Chopin’s Budget, Our Gain

Fryderyk Chopin at 25, painted by 16-year-old Maria Wodzinska

Whenever money matters weigh you down, it might help to remember that financial constraints sometimes produce unexpected treasures. Consider Chopin. Because of his chronic pulmonary disease and lack of stamina, Chopin didn’t have the lucrative concert career that his friend Franz Liszt enjoyed. Even though the musical world of the 1830′s and 40′s acknowledged Chopin’s genius, and even though his every new composition was eagerly awaited and successfully published, their sale did not support his elegant lifestyle. But being a sought-after teacher of the talented aristocracy did.

Chopin came from a pedagogical lineage — his own father was a French teacher in Warsaw. When he wasn’t composing, Chopin devoted much of his time, especially during the winter months, to teaching private piano lessons. He was a teacher of great influence, although many of his pupils were women of the nobility and thus never allowed to appear on the concert stage; only about 20 of his students went on to have professional careers. He saw teaching as a calling, which his student Mikuli described in this way: “Chopin daily devoted his entire energies to teaching for several hours and with genuine delight…Was not the severity, not so easy to satisfy, the feverish vehemence with which he sought to raise his pupils to his own standpoint, the ceaseless repetition of a passage till it was understood, a guarantee that he had the progress of the pupil at heart? A holy artistic zeal burnt in him the, every word from his lips was stimulating and inspiring.”

And this, from his pupil Maria von Harder (no relation): “Chopin was a born teacher, expression and conception, position of the hand, touch, pedalling, nothing escaped the sharpness of his hearing and his vision; he gave every detail the keenest attention. Entirely absorbed in his task, during the lesson he would be solely a teacher, and nothing but a teacher.”

How fortunate for us Chopin devotees that Chopin had so many devoted disciples. As a true artist, he never got around to committing his teaching method to paper in some dry and dusty text (despite all good intentions, he preferred to compose the Fantasie-Impromptu instead.) It is mainly through his pupils’ and contemporaries’ letters, remembrances, writings, diaries and even the scores annotated by Chopin himself, that we know important facts about the way he played his own compositions and how he preferred them to be played.

An absolutely indispensable reference for Chopin interpretation can be found in a single book, which I’ve used as a pianistic Bible for many years. This is Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin: pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils, published by Cambridge University Press. In one streamlined volume, Eigeldinger painstakingly compiles these primary sources and presents them in a clear and readable form. He shows, through the pupils’ words and their annotated scores of specific compositions, how Chopin approached fingering (of paramount importance to him,) pedalling, phrasing, other aspects of technique, timing, and overall musical style. Originally published in 1970 in French, no other book has come along to supplant Eigeldinger’s work, and probably never will. This volume is one that should never go out of print.

Had Chopin not been sickly, had he made a fortune giving concerts like Liszt or any of his other virtuoso contemporaries, he likely would not have taught so much during his short life. His students would not have passed on his pedagogical pearls of wisdom to future generations. But he did teach, and we are enriched immeasurably by these pearls. That, to me, is a silver-lining playbook of the most priceless kind.



There are 5 responses to “Chopin’s Budget, Our Gain”

  1. Dear Deb,

    Once again, you’ve written an intriguing post about something I knew nothing about, yet now I am glad I do. As a younger person, I learned many a Chopin composition, but I never knew what kind of teacher he was, or that he had financial difficulties. It just goes to show you that people with enormous talent are not always rewarded in conventional ways.

    Many thanks for keeping your blog going. I am a devoted follower,


  2. Dear Debbie, I’m glad this post brought back memories of your own childhood and learning Chopin. Some musicologists don’t believe that biography should influence a reading of the music itself, but I disagree. Music might transcend real life, but real life and practical needs often compels the production of the beautiful!
    Thanks for reading and for commenting!

  3. Dear Deb,
    What a great post! How interesting that we have greater information and insight into Chopin’s musicality as a result of his teaching. So many professionals, across many fields, regard teaching as a financial necessity but a distraction and a diversion (however grateful they are to have the income.) In light of Chopin’s experiences, how do you regard teaching piano to your students?

  4. I’ll paraphrase another great pianist and teacher, Artur Schnabel, who was a great Beethoven interpreter (and the teacher of my teacher Tung Kwong-Kwong): Schnabel believed that a pianist should have a 3-fold career — performing, teaching, and composing original work of some kind. Teaching teaches me, the teacher, new and surprising things, always. So it can be highly creative. As the writer Robin Black mentioned in her talk at Bryn Mawr College last night, she will never stop teaching, because she learns a great deal about writing from teaching. Thanks for the question and dialogue!

  5. I am glad you believe that knowing a composer’s life story enhances one’s understanding and appreciation of his/her work. That’s what makes your concerts so satisfying. Not only do we get to listen to your beautiful interpretation of a composer’s music, but we hear the context in which the music was written. In my opinion, that only deepens the audience’s concert experience, and still allows them to connect to the music, on their own terms.