Fryderyk Chopin was born on the 1st of march 1810 with both Polish and French origins. Even though his music has not been expressly written for ballet, his vibrant and dramatic compositions for piano have variously inspired in time many important choreographers, who have created on his melodies some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of dance.
One of the most well-known ballets bears the signature of Mikhail Fokine and is also the romantic title par excellence: it is Chopiniana, also called Les Sylphides. It is told that, during one of his frequent wanderings in music libraries, Folkine found the score of a suite entitled Chopiniana Op. 46, made up by a Polonaise, a Nocturne, a Mazurka and a Tarantella by Chopin, in a transcription for orchestra by Aleksandr Glazunov. The choreographer immediately thought he could use the arrangement for a creation, to be musically completed with other works by Chopin. For the final score, he asked Glazunov’s support and the ballet made its premiere in 1907, in Marijnsky Theater. Anna Pavlova, famous etoile, and Mikhael Oboukhov made their debut as protagonists. An year later Fokine changed his choreography, maintaining only the central pas de deux. The second version of Chopiniana was premiered in 1908 and an year later Sergej Diaghilev decided to include it in his first season of Ballets Russes. In this occasion the ballet became Les Sylphides and confirmed Chopin as one of the most important composers loved by dancers and choreographers.
American ballet has also been influenced by the composer’s works. In 1902 Isadora Duncan, known as the mother of modern dance, created and danced Gypsy Mazurka, on the music of Mazurka op. 68 no. 2. Choreographer José Limón, strongly fascinated by Isadora, dedicated to Chopin’s Mazurkas an entire ballet, as a homage to polish spirit and courage. He also created Dances for Isadora, a composition made up of five sections, all on Chopin’s music, that narrate various aspects of Duncan’s life and different moments of her artistic growth. Among the abundant production of another great choreographer, Jerome Robbins, we can find other works based on Chopin’s music. Probably the most significant is The Concert, composed for New York City Ballet, premiered in New York’s City Center.
It is an amusing portrait – or maybe caricature – of classical music lovers, which express their feelings with emphasis and overwhelming emotion during a concert with music for piano. John Neumeier is maybe the most celebrated choreographer of the second part of the Twentieth century, that has been fascinated by the Polish composer. He has created, on the music by Chopin for piano and orchestra and on some of his most important masterpieces for piano, Die Kameliendame, based on the script by Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias.
It narrates the life and fate of the unlucky Parisan courtisan Marguerite Gautier. Marguerite has become one of the most well loved roles for many important dancers, such as Alessandra Ferri. The ballet was premiered in Germany in 1978, with Stuttgart Ballet and principal dancer Marcia Haydée, Neumeier’s inspiring muse.
It would not be possible, in such a brief excursus, to dedicate adequate space to all of those choreographers who have used Chopin’s scores to create their masterpieces, but among them it is mandatory to cite, for example, Vaslav Nijinsky, Thierry Malandain, Frederick Ashton, Maurice Béjart, Heinz Spoerli and Alexei Ratmansky. Finally, the Lang Lang Dance Project, born to celebrate the art of this well-known pianist, has staged a creation by Stanton Welch for sixteen dancers of the Houston Ballet. On stage the ballet, undoubtedly a neoclassical choreography, emphasizes the piano giving a physical and visual dimension to the score, incarnating the oneiric side of the artist’s production, his Sons de l’ame.
Note by Giada Feraudo
“Dear Fryderyk, your mazurka – the one that goes Bam Bum Bum in the third part – was performed by the full orchestra at the Variety Theatre [and] played all night at the ball at the Zaoskys’, who were extremely pleased with it for dancing. What do you say about being profaned like that?… The Mazurka is more properly for listening… What will you say about my being at the Lebruns one evening and having had to profane you? They asked me if I could play your magnificent Mazurka and… I played it for dancing with the approval of the dancers. My dear, tell me whether you wrote it in the spirit of a dance; perhaps we have understood you incorrectly. Yours Ludwika”.
