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Chopin and Schumann at 200

Frederic Chopin, left, and Robert Schumann, right.

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In a single year two centuries ago — 1810 — two of the greatest composers to rise in the shadow of Beethoven were born within just months of each other.

Frederic Chopin, son of Poland. Robert Schumann, out of Germany.

Pioneers of Romanticism. Icons of the era. They didn’t rock like Lady Gaga or rap like Jay-Z. But they made exquisite music that would still fill halls after two hundred years. Which the Black Eyed Peas, Grammy night sizzle aside, may or may not do. They had madness, passion, poetry.

This hour, On Point: Anthony Tommasini on Chopin and Schumann at 200.


Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for The New York Times.  His recent article about Chopin and Schumann “Born the Same Year, Similarities End There.”

Garrick Ohlsson, pianst. He won first prize in the 1970 International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition, and has appeared as a soloist with every major orchestra in the United States. In 2008 he received a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance.

Later this hour:

The Boston Globe’s James Reed joins us to talk about last night’s Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.  He live-blogged the awards last night on Boston.com.

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  • Ellen Dibble

    Do we know of any artists/computers of this era who were happily married, gemutlich and stable?

  • Ellen Dibble

    Relation of Brahms to Schumann? Mental instability in Schumann and syphilis? Alto Rhapsody, solo song, by Schumann — I believe — soooo beautiful.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I think of Chopin and Bellini for long, long melody lines. Somehow Chopin turned waltzes into something not seen before or since, but the long melody lines might have others competing. I’m crazy for long melody lines.

  • Nicholas Bodley

    Again*! You’re broadcasting in mono! Shame! For the past four decades or so, most FM has been stereo capable, so you’re pitifully behind the times! Why, for Heaven’s sake? *You also broadcast the Bach ‘cello suites in mono.

    Perhaps WBUR’s engineers hate classical music?

  • J Baker

    Nice show. After two years of studying late into the night on weekends, I finally learned to sight read at 28. I used to practice this music.
    I can’t recall the player who invented a device to stretch fingers at night while he slept, only to loose the digit’s ability because of it.
    Wonderful stories of players who recover from damaged fingers, one spent nearly 5 years after hand trapped in car door.
    For the committed, I use juggling to teach limb independence for polyrhythm drumming which can also be used for piano. First the proper form to juggle is taught, specific to the purpose of the lesson. Both forearms and hands must learn to release the balls at a fixed horizontal level. After this is mastered, the polyrhythm limb challenges can be employed. For example, Each hand juggles its own ball in a circular pattern and the eye can be used to monitor results, which allows the student to ‘see’ the time between movements of a limb. Polyrhythyms are achieved when the two circles of either ball are different and kept constant, so the left hand throws the ball in 12 inch high circles while the right hand throws the ball in circles 2 feet high.

  • Todd

    I think it was Rubenstein who advised playing Chopin as if one is playing Mozart. Any comment on this approach by your guests?

  • Andy P.

    Are we forgetting Monty Python’s use of Chopin with their opera of Oliver Cromwell.

  • http://www.lit.org/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Schumann has always sounded like keyboard warmup exercises to me. Chopin and Schumann should never be mentioned together in the same sentence.

  • Lew Lasher

    Maybe I missed this in the program, but what I’d like to know, given his mixed Polish/French heritage, is how Chopin pronounced “Chopin”.

  • Dana Franchitto

    Did Tom Asbrook really have to mention “lady Gaga or JayZ ion his intorductory remarks? Does prefab commercial “culture” have to figure into everything?

  • David Wright

    What a sprint! Too bad about the postage-stamp-sized music excerpts (hyperactive to match the pace of your program). It’s like talking about Rembrandt’s “Aristotle” while viewing a detail of the philosopher’s left pinkie fingernail.

    To Todd: I remember seeing Vladimir Horowitz on video saying, “You must play Mozart like Chopin, and Chopin like Mozart.” Many pianists understand that, so maybe he borrowed the line.

