Coded messages from across time

In bookcases, piano stools, boxes in the attic and at your grandmother’s place, sheets of code wait for an interpreter. When an interpreter is available, the code is transformed into an aural communication preserved immaculately from centuries ago.

When Frederic Chopin died in 1849, he had written many compositions of etudes, nocturnes, ballads and some concertos.  Chopin wrote almost exclusively for piano. While it is true that he was the equivalent of a musical superstar today, he achieved that status with very few public performances. He preferred to play alone or for small groups of friends.

Many of the musical giants of the Romantic era died young, often from bacterial infections such as tuberculosis and syphilis. Chopin died at age 39. Robert Schumann died at 49, Franz Schubert at 31. Chopin left behind some works that were yet to be published by the time of his death, at least some of which were published posthumously. That these composers were able to achieve what they did in such short life times is remarkable. Such constraint is not generally imposed on today’s musicians, even though in some cases it probbaly ought to be.

A solo piano performance of a Chopin piece is an intricate, complex and beautiful message that connects us with our past. A private studio in Paris in the 1840s in which Chopin composed his final works, refining them over and over to get the desired result, is connected to the suburban houses of the early 21st century where today’s pianists work hard to reproduce the same sound that Chopin himself created. Over those 170 years, the technology of the piano has changed little and musical notation has not changed at all.  It becomes possible to exactly recreate what Chopin heard, saw and felt seated at the piano. It is as if a wormhole in the space-time continuum has opened up and momentarily we communicate in perfect understanding with Chopin living in post Napoleonic France.

However, there is a catch – the code is not interpreted easily. It takes many years tutoring and practice before a piano student is able to play Chopin’s works even adequately. It is a dedicated and talented individual who can perform to public appreciation. Today’s tutors are yesterday’s students and the collective effort required to maintain our ability to interpret the work of Chopin and others is never-ending and enormous. Those sheets of music that wait in the dusty boxes in houses where once a young pianist played before leaving home contain a perfect and permanent coded link to times past. Protect and preserve them – they are treasure. But more than anything else, encourage the interpreters.