Chopin’s Polishness went deeper than the color of his passport. From a musical standpoint, in fact, it was of paramount importance because of the way Polish folk music shaped his whole thinking on questions of rhythm and melody. His formal training we know, was based on the standard German repertoire of his day- including, notably, Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” That may seem far removed from the Chopin we know, but playing Bach was a habit that remained with him for the rest of his life.
But if Bach was a cornerstone of the Chopin edifice, as the subtle counterpoint of many of his pieces confirms it, then another was the Polish peasant music he heard on all sides as he was growing up. It gave him a taste for an entirely different kind of melody than the foursquare German triad-tunes that dominate the symphonies and sonatas of the German romantics. Although the very term “folk music” had not yet been invented- the eastern European aristocracy still referred to it as “coachmen’s music, because they always heard their coachmen singing it- we know that Chopin was thoroughly familiar with it.
Since Chopin used to listen to this “folk music” and play it when he went to the country for the holidays, most of his first compositions were mazurkas and polonaises. The rhythm of the mazurka, for Chopin, performed precisely the same service as the Hungarian “verbunkos” did for Bartok . It liberated Chopin from the foursquare “classical” rhythms of the conventional tradition- the one-two-three-four- of the military march, and the slide-two-three of waltz time. Mazurkas are song-based country dances from the plains of Mazovia, where Warsaw is located; their usual time signature is three-four or three-eight, but Chopin’s mazurkas are so irregular in their rhythm Meyerbeer thought it was two-four and Charles Halle proved to Chopin he had played one in four-four, to which Chopin, laughing, explained this was the national way of doing things.Proper” Chopin style is at once a seal of approval and the subject of endless debate. It involves lightness and clarity of touch,
Chopin was often taken to task for his recklessly unrhythmical playing and for a non-observance of the established norms. But, this is precisely what Chopin’s music sets out to do. Instead of coming down with a thump on the obvious downbeat of a phrase, his accents come at unexpected places, so that it seems as though he has allowed his rhythms to get out of hand, just as he has let the harmonies slip through his fingers without bothering to get a firm grip on the tonic.
Most important, and most elusive, Chopin style involves rubato — changing tempo or rhythm for expressive purposes. The question of rubato dogs Chopin performance. The composer was said to be quite free as a pianist, but it’s not clear what this meant: There are indications that he kept a fairly steady left-hand beat at all times.
Still, generations of performers, following the misguided notion that a piece of music is a canvas upon which they are to express themselves, take Chopin’s advocacy of rubato as license to slow down and speed up almost at will. Hearing a lot of Chopin — even in some cases very good Chopin — can leave me seasick from listening to too many phrases being stretched out as if going slowly uphill, then tumbling helter-skelter down again. Read More: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/18/AR2010021806498.html
These idiosyncracies did not prevent him from being, at nineteen, the foremost pianist in Warsaw, a local prodigy obviously destined for a larger, better, illuminated stage. In 1829, he left Poland and after eight inhospitable months in Vienna- where under more favorable conditions may have become a successor to Schubert- he made his way to Paris. In Stuttgart, en route, he learned that the Polish rebellion had been crushed by the Russians, and tradition has it that the Revolutionary Etude was prompted by the appalling news.