On Playing Chopin...

Chopin, who crammed over 230 works into his brief life, is being remembered this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, in numerous events around the world. Pianist Gülsin Onay has described for us what makes Chopin’s music so special.

Born in a small town near Warsaw exactly 200 years ago, Chopin in his brief lifetime burrowed his way into the hearts of countless musicians. And I am one of them.

When I gave my first recital at Istanbul Radio at the age of six, one of the pieces I played was a Chopin waltz. In subsequent years the piano literature captivated me, stretching out before me in all its endless richness as every composer one by one invited me into his world. From those dizzying days of discovery to these, when I can truly say of many worlds in that universe that they have become my homeland, Chopin’s music has always been part of my repertoire and occupied a special place in my heart. If I ever give a concert without him on the program, I miss him and play him when I go home.

When I gave my first recital at Istanbul Radio at the age of six, one of the pieces I played was a Chopin waltz. In subsequent years the piano literature captivated me, stretching out before me in all its endless richness as every composer one by one invited me into his world. From those dizzying days of discovery to these, when I can truly say of many worlds in that universe that they have become my homeland, Chopin’s music has always been part of my repertoire and occupied a special place in my heart. If I ever give a concert without him on the program, I miss him and play him when I go home.

Whether pianist or listener, everyone’s path sooner or later intersects with Chopin, and everyone feels close to him. Many people have become classical music lovers, and many music buffs lovers of the piano, thanks to him. For Chopin arouses in us the feeling that we have experienced emotions very similar to his.

A MYSTERIOUS UNDERSTANDING
Every pianist who plays Chopin believes there is a mysterious understanding between herself and the composer. A feeling that Chopin composed that work specially for her and that she understands it best. At the same time there is also no small number of pianists who have kept their distance from Chopin. Glenn Gould and Alfred Brendel, for example, have never included Chopin in their repertoires. Unfortunately there are also those like Pollini and Richter who, although they have included Chopin, are not able to convey his spirit...

A very soft touch is necessary to evoke the poetry of Chopin and his velvety flow. Even at the height of his exuberance there are romantic cries in the intermediate sounds. Various critics have used terms like ‘an ideal blend of drama and elegance’, or ‘he combined a gentle delicacy with a powerful touch’; and it’s true that this mix is more important in Chopin than in all other composers.

Of course there are also pianists like Rubinstein, Alfred Cortot, Dinu Lipatti and Horowitz whose names are synonymous with Chopin.

A FISH SWIMMING IN WATER
For me, when I play Chopin I feel like a fish swimming in water. I live and breathe his music, as if I am moving with his natural ebb and flow. At the age of nineteen when I played his Second Piano Concerto, which he composed at the same age, I went into another world in the true sense of the word and could not tear myself away from the piano for hours at a time.

When I was twelve we lived in Paris, in a house overlooking the roofs of Montmartre with the same view that Chopin had once seen from his window on the top floor. I practiced his ‘triplets’ étude (Op. 25, No. 2) with such perseverance and enthusiasm that even my teachers were astonished. Sharing the same view as Chopin from our house in Paris made me happy as did the thought that we had some things in common. He loved villages, for example, and took great pleasure, even inspiration, from the conversations, not about music, that he had with the villagers. For me as well, summers are always my happiest times. I feel the harmony of music in a life lived in communion with nature. Chopin surprised everybody in his social circle with his talent for theater and mimicry. This is also something I take incredible pleasure in doing. On the other hand, he loved being alone with the piano as much as he loved parties and socializing, and I know that feeling so well! He liked nice clothes, too, and what he remembered from his first recital was his lace collar; in my case it’s my red butterfly shoes...

CHOPIN’S CITY: WARSAW
In my first concert with the Warsaw Philharmonic I played under the famous Polish conductor, Wislocki. I seemed to see the lines of Chopin’s visage in his face, and I listened with rapt attention to the members of the orchestra speaking Polish. I picked up a little Polish in my tours with the Warsaw Symphony in the conviction that learning Chopin’s language would bring me closer to him.  It is very difficult for me to describe my emotions the day I received the Medal of Honor of the Polish State! Having an official tie with the country Chopin loved so much, and being deemed worthy of this because of his music, infinitely strengthened the bond between us.
I love to go to places where he went, to be in contact almost two hundred years later with environments that perhaps influenced him, or on which he had an influence. I still get excited every time I go to Chopin’s city, Warsaw, where he spent his happiest years - his boyhood and youth (half his life when you consider that he died at the age of 39).

VIENNA AND PARIS
At the same time, whenever I go to Vienna, where he felt profound homesickness for the first time, where he lived filled with worry for his loved ones, and which never really embraced him musically despite its vibrant social life, my heart is wrenched by all that city’s splendid opulence. Actually Chopin always felt himself to be a Pole in all the cities where he lived, even in Paris and even though his father was French. Chopin took his inspiration from his country. He was extremely nationalistic...

But no matter how nationalistic he was, he has become the property of the world, and everyone who is interested in the piano, regardless of their nationality, is related to Chopin to some degree.

HE LEFT HIS HEART IN WARSAW
The house where Chopin was born in the Warsaw village of Zelazowa Wola, is a museum today. The Chopin Museum is in the Ostrogski Chateau (today’s Presidential Palace), where the composer first appeared on stage. His heart, preserved in alcohol, is in the Church of the Holy Cross (Kosciol Sw. Krzyza).  The 65th International Chopin Festival will be held August 6-15 in Duszniki Zdoj.  www.chopin.festival.pl

CHOPIN IN VIENNA
The opera houses in Vienna where Chopin saw the waltz are permeated with the composer’s spirit. The Austrian National Library, which was the first to archive the composer’s works, is open to visitors. An exhibition, ‘Chopin in Vienna’, with photographs, musical scores and and various objects belonging to Chopin, is on at the Haus der Musik though April 30. www.hausdermusik.com

FOREVER ENAMORED OF PARIS
To follow Chopin’s trail in Paris, you may go to the Salon Chopin at 6, quai d’Orléans, the Musée du Romantisme at 16, Rue Chaptal,  and the composer’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery. An exhibition, ‘The Composer’s Studio’, featuring his piano and other items, is on at Cité de Musique through June 6.  www.cite-musique.com.fr