Beyond the Notes


I’ve been playing a lot of Chopin lately, revisiting some of the Ballades and Nocturnes I learned during my university years. It is always interesting to come back to old pieces. You begin to notice more nuances in the music—new aural landscapes begin to take shape as you play. That melody wasn’t there before, you think. Then you realize that it had been there all the time, hidden in the counterpoint (when two or more melodies converge to form yet another idea). And maybe, this is just the beginning of finding new meaning in the music. In a different light, and time.

In Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 48 No.2, a progression of harmonies in the left hand gives the melody in the opening bars a poignant sense of melancholy. There is ample room to explore different kinds of sound colors here. To tell the story, the notes should flow as in an enthraling speech. How the phrases are shaped is crucial to achieving any effect on the listeners. How should the music feel? Playing with a sense of rubato, as if you were bending time, gives the music its unmistakable quality.

It is easy to get lost in the music of Chopin. The Ballade Op. 23 is a work with a carefully crafted musical architecture and is full of dramatic contrasts. It is a favorite of many pianists. The music revolves around a narrative in the key of g minor—a tragic tale soaring with moments of absolute beauty. Can music be tragic and beautiful at the same time? This duality of expression is what makes the composer’s music so unique and particularly effective. His regular shifting of sound worlds and affekt (the German for emotion as in “spiritual movement of the mind”) is very appealing to me.  

I’ve been practicing the piece for hours on end. When you play the Ballade, time just seems to stop.  You become engaged in the sound, in the impetus of the narrative. Interpretation is about telling your own story, sharing your own sense of artistic awareness, and unique perspectives of what the music should convey and why.

In music, one must let the spirit of the work be revealed through you. To allow oneself to be in connection with music at that level is a humbling experience. What does this particular Ballade mean, beyond the notes? For me, the answer to the question continues to evolve until this day.

This, I think, is the beauty of the arts experience. To embrace the strength of past experiences and reminiscences of time—to tell the story anew, once gain.

At home, playing the music of Chopin. (Photo: Classica). 

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