Friday, July 22, 2011

Music is Life: What Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61 Has Taught Me About Being Human

(Wherein I reveal that I am, indeed, a music nerd, and maybe I think too much, and I most definitely feel too much… but I wouldn’t have it any other way.)

It has been said that life imitates art... and art imitates life.

For me, it's a bit different. For me, it's more that music sometimes helps us make sense of life, when nothing else does.

When I was growing up, I had a cassette tape of Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin pieces. The second song on side two was the piece I was working on at the time. It’s a famous Nocturne: Op. 9 No. 2. Everyone recognizes it when those first notes echo from the keys.

But getting to the second song on side B meant I had to fast forward through or listen to the first piece: Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61.

The piece is 13 minutes long, so I really didn’t want to listen to it.


In fact, I hated this piece. I loathed it so much that I actually ended up recording the nocturne I needed on a different tape, just so I wouldn’t have to constantly fast-forward through this annoying 13 minute piece that just seemed like it noodled on forever and ever.

But since I occasionally listened to other pieces on that cassette, I would run across those 13 minutes now and again.

And I caught myself, over time, listening to snippets of this monstrosity.

And slowly, I found that maybe I didn’t really hate it.

It really confused me, though.

It started out with a bang… even sounded a bit grandiose in parts, and playful in other parts, with some great melodies—some chord progressions that evoked feelings of sadness and tragedy within me—and a few fun passages here and there, all within the first seven and a half minutes.

The main problem, though, was that aside from the interesting bits, it mostly noodled around and seemed to have no real purpose. It felt those notes and phrases were lost, waiting to be put into some type of order. That was incredibly frustrating, and I realized that’s what drove me mad about the piece.

It just didn’t make any sense.

And then…

Then, I heard the silence for the first time. In that silence, around 7 minutes, 45 seconds* into the piece, Chopin stops to take a breath, so that it’s ever-so-gently pronounced that he’s brilliantly introducing an entirely new melody.

Chopin was a rule breaker, indeed. Between Chopin and Beethoven breaking all the rules of composition back in the day, I’m surprised Classical music remained “Classical” for as long as it did.

This melody captivates me. It takes my breath away, every time.

What moves me even more, though, is how close it is to the end of the piece.

It’s almost as if the first two thirds of the piece is this frustrated build-up so that by the time you hear this melody, nothing in the world sounds more beautiful.

From this point forward, the piece is a brewing, barely-bridled pool of passion that begins to ooze out and then explode across the remaining pages. This piece turns into the most romantic love story for about three minutes… and then the ending is just… berserk.

This piece is strong. It makes a statement. You’re either going to love it, or hate it… or hate it and then love it, like me.

Because the ending of this piece is nothing short of absolute, 100% brilliance. It’s almost impossible to play accurately at the speed you’re supposed to play it, with the amount of conviction it takes to pull it off. You’ve just been playing for nearly 13 minutes, so your hands and arms are tired. But Chopin didn’t care… he had a story to tell (there's a lesson there).

The last two minutes of this piece are gushing with the most unadulterated, pure JOY spilling off the page, across the piano, onto the floor, splashing your face, and every time I hear it, I want to get up from whatever I’m doing and live the life that exists within this music.

It’s just that compelling to me… but maybe because I’ve heard it hundreds of times over the years, and it’s grown on me. I actually sat down and analyzed the entire piece one time, chord by chord, phrase by phrase, because it confused me so much why I feel such a visceral reaction every time I listen to it.

And through all of that analysis, I came to realize something.

This piece represents life.

My life.

I felt so lost for the first part of my life. I felt like I was just noodling around, without any real purpose. I had some amazing moments of intense joy and conversely, deep sorrow. But mostly it was full of noodling seemingly pointlessly from day to day (or note to note).

And then, I woke up… about 7 minutes, 45 seconds in…

And I have been living a life of learning… struggling with how to be in the moment, and be truly open to feeling, even when it hurts… even when it’s hard… even when the pain is so intense I want to claw my eyes out because that would hurt less, and at least then I could point to the tangible cause.

But the moments of joy I have are deeply satisfying and real. The moments of pain are pivotal for me, and my life is richer because of them.

And my ending?

Well… I already know I’m going out with a bang. I already know that the ending of my life is going to be the best…

Don’t ask me how I know… it’s more a feeling I get, I guess, rather than knowledge.

So when I have days like I’ve had today… and weeks like I’ve had this week… when all I want is to hide under the covers until the pain is gone… the pain I feel because my very soul—open and exposed, was gazed upon and then ultimately rejected…

I have to listen to the Polonaise-Fantaisie a few times.

Loud enough to (probably) annoy my neighbors.

Because there are times when lying on the hardwood floor in a crying heap, then banging on the piano keys just to express some emotion I haven’t felt in entirely too long, and then listening to, of all things, Classical music, as loud as I can stand it (which still isn’t loud enough in this case)… there are times like these when I just need to be reminded that it’s okay to be a living, breathing, human being.

Because there is a greater purpose for all of this, and I’m not yet privy to it, and I may never be… and that’s ok. Most of the time, I don’t mind feeling small… we are all small.

But it’s connecting with people who are like-minded… and it’s sharing and being vulnerable that makes life richer and worth living, but when the unexpected happens and The Real Me ™ is absolutely, unequivocally rejected

Sometimes it helps me to know that someone from centuries ago, named Frederic Chopin, had already felt these feelings, too. He put passion on paper in a way that no other composer ever has, in my opinion. He was someone who felt deeply, someone who lived a life of passion and often great despair. He was a real person. 

And I am, too.

And so are you.

And what does it all matter? I don’t know… but I do know that we can’t do this thing all alone. I do know that if we all continue putting energy into things that just don’t matter… our lives, inevitably, won’t matter.

And even sometimes when we do invest in things that matter, and the result is, at best, confusing, and painful, and defeating… I guess what I’m trying to say is… try to remember that you’re not the first person who’s ever felt that way, and you won’t be the last.

We need each other, to get through these times…

*In the recording I linked to, the silence and new melody occur at approx. 8:28. I would rather have linked to Horowitz, because he plays this piece better than anyone can, but it's split between two videos and that... just doesn't work.

1 comment:

  1. As an amateur pianist I have just spent the last 3 months learning this Polonaise Fantasie. An incredible iece! Apart from one or two places it is not particularly virtuosic or too difficult, but the challenge is in making it all work and really capturing the beauty Linda talks about. I too, love the music at the very same point Linda does, the pause before the entry of the new material. But a few moments later the same happens again, this itme th epause is longer and the effect even more intense. As a pianist/interpreter I am trying to work out how long to pause at this point, enough to make the point but not too long to create melodrama or a cheap trick. Linda's comment resonate with me, I identify with just about everything she says on this particular blog. Mike Smith, Tasmania, Australia