Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse/Chopin
STANISLAW PRZYBYSZEWSKI: CHOPIN.
The Polish soul found its deepest utterance in one of the most astonishing artists of all time,—in Frédéric Chopin.
The word is really a relic of the earliest articulate expression of the soul's vitality. The word is, as it were, a well-worn current metaphor, whose original sense we have lost. Who stops to reflect upon the huge spiritual sound-value of the word "mother," of all the long-drawn-out combinations of sound and melody, from which a purely verbal unit has arisen, which possibly admits of wide gradations of feeling, but has lost its original sound-value? I imagine that, originally, words were sung and thus in sound and melody could reproduce their whole emotional contents. With the loss of its sound value, the word has by no means lost its emotional value, but this has become deposited, has, so to speak, separated itself from the word, and has created in music its own form of being, independent from the word.
And thus it comes about, that the innermost spiritual development of a nation can be investigated only in its music. And every nation possesses a specific tone, to which its whole spirit is attuned. This tone is quite different in the soul of the Germanic or Latin peoples, and a quite peculiar one, entirely different from every other, among the Slavonic peoples.
To grasp the specific value of this mysterious tone in its whole range, to possess the power of harmonically attuning all other tones to this basic dominant,—herein lies the power of every artist and, at the same time, is afforded the standard as to how far an artist belongs to his own race or not.
This tone is the rudimentary and the earliest unity in the spiritual shaping of each nation. It is a kind of nucleus around which all the other ingredients of that nation are deposited, around which they oscillate and harden to an organic body. This fundamental tone affects all feelings, all impressions, and all development with a pitch peculiar to itself, and with its vivifying sap it saturates and strengthens all spiritual processes.
And hence it comes about that the soul of every nation is mirrored at its purest and at its strongest in music, and it is far easier to grasp the peculiar spiritual qualities of a nation in its music than in the word.
And the tone, to which the spirit of the Pole is attuned, is not a casual phenomenon,—it is the music of his blood, it is his breath, it is the quality of his eye, which is focussed for the distant sky-line of broad, lonely plains, it is the organic peculiarity of his larynx which fashioned for itself sounds unknown to the languages of other nations, it is the sighing and moaning of his earth and the music made by the courses of his streams and the rhythm to which the waves upon his lakes are stirred, and the monotone psalmody of autumn rain when with dismal insistence it beats against oozing windows.
And this fundamental tone of the Polish soul, such as is revealed at its purest in Polish folk-music, but which has at its disposal only a scanty gamut of a few notes, throve in Chopin's soul to a gigantic blossom of unspeakable beauty and loftiest. majesty.
The foreign sound of his name appears to be only a matter of chance, an unpleasant misunderstanding, for it is precisely in Chopin that the Polish folk-spirit celebrates its holiest Ascension Day. Chopin's soul is inseparably united with the soul of the entire Polish race by a sacrament of indissoluble vows. With Mickiewicz he could declare as a seer that the soul of the entire race was embodied in his, that he and the race were an inseparable unity, and in sooth, Poland could not have found a sublimer bridegroom than Chopin.
And before Chopin we stand faced by an astounding riddle. Catholic hagiography asserts that Providence selects certain individuals whom it burdens with a surfeit of the most fearful torments, in order that they may do penance for the sins committed by all mankind, the measure of whose sins they thus cancel by their own martyrdom. These individuals are the martyrs chosen by God, and through their torments his unfathomable plans and judgments are accomplished. And all their griefs, all their torments are of no account in view of the expiation that is achieved.
Something analogous was accomplished in Chopin's soul; his whole external life is of no account in comparison with the holy mission which he was to fulfil: To reveal to the entire world the genius of a whole nation in all its exalted power which was incarnate within him. And if we think of Chopin we may fittingly forget that he existed as a separate entity. But on the other hand we must bow down low before the holy revelation of the Polish soul, whose symbolic revelation was accomplished in Chopin.
Chopin, I repeat, was the envoy whom the soul of the nation had anointed and sent forth in order that he might announce its glory and its power. And thus it is to be understood that Chopin can be regarded as the classical example of a mighty artist, who, overladen with riches, needed to do nothing else but with lavish hands to scatter teeming treasures about him,—treasures which the soul of the nation had hoarded in his soul for centuries.
