New Books: Chopin in Thailand

New Books: Chopin in Thailand

The Thammasat University Libraries have newly acquired a book explaining why the composer Chopin is so much appreciated. The Mystery of Chopin’s Préludes is by Anatole Leikin, a professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The book’s title suggests that there are many things still not understood about the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849), who spent much of his professional life in France. A noted pianist himself, Chopin wrote almost all his compositions for piano. Most great composers do not focus on a single instrument to this extent. For this reason, Chopin’s works have become identified with the piano, apart from their quality and enjoyability. There are many different kinds of work by Chopin to suit any listener’s mood, and recordings of these are owned by the TU Libraries. For example, students who need to relax before a stressful exam might consider listening to the restful Nocturnes of Chopin. A nocturne is a work referring to the night, and some people who claim that classical music puts them to sleep may point to Chopin’s Nocturnes as examples of this phenomenon. Since for most people, sleep is a pleasant experience, there should be nothing wrong with music that puts over-tired listeners to sleep. If we remain awake, we may appreciate the gentle sounds created by Chopin. If we are in the mood for more vigorous, heroic sounds, then Chopin’s Polonaises may be suitable. A polonaise is a Polish-style dance, and Chopin’s works inspired by his own country’s traditions have military themes. Even for people who routinely fall asleep when classical music is played, it is difficult to snooze while Chopin’s Polonaises are being performed. The same is true of Chopin’s Études, three sets of extremely difficult technical challenges first published during the 1830s. Only the most accomplished pianists can play all of these. Even while posing extreme problems for anyone trying to hit all the right notes at the right time, these Études also express certain themes, as noted in their subtitles, including Waterfall, Revolutionary, The Bees, Butterfly, Winter Wind, and Ocean. Many composers write études – the word in French means studies – for different instruments. Chopin’s are so delightful to listen to that we may forget they were written to test the technical abilities of performers. In his book The Romantic Generation, which is in the TU Libraries collection, the American pianist and critic Charles Rosen wrote about Chopin’s Études:

Chopin is the true inventor of the concert etude, at least in the sense of being the first to give it complete artistic form—a form in which musical substance and technical difficulty coincide… The etude is a Romantic idea. It appeared in the early nineteenth century as a new genre: a short piece in which the musical interest is derived almost entirely from a single technical problem. A mechanical difficulty directly produces the music, its charm, and its pathos. Beauty and technique are united, but the creative stimulus is the hand, with its arrangement of muscles and tendons, its idiosyncratic shape… Some of the Etudes in the first set, opus 10, were written by the time Chopin was twenty. It is with these pieces that Chopin’s style was fully revealed in all its power and subtlety. Later works are sometimes more ambitious and, in a few cases, more audacious, but there were no radical changes of style… Technical display in Chopin, after the early works, is transmuted into tone color or dramatic gesture-we may say, to accept the prejudices of Chopin’s own generation, that it has been ennobled. This is the source of much of the poetry in Chopin’s music: it comes from the transformation of the vulgar into something aristocratic.

For those who do not care how difficult music is to perform, only how much fun it is to listen to, Chopin’s Waltzes may be favorites. The waltz was a popular dance in Austria and nearby regions in the 1700s and 1800s. Chopin’s waltzes are unusual because they were mainly intended to be listened to rather than danced to. They seem to recall romantic dance parties where sometimes sad things happen, or people remembering parties long ago. Chopin’s most famous such composition is the Minute Waltz, which may disappoint people who demand literal accuracy in everything, since it takes over one minute to perform. Even if played very quickly, it takes at least one and a half minutes or longer. The name Minute Waltz refers to the fact that it is a short composition, or miniature. Supposedly Chopin got the idea to write the Minute Waltz when he saw a little dog running after its own tail. The original subtitle to the Minute Waltz is the Little Dog’s Waltz. Although Chopin’s works were very amusing, his life was not constant sanook. He earned money by teaching students and selling copies of his music. He suffered from bad health, including tuberculosis, and died at the early age of 39. Despite this sad ending, his music remains more popular than ever, and on YouTube, some of the finest pianists in history play Chopin admirably, including Ignaz Friedman, Dinu Lipatti, Vladimir Horowitz, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Arthur Rubinstein, Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, Richard Goode, and Ivan Moravec. When asked to describe why Chopin’s music is important, the Chinese pianist and educator Ming-Qiang Li stated:

In China, Chopin is played much more than Schumann, both in concert halls and music schools. The reason, if I put it in a most simple and direct way: Chopin is more universal, appealing more to the masses. Schumann is more personal, appealing more to the elites. Since Chopin was a pianist himself, his works are mainly conceived for the piano.

Chopin in Thailand

All Thai fans of Chopin are eagerly awaiting the Thailand Chopin International Piano Competition, to be held this year from November 13 to 15, organized by the D&M Music Studio. For any aspiring pianists who wish to participate, the deadline for sending in an application and performance DVD is September 30. As the entry information explains, the competition is divided by age groups: 24 years old and under; 17 years old and under; and 12 years old and under. The listed objectives include:

  1. To provide opportunities for international musicians to reach a wider audience for greater exposure.
  2. To support promising and talented young international musicians in fulfilling their career aspirations.
  3. To provide a platform for intercultural and international exchanges through music-related activities.
  4. To raise the standard of classical music education in Thailand.

Although all participants must be prepared to record works by Chopin on DVD to submit to the competition, the music of many other composers is also performed during the competition. They include J.S. Bach, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Debussy, Bartók, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Poulenc, and Ligeti. Contestants are provided practice studios at the Yamaha Ratchadapisek Music School from November 11 to 15. Sometimes Thai student musicians excel at the competition. Last year Harrow International School, Bangkok proudly announced that a Year 11 student named SunSun had placed second in the Thailand International Chopin Piano Competition 2015:

SunSun was in the A Category, meaning he was competing with students much older, in fact up to and including 24 year olds. The international panel of adjudicators deliberated for almost an hour before deciding first and second place, which also reflected very well on SunSun – clearly the result was incredibly close. For a young man of his age, this has been an incredible musical journey. SunSun had the opportunity to meet other musicians from across the ASEAN region and is now enjoying a surge of renewed creative energy as he prepares for his next challenge, the Steinway Piano Concerto Competition.

Elsewhere in the Kingdom, Chopin is heard in unexpected places, as a concert report from 2013 explained. PURE Sunset Beach condos, a Swiss designed boutique development of low-rise beachfront condos, located 15 minutes south of Pattaya, invited Mauro Lo Conte, a Swiss-Italian pianist to give a Chopin recital for condo owners at the Phya Thai Palace’s Thewarat Sapharom Hall.

(All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)