Chopin’s Students Remember
In the eyes of the master, the best way to achieve naturalness in one’s playing was by frequently going to hear the Italian singers performing in Paris at that time, some of whom truly remarkable artists. He always recommended them to pianists as examples, due to their simple and generous style as well as the ease with which they used their voice, and thanks to which they were able to sustain it so remarkably.
When Chopin asked me about my musical studies, I answered that listening to singing had taught me more than any other thing. „You are absolutely right; music should be singing” he remarked. And under his fingers the piano virtually sang, in various ways.
„You must sing if you want to play the piano,” Chopin said to Mme Rubio; and he made her take singing lessons and commit to frequent visits to the Italian Opera – things he considered absolutely necessary for a pianist.
Chopin played me four Nocturnes that I did not yet know – what a joy! It was incredibly beautiful. In his play he entirely copies the vocal styles of the singers Rubini, Malibran, Grisi etc.; he says so himself. Yet he seeks to reproduce the particular style of each of these artists with a specifically pianistic ‘voice’, while they had and still have other means at their disposal…
Maria von Grewingk
In the course of his lessons, Chopin repeated incessantly: „You must sing with your fingers!"
Maria von Grewingk
He let the musical phrase under his hands sing with such clarity, that it turned each note into a syllable, each bar into a word, each phrase into a thought. It was a declamation without emphasis, both simple and sublime.
As regards maintaining the tempo, Chopin was inflexible, and many would be surprised to learn that the metronome never left his piano. Even in his much discredited tempo rubato, one hand – the one with the accompanying voice – continued playing strictly in the same tempo, while the other one – the one singing the melody – liberated the truth of the musical expression from all metric constraints; be it that it creates indecisive delay, be it that it anticipates, inspired with a kind of feverish vehemence, as someone passionately heated with speech.
Today Chopin entrusted me with another simple technique for achieving a marvelous result. I felt clearly what the sins of my playing were, but could not identify their source. In order to conform with his principle, consisting of imitating the great singers on the piano, he prised the secret of expressing breath out of the instrument. At every point where the singer is required to inhale, the pianist – if he is not a layman – must set out to lift the wrist so as to let it drop back onto the sung note with the utmost subtlety. Achieving this subtleness is the most difficult thing that I can think of. But when I achieved it, I laughed with joy, beholding the beautiful sonority, and Chopin exclaimed: „That’s it! Perfect! Thank you!"
Maria von Grewingk
Under Chopin’s fingers there was no need for the piano to envy the violin for its bow or the wind instruments for their living column of air: the notes intertwined, recreating the most accomplished melting-quality of the vocal art. The sound he was able to extract from the instrument was always very broad, especially in the cantabile.
Even in his published works he would sometimes introduce ornaments, distinguishing every repetition by new embellishments, according to his taste at the moment.
George Alexander Osborne
Chopin used to say about this kind of ornament: „It should seem improvised, resulting from a mastery of the instrument, rather than the object of an exercise.” He himself was the inaccessible paragon in that regard: something like Field playing the piano in Paradise!
Quotes from „Chopin Seen through the Eyes of his Students” by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Éditions Fayard 2006, english by Barbara Eckle