    Thanks for lassoing Garrick Ohlsson for the rest of the hour. He came with his best material.

  • Ann

    I was wondering: HOW QUICKLY did music MOVE in those days? Trying to picture the various societies of the day, I ask: would the slave owners in the American South be listening to the music of Schumann and Chopin? Would there have been a delay of, say, several decades between when Europeans first heard this music and when the American Southerners did?

    I ask this because we suspect that our oldest man in our family Bible was a house slave in a Virginia home of the “well-connected”. Would our disenfranchised ancestor, who was not even allowed his full humanity legally, possibly have been exposed to this transcendent music??

    Were Schumann and Chopin political enough to have had views on the issue of slavery?

    Thanks! Sorry that I didn’t get to hear the entire show — I will in podcast. Perhaps you did discuss their political stances (altho I’ll bet that OnPoint was trying to give us a BREAK from politics WITH this show!)

  • AJ Averett

    Making a comparison between Chopin & Schumann is an interesting one; most discussions of Schumann naturally bring in Brahms. We are most fortunate to have all three composers so well represented by some truly great recordings, which, after all, is how most people hear music.

    To my ears, the Schumann Piano Concerto & two Chopin concertos (particularly the first) belongs to Artur Rubinstein (who did share them with a few select others). As a boy in 1969, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall to hear Rubinstein & Alfred Wallenstein perform the Schumann A-minor, the Grieg A-minor and the Chopin Grand Fantasy on Polish Airs in a single concert. A week later, they were over at [then] Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center performing the Saint-Saens 2nd, the Chopin 2nd and the Franck Symphonic Variations, and I was there to hear them (the encore was a repeat of the third movement of the Saint-Saens 2nd).

    Finally, of the many outstanding recordings of the Chopin 2nd Sonata, Op. 35 (“Funeral March”), I would single out three: the 1935 recording by Rachmaninoff, the 1961 recording by Rubinstein and the recital performance recorded on 22 Oct, 1953, by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Geelong, Australia, by William Kapell – his final performance. For it was on his return to the U.S. that his plane went down outside of San Francisco killing all aboard. Kapell was 31.

  • Todd

    To Todd: I remember seeing Vladimir Horowitz on video saying, “You must play Mozart like Chopin, and Chopin like Mozart.”
    Posted by David Wright

    @ David:
    Ah yes, that’s the quote, with its correct attribution! Thank you for the clarification!

  • Todd

    “Did Tom Asbrook really have to mention “lady Gaga or JayZ ion his intorductory remarks? Does prefab commercial “culture” have to figure into everything?”
    Posted by Dana Franchitto

    @ Dana:
    I couldn’t agree with you more!

  • Brett

    Enjoyed the show! While I am in no way any kind of expert on Classical forms in music, particularly the Romantic Period, I feel both composers did their part to usher in modernity and inform the composers who came directly after (Brahms, Debussy and Dvorak are a few who come to mind). One can hear such an overt influence from Beethoven in Schumann’s work, as well as Mozart’s strong influence on Chopin. Yet, both men moved music forward, each, in his own way, toward modernity, and this is what true artists do. Each composer pushed the envelope, as it were.

    To my ear, Schumann conjures so much about German sensibilities in art; and, although, Chopin was Polish and was so influenced in his creative sensibilities from growing up in Poland and from Polish culture throughout his life (as well as influencing future Polish composers), one can hear some influence from French culture that he must have absorbed from his father and from living in France after he grew up.

    My ear finds Schumann to be a tad more of a traditionalist than Chopin. I feel Chopin utilized dissonance more than Schumann, but I am more familiar with Chopin’s canon than I am Schumann’s, so…(?)

    I especially like Chopin’s spontaneity (it was as if he was improvising much of the time) and sense of melody. I like Schumann’s haunting quality in his music…perhaps emanating from a tortured mind? (I especially like his “Scenes from Geothe’s Faust”). Both composers also had a strong sense of counterpoint in their music.