This excerpt from a letter by Ludwika to her brother Fryderyk Chopin points directly to both the meaning and the challenges embodied in this Da Vinci Classics album. Ludwika does not hesitate to use (twice) a very strong word, “profanation”, when speaking of the custom of dancing to her brother’s piano “dances”; yet, the dancers “were extremely pleased” on one occasion, and “approved” on the other; and the question about whether Chopin’s “dances” are written “in the spirit of a dance” is the crucial one for pianists and dancers alike.
What is historically documented (as demonstrated in a seminal book by Eric McKee) is that Chopin himself, at first, had nothing against the idea of performing dances on a piano while actual dancing took place. According to a friend of him, when he was at a party, “Chopin would turn into a lusty musician and start thundering out mazurkas and waltzes, until, tired of playing and eager to join in the dancing himself, he would cede the piano to a humbler replacement”.
Today’s readers may be puzzled by the repeated references to a “thunderous” performance of Chopin’s dances, or to the “bam bum bum” used by his sister to refer to his mazurka: after all, he is most frequently defined as a poet of the piano, a master of the delicate nuances, a model of elegance. However, and undeniably, if a dance music had to be heard over the dancers’ steps, the occasional laughter and the underlying chatter, it could not be played too delicately; moreover, if it had to “move the feet of the dancers”, in McKee’s words, it had to possess a great energy, vitality and even a hint of frenzy.
Thus, the question about the relationship between Chopin dances and dancing is not just an exercise in historical reconstruction; it should also influence our way to understand and to perform his music, even when no actual dancing is in view.
Undeniably, Chopin’s music is intertwined with dance-rhythms. This is most evident in works such as his waltzes, mazurkas, polonaises and others which betray their rhythmical origins by their very title; however, dance-rhythms (either recognizable as specific dances, or simply suggestive of dancing styles) are found practically throughout his oeuvre.
Chopin was acquainted with both the popular tradition of folk dances in his country, and – especially – with the cultivated and refined transformation undergone by those same dances when they migrated from the rural feasts to the urban salons of the upper classes. It was here that Chopin played as a young man, without disdaining the task of performing for the audience’s feet no less than for their ears.
The itinerary from folk dance, to salon dance, to “abstract” dance to be listened to rather than actually danced was a very common one, to be sure; after all, the liveliness of dance music was frequently a source of inspiration and of refreshment even within contexts very far from any actual dancing, such as Bach’s sacred works. Yet, one thing is to write something reminiscent of a dance, and quite another is to have it actually danced.
True, people used to dance, in the past, much more than they do today (and this is a significant loss for present-day society). Thus, they possessed a repertory of choreographies and of steps which could be very rich and complicated. Nevertheless, even the most accomplished amateur dancers need some reference points, which may sometimes be incompatible with the needs of “art music” proper. For example, there should be a regularity of beat (which may render the music boring when it is abstracted from actual dancing); and, on a larger scale, the musical phrases should be equally regular, so as to act as milestones for the dance’s figurations – and this in turn may conflict with the need for variety of a music “for the ears”.
Thus, a composer of Chopin’s genius could obviously not limit himself to the purposeful predictability of music “for the feet”, and soon started to experiment with metrical irregularity and surprising turns of the phrase. Yet, these disruptions in the simple architecture of dance music, which make Chopin’s “dances” hardly suitable for impromptu dancing, do not perforce prevent his music from being employed by professional dancers.
Ballet, as distinct from salon dancing, is in fact carefully constructed, rehearsed and choreographed by professionals, who certainly do need “reference points” in the music they employ, but who also can reach levels of complexity and refinement which no amateur can aim at attaining. Thus, they are enabled to reveal the “hidden” potential for dance even in Chopin’s most refined “dances”, and even in those works which had no apparent relationship with dance at all.
It is not by chance, thus, that for nearly two centuries Chopin’s music has become the aural stimulus prompting the artistic imagination of dancers and choreographers alike – and not only on the ballet stage: one only needs to briefly focus on the international skating or gymnastic competitions to see how inspirational Chopin music continues to be.
The art of the moving body has thus found its ideal partner in the art of the moving sounds, created by Chopin; it can even be said that his “non-dances” may have been more inspirational for professional dancers than the dances proper. In fact, if – for example – a Nocturne lacks by definition those square rhythms and meters which characterize a mazurka, it may possess a “narrative” quality far exceeding that of the more repetitive pieces; where amateur dancers could become disoriented through the lack of regularity, professionals may find an evolving discourse and a succession of moods which can ultimately guarantee an even deeper inspiration.
