Monday, October 20, 2008

#47 Mozart and Chopin.

In my opinion, the way Mozart should be played on the piano has a lot more in common with Chopin than with Bach, Haydn or Beethoven. The clunky period-instrument Mozart with an almost non-existent sound and a constant staccato has almost nothing to do with what I think he wanted his music to sound like. That kind of playing, while historically correct, is far from the spirit of the works and makes Mozart's piano music sound completely different from his music for other instruments and for voice. Mozart's work for winds, strings, orchestra, and voice are as enlightening in regards to interpretation and sound on the piano as musicological research.

There are three things that I find Mozart has more in common with Chopin than with other composers of his time: (1) a constant singing line, (2) fast passages that are melodic in nature, and (3) a way of developing accompanying harmony in a horizontal way.

Both composers were very particular about a singer's capacity to maintain a legato line. In Mozart's letters to his father and Chopin's letters to his own family, the both make nearly identical remarks about the interpretation of grupetto markings (they should be integrated into the musical line, instead of being mere ornaments--- Chopin was pretty upset after listening to a Bellini performance where the singer kept singing these melodic figures with an accent on the first beat and a diminuendo, instead of having the grupetto lead towards the next note) and both composers also write melodies which carry almost a full harmonic weight by themselves--- most of the time, the melody can stand alone. In the interpretation of both composers' work, there also needs to be a larger than normal distance between the dynamic of the high singing voice and the accompaniment, giving the illusion of space. A common mistake that many pianists make with this music is having the left hand part strangle the melody, especially when the melodic line has long notes.

In both composers, fast passages usually have implied harmonic movements that are quite intricate. In all cases, these passages should be studied slowly and with attention paid to phrasing because, in the best performances of their work, these passages never sound like mere technical exercises. With today's technology we can listen to the recordings of old masters like Rubinstein or Hoffman at 1/4 or 1/8 of the speed without distorting the notes. It is very interesting to do that (with aid of the computer or audio player) because, even when the passage is very fast and complicated, it is still phrased nicely with attention payed to the harmonic and melodic progression in the music. Few pianists today can pass that test, a few are Arcadi Volodos, Murray Perahiah, and Krystian Zimmerman. In the music of Chopin, these fast passages are usually a consequence of the musical line, as seen very often in his nocturnes, and should not be played as something independent from the rest of the music; because these passages are usually studied by themselves, this tends to happen a lot. The same thing happens with Mozart, although the melodic and harmonic lines are usually more simple because of the differences between the classical and the romantic styles.

Alexander Satz used to say that, in Chopin, our most important finger is the thumb of our left hand. The same applies to Mozart. The way both composers develop the harmony in a simple accompaniment usually leads to a secondary melodic line that is played almost entirely with our left thumb. Both composers also tend to use an accompaniment that is much more complicated than the simple arpeggiation of the chords or a simple basso de Alberti favored by their contemporaries.

A perfect example of the similarities that should exist in the interptretation of Chopin and Mozart is in Clara Haskil's recording of Mozart's concerto number 23 coupled with Chopin's second concerto. This recording is a must-have for any pianist. While stylistically, the performances from that period are not considered acceptable these days, I firmly believe that pianists from her generation and before did a much better job of doing justice to the spirit of Mozart's music than most of the playing that we are used to hearing today.


  1. Dear Ahmed,

    I enjoy your blog and wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this discussion on Mozart and Chopin and their similarities. I listened carefully to what you said about the lh thumb being integral to some of the secondary melody lines in both chopin and mozart. I believe you - but it would be most helpful to provide several concrete examples to make your point to other students. I like to read journals when i can afford them. To me, the arts is less about who gives you money and more about using your mind. After all, the USA is broke! We need to cut taxes and to do that we have to cut spending. But, of course, i think it is imperative to share wealth. I just think it is up to the individuals who make it to share it. Not for the government to take it and share it with those who do not pay taxes. But, if one lives in another country - the student exchanges are really great and provide a lesson in how money is managed in many countries. Some spend it ALL on military. OK. Back to Mozart and Chopin - or perhaps to the 'ideal' - which is that people would live in purity of thought and speech so that it would come out in their music. That they would love to share - everything. That they would not be burdened by government to provide a 'god' - but given a Spirit of love to guide their actions to think less of themselves and more of others. Susan

  2. In regards to the thumb, there are examples in most of the standard repertoire. My students are currently playing a couple of Mozart concertos (number 12) and scherzo number 1. Just in the opening theme of the concerto, the left hand has a melodic line in the thumb that is often overlooked.

    I usually vote for parties that are fiscally conservative, but I firmly believe that any public education system has to have a well funded artistic program, and among government infrastructure projects, there must be outlets for artistic performance. Theaters, auditoriums, museums and libraries.

    I am NOT in favor of the government just throwing money at every individual that comes along and wants funding for his projects; I've seen that done wrong many times.

    But artistic education is important, and sadly often overlooked and underfunded. A lot of the money that should be spent on it tends to be spent on sports in the school system and the military in regards to government projects.

    One thing in common that many of the countries that constantly out-score the USA on standardized tests (like Japan, Korea, and most of western Europe) have, is a very well funded and developed artistic program in public schools and youth orchestras.

  3. Dear Ahmed,

    You make your points well. I'll take a look at the Mozart concertos (#12 esp) and Scherzo #1 of Chopin. This is a good topic and as with journal articles - the more depth and specifics - the better the read. It's like you are guiding your readers like students. I think you have the capabilities of a good teacher as there are also many similarities of the freedom of movement in Mozarts piano concertos (and many other pieces) and Scherzo's in general. He was quite the joker and yet very serioius, too. Both had very difficult personal lives.

    Fiscally conservative sometimes means 'less government.' That's what i'm hoping for here in the USA because we simply can't afford to do what we had done before. We are living on 'nothing' because even what we make is dependent upon the central banks of the world and not our own banks anymore. A 'millionaire' is probably worth only 450,000. (plus or minus) according to national geographic. Some countries have huge voter turn-out - but it's because they are forced to attempt to look democratic when in actuality - all their money is taken for government purposes.

    I'd rather see a change in the individual. To have homes and parents teach their own children a love of music by making music readily available in the home (instead of leaving teaching to the school). I am in favor of home education - you can be sure! And, along with that - keeping government out of morality. They are idiots in that respect - as you can see what value human life has in our country now. Morality and Art coexists. You cannot take one out of the other and expect beautiful music. One cannot force another to play perfectly and passionately at the same time. That comes from playing in a location (such as home) that provides real protection from the storms of too much advice and too many in the audience. That's my opinion. Susan