Chopin’s influences, Pt. 2: Chopin’s solo piano music and the cello, by Sara Davis Buechner

The influences upon Franchomme by Chopin are multifold, as I’ve written in my doctoral thesis, my album notes and most recently in Dover’s Franchomme publication.  But what about the influences of the cellist upon Chopin?  A few weeks ago, I wrote this post from my cellist’s perspective. I recently discussed the topic by email with the celebrated (and now cello-brated) pianist Sara Davis Buechner, whom I’m honored to call my friend.  I invited her to write her own essay about this, and she replied:

Dear Louise:

I was tempted to politely dismiss your kind invitation yesterday to write a little something about Chopin and the cello, yet this morning recalled the many piano lessons that have turned into frustrating urgings to students, who seem to know nothing of string playing, chamber music in general, or the importance of phrasing, breathing, bowing, etc. So out of PURE SELFISHNESS, I looked up a few favorite “cello” passages in my Chopin scores, and cobbled together a little essay for you. I will be sharing it with my piano students, too!  Thanks, Louise, and bravo again on the Franchomme project! Yay!

Her essay follows! As I told Sara, there’s clearly much more to be written about this fascinating topic  – but if you’d like to use any of this material, please contact me for citation instructions.

Notes On Chopin and the Cello

by Sara Davis Buechner ©2017

The extraordinary piano music of Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) –being enough discussed, over-played, and analyzed to death, by too many performers, teachers and musicologists — is not a subject much given to my own natural literary impulses, in terms of adding yet more commentary to that already immense (if valuable) pile. Nonetheless the Dover re-publication of cello music by Chopin’s devoted friend August Franchomme (1808 – 1884), in a new edition by my esteemed colleague Louise Dubin, elicits my observations here.

Responsible pianists everywhere place great attention on the dextrous innovations largely credited to Chopin at the outset of the Romantic Era — a style of writing for the instrument that is quintessentially pianistic in terms of exploiting the human hand’s natural ability to project the myriad colors and shadings of the piano. In the course of conquering the manifold technical difficulties inherent in any fine performance of Chopin’s works, the pianist must also unravel the many influences upon the Polish master that contributed to his bold, even revolutionary musical style — Bach’s counterpoint; Mozart’s formal purity; the pedagogic innovations of Muzio Clementi, Carl Czerny and Friedrich Kalkbrenner; the folk music of Poland; and most essentially, the lyrical sound, phrasing and breathing of great Italian opera.

Chopin’s intimate and singular melodic genius is buttressed by keen and exciting bass parts, which often exploit his knowledge of the cello. Besides the well known “Cello Étude” in C sharp minor op. 25 no. 7 — an extended melody for the left hand which could easily be performed as a duo with piano (playing the treble line), there are numerous piano pieces in Chopin’s canon whose interpretation can be improved by an awareness of the cellistic sound of certain passages.

There are possibly too many such left-hand passages to enumerate, but a short list could include:

         Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise op. 22

The left-hand part of the entire opening Andante could make for a most attractive cello solo Prelude.

         Ballade no. 3 in A flat major op. 47

The transitional section in C sharp minor, measures 157 – 165.

         Mazurka in C minor op. 56 no. 3

The four-voice contrapuntal nature of the opening measures should lead to a clear examination of the left hand itself, in the nature of a duo for two cellos.

         Nocturne in F major op. 15 no. 1

Pianists who over-concentrate on the double-note challenges in the stormy minor passage, measures 37 – 48, often neglect the cellistic nature of the melody in the left hand.

         Nocturne in E major op. 62 no. 2

Transitional section, measures 32 – 39.

         Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor op. 35

In the middle of the Scherzo movement (“Più lento”), there is a profoundly cello-inspired passage for left hand, measures 144 –  161.

         Polonaise-Fantaisie op. 61

The beatific passage beginning at measure 148 (“Poco più lento”) is suffused throughout with lovely ostinato undulations in the left hand, ideal for the sound of the cello.

         Prélude in C sharp minor op. 45

This lesser-known Prélude demonstrates one of the most remarkable qualities in Chopin’s style — his ability to transform techniques with larger perspective. Here again one may see cellistic writing in the left hand. But it does not limit itself solely to that interpretation, as the arpeggios that unfold from the bass of the keyboard upward actually reach high, well beyond cello range. As if the cello itself turns into a harp about midway on its journey.

         Prélude in B minor op. 28 no. 6

Essentially a melodic study for the left hand.

         Waltz in A minor op. 34 no. 2

The opening and closing of this well-known Waltz is essentially a melody for cello, accompanied by the right hand part of the piano.

Lastly, I’ll mention that one of the most-failed question on Piano Literature examinations is: “How many Sonatas did Frédéric write? The answer, of course, being four — the three solo Piano Sonatas and the Sonata for Cello and Piano op. 65, written for Franchomme. It may be fairly argued that of these four works, the Cello Sonata is the most successful, in terms of formal perfection and melodic directness.

We must always recall that, after his output for solo piano (and piano concertos), the next most-explored genres of Chopin’s repertoire consist of chamber music for cello, and vocal music. Clearly in his mind, the sound of these two instruments was similar, alluring, and reflective of what he wished to achieve sonically on the piano. To play Chopin on the piano is always (as my teacher Byron Janis would exhort) to sing. With the right hand Soprano or the left hand Cello.

Sara Davis Buechner, Philadelphia 2017

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