The soul of an angel, cast down upon earth in a tortured body in order to accomplish some mysterious redemption… Is it because his life was a thirty-nine-year agony that his music is so lofty, so sweet, so sublime?”
– Solange Clésinger
A letter through the Parisian years
Images, mazurkas, footsteps, and much more.
This interdisciplinary project is a research/performance piece about the Paris years of the composer Frédéric Chopin, relating to his art and legacy. It is more than simply a concert in the usual sense of the word. This work combines elements from at least three art genres: the solo piano performance of Chopin’s music; theatrical readings of his letters and poems of his contemporary poets (along with other excerpts from literature); and photographs or short clips of Chopin’s Parisian life including his apartments and personal artefacts currently held by museums.
Via this project, I wish to emphasize that a human being qua artist, has a need to create in order to find meaning in life; and Chopin exemplified this statement with his music – a personal reflection upon his life. When the artist completes a piece of work, it leaves the creator and inhabits the souls of others. Thereafter it lives in the hearts of its audiences, ever-growing and ever-inspiring. Thus, in order to overcome nihilism inherent in a self-conscious mortal, one must create even in the face of insurmountable obstacles and thereby, bloom eternally. The creation of an artwork is thus the most beautiful occurrence in the Universe, making it all the more meaningful with each moment.
“Our Slow periods. – This is how all artists and people of ‘works’ feel, the motherly type: at every chapter of their lives – which is always marked by a work – they always think they’ve reached their goal; they would always patiently take death with the feeling ‘we are ripe for it’. This is not the expression of weariness – rather that of a certain autumnal sunniness and mildness that the work itself, the fact that the work has become ripe, always leaves behind in its creator.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Gay Science 376
The need to create is universal, and the reasons for this need can be understood by all, for such reasons arise out of the very realisation of one’s individuality. This individuality does not simply denote the difference in character, but also of the segregation of the self from others due to a consciousness that cannot be shared. For Chopin, a most sensitive and reflective soul, the vision of an empty existence is most agonising. Chopin’s art is not a mere overcoming of nihilism, but also a messenger that transcends the segregated self, and speaks of that which cannot be passed on in words. I wish to illustrate how Chopin’s art connects with us, and inspires us, so that we may be saved from our own existential angst with the gifts from his legacy.
Chopin has bloomed in the hearts of his audiences for almost two centuries, and I want to continue this. My aim is to connect the audience to Chopin’s art and legacy through his music; his intimate thoughts as expressed in his letters; the poems of the Polish poets of his time that he held dear (Mickiewicz, Witwicki, Norwid); photographs/videos of the places and things he saw and touched himself; manifestations of his lived experiences (manuscripts, pianos, entrances to apartments at Boulevard Pouissonière, Square d’Orléans, Place Vendôme, routes, images from state and private archives, his portraits by Delacroix, Bisson, and others). Via this plethora of illustrations, the audiences see Chopin as an intimate friend, who shares those very human qualities with each one of us. The audiences thereby come to see each of his creation as a necessary child of his life, and see how his creations in turn overcame the mortality and emptiness of existence. The visuals displayed were, of course, photographed and filmed in Paris, along with several from Poland (Warsaw and Żelazowa Wola, his birthplace). All of the pieces from the aforementioned three art genres are intertwined throughout the performance. The slide-show of visuals is projected onto the background of the stage simultaneously with the alternating music and readings.
In ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, Sartre wrote: “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” Indeed, the genius of Chopin also opens an opportunity for each of us to truly find ourselves. As a piece of creation fills the void of existence, a new part of the self is defined. Thus, the path to self-knowledge is guided by overcoming meaninglessness, via creation. We as human beings, are conditioned by our history – our very existence are given to us, rather than out of our choice. Thus, it is one of the most crucial things for humanity to remember its past and appreciate it, for the past is an already existing part of who we are.
Unfortunately, our age promotes a forgetfulness of the past, with its alluring new inventions that comes hand in hand with a recklessness only short of an unreflective machine. With this project I want also to bring this issue to the audiences’ awareness. We must respect and remember the ‘gone’ times, which is the only way to save them from perishing without a trace. Each of us should cherish and endlessly guard these memories and histories deep within our hearts, preventing them from becoming irrecoverably dead and unforgivably forgotten. Only then, will we not lose our complete selves, and thus find fulfilment, rather than disappointment, in existence…
“I think about forgotten gestures, the multiple singles and words of grandparents, lost little by little, not inherited, fallen one after the other off the tree of time. Tonight I found a candle on a table, and as a game I lit it and walked along the corridor with it. The breeze stirred up by my motion was about to put it out, then I saw my right hand come up all by itself, cup itself, protect the flame with a living lampshade that kept the breeze away. While the flame climbed up again alert, I thought that the gesture had belonged to all of us (I thought us and I thought well, or I felt well) for thousands of years, during the Age of Fire, until they changed it on us with electric lights. I imagined other gestures, the one that women make when they lift the hem of their skirts, the one that men make looking for the hilt of their swords. Like words lost in childhood, hear for the last by old people who are headed toward death. In my home no one talks about the “camphor closet”: any more, no one talks about “the triv”– the tviet– any more. Like the music of the moment, 1920 waltzes, polkas that warmed grandparents’ hearts.
I think about those objects, those boxes, those utensils that sometimes would turn up in storerooms, kitchens, or hidden spots, and whose use no one can explain any more. The vanity of believing that we understand the works of time: it buries its dead and keeps the keys. Only in dreams, in poetry, in play– lighting a candle, walking with it along the corridor– do we sometimes arrive at what we were before we were this thing that, who knows, we are.”
-Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch, Chapter 105.
Interestingly enough, many pianists who interpret Chopin’s music nowadays spend countless hours perfecting the musical text, technique, form, structure, and conception. However, they somehow omit the main theme of his art – the mystery of his deep enchanted world. This individual, a grand poet, embodied two opposing personalities: One was of a cheerful, open-minded, and a very social salon pianist, who was loved by women (although this today might be wrongly regarded as one responding with the same light-headed intentions) – in other words, easy going, but somewhat cold. However, there was another side of him, known only to his immediate family and a very few of the closest friends: A warm, loving, highly-sensitive melancholic, who was at the same time very lonely, secretive, full of anxiety, nearly asexual, and with a constantly deteriorating health. He wrote once to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski “You would not believe how sad I feel that I have nobody to whom I can cry out loud. You know how easily I form acquaintanceship, you know how I like human company… but I am up to my ears with such acquaintances… There is nobody, nobody with whom I can sigh. That is why I suffer, and you will not believe how I search for a relief, that is, solitude… so that nobody would drop in on me all day, that nobody would strike up a chat… Even as I write to you, I cannot stand the ringing of the doorbell.” Chopin’s desperate exclamations here expose that he would want to share his personal thoughts with someone he trusted. However, he was forced to seek solitude, since there was no one close to him nearby for prolonged time periods. He barely displayed these deeper qualities in public, wearing a ‘mask’ of a celebrity. However, being a genius poet, a prophet in some sense, he longed for some sort of an escape from the society, the world – maybe because he belonged not to it?…
With these retrospectives in mind, I want to cast Chopin’s music in light of his tremendously complex personality, as an unaltered reflection of his spiritual and mental state. Rather than being so neglectfully overlooked by performers in most cases, this aforementioned human character should stand as the centre axis for all other factors such as culture, traditions of piano performance, location, ancestry, or the composer’s epoch. With the careful interweaving of various art media, I sincerely hope to reveal to the world this [re-]discovery of something long-forgotten – an enchanted, mysterious presence inexpressible in words, or described by any other means, but which may only breathe through the music: The Enigma of Chopin’s soul. This mysterious presence shall resonate with the audiences, for it is a mystery we all encounter upon deep self-reflection. This mystery is the mystery of our existence, of our desires, of being human. It is this mystery, which must be and can only be resolved, with creation, and in creation.
Among the works of Frédéric Chopin that I have chosen to use in the performance are “Berceuse” op.57, Scherzo No.1 op. 20, Barcarolle, op.60, select Mazurkas, Waltzes, Preludes, and a movement from Sonata No.3. I chose the “Polonaise-Fantaisie”, op.61, as a concluding piece, since it is a true symbol of Chopin and his whole life: the work represents the ‘ripe’, philosophical period (a.k.a. ‘Late Chopin’), it is highly romantic (Fantaisie), with a wide use of chromaticism (suffering, illness, doubt, homesickness?). The “Polonaise-Fantaisie” is very innovative (the opening arpeggios) while demonstrating the proud roots of Chopin’s home-country (with the Polonaise) and this never-ending process of search with all the aforementioned qualities brings the work (the life) to a triumphal finale and eternal victory; in spite of the fact of the earthly pain and death, Chopin will always live – through his music.
The readings consist of excerpts from the letters Chopin wrote to his family and friends. These however, are presented in the form of a single through-composed letter to a ‘non-existing friend’ (read: each of us) and read by an actor, occasionally alternated with poems and other selections from the literature. All reading is organized in order to illustrate and develop the subject matter in the most sensible way. Of course, the moods and characters of the readings correspond with those of the surrounding pieces, as to achieve a harmonious relationship and build up the composition of the unified project (no applause between the alternations).
The visuals are projected onto the background along with both music and the readings. The length of each image/clip varies depending on the context of a given moment, the chronological relation, the content of the visual itself and, most importantly, the emotion that it evokes as a result of being combined with the music/reading.
There is a number of extra add-ons included in the cinematic version, such as sound and lighting effects (colored lighting projected, various transitions between darkness and light, the sound of wind, waves, ticking clock, birds, tempest, etc.) along with several short acting interactions between the performers, demonstrating some of those described in Chopin’s letters or otherwise appropriate (i.e. sharing tea and his favorite chocolate ‘specially made for him and sent from Bordeaux’, lighting a candle (if permitted in the venue), and other relevant things, both humorous and dramatic, which would breathe the feeling of real life into the performance.
I believe that a wise combination, which includes but is not limited to these kinds of art can create a truly multifaceted, fulfilling result and bring the final performance to reality in its most historically accurate, vivid and brightest light. What is crucial for me is the essential knowledge and the inspiration that can be comprehended from this performance, since the audience leaving it in the end shall feel something quite different in contrast to leaving a concert. I am, by no means, trying to downplay the meaning of concerts. However, I want to discover wider experiences with a deep purpose by not only performing and listening to the music, but also by expanding the historical, personal, and spiritual facts about the composer, who is the main cause of this work. This project should impel the society to look back towards the past and link it with the present, to ask themselves questions, to understand better the culture of Chopin’s time, but more so, his own persona and mind, in order to grasp the depth and charm of his music, to have a broader field for feelings, to feel the vitality of life and its meaning, to live…
Elina Akselrud, 2015