This album, thus, gathers some of Chopin’s best known piano works, most of which have no apparent connection with dancing, but all of which were employed by great dancers, by famous choreographers, or in celebrated shows with a significant danced component.
In spite of what their name could suggest, in fact, Chopin’s Ballades have only a very remote link with “ball”: their title alludes to the lyrical (and occasionally sung) forms of a rather epic style of poetry. The musical construction of these four masterpieces does exhibit some form of regularity, but only on the large scale; their narrative component is much more pronounced. Narrative, by definition, should eschew repetition, in order to fascinate its readers or listeners; recurring elements can be found (such as refrains, or poetic “motifs” which weave some kind of unity in the text), but they should be ruled by an overarching and “directional” structure. This is undoubtedly found in Chopin’s Ballades, with their magnificent display of virtually all moods, in Chopin’s inexhaustible affective and emotional palette: from the powerful to the intimate, from the majestic to the elegant, from the tender or coquettish to the spiritual and profound. These pieces also represent one of the heights of the entire piano repertoire and of the technical and expressive virtuosity; they certainly do not “need” any kind of visual accompaniment to thrill and entice the listener. However, both the contemporary pianist Lang Lang and earlier artists such as Neumeier and Robbins have chosen to highlight the presence of dance rhythms even in these “abstract” works, and successfully so.
Similarly, though for contrasting reasons, Chopin’s Preludes are an interesting and thought-provoking choice for a choreography: most of them are very short, and they frequently favour a textural tightness which seems to leave little room for dancing, quite literally. This has not prevented one of the greatest dancers of all times, Nijinsky, as well as other artists such as Folkine and Ratmansky (who even proposed a ballet by the title of 24 Preludes) from engaging with them, and from obtaining memorable artistic results from this seemingly unlikely pairing.
Even more unlikely is the juxtaposition of Chopin’s Nocturnes, whose magnetic fascination frequently arises from their hypnotic musical flow, eschewing all “earthly” regularity, with the steps of dancing. However, one of the qualities of the greatest professional dancers is precisely their gift in revealing the human body’s potential for flying, or for gliding, or for transforming the countless and ungraceful steps of our daily life into something radically different. Thus, Chopin’s Nocturnes may prove to be the very summit of a utopian challenge – that of transforming our loud marching feet and their discrete steps into an unceasing and flowing movement of the entire body.
On the other hand, if the true poetry of the moving gestures is found in certain choreographies of Chopin’s Nocturnes, his Mazurkas may prove an easier (though no less fascinating) source of inspiration. Their rhythmic verve, their clear pulse, and the “exotic” fascination of the seemingly lopsided accents of the mazurka have conquered both amateurs and professionals, taken from the rank and file of both pianists and dancers.
Among them, there was no less a dancer than the legendary Isadora Duncan, who used the enticing music of Chopin’s op. 68 no. 2 for her exciting Gypsy Mazurka, first performed at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Finally, this album also offers a fascinating example of multiple inspiration: Chopin demonstrated his love for the traditional tunes and lyrics of his country’s artistry in his Polish songs, whose music was transcribed for the solo piano by one of his great admirers, Franz Liszt; in turn, this music is at the root of a ballet by Christopher Wheeldon, only recently created and acclaimed by the audiences worldwide.