    Chopin’s love of Folk music and dance from Poland was evident in his music, and I believe (although I cite no direct evidence to the influence) this gave Dvorak freedom to explore what was considered peasant music from his own country, later on, in his own compositional ideas.

    Both men died young. Chopin never was healthy, and I always thought Schumann’s mental state was at least exacerbated by syphilis and its treatments of the day: his symptoms, I heard, were similar to what people suffered from in mercury poisoning. (I would enjoy any insights on that from anyone.)

    The long shadow cast by Beethoven on Classical music is often unfair in comparing him to other composers, because in many ways his musical maturity, as it appears above other great composers, is a reflection of his long life. Many of Beethoven’s compositions that were written when he was the age of Mozart, for example, are on par with what Mozart was doing. Likewise, if one compares Schumann’s and Chopin’s compositions to Beethoven’s, on the basis of what each was doing at around the same age, one finds the same level of prowess and musical maturity.

    I remember a movie I saw many years ago about George Sand’s relationship with Chopin called, “Impromptu,” that starred Judy Davis as Sand. Wasn’t Hugh Grant Chopin? Anyway, I remember enjoying it. I think I’ll rent it and see what I think of it now!

    P.S. -I found Mr. Ashbrook’s near incessant mention of Lady Gaga and JayZ annoying, as well.

  • Brett

    J. Baker,

    I remember finding juggling to have helped a lot when first training my limbs in becoming accustomed to playing kit drums. It didn’t seem to help a lot with guitar, though. I can see a help in playing piano, however, as one needs to employ extremity independence with the piano.

  • Brett

    Although I don’t claim any expertise in what, culturally, patrician classes were enjoying in antebellum Southern America. I live in Virginia in a small town with a lot of Revolutionary and CIvil War history. I also visit Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier (Madison’s house) regularly. The latter is minutes from my home. Men of prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries regularly traveled to Europe and brought back European influences for their own homes. It is reflected in the architecture, home decorating (everything from furniture to table settings), paintings, as well as music they listened to. I know Jefferson, especially liked European Classical music, as did Franklin. Wealthy landowners without the celebrity of prominent historical figures would have also been influenced similarly, for the most part, by European culture. I’m sure house slaves would have heard Classical music during various balls. It was also common for young women from wealthy families to have learned skills of playing piano and singing operatic pieces, etc., in their grooming stages, so house slaves would have heard music of such culture all the time.

  • dennis galloway

    Schumann suffered from syphilis, along with Schubert, Hugo Wolf, Beethoven perhaps, Delius, Schonberg, Smetana…why not mention it on the air?

    The psychological consequences of this disease can be very interesting.

  • lee francis

    Fascinating show. Please have more on classical music. Only complaint was the shock to the senses of going directly from Chopin to Grammys!

  • Ann


    Thank you for your thoughtful reply! Your answer has the rich texture that my mind is searching for when I think about history and the lives of the people who lived before us. Thank you!

    (This will seem off-topic UNTIL you get to the end!) Some people believe that the house slaves were privileged compared to the slaves who toiled in the fields. Others believe that house slaves experienced an unrelenting kind of psychological stress from the daily closeness to their oppressors that was worse for them than for the slaves who worked in agriculture. This latter P.O.V. ALSO presents the idea that, since the field slaves lived in separate dwellings away from the main house of their owners, that they were able to carry on some of their cultural traditions, even creatively blending multiple traditions, since individuals came from different parts of Africa, or may have been traded from other parts of the Americas. This allowed field slaves to have and creatively develop their own MUSIC, which, as we know, developed into the fount of America’s music! The house slaves, on the other hand, often living in the attic of their masters’ houses, may have had no music of their own, or of ANY kind. IF the house had music in it, however, perhaps, as you suggest, it might have been European music rather than what is presented in so many American movies about the time period: popular songs about the South with lyrics extolling the virtues of their White society.

