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Celebrating Chopin

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

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In Warsaw, graffiti dedicated to him on his 200th birth anniversary, which was on March 1.-JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

In Warsaw, graffiti dedicated to him on his 200th birth anniversary, which was on March 1.-JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

Chopin's music is so fundamentally approachable even to those who are not musically initiated and yet so satisfying to those who are immersed in it.

THE musical world is replete with anniversaries, but some are more significant than others. The bicentenary of the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1991 was marked by major festivities across the world, not only in his native Austria but even in places that Mozart himself was unlikely to have heard of. The drive for commercial profit that seems to characterise all human activity in this period of history also marked the contours within which the celebrations occurred.

This sparked some satisfying musical outcomes: a series of sold-out festivals of his music by major performers in many different locations as well as many reissues and new recordings of his compositions. But there were also all kinds of other, less musical but possibly even more lucrative, spin-offs: from the famous Mozart chocolates to specially arranged tours of all the places he ever lived in and visited, to mugs and plates and T-shirts.

The current year marks the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Frederic Chopin, the Poland born composer who made the piano his own and particular instrument, embodying the most passionate and lyrical elements of the Romantic style in his compositions for the keyboard. And it is giving rise to similar if not quite as grandiose global expressions that combine musicality with commerce.

Interestingly, the bicentennial celebrations for both Mozart and Chopin have been marked by the fervent, even hectic, involvement of their native countries and cities places that during their lifetime proved to be sources of uncertain happiness and certain lack of income. Mozart was repeatedly scorned by the musical establishment of Vienna, which now claims him as its very own and makes tourist attractions of various places associated with his life and music. Chopin left Poland early and had at best a tenuous relationship with his country of birth.

Indeed, Chopin's feelings for his homeland were expressed more in the musical longings surging through his famous Polonaises than in any real connection. Having left Warsaw at the age of 20 years, he never returned to Poland from France, which became his real home. His father, Nicholas Chopin, was, in fact, a Frenchman from the province of Lorraine who emigrated to Poland and taught French to the children of the nobility on the estate of Zelazowa Wola where his son was born. But even Nicholas' death did not spur his by-then famous son to abandon his self-imposed exile he met his family only when they came to France to visit him. This has not stopped Poland from celebrating Chopin with much fervour. Instead, it is argued that since he died at the early age of 39, he actually spent slightly more than half his life in Poland. And the fact that he never explicitly took any other citizenship, and remained proudly Polish in heritage at least through the use of Polish folk songs in his music, has contributed to this sense of ownership by Poland.

In any case, there is no doubt Fryderyk (the Polish version of his name) is Poland's most famous son. So the Poles have led the way with the celebrations, issuing official stamps and now even bank notes with his image, holding a series of major concerts, making a museum out of the feudal manor that was his birthplace, designing tours for Chopin enthusiasts to visit in any place the child and youth may once have breathed.

Other European cities have not been left behind in the festivities. Paris naturally claims precedence, as the site of the composer's adult life and the location from which he composed and first performed most of his works. There is a long series of concerts organised by Cite de la Musique devoted to Chopin the European. There are programmed visits to Nohant, where Chopin lived with the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant) during their intense, complex and ultimately turbulent relationship. Many other European cities Vienna, London, Berlin, and so on are hosting exhibitions, commemorative concerts and recitals and other events to mark the year. Even Sweden has claimed a relationship through new research that purports to have established that Chopin shared a deep relationship with the soprano Jenny Lind (known as the Swedish nightingale), who not only was a benefactor but even planned to marry him, an outcome thwarted by his untimely death.

And elsewhere in the world, even when no such link can be traced, there are still celebratory events that have occurred or are being planned, in places as far apart as Beijing and Buenos Aires. Inevitably in our times, the musical aspect tends to get overshadowed by the requirements of the markets, in terms of finding profitable avenues for cashing in on Chopin's name and fame during this year.

So, in addition to the music in the form of live performances, new recordings and many reissues of some of the favourite warhorses of the Chopin repertoire, there are all sorts of other commercial offshoots: books on Chopin and Jenny Lind; films about the always fascinating relationship between Chopin and George Sand; specially designed holidays to enable tourists to live through Chopin's life in snappily organised tours through some major places such as Warsaw, Paris, Nohant and London, punctuated by recitals of his music. The most notable form of profiteering on Chopin's name is the vodka named after Chopin, which was first sold in Poland in 1993 and in the international market some five years later. While potato vodka may have been the drink of the unwashed Polish peasants, despised by the nobility that Chopin's father served, Chopin Vodka is peddled as a super luxury vodka made from hand-picked Stobrawa potatoes. It is now a major contender in the global super-luxury vodka market, flying off the shelves in duty-free shops in all sorts of places. To celebrate the Chopin bicentenary, a gigantic bottle containing (inevitably) 200 litres of Chopin Vodka has been circulating in various trendy destinations around the world before being auctioned off in Las Vegas in the United States, the mecca of kitsch entertainment.

All this may appear to be a bit much, and purists are likely to scoff at the crude and sometimes excessively blatant attempts to cash in on what is after all just a fairly standard temporal landmark. But, in fact, there is no reason to be snooty about such celebrations, however banal or openly profit-oriented they may be. The main reason why snootiness is unjustified is the music itself. One reason for this particular anniversary attracting so much attention, just like that of Mozart a decade ago, is Chopin's music is so fundamentally approachable even to those who are not musically initiated and yet so continuously satisfying to those who are immersed in it.

Some have argued that his fixation with the piano was not so much a strength as a limitation; and certainly, his few forays into orchestration (such as in his piano concertos) do suggest that the inspiration and mastery of his works for solo piano were not equally evident in his writing for many instruments. Also, he was a poet of the miniature he wrote relatively small pieces, each perfect in itself, with some of them blazing forth with the most immense passions despite their short length and their inherent elegance.

But these are not limitations so much as particularities of the composer, which do not make his music any less great or fulfilling. If a bicentennial anniversary becomes the means for many more people across the world to hear such music whether for the first time or once again then any other crassness of commercial enterprise pales into insignificance.

For all its many imperfections, this world cannot be such a terrible place if it is possible to listen, even electronically, to a Chopin ballade or nocturne played by a great pianist. For that alone, such celebrations are really worth celebrating.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 27, 2010.)

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