Chopin the Pansy

7 October 2000

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.”