It is easy to be a realist in painting, an art so visually oriented towards the outside world. But what does realism in music mean? Nowhere does one part with conventionality and evasiveness as one does in music; and no creative field is so imbued with the spirit of Romanticism, that ever-achieving and yet in no way verifiable beginning of whimsicality. All of this is based, however, on exceptions. There are many of them, and they constitute the history of music. There are also exceptions to exceptions, and of them there are two: Bach and Chopin.
To us, these creative pillars of instrumental music do not seem to be heroes of imagination or fantastic figures. They come off instead as the embodiment of trust in their own contours. Their music abounds in detail and produces the impression of a chronicle of their lives. More than in the works of anyone else, reality surfaces through sound. When we speak of realism in music, we do not at all mean the illustrative inception of music, be it program music or opera. No, we are dealing with something very different.
Everywhere, in any field of art, realism does not seem to represent a definite direction but rather a certain degree of art, a higher level of authorial precision. In other words, realism is that decisive measure of creative detailing which does not require any general aesthetic rules on the part of the artist, his contemporary listeners or his audience. Here is where the art of Romanticism always remains, and in this it takes satisfaction. How little it needs to bloom and flourish! At its disposal gather a stilted pathos, a false depth and an obsequious affection – all the forms of artificiality to do with them as it will.
In an entirely different position is the realist artist. His reality is a cross and a predetermination; therein lies not a shadow of willfulness or fancy. How could he play and amuse himself when his own future plays with him, when he is its toy! First of all, what makes an artist into a realist, what creates him? An early impressionability in childhood, the thought occurs to us, and an opportune conscientiousness in his vision. Precisely these two forces put him to work, work that would be both unknown and unnecessary to a Romantic artist. His own memories drive him into that realm of technical discoveries that is so vital for their reproduction. Artistic realism, as it seems to us, is the depth of biographical imprint left by the primary motive force upon the artist, which then pushes him towards novelty and originality.
Chopin is a realist in the same way that Leo Tolstoy is a realist. His creative oeuvre is thoroughly original not because of its dissimilarity to those of his rivals, but because of its similarity to the temperament with which he wrote. It is always biographical, not because of any egocentrism but owing to the fact that Chopin, like other great realists, considered his life a tool of knowing all life on earth, and led namely this extravagant personal way of life, this wasteful and lonely type of existence.
The primary means of expression, the language which expounded everything that Chopin wished to say, was his melody, probably the most genuine and powerful of all melodies known to us. This is no short, melodic motif returning in couplets, nor the repetition of some aria with a voice ringing endlessly in the same tones, but a gradually developing thought similar to the pace of a riveting story or the contents of a historically important narrative. It is powerful not only in its effect upon us, but also because Chopin experienced himself the traits of its despotism, pursuing in this harmonization a refinement of his art in every possible subtlety and twist of its demanding and subduing formation.
Take, for example, the theme of the third Étude in E-Major. It would have bestowed upon the author fame akin to the best song collections of Schumann, and in more general and moderate resolutions. But no! For Chopin this melody was his emissary for reality; behind it stood some real image or event (once, when his favorite student played it, Chopin raised his clasped hands and exclaimed: "O, my homeland"). And so, having exhausted the modulations, Chopin was obliged to sort out seconds and thirds of the middle voice up to the last semitone, so as to remain faithful to all the purlings of this flowing theme, this prototype, and so as not to stray from the truth.
Or in the eighteenth Étude in G-sharp Major, in thirds with a winter path (this composition is more commonly termed the tenth Étude in C Major, number seven), the mood can be likened to one of Schubert's elegies, and could have been achieved through minor exertions. But no! Expressed here are not only the dives into the potholes upon a sled's course, but also the white flakes which fly in from every angle and reduce visibility. From another angle one sees the leaden black horizon, and this painstaking pattern of separation could only be conveyed in such a chromatically fleeting and irretrievable, lifelessly ringing, and freezing minor.
Or in the Barcarole in F-Sharp Major, similar to Mendelssohn's "Venetian Gondola Songs," there could have obtained an impression of more modest means, for precisely here one would have found the poetic nearness which one usually associates with such titles. But no! Oily fires turn and flow about the embankment in the black, curving water; waves, people, talk and boats all collide; and in order to further the impression, the entire barcarole itself, with all its arpeggios, trills, and grace notes, had to rise and fall like a pool of water, fly then tumble onto its own pedal point, softly announcing its major key with the minor shudders of its harmonic elements.
Before his eyes there is always a model of a soul (but this, too, is sound) which we should approach, listening, perfecting ourselves and then selecting. Hence the tapping of drops in the D-flat Major Prelude; hence the cavalry squadron in the A-Flat Major Polonaise trotting atop the listener; hence the cascading waterfalls upon a mountain road in the last part of the B-Minor Sonata; hence the inadvertently flung open window on a country estate during a nighttime storm in the middle of the quiet and serene Nocturne in F major.
Chopin traveled, gave concerts, and spent half his life in Paris. He was known by many: about him we have accounts from such leading lights as Heinrich Heine, Schumann, George Sand, Delacroix, Liszt, and Berlioz. In these reviews there is much to be valued, but even more conversations about undines, golden harps and love-wrought feathers that are designed to give us a notion of Chopin's compositions, how he actually played in concert, as well as his appearance and character. So incorrectly and incongruously sometimes does man express his ecstasies! This man was inhabited by few mermaids or salamanders; on the contrary, magnificently worldly parlors were teeming with hives of Romantic moths and elves as he would rise from the piano and cross through their parting ranks – this phenomenally distinct, brilliant, and almost comically restrained man, mortally exhausted from writing at night and giving lessons to his students by day. It is said that right after such evenings, so as to draw out of its stupor the guests upon whom he had just heaped his improvisations, Chopin would sneak off to a mirror in the foyer, disarrange his tie and hair, and, having returned to the parlor with this altered appearance, begin to perform humorous numbers with a text of his own composition: the distinguished English traveler; the ecstatic parisienne, the poor old Jew. It is clear that the force of tragedy is unthinkable without the sense of objectivity; and yet the sense of objectivity cannot be circumvented without the vein of mimicry.
It is remarkable that whatever Chopin might show us and wherever he might lead us, we always give ourselves over to his imagination without concern for the feeling of appropriateness, without any intellectual embarrassment. All his tempests and dramas touch us closely, and they occur in the age of railroads and the telegraph. Even in his fantaisie, a part of his polonaises, and in his ballads, a legendary world appears, in subject matter partially connected to Mickiewicz and Słowacki, and yet even here threads of a certain plausibility extend from him to contemporary man. These knightly legends are in the treatments by Michelet or Pushkin, but do not involve a shaggy, bare-legged fairy tale in a horned helmet. A particularly great imprint of this seriousness can be found in the most Chopin-like of Chopin's works, his Études.
Chopin's Études, named for their technical mastery, truly resemble "studies" more than textbooks. They are musically expounded investigations on the theory of childhood and separate sections of the forte-piano introduction to death (how amazing that half of it was composed by a twenty-year-old!), and they instruct us in history, the building of the universe, and whatever else might be more distant and commonplace than playing the piano. The significance of Chopin is broader than music. His reality seems to us to be a repeated discovery.