LATELY — 7 October 2000

Chopin the Pansy

Chopin was a great, but feeble, pianist. In The Great Pianists, by Harold C. Schonberg, he is described as follows: “He was a slight, refined-looking man, not much over a hundred pounds in weight, with a prominent nose, brown eyes (say some; others say blue-green), a pale complexion and beautiful hands. He was a snob and a social butterfly, to whom moving in the best circles meant everything. … He made a good deal of money and spent it lavishly, always complaining that he did not have more. ‘You think I am making a fortune? Carriages and white gloves cost more, and without them one would not be in good taste.’”

According to Schonberg, Chopin’s most striking characteristic was his lack of power. Whoever would have thought that a grown man could lack the strength to play–gasp–the piano? But, it seems, Chopin was such a man. And everyone knew it–even Chopin himself, who restricted his playing to Salons, an arena where the whole audience could hear him without difficulty.

Schonberg writes: “Chopin envied him [Liszt] his strength with the intense feeling that only the physical weakling can have for the strong man. Even as a youth Chopin admired strength, and he once wrote about a Herr Lehmann, otherwise unknown to history, ‘I envied him his fingers. I broke my roll with two hands; he crushed his into a wafer with one.’”

And later: “As his frame began to weaken from the oncoming tuberculosis, his physical strength became such that he could not play a forte. He compensated by using a pianissimo with infinite degrees of shading (he must have had extraordinary control–more, perhaps, than any pianist who ever lived) and so delicate was his approach that when he came near a normal forte it sounded thunderous. Toward the end, though, his playing must have been wraithlike, with tiny tones dissolving faintly into the air. Thalberg once came out of a Chopin recital and shouted all the way home. ‘I need some noise because I’ve heard nothing but pianissimo all evening,’ he explained.”

I am reminded of tale told about (I think) the director Billy Wilder. On set one day, he tried, for some reason, to remove the lid from a jar. But the lid would not oblige. He looked from the troublesome jar to his hand and back again, and remarked, sadly, and to no-one in particular, “Forty years of masturbation, and still there’s no strength in this hand.”