And Chopin died neither too early nor too late; in this brief individual life the entire folk-soul was enabled to give itself complete utterance in richer measure than almost any other. Indeed, there is hardly another artist, the events of whose life are of so little interest as in the case of Chopin. He is revelation and symbol. And the centre of equilibrium around which every happening in his soul oscillates, that is the land which bore him, the land with its sadness and its quiet melancholy rapture, its sombre tragicness and its blood-red destiny, the land, an isle yearned for with the greater anguish, as it slipped away in ever remoter perspectives and began to vanish from the gaze, the promised land upon which all yearning and striving centred, and which might never again be viewed with one's own eyes—the land, not as an ordinary reality, but rather as a Platonic anamnesis; in a distant memory which was coloured with a deeper flush, the greater the longing for it which set the heart of the gazer aquiver.
Ever again, throughout his immortal work, is the flaming vision of that land, which in the words of the poet Ujejski, "by day attires itself in kingly splendour and in the night oozes with blood," of that land, of which Pope Paul V. said, when a Polish delegation asked him for relics of saints: "Take a morsel of your earth—that in itself is a relic, for it is soaked with the blood of the holiest martyrs!"
And how fervently must Chopin have loved that land, when he always carried at his breast a fragment of it, carefully sewn up in a small wallet.
Before our eyes the broad-boughed willows ascend from the patches of autumn mist by those waysides, where crouch misery and sadness, affliction and sorest distress, and the memory of griefs for which the source of tears has dried, and heavy languishing . . . all this for sunken splendour, for unavailing sacrifices, for battles which were not fought out. . .
And in the sallow moonlight the cross-roads are ghastly with the wide-opened arms of crosses, the swamps are haunted by the flickering souls of the damned, around stretch the bare fields of stubble, and in the slender poplars which form the framework of some isolated grave, the wind sings the dismal ballad of the mistress who slew the master; from the bottom of an abysmal lake the sprites arise and sing treacherous and alluring melodies, and, enticed by the flickering will-o'-the-wisp, man ventures on to broad fen-lands, upon which he shall find his mournful grave.
Love for this land throve in Chopin's soul, till it became his most exalted creed, and thus it is, that a foreign nation cannot understand him, even in the remotest, as the Pole does—to the subtlest, the most fervent vibrations in Chopin's soul, the foreigner is deaf, precisely where the strongest echo is engendered in the Polish spirit.
In the specific tone of the Polish soul, of which I spoke at the beginning, and which the folk-song has preserved in all its maiden purity, in the dance-tunes of the Polish people, in their hymns, that infinitely melancholy sing-song in an undertone, that grievous psalmody of yearning—therein lies deeply buried the root of Chopin's creative power.
And Chopin took from the hand of the Polish peasant the fiddle carved from the bark of the lime-tree—but this instrument proved too scant; how could it encompass all those things in the soul of the people with which the organ-music of the village churches has become inseparably united, and the sobbing of the flute which was carved from the spring-tide branches of the willow, the groaning of the cellos, and the whining of the bag-pipes?
In his soul Chopin collected all those things which the people have wept about, have sung of in the deep grief of despair, have bewailed, and for which the g, d, a, e of the violin cannot suffice. So he fashioned for himself an instrument which, in reality, has no name.
For Chopin's piano is something quite different from that of a Bach, a Mozart or a Beethoven. His piano is really not a tool prepared for the transmission of sounds; it is the profound, the impalpable, the spontaneous projection, astonishing in its infinite range, of Chopin's soul, of that mysterious synthesis in sound of the whole nation's most actual entity. In his piano Chopin was able to give this entire soul palpable shape, to span its subtlest fibres as strings, and to bestow upon them such power and scope of utterance that they could replace a whole orchestra and in their compass express the most secret emotions of the soul which the brain itself cannot grasp.
Chopin did not need to create orchestral works—his piano is an orchestra in itself; is violin and cello together, is organ and flute and bagpipes, a hunting-horn and the trumpet of the insurgent.
And then, upon this instrument so peculiarly his own, which he himself had fashioned, he created in sounds the great secret of his nation's soul, and thus he became its profoundest interpreter and its clairvoyant herald.
