Voices from the 19th Century: The Iris beseeches Chopin ‘to return to truth and nature’



In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Frédéric Chopin‘s birth, it’s appropriate that we mark the year by looking into all aspects of the renowned composer’s life. Or perhaps at least one.

Today, no music critic would dare to write anything negative about Chopin’s compositions, preferring to take apart the performer and/or performance. It makes for a relatively easy target, yes, but unlike critics in Chopin’s time, his works are typically played out of context and must be judged one their own.

Yet, in Chopin’s day, he and his works were regularly criticized. One particularly venomous critique came from Ludwig Rellstab who, writing for the Iris in Berlin (August 2, 1833), felt that Chopin’s contemporary, Irish pianist John Field, was the more attractive composer. Rellstab found that Chopin had essentially lost his way and needed to regain his senses.

“Where Mr. Field smiles, Mr. Chopin makes a snickering grimace; where Field sighs, Mr. Chopin groans; Field shrugs the shoulders, Mr. Chopin arches his back like a cat; Field adds spice to his meal; Mr. Chopin throws in a handful of pepper. Furthermore, [in his three Nocturnes, op. 9] Chopin has again not failed to choose the remotest keys, B flat minor, B major, and, of course, E flat major. But in this latter key he also has such modulations that one feels himself in a labyrinth. If one were to hold Field’s charming romances before a crooked mirror, so that every finer expression is exaggerated, then one would get Chopin’s handiwork. We beseech Mr. Chopin who is really not without talent, to return to truth and nature.” (Translation: Nicolas Slonimsky)

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