A Passion for Dance

At the final Research Unplugged event of the fall semester, the audience was treated to an intimate performance and conversation. Music theory professor Eric McKee and student Mi-Jin Lee presented "Chopin and the Romantic Imagination: A Lecture/Recital Commemorating Chopin's Bicentennial Year."

"Frédéric Chopin was born March 1, 1810 and died at a very young age in 1849, so we're celebrating the bicentennial date of his birth," explained McKee. "Chopin's earliest composition was a Polonaise when he was 7 years old. He was recognized as a virtuoso and a composer before he was 10. He continued to develop in Warsaw, went to the Warsaw Conservatory of Music, and gave his first public performances as a concerto in 1829."

McKee oriented audiences to the musical fashions during Chopin's time. "A general trend in the romantic age was that composers—more so than in the preceding classical age—sought inspiration from the world around them, especially from literature, poetry, art, and nature." One trend among Chopin's contemporaries was the tone poem: a piece of music inspired by "a story or an experience outside the music."

Noted McKee, "In the piano repertoire, piano composers also tended to use descriptive titles that influence the content of the music. Chopin refused to take part in this trend. He hated descriptive titles and any hint of an underlying program. This doesn't mean that he didn't use an underlying program, but he never told anybody; he didn't want to make that public. He wanted his works to stand musically on their own, so he simply named them by genre and opus number. Those works that do have descriptive titles—and there are a few—were not titled by Chopin, but by his publishers. They wanted to increase the market value of his pieces."

Not only did Chopin title his works differently than his contemporaries, but he also focused on composing different styles of music. "Chopin was the first major composer—and perhaps the only since—who did not write in the principal music genres of his time," said McKee. "He didn't write any symphonies; he didn't write any string quartets. He didn't write an opera even though people urged him. Chopin restricted himself entirely to the piano; the majority of his works are for solo piano, and the remaining ones involve the piano in some way."

"The truly amazing thing about him," said McKee, "is that Chopin acquired a reputation of the highest order on the basis of a minimum of public performances. He only performed in public about thirty times during his lifetime."

"Chopin was not particularly interested in the world around him, especially when it came to finding inspiration," McKee continued. "He did not like to perform in public; he was not particularly interested in literature or art; he avoided public activism, even though his native Poland was being torn apart by Russia; and although he was raised a Catholic, he was not devout and did not outwardly practice his faith. There is one domain in his music that does speak of the external world: dance. Chopin composed roughly two hundred works throughout his lifetime and one hundred of those are dances. The remaining works often incorporate dance elements within them," McKee elaborated.

"It's difficult today, in this digital world of endless entertainment opportunities at our fingertips, to appreciate the vital role that dance had in the 19th century society," he said. "Dance was by far the most common social activity, and was practiced by all levels of society. During Carnival, it was not uncommon for Warsaw to have ten to fifteen balls in one night.

The spirit of those festive dance balls was captured by pianist Mi-Jin Lee's performance of three captivating Chopin pieces: Waltz Opus 18, Mazurka Opus 6 no. 1, and Polonaise Opus 14 no. 1. "The music makes me feel like getting up and dancing around the room," said one appreciative attendee.

McKee believes that listeners must recognize Chopin's love of dance to fully appreciate Chopin's musical works. "One of the false images of Chopin that has survived in the 20th century is that of a dreamy, romantic poet whose music transports listeners into other-worldly realms," he said. "Such imagery promoted a criticism that treated Chopin's music on a purely cerebral level and divorced the body from it. Part of my project is to put the body back into Chopin and into his music."

For more about Eric McKee, read on...

Last Updated November 30, 2010