Book Review of Mieczysław Tomaszewski’s Chopin: Człowiek, Dzieło, Rezonans

Poznań: Podsiedlik-Raniowski i Spółka, 1999.
847 pages, illustrations, music examples, portraits.


Book Review

by Zbigniew Skowron

Translated by Anna Masłowiec and Richard Toop


Amongst the events of the Chopin Year one notes, with great appreciation, the publication of a monograph entitled Chopin: His Person, Work, and Resonance, from the pen of a distinguished representative of Polish musicology, Mieczysław Tomaszewski. This book is exceptionally significant on many accounts—not only against a local background but also in terms of foreign Chopin literature. It arises first of all from Chopin’s multifaceted approach, both as a person and in his art, and takes the form of a new synthesis, which systematizes numerous and diverse problems within contemporary Chopin studies. Leaving aside its main subject, this book’s multidimensional perspective is defined on the one hand by cultural and historical background, and on the other by the Chopin tradition, which embraces not only the history of performance practice (this domain is particularly attractive for Chopin lovers), but also the reception of both the style and the compositional technique of the Creator of the Ballade, and lastly, the long chain of biographical interpretations undertaken tirelessly by successive generations of investigators.

The vast range of existing Chopin biographies means that every new attempt at a monograph becomes a rather difficult challenge, demanding a truly individual and revealing approach: one which can be cognitively attractive and, at the same time, manages to protect itself from vanishing in the ocean of current literature. Underlying Tomaszewski’s monograph is an exceptional concept which is already enough to keep it afloat: its intentions and the language are highly original, stemming from his implicit adopted aim, whose guiding principle, apparently, is to arrive at the sense (meaning) and values found in Chopin’s oeuvre when these are treated as being inseparable from the person. The whole tone of the author’s interpretation plays a special role in achieving this goal. The author is aware of the many planes on which readings of sense and meaning can take place, beginning with external circumstances, then passing via biographical events and the artist’s beliefs to the purely sonic musical images of his works. This colorful interpretation—which by no means implies simple language!—combines biographical fact and personal reflection, historical opinions and contemporary language. This can already be found in the second chapter of the book (Life), where what seems to be merely a chronicler’s account based on “dry” facts begins to glitter, through the use of Chopin’s own opinions taken from his Correspondence, and the voices of other people who knew him. There are two planes within Tomaszewski’s discourse. The first one is erudite: characterized by an individual narrative polyphony in which author’s account intertwines not only with Chopin’s voice and those of his contemporaries, but also with the voices of many investigators of his life and work. The second plane, operating within the music itself, and portraying the sound world of the works, is what I would call an interpretative one. Here, by contrast, it is the author who speaks. It comes not so much from the kind of perception of music that might be described precisely in technical and compositional terms as from experience and feeling; hence the emphasis on dynamic perception, on experiencing the music’s emotional shape and its reflection in the listener’s consciousness. It seems that it is these characteristics—the multi-dimensional erudition and the lively, personal interpretation, seeking value and meaning—that endow the book with originality and turn it into a factual written source as well as an account of those “deep” qualities, which although not fully uncovered and investigated, allow one to penetrate the values underlying Chopin’s music, and give crucial insights into the power and universality of its influence.

Tomaszewski’s monograph is an expanded version of his doctoral dissertation, The Compositional Output of Fryderyk Chopin and its Reception: A monographic outline(1982-1983) which was also a basis of a dictionary entry (“Chopin” in the second volume of the Encyclopedia Muzyczna PWM); in all it comprises three volumes bound into one book. The first volume is entitled “Life. Facts, Documents, Opinions;” the second, “Compositional Output. An Attempt at an Integral Interpretation;” and the third, “Resonance. Throughout the Years and Nations.” Let us take a closer look at their order and contents. The first volume, consisting of three parts—”The Person,” “The Pianist,” and “The Composer”—presents the fundamental elements of Chopin’s personality and creative activity. In the biographical part the author departs from the traditional way of commenting on biographical facts; instead, he outlines events chronologically, in point form, along with a succinct description illustrated by quotes from letters and other authentic sources from that era. Thus there emerges a colorful, mosaic-like account, presenting Chopin’s life as a person and artist against his family background, his social and professional relations, his personal relationships and many close and not so close friendships, as well as the context of historical and cultural events: against the background of Polish emigrés in Paris and the musical life of this metropolis, where the outstanding representatives of the romantic arts were to be found in statu nascendi. This part is preceded by an interesting study of Chopin’s personality in which—counter to the cold and empty psychological schemas into which this subtle nature has often been forced—the author depicts the living qualities of the artist’s character and values. This also accentuates his internal duality, which stems from the presence of the two worlds: the world of art accessible only to him, and the “real world”. “There are moments,” the author writes, “when Chopin exists exclusively in his own imaginary space, removed from real life and every-day matters; at other times he bravely treads the ground, observing with full awareness how the world rolls on” (p.17).

