From Salon to Xbox: Chopin, His Audience and Musical Engagement

A conversation with music historian Jeffrey Kallberg.
March 1, 2010

On March 1, the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Fryderyk Chopin. He lived only 39 years, composed almost exclusively smaller works for the piano, rarely performed publicly, yet has remained one of the most popular of the Romantic composers. He has also been the focus of Professor and Chair of Music Jeffrey Kallberg's scholarship since the late 1970s. Kallberg's extensive writings on Chopin, including his 1996 book Chopin at the Boundaries: Sex, History, and Musical Genre, have added nuance and depth to understanding a composer with a complicated legacy. Hailed as a genius by many, Chopin has also at times been marginalized as something of a lightweight—composing music apparently more suited for the salon than the concert hall. Shortly after his return from this month's anniversary festivities in Chopin's birthplace, Warsaw, Kallberg shared his perspectives on what Chopin means to scholars, musicians, and audiences today.

Q: You've been researching Chopin since the late '70s. What's the focus of your current research?

JK: Right now I'm looking at two things. I'm finishing a book on the Chopin nocturnes, which is about the meaning of that very familiar genre in Chopin's time and what kinds of engagements this music had with the various kinds of publics he was writing for. The other topic—which comes out of this first one, in a way—is trying to rethink what musical biography means, for Chopin in particular. Chopin's life, according to some ways of thinking about biography, isn't so terribly interesting. He had some famous relationships, and he died young, and so there was a kind of storyline there. But he didn't seem to be someone who wrote a lot about music or ideas. And so the question is how do you understand Chopin the thinker. I think that his music actually is telling us what he was like as a thinker. And if we work to find ways to make the music more part of the life story, then we might have a better way of understanding what he was about and why he was so important.

"The question is how do you understand Chopin the thinker. I think that his music actually is telling us what he was like as a thinker. And if we work to find ways to make the music more part of the life story, then we might have a better way of understanding what he was about and why he was so important." – Jeffrey Kallberg

Q: In addition to your engagement with Chopin as a scholar, you're a musician who plays Chopin's works. Do you feel that one informs the other?

JK: Oh, quite a bit. Chopin was so intensely bound with performance himself. He was a famous performer-composer, which was the norm in his time. You would not just be a composer in the 1830s. If you were writing for piano, it was expected that you play your music yourself. And he was self-taught as a performer, as a pianist. So a lot of the technical things that he did came about from trying to imagine certain sounds that he wanted, and then to find ways to make his fingers and his arms produce these sounds.

Being aware of this on the keyboard is a very important part of studying it from a scholarly side of things, to know what sorts of technical means he was trying to use to capture the sounds—the sounds which then were interpreted in a cultural kind of way or a national sort of way by his listeners. You can't really separate them all. It's all part of the same story.

Q: You've also helped performers with their interpretations. What sorts of questions might they come to you with?

JK: They're usually very particular kinds of questions. One of the great problems in Chopin is that he published his music in different countries at the same time, in what were called "simultaneous editions"—even though they didn't quite appear at the same time. That was just a way of dealing with the way copyright worked in his time. What was idiosyncratic to Chopin was that the different versions in the different countries didn't always agree with each other—in fact normally didn't agree with each other. Most times they're relatively small differences, though any pianist will care about those small differences. But sometimes they're very large differences. And so pianists want to know what edition to play from, what version is right.

They're also very interested in the question of rubato. "Rubato" means stolen, literally. It means to borrow time from one beat and give it to another. It refers to the free sort of way that you are supposed to perform Chopin that pianists understand intuitively, but not necessarily in a way that is historically informed. And they want to know how to do that better.

They also want to know about preluding. Chopin wrote pieces called "preludes," which we almost always hear as if they were a very large piece with 24 parts. But what Chopin probably understood them to be was examples of how you use pieces to introduce other pieces. They're preludes, literally, to other pieces. They refer to an improvisatory practice at his time. And sometimes pianists want to know, well, how do I do this kind of improvisation if I want to play in the spirit of the time?

Q: Would you say that there are categorical differences in the appreciation of Chopin among musicians, scholars and the general public?

JK: I would say so. The general public definitely loves Chopin. But I think they probably don't know, as well as musicians and scholars do, what a remarkable musical thinker he was. They appreciate that he writes these gorgeous melodies, and that there's this overflowing of emotion and wonderful melancholy and joy in different pieces. But they don't know what remarkable craft there is in the way these little pieces are put together. I think that's what fascinates the musicians and the scholars even more. It's astonishing what he could accomplish in a piece that's 35 seconds long.

Q: There's a role-playing video game called "Eternal Sonata" that's based on Chopin. Do you have any thoughts on what might account for this unusual sort of tribute?

JK: I just saw a presentation on this in Warsaw. As a genre, it's interesting. It was designed in Japan, and it features a Chopin figure who's given Asian features. One of the Chopin Competition [an international performance competition held every 5 years] prizewinners, Stanislav Bunin, who lives in Japan, plays all the music. I think it ties into this particular fascination that Chopin has in Asian culture. Asia is the real hotbed for young pianists now, and Chopin's become an iconic figure. Looks like kind of a fun game, if you're into that sort of thing.

Q: Has there been a significant ebb and flow over time in the public appreciation of Chopin? Has it bottomed out at any point? Or has it remained constant?

JK: It's been pretty constant, actually. There have been moments where parts of his reputation have been called into question. Arthur Rubinstein, who was one of the 20th century's great Chopin interpreters, writes in his memoirs that when he was a young pianist, he avoided Chopin because it was drawing room music—for the ladies. He was really more interested in the man's world, and so Brahms was what he thought was important. But he felt that his own playing of Chopin later in his career helped change that view.

So you do have those kinds of ebbs and flows. But I think the basic core popularity hasn't really changed very much. Having just come from Warsaw and seen the celebrations for the 200th anniversary, I can say he's still phenomenally popular in the terms of classical music.