Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Chopin, Lizst, and the Rise of Pianism

Frederic Chopin at the piano with Georges Sand, painted by William Francis Marshall

This essay is for Dan Russell, friend, esteemed Google colleague, scholar in more topics I can wrap my head around, and a wonderful musician and composer, to boot!

Note: These essays aim to give a general overview of a particular topic - they are not in-depth explorations. Someday I'll have the excuse to write papers of that kind, but for now, I hope you find these interesting!  I enjoyed writing them.

Chopin, Lizst, and the Rise of Pianism

Out of the shadow and influence of Beethoven emerged a new generation of composers who espoused the Romantic ideals of subjectivity, individuality, and emotion, rather than the symmetry and intellectual qualities of the Classical era. This shift was a reflection of the upheaval in Western Europe with the Napoleonic wars and the subsequent struggle between a newly democratized public and the last vestiges of the previously ruling aristocracy. 

Music created in the 19th century was shaped by these themes, and composers explored their craft while adapting to a changing society that increasingly catered to a public of musical amateurs. The central status of the piano was established during this period by such eminent composers as Chopin and Liszt.

Beethoven was the key force in ushering the Western world into the Romantic era of music, with his emphasis on a deeply personal experience laden with emotion. In setting this blueprint, subsequent composers needed to find their own voices as they explored new paths - some, notably Brahms, struggled greatly, while others such as Berlioz reveled in Beethoven's legacy to fuel their own careers. 

The term 'romantic' itself saw an evolution: it originally referred to tales of heroism, such as the Arthurian legends, and during the 19th century came to describe the emotional and personal.

The backdrop for this shift was the push-pull between a public that had tasted freedom from the ruling aristocracy after the French Revolution. A series of revolutions broke out throughout Europe starting in 1830 with the "July Revolution" in France and 1848 saw a proliferation of uprisings. In the midst of this was the Industrial Revolution, which saw the automation of manual labor via advances in technology and manufacturing. Consequently, a previously vastly agrarian public was able to move to cities and pursue a wholly different life, a life that allowed for independence and upward mobility.

These developments had a profound effect in the shaping of music during the 19th century. Changes were occurring everywhere in Europe, and even as society embraced a new way of life both politically and socially, many hearkened back to the more traditional ways of life. This duality posed a challenge and a boon to composers: While they struggled with themes of old and new - science versus faith, mankind versus nature, nationalism versus integration - composers found a growing public with newfound wealth and interest in both consuming and making music. This led to the rise of the piano as the instrument of choice during the Romantic era.

Although the earliest piano was created in 1719 by Cristofori in Florence, it came into prominence much later. Improved manufacturing techniques in the 19th century made it possible for the well to do to incorporate a piano into their households, and with this arose the demand for music written for, taught to, and performed by amateurs. Thus it was in the Romantic era that pianism came to the fore.

Romantic pianism at its best was characterized by a combination of elegance, emotionalism, and a healthy dose of virtuosic display. Frederic Chopin and Franz Lizst were key in establishing a new genre of music meant for solo piano. "Incidental Piano Music" included etudes meant not only for purposes of teaching, but were so beautifully crafted they could stand alone as concert pieces. Other styles were based on dances, narratives, improvisation, or on Classical forms.

Born in 1810, Chopin lived the majority of his life in Paris but remained faithful to his native Poland. Although he was considered by contemporaries as a foremost pianist, Chopin seldom performed after his early tours in 1829 and his Paris debut in 1832. During his relationship with Georges Sand, an avant garde writer, Chopin's output was prolific. However, a trip to Majorca in 1838 worsened his tuberculosis and exacerbated his health significantly. After he and Georges parted ways he died soon thereafter, in 1849.

While he was a leading force in Romanticism, Chopin himself was highbrow in his preferences and ironically did not care much for the works of his contemporaries, nor did he like to mix with the public. His love of the piano and the distinctive sensitivity of his compositional style made him one of the foremost harmonists of the era.

Where Chopin was subtle, Lizst was flamboyant. The superstar of his day, this virtuosic pianist and composer inspired swooning audiences across Europe and had his fair share of tabloid-worthy scandals. Hungarian by birth, Lizst emigrated to Vienna, studying with such greats as Czerny and Salieri, and at 15 moved to Paris where he established himself as a composer and a concert pianist. After witnessing Paganini's feats on the violin in 1831, Lizst revitalized his career by shaping himself as a virtuoso performer. 

Unlike Chopin, Lizst was wiling to churn out music for the public but was undoubtedly the finest pianist of his day and incredibly gifted as both composer and performer. He was also a champion of budding musicians, and in 1848 he retired from performing to focus on composition and master classes. Lizst also dabbled in the religious order, even moving to Rome in 1861 to take holy orders although he was not ordained. He continued to support rising musicians until his death in 1886, of pneumonia.

The Romantic period saw societal upheavals that created a framework for music to evolve and adapt, with the piano becoming a solo voice for the expression of the beautiful, powerful, and passionate. The musical revolution Beethoven created with raw emotion and sheer force during the Classical period began to manifest itself in different ways, explored beautifully by composers struggling to find their own voices in this new era.