How Frédéric Chopin has played the music of J.S.Bach

A magnificent source

A few years ago, a 19th century edition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier was sold. No special thing, were it not that the book belonged Pauline Chazaren, one of Frédéric Chopin’s students and later the teacher of Cosima Liszt. But even more importantly, that copy has extensive annotation in what doubtlessly is written in Chopin’s hand, so what can we learn from this? More than one might think at first, so let’s dive into this!

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First off, in case you wonder why a clavichord guy has interest in the music and the world of Chopin, the reason is twofold in this case:

  1. I’ve played in some younger years almost all of Chopin’s solo piano music on my 1866 Erard. Unfortunately, YouTube wasn’t around at the time. One CD has been recorded but, shy as I was at the time (really, still am but I’m better at hiding it) never was released. Too many tempo standpoints to be good for the Chopin lover of the time! That CD is now on this channel if you want to listen to it except for the opening piece, the etude opus 10/1 that still might be too much of explosive material still today.

2. As with many, if not all historical personalities, also Chopin is often situated in our collective memories a bit too late. We tend to picture composers like him (or Beethoven, Mozart, …) according to what they achieved in their entire lives, introduced as novelties perhaps.Mendelssohn Bartholdy Much less do we reconnect them with the tradition that formed them. That is interesting though, since not only that can tell us a lot on historical evolution, but in this case, the case of not only a great composer, but one of the most brilliant musicians as well, it is more than interesting to see if we can find out how they looked back on the music of the 18th century and what their sources of inspirations were. Let’s not forget we’re in the midst of the first big Bach revival, that started with nobody less than C.P.E.Bach, over Forkel and culminating of course in the still today famous Mattheuspassion directed by Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn, by the way, who was influenced through Bach approaches by famous musicians as Czerny and Griepenkerl who, on his turn, was in contact with Forkel. And so the line closes.

So Chopin and Bach would be an interesting study, perhaps some of them are even made that I don’t know about, if you do know some of them, would love to read that in the comment section. But let us focus here on this edition of the Well-Tempered Klavier, because the conclusions we can draw from that are fascinating.

Firstly, the annotations made by Chopin have such a great detail, that we can assume that if he tomorrow were to play Bach’s well-tempered Klavier in Carnegie hall, he probably would play it as indicated here. Why else bothering so much about writing crescendo, decrescendo marks, dynamic indications and, interesting, metronome indications!

Secondly, if we look close to the annotations, first thing that rings a bell are the metronome marks. If you are familiar with the Bach editions by Carl Czerny, you probably will recognize the numbers Czerny gave for Bach’s music. A closer look will reveil that Chopin did not only copied the Metronome numbers from Czerny exactly, but copied all the dynamic signs accurately that Czerny provided in his edition.

So this is important to stand still for a moment.

Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix chopinChopin, great composer, apparently brilliant musician and teacher, took the time to hand copy himself ALL the annotations Carl Czerny gave on the performance of Bach, in the edition of his student? What does that tell us on Chopin? And, as important, what does that tell us about Carl Czerny?

First on Chopin. Think about this yourself. Would you ever have thought that a great spirit like Chopin would turn to a Viennese edition for his teaching, and most probably his performance practice? I do assume indeed that he didn’t taught his pupils a way of playing totally different than that of his own.  Wouldn’t you have thought in the first place that he was musician enough to develop his own style of playing? So apparently, the totally accepted individual approach to things, like musical performances, requested even by our audiences, was not something that played on a large scale in that time. At least not with the performance of early music, which, after all, Bach was at the time. Chopin turned to a trusted source and did not question that source, even not in details. Interesting enough!

That conclusion shed some light as well on the position Carl Czerny had at the time. We today look down on Czerny in a way that is by no means justifiable. Not by the level of his compositions, not by the level of his teaching methods, his etudes and certainly not by the measure of his status as a teacher, musician and composer he had over a very long time in history. The fact that someone like Chopin, not restricted by anything here, takes Czerny literal in teaching Bach, gives Czerny a legitimacy to our time that is hard to overestimate.

Not to mention the fact that Czerny, as a source of information, is much closer in time to Bach than we are. Yes, he choose for the model to adapt that music to the piano, but doubtlessly, many aspects will come forth by a long tradition as well. As for instance his tempo markings where Czerny not only shows to understand history, or at least gives us his opinion on history, saying that allegro tempi in Bach’s time were somewhat slower than in that (his) time. Also, the fact that he gave metronome numbers to all the pieces in accordance to what he believed was the character of the pieces. And thirdly, Czerny writes that many of the fugues are metronomized based on the memory on how Beethoven has played those works.

Anyway, our conclusion here is twofod:

  1. The metronome marks indicated exactly how Czerny wanted the Bach pieces to be played. The indications are no speed barrier, but an exact indication.
  2. Chopin took those metronome numbers seriously. He copied them not from a position NOT to understand the implications. We can assume and based on the facts, must accept, that he played according to the Czerny metronome indications.Metronome

Well, that poses us for a problem. Since many of those Czerny metronome marks are simply out of reach. Even Glenn Gould, of who I believe tried to take those Czerny numbers literal (more on that in the future) does not reach those numbers, even not in small preludes, obviously targeted, also by B

Bach, to beginners.

Chopin was very aware of the use of the metronome. He gave us many metronome indications for his own works, so there is an absolute certainty that, when he copied the Czerny marks, he knew a) what speed they represented and b) saw the direct practical implications. Why would he have copied them otherwise.

The implication of this is huge. Since many of those pieces are simply unplayablewithout taking the double-beat, metrical metronome use serious.

I’ll put some videos here for those of you who don’t know what I am talking about and want to learn more on this. Basically, the metrical metronome use is based on the fact and –contrary to what the single-beat defenders want you to believe- often described physical fact that in order to measure a speed, you need two points, referring in our case to the back and forth swing of a pendulum or metronome. Still in physics today a swing of a pendulum consists out of the back and forth single swings.

So Czerny, and now we can add Chopin, had either of those two tempi for this piece. I leave you with your own conclusions. Anyway, the fact that today, after over half a century of so called historical informed performance practice, information as this is not put into the context of our own practice, shows that that Early Music Movement yet has to begin. The implications of taking metronome numbers serious are immense, give us completely new insights in the performance practice of the time. The reason that almost no-one today talks about those thousands of early 19th century numbers, that as we can see here, were taken very seriously, shows that there is much work to do. Since, what more important facts do you expect to find than the exact speed indications as from people like Czerny and Chopin? Not to mention dozens of others?