But he did not forget what he owed to the original, naive folk-tunes; for the deepest impressions of his own soul he clad in the form of the Mazurek, and within the compass of these few primordial notes the mighty artist aroused the Polish soul from its very depths to a potent and sorrowful vitality. The frame within which I am dealing with the most significant revelations of the Polish spirit, does not permit me to enter upon a thorough analysis of Chopin's production. I will draw attention only to those works in which the Chopin-race, the Chopin-land attain their clearest utterance. And among these, one of the most significant seems to me, Mazurek Op. 41, No. 1.
A calm, twilight state of dream, now and then stirred by an upheaval of the soul—pining melancholy of endless plains, straying of weary fingers on the great celestial harp of joy-sated woe, and suddenly, like a gust of wind, of which none can say whence it comes, an abrupt cry, half a triumphal shout, half a moaning gasp, which stifles the deep sorrow concealed somewhere beneath.
Dance, my soul, dance!
And God knows whence came this wild joy, this craving for mighty gratification reaching from one end of the earth to the other; of themselves the feet stamp to the rhythm of a crazed dance, wild sounds burst louder and louder from the throat, the dance-tune rages in eddying leaps, in a rumbling bass—but this morbid wish to daze the senses is in vain, cowering grief creeps forth guilefully, slowly in an indistinct, dusk-shrouded memory.
And at once, at the same time, the hands are folded in devout contrition, a prayer arises, a fervid cry for grace and forgiveness—the turmoil is still astir, but already it is dying away as the wearied head despairingly sways to and fro, while the arms droop powerlessly and the soul is sunk in dull brooding. And only a grievous sob, only a vague, dream-caught louring ----a fading rustle of the wind in the bare fields of stubble.
And again that crazed dance!
In defiance and scorn of God and the devil!
The breast heaves, that it seems about to burst, the throat grows hoarse, the soul stiffens in wild passion—but now it is the last great shout that must be dragged forth. And then the great moment of release. Not one shout, but a whole cascade of shouts are released foaming into the depths in mighty octaves—they pour down, wane, trickle away, perish in humble, abject -self-surrender to the abysmal powers, disclosing the most secret depths of the Polish soul.
A single, penitent, breast-beating "Thy will be done, O Lord!"
Yea and amen!
Into sleep, the deep sleep of calmness and release.
And with this evening hymn of the soul, which is scourged to death by vital anguish and vital torment, ends not only this mazurek; we find it again everywhere—in the impromptus, the preludes, and, wonderfully beautiful in the mazurek in F flat minor.
It is in the mazurek that Chopin has reproduced not only the tone of his nation, but, at the same time, the tone of his own soul. He himself designated this primordial tone by the untranslatable word "Żal"; a feeling of grief and melancholy, united with the past memory of things on which the heart dotes and which are no more; an unappeasable, perpetual yearning which gnaws at the soul, a perpetual enforced memory of something unattainable, a hopeless dreaming of a distant home which shall never again be seen, of people, who never again will be met, a brooding over sunken splendour, over vanished beauty of happiness and joy which gladdened life in bygone days.
It is as though Chopin had dispatched his astral body from abroad into his own country, and now hearkened intently in sorrowful yearning for the secret tidings from afar.
A sorrowfully intent listening for something close and yet so endlessly distant, a brooding recollection of memories which escape and blurr, a gnawing pang of desire to experience them all once again in the glowing fullness of life, and the awareness of disconsolate impotence in the face of the impossible—all this and perhaps much else may well be what the specific tone of Chopin's soul, the sublimest revelation of the entire folk-soul, this "Żal" expresses.
And indeed, it could not be otherwise.
For this tone, which predominates so paramountly in the whole of Chopin's music, is not the tone of a nation who in revelry spend days of resplendent glory, sated with triumphs and proud of their empire, extending from one ocean to the other, nor is it that same nation's tone of drunken delirium, when in gluttony and a raving need for intoxication they steeped their senses in drunkenness and brought upon themselves the disgrace of Targowica—no! It is that heroic overwhelming tone of martyrdom, which upon the deadly field of Maciejowice sobbed for mercy in crazed prayers, the tone of despair, whose death-rattle resounds amid throes of torment, filled with the breath of revolt and curses and revilings and shrill outcry to God: "O thou, who through so many centuries hast arrayed Poland in splendour and glory!"—the despairing outcry to which God remained deaf—a screech of the nation which breathed its last in deadly combat upon the ramparts of Praga. . .
