Monday, July 26, 2010

Music Monday ~ Chopin, Tristesse, So Deep is the Night

Last Music Monday I mentioned how O Fortuna! from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff had seeped into the public's consciousness via movies and TV ads. Here's another classical piece which has been popularised in ways its composer might never have imagined: Chopin's Étude Op. 10 No. 3 in E major, also known as "Tristesse". The melody will be familiar to many, its simplicity belies its ability to touch the listener deeply. Chopin, in exile in France, poured into his music the grief and homesickness he felt for his homeland, Poland, a country then at war. He said of his composition: "In all my life I have never again been able to find such a beautiful melody."

Over the years several different sets of lyrics have been added to the main melody of Tristesse, probably the best known song being So Deep is the Night. Lesser known songs: Tristesse, No Other Love, Never Again, Dans la Nuit, This Day of Days all use Chopin's melody. The music, written for piano, has since been adapted for guitar and other instruments.

Some video samples of the piece of music follow, below.

Frédéric Chopin was a child prodigy, his first composition published when he was just seven years old. At age eight he began performing in aristocratic salons. Born near Warsaw, Poland to French and Polish parents, he moved to Paris in 1831, never to return to his homeland.For the much of his short life Chopin suffered from poor health; died in Paris, aged 39, of pulmonary tuberculosis.
A piece in the UK's Independent newspaper dashed my image of Chopin as a softly sensitive poet of piano music, whose heart bled for his exiled homeland. It appears that, like last Monday's subject, Carl Orff, this brilliant composer and pianist had a dark side.
From Chopin: Genius or Monster?
The stock images are of the staunch Polish patriot, and of the hypersensitive aesthete coughing his heart out as he pens his romantic melodies. Yet in truth Chopin was a political arch-conservative, an artistic and social snob, and a dandy who hated contact with the rest of the human race.

Moreover, though his music may have been revolutionary, he was a stern Classicist, despising the Romanticism of his friends Liszt, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Meanwhile, his phenomenal reputation as a virtuoso rested on a mere 30 concerts. None of this fits the stereotype.

Chopin's character still troubles even his most ardent champions. "A very strange person, very hard to like," is the verdict of Andras Schiff, who plays his music with rare insight and sensitivity. Anti-Semitism was only one of Schiff's charges: after researching him in depth for a biographical film, he found he didn't like the man at all.

This feeling would have been echoed by the 19th-century Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, for whom Chopin was a "moral vampire". Mickiewicz was one of two Polish exiles who called on Chopin at the height of his fame, and he didn't even answer the door to them. Chopin's heart had bled for his native Poland in 1831 as the Russians advanced on Warsaw, but all thoughts of revolution, indeed of any kind of political instability, horrified him. As an exile, he desperately needed the reassurance of a fixed social order.

There's a question mark over his date of birth. He was born in 1810 - he and his family celebrated his birthday on 1 March, but documents state 22 February. An explanation given by the composer was that his parents had accidentally given the wrong date to authorities when registering the birth/baptism. Astrodatabank uses 1 March 1810 at 6pm, I'll go along with that.

Sun conjunct Venus and Pluto in Pisces could be seen as an astrological thumbnail sketch of a romantic artist (Venus in Pisces) with a dark(Pluto) side. If time of birth is near correct, these planets are close to the descendant angle, one of the chart's strongest positions. Close to the nadir, another strong position, is Neptune conjunct Saturn in Sagittarius, in square aspect to the Pisces cluster. Again, there's a feel of creativity(Neptune) dampened by limitation and negativity (Saturn). Chopin's sadness and/or the darker side of his character are described clearly in the way his natal planets were configured at his birth.

A touching example of what the music and lyrics of So Deep is the Night meant to a member of a bomber crew in World War 2 (article here).
Tom enjoyed the popular music of the time, much of which reflected the troubled and emotional turmoil that people experienced during the war years. Tom copied out the words of many of his favourite songs in his notebook; perhaps the most fitting for those of bomber crews was "So deep is the night", some words of which also inspired Don Charlwood to name his book about his experiences with 103 squadron at Elsham Wolds "No Moon Tonight".

And a related comment at YouTube:
In his book 'No Moon Tonight', Don Charlwood, an Australian who served during WW2 as a Navigator on Lancasters with 103 Squadron RAF Elsham Wolds, relates how this song was often played in the Mess at Elsham, listened to by aircrew, many who did not come back from ops over Germany.

CLASSIC VERSION. Etude Op. 10 No. 3 played by Joseph Bachana

SO DEEP IS THE NIGHT - a choral version. I didn't find a solo which does the music justice.


gian paul said...

There is a painting/portrait by Delacroix of Chopin which shows a severe, oblong, introvert face. Unlike Chopin's romantic music.

Also the Horoscope you are showing appears to correspond to the "dark side" of the artist: Houses IX to II (inclusive) are void of any planet. Luna is in Capricorn, Neptune/Saturn square Venus/Sun/Pluto in Pisces.

Very sensitive, certainly, but "impénétrable".

Twilight said...

gian paul ~~~ Yes, I noticed that painting. It gives him quite a Capricornian look doesn't it, though with a sensitive mouth.

Good additional astrological points - thank you! :-)