In honor of Chopin’s 200th birthday, the Bowdoin International Music Festival will be programming more of that composer’s work than is normally heard in Maine, including the rare trio and cello sonata, plus a complete performance of all 24 preludes by Edward Auer on Aug. 6.

As a pianist, I’m in favor of as much Chopin as possible, but I would have liked to hear either one of the concertos. No. 1 in E-minor, Opus 11, was a favorite of the former music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Toshiyuki Shimada, and is one of the few pieces of music that I will park the car to listen to in its entirety when it makes an unusual appearance on the radio.

That is the piece of which a critic quipped: “Chopin has written a piano concerto without orchestra; now Brahms has written one without piano (No. 2).”

Instead of a Chopin concerto, the festival orchestra, with Olivier Gardon, will be playing the A-minor by Chopin admirer Robert Schumann, who was born in the same year. An early review of Chopin’s Variations on Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano” (Opus 2) in which the phrase “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius,” appears, is often quoted, but may not have been written by Schumann at all. The remark, at any rate, helped Chopin’s reputation in Germany, although it embarrassed him.

Chopin is one of those geniuses who appears full-fledged upon the stage, owing virtually nothing to tradition or the influence of others. At his death, he left a cult of Romantic piano playing but no “school” — nothing upon which other composers could build — because he had already perfected everything he touched.

In their younger years, composers such as Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and even Prokofiev, not to mention many lesser lights, wrote works in imitation of Chopin, but soon realized that there was nothing they could add or develop and went on to perfect their own styles.

One critic calls him “perhaps, with Wagner, the most original composer of the 19th century.”

Chopin’s strongest influence among his contemporaries was the languorous Irish composer and pupil of Clementi, John Field, who invented the form of the nocturne. Field spent his final years in Russia, reportedly drinking even more vodka than Mussorgsky. A favorite of Tolstoy, he seems to have been the musical equivalent of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” whose motto was: “I would prefer not to.”

Strangely enough, Chopin most admired Bach and Mozart. He disliked Beethoven, of whom he was frightened, and never mentioned Schubert. Mozart is relatively easy to understand for his grace, lightness and a technical perfection that seems to have been unlearned. But Bach, who was only reintroduced to musical Europe by Chopin’s friend Mendelssohn?

The primary appeal of Bach seems to have been that composer’s strength of form, which develops from within. Bach made up his own rules, as did Chopin. The second was counterpoint, which Chopin regarded as more important than harmony, leading to contemporary charges of dissonance.

Anyone who doubts the influence of Bach on Chopin has only to listen to the first Chopin prelude in C-major and compare it to the first in the same key of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

Books about Chopin are an industry unto themselves, but for appreciation of the music, I would recommend Andre Gide’s “Notes on Chopin” and for an examination of his milieu, “Chopin in Paris.”

 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at:

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