Frederic Chopin: Child Prodigy and Master of the Pedal
On the 1st of March 1810, Frederic Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, the Duchy of Warsaw (now Poland). The great Polish composer, associated with passionate love and physical suffering, and, in an indirect way, with Polish insurrection, has gained the status of a leading symbol of the Romantic period in music. According to A. E. Brent Smith, “No man has such an invincible immortality as Chopin. In every concert-room, in every school-room, in every drawing-room, he is an honoured guest; he is the confidant of every lover, he is the friend of every mourner; he is the companion of old age, he is likewise the companion of youth. This unique position he won for himself, not by power, but by charm.” (A. E. Brent Smith, A Note of Frederic Chopin, Music & Letters, Vol.5, No. 2, Apr., 1924). The charm, to which Smith referred to, was the product of his unique sensitivity which allowed his feelings and emotions to be skilfully translated into the language of music. Chopin’s music moved equally the listeners and players of his famous mazurkas, etudes and polonaises. For example, Oscar Wilde once said: “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.” (Oscar Wilde, The Major Works). However, the extraordinary quality of Chopin’s music should be ascribed most of all to his rare talent, which started showing at a very early age.
Chopin was undeniably a child prodigy. After receiving his first lessons from the Czech tutor, Wojciech Żywny, he composed two polonaises, in G minor and B-flat major, at the age of seven. ““A child not yet eight years old, who, in the opinion of the connoisseurs of the art, promises to replace Mozart” – a Polish writer referred to Chopin thus after hearing him play the piano. At the age of nine Chopin appeared in a public concert. The extent to which his musical talent was ahead of his general development at this time, is shown by his naive retort to his mother, who asked him when he came back: “Well, Fred, what did the public like best?” “Oh, mamma,” he answered, “everybody was looking at my collar.”” (Henry T. Finck, Prodigies and the Gift of Music, Etude Magazine, February, 1910).
Chopin’s style has been noted as highly individual. The music he created, free from evoking literary or pictorial elements from the past, was to be understood in purely musical terms. His over two hundred solo compositions for the piano include two sets of etudes, three sonatas, four ballads, many pieces he variously titled preludes, impromptus, or scherzos, and a great number of dances including waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises. His style was mostly determined by the use of a very independent finger technique. In Projet de méthode, he wrote: “Everything is a matter of knowing good fingering […] Just as we need to use the conformation of the fingers, we need no less to use the rest of the hand, the wrist, the forearm and the upper arm… One needs only to study a certain position of the hand in relation to the keys to obtain with ease the most beautiful quality of sound, to know how to play short notes and long notes, and [to attain] unlimited dexterity.” (Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by His Pupils).
Another distinct quality of Chopin’s technique was the way he used piano pedals. In fact, he can be considered as a true pioneer in the use of pedalling, constantly exploring the possibilities given by the invention of the damper pedal. “Antoine François Marmontel commented that sometimes when Chopin performed, his foot seemed to vibrate as he rapidly pedalled certain passages, and that “No pianist before him has employed the pedals alternately or simultaneously with so much tact and ability.”” (Joseph Banowetz, The Pianist’s Guide to Pedaling). Also, one of his pupils said that: “Chopin used the pedals with marvellous discretion. He often coupled them to obtain a soft and veiled sonority, but more often still he would use them separately for brilliant passages, for sustained harmonies, for deep bass notes, and for loud ringing chords. Or he would use the soft pedal alone for those light murmurings which seem to create a transparent vapour round the arabesques that embellish the melody and envelop it like fine lace. The timbre produced by the pedals on Pleyel pianos has a perfect sonority, and the dampers work with a precision very useful for chromatic and modulating passages; this quality is precious and absolutely indispensable.”
Chopin’s experiments with style and various playing techniques opened a new chapter in classical piano music. The use of the damper pedal gave his music a special freshness and broadness of the sound, and, from then on, others composers started using it more freely too. According to Vladimir Horowitz: “The pedal is everything. It is our lungs and we breath through the pedal. You can blend two harmonies which are completely dissonant for one millionth of a second and create possibilities for endless varieties of color.” (Banowetz)