Those reading these notes and listening to this compilation may be encouraged to search for video examples of how the choreographies interact with Chopin’s music; however, a further noteworthy and fascinating aspect of this recording is that it does make reference to “danced” performances of Chopin’s piano works, but meaningfully chooses to do this through a quintessentially aural medium, such as an audio CD. Thus, the ultimate primacy goes to music, and to its power to stimulate the visual imagination of the listeners. By turning the CD player on, by closing one’s eyes and by immersing oneself in Chopin’s poetical world, one can visualize the poetry of movements (both bodily and abstract), or simply wander in the midst of its beautiful sounds.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Eliana Grasso, pianist She has performed in Europe and in the United States in important concert halls such as Carnegie Hall in New York, Wigmore Hall in London, Sala Verdi in Milan, Royal Academy Music in London, Heremitage in Saint Petersburg, Theatre “La Filature” in Mulhouse, Maffeiana Hall in Verona, the Social Theatre in Bellinzona, the Pauline Chapel in Rome, Bloomsbury Theatre in London, Salon Chopin (Société Historique Polonaise) in Paris, Ducal Palace in Mantova, Piccolo Regio Theatre in Turin and many others. She makes her debut in 1994 playing Haydn’s D major concert with the Symphonic Orchestra of Mulhouse, directed by Luca Pfaff, warmly received by public and critics alike ("Eliana Grasso: encore petite et déjà si grande", l'Alsace, March 1994). She performs as a soloist with several orchestras such as: Magister Harmoniae, Orchestra Piccolo Auditorium Paradisi, Verona Philharmonic Orchestra, directed among the others by Piero Bellugi. She performs regularly as a soloist and with chamber ensembles for some of the most important Italian festivals and music seasons such as: MITO Settembremusica (Turin), Società dei Concerti (Milan), Unione Musicale (Turin) Trame Sonore (Mantua), I Concerti del Quirinale (Rome), Polincontri (Turin), Rivolimusica, I Concerti dell’Università della Tuscia (Viterbo), Milano Classica, Afternoon Concerts at Alfieri Theatre (Torino), William Walton Foundation (Naples), Settembre Musicale Orta (Novara), Ravello Concert Society (Naples), Villa Torlonia (Rome), Palazzo Labia (Venice), Torti Theater (Bevagna). She has also performed in Russia, United States, France, Switzerland, England, Romania. She plays stably in various chamber music formations: in duo with flutist Romano Pucci (first flute La Scala Theatre in Milano), four hands and two pianos with Irene Veneziano and explores liederistic repertoire with soprano Susanna Rigacci and Andrea Grassi. She has won prizes in several Music International Competitions: she wins the Third prize at EMCY St. Petersburg International Piano Competition and First Prize in New York’s Golden Classical Awards. Furthermore, she wins First Prize in important Competitions in Italy: Stresa, J.S. Bach Prize, Kawai Prize, Clementi competition and many others. More recently, in 2014, she wins First Prize in the International Competition “Festival di Bellagio e del Lago di Como”. Her concerts have been broadcasted live by important radios such as Rai Radiotre, recently she has been interviewed for “The Pianist”, live on Radio Classica Milan. She has published with Sheva a monographic cd dedicated to Chopin (“a compendium of the Chopin’s art, proposed with sensibility and musical intelligence...” Il Giornale della Musica, 2011) and has participated to a complete recording of Beethoven’s Sonatas for cello and piano with cellist Stefano Cerrato. For Velut Luna she has released “Sortilèges”, music by Ravel and Saint Saens with pianist I. Veneziano (“the two musicians become one and give expression to all of the fascination of this music” Suonare, 2015), for Egea Music the complete recording of T. Milanollo’s works for violin and piano. In 2000, she obtains her diploma in the Conservatory of Turin with full marks, in 2005 she obtains her Master’s degree in piano performance, winning the prize “Lascito Piacenza” for the best final exam piano recital. She continues her studies at the Academy of Imola with Franco Scala, Piernarciso Masi and Riccardo Risaliti. She also studies with: K. Bogino, E. Arciuli, P. Badura-Skoda, M. Damerini, A. Lucchesini, S. Gadžijev, J. Swann, P. De Maria. Together with her concert activity, she works as collaborative for the School of Ballet of the Academy of La Scala Theater of Milan.
Frédéric Chopin: (b Żelazowa Wola, nr Warsaw, 1 March 1810; d Paris, 17 Oct 1849). Polish composer and pianist. He combined a gift for melody, an adventurous harmonic sense, an intuitive and inventive understanding of formal design and a brilliant piano technique in composing a major corpus of piano music. One of the leading 19th-century composers who began a career as a pianist, he abandoned concert life early; but his music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition and embodies more fully than any other composer’s the expressive and technical characteristics of the instrument.