Today is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth. This photograph gives an impression that he was a bit of serious guy. And of course he was deeply connected to his work. But as for me, I think of Chopin and I think of beauty and playfulness.

I have found many of his piano works challenging as a pianist. But at the same time I am drawn not to the technical challenge (Liszt is not my cup of tea and that is what he seems to primarily offer), but to the charm of the musical thoughts.

Edgar Degas - Dancer Adjusting Her Shoe - Art Prints and Posters
Edgar Degas, Dancer Adjusting Her Shoe

Yesterday I spent a bit of time in the presence of beauty at church. The choir again sang the lovely “O Lord increase my faith” by Orlando Gibbons.  Interestingly this edition was edited by Richard Proulx who died this week.

Van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and the Bride

After church in the rehearsal, there was moment I experienced profound beauty as I introduced the choir to Calvin Hampton’s tune for the words “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” Hampton’s melancholy tune transforms the words of this hymn from a sentimental poem to a wistful meditation.

Jonathan B. Hall has this illustration on his web site on the page describing his bio of Hampton. I don't know what this picture is exactly, but it does capture something about the music of the tune I am talking about. Again click on the pic to go to Hall's website for further info.

Earlier as I walked to church, the sound of birds in the trees made me smile. I have been reading Roger Scruton’s book, “Beauty.” He insists that there is no aesthetic understanding (or at least intention) in bird song. Even as I read Scruton’s words I wondered what Messiaen would have said (WWMD What Would Messaien Do) since he said that birds were the best musicians on the planet. Hearing the birds yesterday I found Scruton’s intelligent prose paling in the sound of the beauty of birdsong in the morning.

Five birds on a tree branch Prospect Park by jackie weisberg.

Later I spent time at the piano with Joplin and Bartok again. They are an odd pair but they seem to be working for me.

Scott Joplin

I am especially taken with Joplin’s beautiful rag called “Solace.” The subtitle of this piece is “A Mexican Serenade.” Joplin cleverly combines the haunting sound of a gentle rag (he seemed to think people tended to play his music too fast) with the suggestion of a tango rhythm in the left hand.

This is especially interesting because the Tango rage is usually dated several years after Joplin published this piece.  Brahms also predated the tango with the second theme of the first movement of his fourth symphony.

Johannes Brahms

I finished up yesterday with a Brahms Hungarian dance for piano.  It’s a long way from Bartok’s Hungary to Brahms’ Hungary. Brahm’s music is largely fabricated out of his own German/Viennese sensibility of the exotic. I still find it lovely and fun to play. I just think it’s folk music roots are not as deep as it’s composer or maybe some of it’s listeners might think.

No big deal. Bartok transformed his understanding of musical material in his environment as did Joplin. That’s some of what attracts me.

Bela Bartok

As I sit in my kitchen thinking about the darkness of the morning outside, I hear my neighbors start their car. I wonder how removed my ideas and experience of beauty is from other people. A week ago Sunday I led a performance of music at my recital. The people in the room seemed to respond strongly to the beauty and charm of the music we presented. That I know was real.

That’s why I keep being drawn to music that is performed live. The experience of performing music live and hearing it live is for me what keeps the beauty going.  There is something about the energy that combines a spontaneity
and openness in both listener and performer.

I was reading in Gide’s “Notes on Chopin” this morning. He said this:

“We are told that when he was at the piano Chopin always looked as if he were improvising; that is, discovering his thought little by little.”

It is this “discovery” or surprise that is something I experience over and over in beauty.

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