Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Chopin, Poetry and Anne Stevenson's 'Elegy'

Fryderyk Chopin - by Maria Wodzińska, 1835

Life seems to have been distracting and distracted of late, and I had to follow a thought down the rabbit hole to find something to write about tonight.

I played the piano pretty seriously for about ten years in my childhood and teens - starting with the spinet or harpsichord, because unusually, my parents had one at home. (It had been my grandfather's, and when my father's family lived in Calgary, the orchestra used to borrow it.) The harpsichord will limit you to Renaissance and Baroque music, as beautiful as it is, and eventually I moved on to the piano.

I was the piano student who had talent but would probably have done better had she practised more. I still did reasonably well, but I can't help wondering if my teacher slightly regretted introducing me to the great Polish composer Chopin in the last few years that I was actively playing. I already knew his music up to a point and was keen to trying playing it. As it turned out, I loved playing Chopin so much that I didn't really want to play anything else. (This wouldn't have been a problem but for the fact that I was practicing for exams where only playing Chopin wasn't an option.) The Nocturnes hit me particularly hard. Some of them were far too difficult for me, but I gave quite a few of them a go, and some with success - along with some Preludes and Etudes.

Fryderyk Chopin is the poet of the piano. It was his medium, like no one else's. There is an extreme purity of emotion in his music which often overwhelms me. It's the tightrope walk between beauty and despair, over the abyss.

My father and I were watching a Chopin documentary together when I was in Canada, and this led to me writing a poem which rather strangely was both about Chopin and about Urbain Le Verrier, the French mathematician who predicted the existence of Neptune. Chopin mentioned Le Verrier in one of his letters. I was already thinking of writing a poem on the subject of Space, which I had been requested to do for my reading with The Quiet Compere (which took place last week in Hackney). Chopin and Le Verrier proved to be the subject of my poem, in the end.

Tonight, I thought I would see if there is poetry about Chopin. There is, but perhaps not a great deal or not specifically about him. But then I found this very moving 'Elegy' by Anne Stevenson about her logical, rational father's passion for the piano. The tension - or the beauty of the balance - between logic and emotion is also something I have been thinking about lately.


  1. If you have a chance to read The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse , by Louise Erdrich, you might find some curiously satisfying passages, which verge on poetry --and they are inspired by Chopin.

    ...The Brahms she played was thoughtful, the Schubert confounding. The Debussy she sneaked in between the covers of a Bach Mass was all contrived nature and yet as gorgeous as a meadowlark. Beethoven contained all messages, but her crescendos lacked conviction. However, when it came to the Chopin, she did not use the flowery ornamentation or the endless trills and insipid floribunda of so many of her day. Her playing was of the utmost sincerity.

    And Chopin, played simply, devastates the heart....

    --Louise Erdrich, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

    1. Thank you! That sounds very interesting. I like "Chopin, played simply, devastates the heart". In the documentary I was watching, some of the pianists were saying that modern players sometimes perform him with too much force, which overwhelms the pure emotion in the music as it is written and makes it "too much".