In the second and third parts of the first volume, we find an image of Chopin not only as one of the leading pianists of the first half of the 19th century, but also as an outstanding teacher—perhaps the most radical one of the period. Along with the known facts relating to Chopin’s pianistic activities, the author here considers new issues: he wonders whether it is possible (or convincing) to try to define indicators of Chopin’s playing. This seemingly unfeasible task becomes possible if one examines the traces of Chopin’s teaching provided by his pupils’ evidence, notably in the scores marked by their Master, backed up by Chopin’s own study of the method of piano playing. In highlighting these traces the author refers to those foreign works (to the Swiss Chopin expert Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger in particular) which shed a completely new light on Chopin’s teaching. The newness and completeness of his method—something clearly emphasized by Tomaszewski—is exemplified by an organic unity of goals, i.e. the imagination of sound as a carrier of meaning, alongside the technical means of achieving it; means which according to Chopin were dependent upon the natural structure of so-called playing apparatus (as opposed to his contemporaries who put an emphasis on, let’s say, purely physical aptitude, gained though mechanical practice). The concise but substantial image of Chopin’s teaching, often unjustly portrayed as a marginal activity dictated by the necessities of life, here reveals its valuable aesthetic aspects, while simultaneously providing the keys to understanding the hidden laws which govern his music.

In the third part of the first volume, the author tries to reconstruct Chopin’s creative process. Reflecting the newest research, this intimate and incredibly intangible sphere of his personality is revealed as a dialectical one of linked cells: the openness of an idea at the moment of display or improvisation, and the inevitable necessity of its closure in the notation—a process which causes many hesitations, perplexities and much internal strife. With uncommon acumen, the author identifies the specific “variational” aspect of Chopin’s thinking: one which does not allow him to establish a final shape and—particularly in the light of the first printed editions—leads to the paradoxical conclusion that in many cases no single definite version of a work exists. Apart from the engagement with considerations of the shape and elements of Chopin’s compositional process, with his publishers, and many questions arising from dedications, we find in this chapter complete documentation of his works, grouped in two streams: “the public” and “the private.”

Volume Two brings a comprehensive description of various aspects of Chopin’s creative output, presented in a systematic way. In the two initial parts of the volume (“Elements, Texture and Form;” “Genres and works”), we find a discussion of the basic elements and genres, shaped in just the way that Chopin conceived them. The advantage of this method is obvious: it allows us to penetrate the musical language by understanding it as a set of characteristics, and at the same time it provides a key to his compositional individuality. It should be emphasized that Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski’s approach to the fundamental components of Chopin’s language is not a purely descriptive one, which only registers his ideas and solutions. On the contrary, he points out the significant characteristics of Chopin’s harmony, melody and rhythm (limiting himself to only the most important elements), as well as the textures, forms and genres in which Chopin deployed them. The author continually relates Chopin’s solutions to the situation of his day—to conventions that he had already acquired through music education and youthful experiences with native folklore, and to the musical phenomena around him, such as romantic bel canto. This perspective not only permits a profound characterization of Chopin’s creative individualism but also places it very well within musical tradition and the contemporary context; it allows one to detect a creative transformation of canons from the past, and at the same time the introduction of innovations. In passing, though, one notes that the question of rubato, a key issue in the interpretation of Chopin’s works, has not been explored fully in this part of the volume.