And so it came about that all revelations of Chopin's soul are clad in this sore "Żal," beset by the din aroused by shouts of damnation, by blasphemy and by that venturesome defiance which does not shrink from calling God Himself into the lists—and, if there is still the flash of a smile anywhere, it is that tortured smile of the Spartan youth who stole the fox. The fox is wrenching wounds in his naked flesh, but he durst not betray his pain: he laughs on-and of such woeful, serene and tortured laughter only Chopin was capable.
But amid this eternal wrath, in this sombre night of despair, in this unbounded yearning and incessant grappling with grief and torment, the breath at length failed. A hellish spectre afflicted the breast. . "Release! Release!" cried the wounded heart.
And then Chopin's wounded soul conjured up the flaming vision of Poland, of a Poland which had broken its coffin, has arisen from the tomb and now arises in the purple pomp of triumph, in the ermine of a majestic potency; Poland, the bulwark of Christendom: Poland, the holy refuge of every freedom, the Poland of primates, magnates, senators, mighty dukes and of the choicest chivalry in the whole world.
And from their battle-graves have arisen those who fell at Grunwald in bitterest contest with the Knights of the Cross, and those who in a holy death-ride against the Turks rallied round Ladislaw Warnenczyk, that heroic scion of the Jagellons, and those whose bones rotted upon the Kahlenberg at the relief of Vienna . . . the kings broke the seal of sarcophagus, the cardinals, the Magnates, and the rulers arose from their vaults and grouped themselves in a huge procession, and at their head in triumphant majesty, the King of kings, the "King-Spirit," which had embodied itself in the Polish people.
And before our eyes is set astir like an unfettered storm-blast, like a shattering hurricane, the proud lion-brood of steel-armoured heroes, that chosen band of Polish hussars with silver wings drooping low from their arms,—but grievously blares forth the battle-trumpet which calls them to the heroic dance of death, and at the heart clutches a misgiving that all this is a dream within a dream, all long since forgotten splendour—but only now and then, for above everything that omnipotent vision still prevails: that solemn, majestic, triumphal march of such lordly greatness and proud gravity, of such sublimity, that there is nothing with which it can be compared.
The polonaise in A flat major is an overwhelming and truly exalted "Danse macabre" of that nation which, ever afresh, was condemned to death, and ever afresh broke the coffin-lid—and this, its magnificent clinging to life, its uniquely stubborn affirmation of life, has nowhere been revealed in Polish art so potently, so grimly, and so majestically as in this heroic dance.
Schumann wrote of Chopin's mazureks, that if the ruler of the north knew what foes he had in these modest melodies, he would infallibly forbid this music;—what, then, shall be said of this polonaise in A flat major, which signifies a thunderous, stubborn, unyielding manifesto of those who will not allow themselves to be buried alive?
And there came that time when the soul of the mighty seer surged up amid the martyrdom of his nation to the power of one who could compare himself with God and with frenzied hands beats upon the portals of destiny with the despairing cry: "Wherefore? Wherefore? Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? Wherefore hast thou forsaken me, O Lord?"
And such a thrilling "Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?" is the most potent expression which nation ever had found for its despairing grief:
Chopin's polonaise in F sharp minor.
With what could it be compared?
In the whole of Polish art, surpassingly rich as it is, I am unable to find any adequate equivalent. In power of clairvoyant impulse, inspiration now forcibly detached from all that is sensual, it is certainly on the same level as the "Improvisation" of Mickiewicz, but it rises above what is egotistic in this poem, and in artistic strength it surpasses by far the national work of the Polish painter Grottger. . . But perhaps something akin to it might be perceived in Matejko's picture, "Rejtan."
Rejtan, flung down by frenzied torment, stretched headlong upon the threshold of the assembly-hall, is lying on his back; with his sharp nails he is dragging his shirt from his breast, and is clamouring for his heart to be torn out, that he may not survive the disgrace of Poland's partition. . .
The same strength of grief, the same overwhelming exertion of all spiritual power as in Rejtan's protest upon the picture by Matejko, pulsates towards us in the dreadful "Wherefore?" of Chopin's polonaise in F sharp minor.
