This morning, I began my day at the piano, playing Chopin.
Actually, not really. (And not in the way my teacher might say, “You call that playing Chopin?”)
It is just that Chopin’s music is not the same thing as playing Chopin.
I was playing the sheet music of an etude that Chopin composed. Sheet music is miraculous stuff. When one plays the music, the fidelity of the sound is perfect—there is an actual instrument being played.
In fact, a computer can read sheet music and play a composition, in much the same way a player piano can read a roll of punched paper. It’s just newer technology.
However, perfectly playing the sheet music is not playing Chopin, either.
My teacher will say that “the answer is in the music.”
He’s far from the first to say this. Yet, for many years, I misunderstood what this saying meant. I found sheet music limiting, even threatening—why waste time reading someone else’s music, when I could write my own?
I wish that I had been a little more openminded. Because “the answer is in the music” does not mean “follow the notation mindlessly.”
It means completely the opposite, doesn’t it? (Other musicians, you can nod and laugh at me now.)
By reading the music carefully, understanding its structure, its progressions, and flow—one begins a conversation with the piece—and the composer—considering, listening, responding with one’s own disposition and artistry. Why accent here? Or delay the crescendo there? What if I accentuate certain notes in a chord?
And who wouldn’t want to chat with Frédéric Chopin about artistry?
There’s no recording of Chopin’s piano playing—his life predated recording technology. There are written accounts of his playing—that it was light and graceful, full of nuance and liberal use of rubato.
Literal performances of his music seem to be “missing” something. And that, more than anything, speaks to the magnitude of Chopin’s own musicianship. What is missing are the quiet deviations, the breath of the piece—it’s not surprising to read that Chopin’s performances were much better suited to smaller, intimate salons than larger recitals and concerts.
Chopin left spectacle to his rival, Franz Liszt, whose charisma and pyrotechnics made him one of the first true rock stars. From his piano, Liszt pioneered the whole rock star journey—the brilliant younger years, to the extended road tours and various debaucheries to later humanitarian efforts and accolades.
Fans became so frenzied that “Liszt Fever” or “Lisztmania” was recorded in medical journals and treated as an actual physical condition.
However, as with Chopin, listening to Liszt is impossible—they were born only a year apart.
The many critical accounts of his concerts can report what he might have sounded like, but the performances are gone. We think of Liszt, as the virtuoso rock star piano guy. He’s every pianist’s answer to violinists and their Paganini (no Nicolo Paganini recordings exist, either).
Yet, all of our acclaim and respect for Liszt the performer comes through someone else’s pen. Someone else’s mind. We can’t read these articles like sheets of music—the Liszt’s direct presence is not there.
Of course, Liszt also composed. In fact, he was a prolific composer, and his work has staunch supporters who say pieces like his “Transcendental Etudes” should be considered equal to anything Chopin ever wrote.
And yet, Liszt’s compositions never gained the acclaim of Chopin’s. We can argue what should or should not be. But the public holds dear what it holds dear. It remembers what it remembers.
In the end, it was Liszt’s performances that won him immortality.
I wish that I could see videos of his performances. What made him such a phenomenon? How did he interpret his music, engage with his audiences?
When I listen to great pianists like Horowitz, or even someone contemporary like Yuja Wang, I learn as much about the performer as I do the composer. How they interpret the work can be…
…gosh, I saw Lang Lang live once, and whatever you may say about Lang Lang, it was one of the most enlightening artistic experiences of my life.
Imagine being able to see freaking Liszt!
One of the most wonderful things about our now-ubiquitous ability to record sound and video is how it preserves the work of our performers. It’s heartbreaking to think of how many great ones have come and gone. Think of all the genius, beauty, and brilliance that we were unable to react to, to analyze, to be taken by—to witness and experience firsthand.
Not long after Lisztmania, another musician became a social phenomenon—the soprano Jenny Lind.
A contemporary of Chopin and Liszt, Jenny Lind performed in Swedish and European opera houses in the mid 1800’s and was incredibly popular. Riding the wave of “Lindmania,” the “Swedish Nightingale” counted Queen Victoria among her most ardent fans, and even followed the money to the United States with P.T. Barnum, which earned her a fortune.
But what do we know of her voice? Almost nothing.
Sure, we have reports, but they are conflicted as the reporting of any successful woman in the 1800s might be. And her American tour, where she garnered the most press, happened after she had already sustained vocal damage and retired from opera.
All we know is that many, many people loved her.
But as a musician? As an artist?
We may read Felix Mendelssohn’s love letters, then ask, “Did they, or didn’t they?”
We may admire how Jenny Lind cared for Chopin in his final years. We may be grateful that she supported him generously, then paid for a lavish funeral and posthumous commemorations.
But where is Jenny Lind the artist? How did her brilliance complement Chopin’s? What music did they share?
What did the Swedish Nightingale sound like?
When I think of how social media is criticized, I think of Liszt and Lind—and all the performers whose names we never knew.
I think of all the art that could not be inherited.
Of course, some of what we now preserve see seems trivial, even bad—yes, bad art is a thing. And in the sea of tweets and blogs and photos and videos—how can we tell what will truly be for all time?
Who knows? But so much will be there. So much more will be there.
Finally…for all of us to see.
***Fine Art Photographic/Collection: Corbis Historical/Getty Images