Notes on Chopin

Outside the conservatories (and sometimes even within) a pianist’s facility and prowess are often measured by virtuosic showpieces (who can play the fastest Islamey or the Cziffra “Flight” transcription). People who can play the “Hands Reunited” etude are a dime a dozen. When listening to a pianist’s “musicianship” (a horrible word), on the other hand, there is perhaps no better indication than the ability to play Chopin. The Barcarolle, for example, is among the most difficult pieces in his oeuvre, not because of its technical demands, but because of the aural sensitivity and intellectual rigor necessary to play it. The technical difficulties in playing Chopin are similar to those of Mozart: although he, like Mozart, was not a great formal innovator, he was, even more than Brahms, an absolute master of classical form.

It is this formalism that prohibits classifying Chopin as a “romantic” (there is perhaps no word more inappropriate). Only the most naïve historicism could call Chopin and Liszt “romantics” because they lived in the same time period. Chopin was heir not to Beethoven but, as he himself professed, to Bach, Mozart, and Weber (it is not mere accident that among the early variations, Chopin chose the Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni). Chopin himself, if we rely on Mikuli, played “classically”. Mikuli reports that the metronome was always on Chopin’s piano and that the left hand was always in strict time (it was the right that was permitted the temps dérobé). The pianist enters into the form of the piece. If in Bach the pianist disappears behind the formal perfection of the piece, Chopin’s pieces “give form” to the performer’s expression. Conversely, the first duty of the performer of Chopin is to enter the form of the piece and to explicate the expression (the “content”) from within. The piece itself speaks out of the perfection of its form; the performer does not speak by means of the piece. There is no sentimentality in Chopin and it is revealing of the pianist who plays him so.

If romanticism consists in the involution of form into content or the gnosticism of an infinite spirit that is nevertheless chained to the prison of materiality and nature, Chopin offers no escape. Rather, Chopin is the exact opposite—he is, rather, architecturally Baroque in the way Deleuze has described (in the first part of The Fold). This is nothing other than Chopin’s harmonic mastery—the ambiguity and generativity that emerges out of the most rigorous form. The closure of each piece is precisely that which refuses the piece’s self-identity (the so-called interpretive “richness” of Chopin’s music).

Two questions

1. I was recently asked to define philosophy. With no small amount of embarrassment and prevarication, I fell back to the old definition of “thinking about thinking”. The more I thought about this definition, the more I wished I could recant, despite the initial appeal of this reflexive definition, if for no other reason than the history of this conception of philosophy according to which thought becomes nothing other than the material prison of facticity. Neither, however, do I want to reduce the love of wisdom into the desire for knowledge, which ultimately turns philosophy into French anti-philosophy. Instead, perhaps philosophy is the practice of thinking. If this is so, then what needs to be rescued is not “philosophy” but “practice” (or, more specifically, to rescue “practice” from “tradition”).

2. The mildly annoying refrain of a recent pop song proclaims: “say what you need to say”. Among my first serious intellectual interlocutors, who was more “scientifically-minded”, I was often told that the problem with the humanities (especially literature and philosophy) is that we do not simply “say what we need to say” (so too the usual undergraduate who is asked to read anything that cannot be summarized in Spark Notes or Wikipedia). There is an obvious conflict between the culture of information (which includes the ideology of discourse and consensus) and any discipline with an operative form-content dialectic. The real question is how to get this dialectic off the ground; once it does, whatever problems we might encounter are internally manageable. Plato was well-aware that this is a pedagogical problem, but if things were so simple, then we would merely be faced with ethical or political questions. Instead, it seems that the problem philosophers face vis-à-vis the technical disciplines is metapolitical, which is to say institutional, structural, or economic; yet it seems that the very existence of philosophy is institutional. Is it then naïve to have faith in the possibility of immanent critique?