And once again, more mightily, more menacingly, the same question. As if prepared for a murderous leap, the panting Wherefore crouches—till at last it is let loose in a hurricane of shrieks, in a blood-red, seething question: "Wherefore hast thou deserted us, O Lord?"
There is no answer.
Man has recourse to his own self. And from his soul issues an omnipotent, solemn chant; it resounds with an amplitude of strength endowed by the sure knowledge that it is a match for its destiny; it strides onwards with the conscious surety that it can now solve any secret whatsoever and gazes boldly and unterrified into the spectral eyes of the sphinx. But not for long,—already man shudders, dread and anguish are arising within him; he had desired to tear all seals asunder, and they lie untouched before him.
Life has not ceased to be a riddle, nor has death lost its sting, and again man sighs amid moans of torment: "Wherefore?"
And his breast is rended by an uncanny sobbing, the despairing death-rattle of the dying, who no longer mourn for life, but curse destiny because they cannot fight on. And by a superhuman effort of will they drag themselves from the ground afresh, and afresh they make an onslaught upon the gates of the lost paradise; but it endures not for long; with a gruesome shriek of pain this desperate fit of wrath ebbs away.
And from afar there comes a sound like the confused din of battle,—muffled roaring of cannon, the clatter of fire-arms, the rumble of the earth beneath the hoofs of raging horses,—prayers for the dying can be heard, beseeching pleas to the guider of battles, the chaos and the anguish and the wrath of the fight move farther and farther away; then suddenly, from the savage brawling of battle, the crazed raging of the fight, the perishing prayers, the mad pleas of dying heroes for release by death, like a holy, mystic rose, there blossoms a mysterious mazurek, in which the genius of Chopin has revealed the whole sorely profound death-poetry of his nation with incredible creative strength.
From all the tender, naive and yet so infinitely subtle songs of the Polish lancers, the disconsolate folk-songs after the collapse of the revolution of 1831, from all the scantily-tuned but all the more richly laden chants of many a long since forgotten Tyrtaeus, who with the primordial tone of the Polish soul, the mazurek, urged on the nation to battle, Chopin created in this one mazurek of the pelonaise in F sharp minor, incomparable in the power of its invention, an immortal, a heaven-storming song of songs.
But all this is but a dream—all the more terrible the awakening. Afresh begins the sombre "Missa desperationis"? which, in a "Ite, missa est" degenerates into a raging orgasm of despair. The end of these epic events, the most grievous that ever heroic race passed through in superhuman distress, is only the dying sigh of a sorrow which has already passed beyond the bounds of sorrowful emotion,—a sorrow beyond any human conception of torment.
And it seemed that all had now sunk to rest, all had now died away, that the last coffin was now borne out from the dead-house. . . . And then suddenly a fearful, piercing shriek, like the dire thunder of the Last Judgment. This final F, beneath which Chopin's trembling hand in its visionary rapture of creation had written a fourfold forte, is one of the strangest riddles in his work.
This abrupt and horrible shriek, which sets the hair on end,—is it the last outcry of a breaking heart, or a convulsive summons to a fresh contest?
It might appear that Chopin's soul had, in the polonaise in F sharp minor, contrived tu utter its profoundest grief, that this polonaise expresses the extreme pitch of despairing struggle on the part of a nation begirt with bonds and fetters. But no! This polonaise seems only a prelude to the sonata in B fLat minor, that Niagara of omnipotent suffering, which from heaven-projected heights dashes into the depths, and with a flaming geyser of despair lashes the very vault of heaven to pieces.
The rhythm of the first part is the raging pace of a stallion of hell bespattered with bloody froth, tearing across graves and fields of corpses, and upon its back carrying a mad horseman, an ill-starred herald of defeat and collapse. A vision of apocalyptic riders, of fire, of pestilence, of famine, of murderous orgies and open graves. . . .
The rhythm of this part represents the mood of the terror-stricken nation who, upon the ramparts where it has wandered to rejoice at the certain victory below in the plain, now in the face of defeat, surges back in a panic to the city, throngs the streets to overflowing, is crushed to death in the open squares, bursts the walls of churches, ends with a crazed stammering of despairing prayers, in the sobbing and groaning of helpless torment. . . . .
