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Episode 180: Chopin and the Critics

Mazurka in C minor, Op. 30 No. 1; Mazurka in B minor, Op. 30 No. 2; Mazurka in D-flat Major, Op. 30 No. 3

rc-critics-200“The listener will weep, believing that he really suffers with one who can weep so well.” ...Critical acclaim for Chopin that probably hurt more than helped.

A Frenchman named Hippolyte Barbedette wrote those immortal words about the Poet of the Piano. Come to think of it, the French came up with that phrase too: “To listen to Chopin is to read a strophe of Lamartine,” gushed the Journal de Musique. As well as the image of the sickly, sensitive lady-killer of the salons: “He wishes to speak to the heart, not the eyes; he wishes to love you, not to devour you,” opined La France Musicale. In short, says Chopin author Jim Samson, “a particular view of Chopin was presented by the French critics, one which highlighted the idea of expression.”

Though by thus crowning Chopin, the French press tagged him with a reputation that took him more than a century to shake. In the eyes of the Germans, Chopin wasn’t a true composer but a “salon composer,” turning out trivial tunes for aristocrats. Schumann might have said “Hats off, Gentleman, a Genius,” after hearing variations on a Mozart aria, but more influential was Ludwig Rellstab’s complaint that it was a “vandalism to Mozart,” owing to Chopin’s “primitive Slavonic origins.”

Perhaps Schumann knew his countrymen all too well. Chopin’s combination of cool counterpoint and shimmering sonorities would take a little getting used to. About the set of Opus 30 Mazurkas, where No. 3 shifts between loud and soft AND major and minor, Schumann declared, “The professors will throw up their hands in horrors at this.”

But just as the Saxons became Charlemagne’s fiercest warriors, over time the Germans became Chopin’s most ardent champions. By the turn of the century, influential musicologist Heinrich Schenker declared, “For the profundity with which nature has endowed him, Chopin belongs more to Germany than Poland.” - Benjamin K. Roe

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Radio Chopin Episode 180: Chopin and the Critics

Mazurka in C minor, Op. 30 No. 1

Mazurka in B minor, Op. 30 No. 2

Mazurka in D-flat Major, Op. 30 No. 3

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