    Perhaps, my ancestors had no personal access to the African-based forms of music; perhaps they had no music at all, but perhaps they were over-hearing Chopin whose poignant melancholic tones may have shared Chopin’s OWN sense of dis-location (as Tom’s guests speculated) with theirs!

    Thank you for helping me CONSIDER the power of music to enter into so many emotional spaces!

  • Brett

    Thanks, Ann;

    It is intriguing to imagine how people lived in the 18th and 19th centuries in America. I am surrounded by so much history in my neck of the woods. I live in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and on any street one can see architecture represented from every century going back to our country’s beginnings. So much of this country’s founding and developing history happened in places I haunt, here, from my hometown, to places such as Alexandria, Charlottesville, Richmond, and Washington D.C.

    I am a musician myself, and I and my fellow musicians owe so much to African-American influences in music. My hometown is also a big music town, as are the other places I mentioned. Most of us in my circle incorporate elements of Jazz, Old-Time, Bluegrass, Traditional Delta and Piedmont Blues, and Folk into our styles of playing.

    You raise some interesting points to speculate about in the lives of house slaves versus field slaves. Many house slaves probably suffered greatly from having to forsake their native culture. I suppose some may think house slaves would have probably had a much more comfortable life, i.e., they must have been happier than field slaves. Their work was less back-breaking; their clothing, more refined; their meals, higher quality; their surroundings, luxurious, and so on. But I think this is a Eurocentric view.

    The white landowners also probably varied in their treatment of their slaves; so, in some households, a house slave would have probably lived in a kind of gilded-cage hell, while others may very well have assimilated into the customs of the family and treated in some respects as extended members of the family.

    Field slaves were probably afforded more latitude to engage in their native customs and culture than house slaves, and music would have been part and parcel with that. Black Spirituals developed because slave owners often allowed field slaves to sing and dance, but most wouldn’t have knowingly permitted their slaves to practice any kind of spiritual rituals. Slaves learned that they could express their spirituality through songs and wouldn’t have to worry about reprisals over engaging in forbidden practices.

    Also, the kinds of music one typically hears in movies about the Civil War, etc., e.g., Stephen Foster songs, would have been played in taverns, parties, river boats, and so on, where ordinary people hung out. In households of the wealthy, this kind of music would have been considered vulgar; and, of course, the music produced by slaves would have been considered even lower in refinement.

  • Brett

    P.S. -In performances, I often play Foster’s, “Hard Times Come Again No More.” It always gets thunderous applause!

  • Michael Drew

    I think it needs to be said that Schumann is a far greater and more important composer than Chopin, though Chopin is no doubt a giant. Schumann truly brought German music into the Romantic era, nearly inventing the sound itself. Chopin was one of the top practitioners of the era, but he was not the idiom-making genius that Schumann was.

  • Gretchen Hammer

    Had the pleasure of having Garrick Ohlsson in my home for an informal supper after a concert – he arrived in jeans after giving a wonderful concert and the other guests didn’t recognize him! He wandered through the group, saying hello – and it took my young son to figure out just who he was! Garrick, my husband and I sat around our kitchen table late into the night talking while eating steak – a most delightful evening I will always remember!

  • Dana Franchitto

    HI Todd, thank you.

  • http://www.oceanconservancy.org Kevin D

    Yesterday’s episode was the best piece I have heard on the radio I think in my entire life. Here in DC we are blessed to have a great classical station– WETA but rarely do they dive beneath the surface like you did last night. I hope your can do more episodes pertaining to classical music in the future. This was truly the most interested peice of radio I have ever heard. Kudos to you and your staff!
    -Kevin D. in DC