There is a certain paradox that although Chopin belongs to the high romantic period, it is not possible to encompass his artistic identity exclusively within the ideological categories of this period, since his identity involves a unique symbiosis of romantic and classical elements. This in turn involves a dynamic co-existence based on the mutual complementarity of these elements, and on the tensions caused by their collisions. This conviction underlies the sixth part (“Aesthetics, Poetics, Expression”), which is devoted to the constituents that contribute to conveying Chopin’s musical meaning; the qualities present in his creative concept and in the format of individual works which become the carriers of emotional expression. Reconstruction of Chopin’s aesthetics uncovers the next paradox: an almost complete lack of ties with the ideals of romantic coryphaei (particularly from German circles). Instead of a formulated, declared aesthetic, Chopin chooses an immanent aesthetic, embedded in the quality of sound. Mieczysław Tomaszewski states (p. 566):

In Chopin’s aesthetics—the one implice in his works and the one which at times shines through the opinions expressed in letters or notated by pupils—there are those romantic qualities such as truthfulness of expression and subjectivity, courage and dynamism, intimacy and poetry, as well as the concentration on sound as a carrier of deeper meaning. There are two additional qualities contributing to the romantic philosophy of life. The first one is the discretion with which he gives voice to the expression of his strong feelings. The second is his “tone,” his national aspect. This factor, noted and emphasized by his contemporaries—beginning with Schumann, Berlioz and Liszt—became an important aspect of Chopinistic diversity in the romantic world .

The author complements his systematic and rather timeless perspective by also taking a historical one. This embraces the characteristics of Chopin’s style as a developing phenomenon, with corresponding phases and characteristics, which enter into dialog with existing styles and musical conventions. They begin with a postclassical phase—to use the author’s term—passing through the sentimental phase, the Warsaw/Vienna-type brillant phase, the early and late romantic phases and ending with a post-romantic phase (this last one is proposed by the author as “the phase of compositional trials anticipating European post-romantic style,” p. 722).

The third volume, splendidly complementing the other volumes, consists of two parts: “Living Works,” and “Impact, Influences, Inspirations.” The first one is about the reading and understanding of Chopin’s works in purely musical terms as well as in the sphere of interpretation, thus arriving at sense and meaning. The author approaches the reception of his music as a triad: chopinofania—as a broadly conceived interest in Chopin’s person and work, also against the background of the other arts and institutional forms, chopinistics the styles of playing, pianistic schools, and complete editions, and chopinology – the state of research and its evolution. The first one, in my opinion, gives a comprehensive image of Chopin’s legacy, and its treatment in the relevant Polish literature which, although concise, fully reflects various historical changes and their causes, as well as pointing the way for future investigations.

The last part of the third volume complements the previous one in the sense that it presents the resonance of Chopin’s oeuvre in musical terms, giving separate consideration to foreign creative output and Polish output (here it would be worth considering the expressis verbis of Chopin’s influence admitted to by Witold Lutosławski). I have the impression that the final chapter in this part actually belongs more to the “chopinofania” of the previous part.

Mieczysław Tomaszewski’s monograph combines the qualities of a scholarly, specialized study with those of a humanistic interpretation based on contemporary artistic reflection—such a work has been long awaited from Polish musicology. This true opus magnum attracts by its erudition, its multiplicity of ideas, and its thorough interpretation. One’s attention is also drawn to the meticulous design, and to the particularly numerous musical examples and illustrations. Though not known in the music market, the Poznan publisher—Podsiedlik-Raniowski and Co.—has risen to the occasion.

It is worth mentioning that in British and American musicography a type of book called a “Companion” has been established. It is a text-book in the full meaning of the word, meaning that it is a musicological publication, marshaling a certain amount of knowledge into an easily accessible source. I believe that this is the basic value of Tomaszewski’s work. The recipients of this work will certainly be not just people with professional links to music and musicology. However it is, I would emphasize, reading for those Chopin lovers who already have a sound image of his works, reading which emphatically demands musical experience, though the book will give it new dimensions: it uncovers the wealth of meanings and values hidden in the music itself.