful things in art”.
Yet his music was increasingly played in such concerts, and by the second half of the 19th century was as firmly entrenched in the standard repertoire as Bach or Beethoven. It was, therefore, pianists other than the composer himself who had to confront the problem of creating a “Chopin” for public consumption. They popularised Chopin, but they also, unconsciously, distorted his music.
We could, with early instruments and modern recording methods, successfully recreate many aspects of the original Chopin style. But do we want to? Is it actually advisable to rewind the metamorphoses of performance history, or do we simply end up with meaningless museum-pieces?