For Chopin, as for most of the Romantics – but even more so the Baroque and Classical composers – music is a language. Through the specific medium of organized sounds it seeks to express a world of thoughts, feelings and sensations. Even if Chopin seems to share Goethe’s view of music as the language of the inexpressible, for him this does not make it any less subject to the principal laws of verbal language. There are revealing parallels on this subject which Chopin frequently established between the arts of oratory and musical interpretation, between the means and ends common to spoken declamation and musical discourse.
In both cases the purpose is to move and convince the listener by means of intonation and accentuation appropriate to the meaning of the text. Just like a piece of prose or verse, a score consists of an arrangement of sections, paragraphs, phrases, periods and clauses; a system of punctuation aims to ensure correct articulation, the general sense of direction and the main breathing points; prosodic laws determine the long and short syllables, accented or soft, and so forth. It is hardly surprising, then, that Chopin was very early on attracted towards the art of singing, and particularly by its embodiment in bel canto.
The great vocal school of the I830s, in which the art of declamation and its dramatic expression in music were harmoniously united, represented for him the ideal and definitive model for interpretation. It was on the singing styles of Rubini, of Pasta, that Chopin based his own style of pianistic declamation, the key to his playing and the touchstone of his teaching. We find him repeatedly exhorting his pupils to listen to the great dramatic artists, even to the extent of declaring: ‘you must sing if you wish to play’ (Niecks, II, p. 187). For Chopin, singing constituted the alpha and omega of music; it formed the basis of all instrumental training, and the more piano playing drew its inspiration from vocal models, the more convincing it became.
Hence Chopin’s art of transforming the piano into a leading tenor or a prima donna and creating the impression of human breathing; hence that preeminence given to broad cantabile style, that intense legato, that inimitable sense of line and phrasing, that fullness of sound, that ‘cello-like quality which the piano can suddenly reveal. Even his particular conception of rubato is vocal and Baroque in essence, in that it seeks, wherever apt, to release the melodic part from all metrical fetters and let it expand with the perfect freedom of inflection found in singing.
Moscheles writes of Chopin’s playing: ‘So one does not miss the orchestral effects which the German school requires from a pianist, but allows oneself to be carried away as by a singer who, unpreoccupied by the accompaniment, gives full rein to his feelings’ (Moscheles, II, p. 39). This predilection for vocal art may be put beside Chopin’s abhorrence of all massive effects, and his insistence on naturalness and simplicity in piano playing. Nothing was more foreign to Chopin’s nature than overemphasis, affectation or sentimentality: ”’Je vous prie de vous asseoir”, he said on such an occasion with gentle mockery’ (Niecks, II, p. 341). But dry and inexpressive playing was equally unbearable to him, and in such cases he would implore the student: ‘Put all your soul into it! [Mettez-y donc. toute votre ame!]’ (Karasowski, II, p. 91) – and what happiness he felt when innate musicality expressed itself spontaneously: ‘She [Wanda RadziwiH] has plenty of genuine musical feeling and you don’t have to tell her crescendo here, piano there, quicker, slower and so on’ (Chopin, SC, p. 37).