Only now and then a lurking stillness, as if invisible hands were uplifting the holy monstrance above the whole nation and the whole globe, but only for an instant,—once more a pall of deadly anguish heaves across the whole sky, the air thrills with shrieks of the slain and the murdered, and above the city pillars of fire blaze high up in a tornado, burst in the middle, writhe along the ground, and with greedy tongues of flame lick up pools of blood.
But yet one more, yet the last hope has clutched the nation's heart:
Like a blast of wind the noblest troop of heroes rages across the field of the dead, that sparks are set aflash beneath the hoofs, that the earth quivers, and the whole atmosphere re-echoes with a wild trumpet-blare of victory, but a prophetical chant of ill-omen forebodes no victory. Through the sorrowful psalmody of the scherzo the approaching trample of horses can be heard afar off,—and somewhere afar off a final, a bloody contest is panting, an indistinct echo from the heroic troop's dance of death resounds softly across,—the troop which had wedged itself into the superior numbers of the enemy and at the cross-roads of the nation, which has wandered from the track, which has fallen a prey to destruction, which is doomed to ruin, its soul sobs and laments.
And now the boom of heavy bells, but not those which in Beethoven, with impressive, majestical solemnity, hail the victorious hero upon the threshold of an immortal Walhalla, but those despairing, those uncalmable in their grief, those dull and anguished, when mourners cast a handful of earth upon the coffin, and from the spades of the grave-diggers the black, blood-soaked earth sinks into the dark pit.
The kingdom of earth bas been entwined with heaven by invisible strings, invisible hands are straying mournfully upon this celestial harp, and they weep and lament with the woeful moaning of those daughters of Jerusalem, to whom the Redeemer exclaimed in supremest scorn of death. "Weep not for me, but for you and your children"—and yet they weep and lament, despondently, not divining that the tomb will open and from the dark vault, the spirit of the nation in new splendour and victorious magnificence, will soar aloft to a new life.
For the grave could not be filled in,—endlessly, endlessly, masses of earth, soaked by holy blood of martyrs, rolled upon the coffin, and yet the grave remained open,—the lid of the coffin trembles, quivers, opens, burst by the giant breast, which is still alive and teeming with strength,—and the bells boom and boom, flung to and fro by the tempest of vengeance, of requital, of a distant hope fervid with victory.
The contest which has long since ebbed away upon earth, is continued somewhere in superearthly spaces in a savage hurricane, which may well have once heralded the entire creation, and the chaos of the finale which really signifies a prelude, seems to give birth to new stars.
Above the frowning abyss of despair, above the dark streams of tears and blood, above the broad-boughed willows, which weep by the graves of heroes and enclose an immeasurable graveyard, the king-spirit of the nation whose gaze is fixed rigidly upon its resurrection, gloomily broods in proud and sombre power.
Every paraphrase whatsoever of Chopin's work would, I clearly realise, be meaningless, if it were a question of emphasising its beauty and greatness,—my only object, when I ventured to transpose Chopin's tone into words, was to extract therefrom the true primordial tone of the Polish soul which has become embodied in Chopin's music. . . .
In Chopin's music the foreigner will gain the clearest insight into the most significant factor of Polish culture.
The astonishing synthesis of the subtlest culture of the West with the infinitely profound emotional culture of the Slav. Synthesis of the eminent spiritual culture, which centuries had built up, with the sublime culture of the heart, which to this degree is peculiar only to the Slav; a culture of the heart, which is so saturated with profoundest, darkest emotional excess, that it is sometimes lost in the dusk of mystical ascensions, venturing so far out in the super-earthly distances of Messianic yearning, that its actual value as culture is almost lost sight of, and it becomes a veritable religion.
- Polska, the word in the original, is feminine.
- Mazurek is something quite different from Mazurka. Chopin's Mazurek is not to be confused with the dance-tune of the Mazurka.
- Z is pronounced like a French j
- Confederation of Targowica, at which the last Polish King agreed to the first partition of Poland.
- At the end of the first Polish revolt
- First line of the Polish National Hymn.
- A suburb of Warsaw, where in 1831 the Russians perpetrated a massacre of the most inhuman description. More than 12,000 people—men, women and children—were slaughtered without mercy.
- One of Slowacki's sublimest poetical works.
- This picture represents the one man who protested against the first partition of Poland.
- The most popular national song, "Poland is not yet lost," is a mazurek.