  • http://lovettphotos.com Chris Lovett


    Intrigued by your sense of modernity anticipated in Chopin. My discovery of Chopin really came in a college course on Debussy–most overtly indebted to Chopin in the Preludes and Etudes. The professor made frequent mention of Chopin, and I’ll always remember his term, “non-functional harmony.” Aside from his gift for bel canto, Chopin had a singular ability to create a focus on moments of coloration and texture–the focus generated by what we might sense as “emotionally charged” (for example, those repeated notes in the Preludes, and especially their crescendo in the D flat major “Raindrop” Prelude). So here was Chopin as the forerunner of musical “Impressionism,” Szymanowski, even Messiaen, Lutoslawski and Ligeti. Of course, there’s the strong influence on Rachmaninov and Scriabin, who went from Chopinesque early preludes and etudes to his own extremes (in the late work, the 8th Sonata, for example, somehow evoking Debussy’s own Etude on fourths–two compositions from around the same time, near the outbreak of WWI).

    But there’s also a connection between Chopin’s irregular harmonies/colorations and the folk tradition. Henryk Gorecki acknowledged this, citing the beginning of the last movement of his own Symphony No. 3 and the chords at the start of Chopin’s Mazurek (Mazurka) in A Minor, Op. 17.

    None of this is to deny anticipations of modernity in Schumann, with veins of influence running through “Tristan,” Brahms (right up to the last Intermezzi), Grieg, Mahler, Reger, Schoenberg et al. But this tracing has, I think, been pointed out more often.

  • Newcomments1

    I am currently learning Chopin Nocturne no. 13 in C minor. This is one of the more serious nocturnes. I have a rebuilt 1928 Knabe baby grand which has a beautiful singing tone and was built on 1857 tecnology so it is similar in tone to the instruments that Chopin played except with a heavier frame. The piano and the music are perfect together.

    I find serveral instances of distinctly Jazz chords in this composition. It is almost as if Chopin anticipated music that came much later. But then maybe the Jazz musicians took the ideas from Chopin.

    Unlike so many modern music compositions, this nocturne communicates the depths and helghts of the human soul and does not shy away from pathos or grandeur. The music takes the listener (and performer) from the depths to the heavens and back.

  • Newcomments1

    Chopin was far more harmonically innovative than Schumann.

  • Newcomments1


    I love Fredericksburg and recently stayed at the Kenmore Inn where Washington’s sister live with her husband. One can gain a lot of understand about the relationship between master and slave by the living arrangements of the slaves. I noticed in Fredericksburg that the home of Washington’s mother had the quarters attached to the house which indicates a significant degree of trust.

    By the way, The slaves were doing more than singing about going over Jordan in those spirituals. There was code in the songs which enabled them to communicate with each other. This was important since they were not allowed to talk with each other during the day. While Scarlett O’Hara was enjoying the singing of the ‘darkies’, they were actually singing about how much they wanted to get out of their situation. For instance, the chariot in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was actually code for Harriet Tubman.


  • Newcomments1

    Thanks for your comments. I think Chopin’s music is much more for the idiom of the piano than Schumann’s. I even think he may have been a precursor to Debussy because he utilized the effect of blending overtones and allowing contrasting harmonies to be sustained together.

  • Newcomments1

    No. Do not play Chopin like Mozart!

  • Newcomments1

    Hate to say it, but I agree. Schumann made another contribution. He advertized other composers through his newletter (newspaper, or whatever).

  • Newcomments1

    Actually, Rubenstein must have been referring to clarity in playing. However, some of the “breathing” in the Chopin medlodies has no reference at all in mozart.

  • Newcomments1

    I agree. I think we could use something like a program on the social history of music in the Washington DC area. I think the residents need to think of classical music as more that musical wallpaper for their commutes.

  • Newcomments1

    Maybe that explains a lot.

  • Newcomments1

    Jefferson’s brother, kind of a version Roger Clinton, played fiddle music and loved to play into the wee hours of the night with the musicians at the slave quarters at Monticello. Some times he would bring his sons to join in the revelry. It is thought that this brother and/or his sons were the fathers of several of Sally Heming’s children.

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