Polish Music Journal
Vol. 5, No. 2, Winter 2002. ISSN 1521 - 6039

What Poet is Most Akin to Chopin?

by Fanny Morris Smith [1]

Since Jean Ingelow suggested it, the proposition has been frequently laid down that Chopin is to music what Tennyson is to poetry.[2] Undoubtedly there is much in the exquisite tone-coloring, faultless finish, and extreme delicacy and refinement of the one poet which suggests the other. Both, moreover, belong, in a broad sense, to the same artistic period—that period which includes Shelley, Keats, and Swinburne on the one hand, and the entire group of romantic pianists on the other; and which, in its poetical development, comprehends the phase of art that depends for its charm on the play of tone-color in the words selected to express the thought, while tending more and more to the subordination of both rhyme and metrical motion to the claims of alliteration. In so far as what Tyndall has called the clang-tint makes or mars music,[3] and, to an equal degree, interpretation, this is Chopin's school. But it should be remembered that Chopin's tone-color seldom arises from the suggestion of orchestral instruments; it is hidden in the harmonic tints of his dispersed harmonies, his subtle use of chromatics and sevenths, and his embellishments based upon very open harmonization of his melodies. In short, upon a foundation of Slavic melody Chopin elaborated a series of tone-poems vocal in suggestion, and only so far instrumental and pianistic in treatment as the technical resources of the piano on the one hand exceeded, and, on the other, fell below those of Italian song, upon which he formed his style. Italian song was Chopin's guide in the elaboration of his melody and its ornamentation; and it was characteristic of Chopin's genius that he brought even his modulatory passage-work under the dominion of melody. Thus he springs directly from the tree of Bach and of polyphony. Romantic in feeling, his roots are classic.

Title page from The Century Library of Music.

Chopin is, however, less a colorist than a figure-painter, and as such is in opposition to the trend of modern music. Compare with our modern tone-painting by means of clang-tints, that contemporary school of landscape of which the elder and younger Inness are among the foremost exponents—a school of expression by means of atmospheric effects obtained from color irrespective of drawing—and it becomes clear that there has been an instinct at work which has affected music and painting in an equal degree and in the same way. This is the age of color. What did color displace in painting? It displaced line—that is, drawing, action, anatomy, all that makes for motion. It substituted the atmospheric effects of landscape viewed under the stress of human emotion for the speech of gesture and facial expression. Begun by the early Italian school, Turner was its great English exponent; its opponent was the pre-Raphaelite school in spite of Ruskin's championship of the "cause of truth and art."[4] We may quote Riemann, that the great discovery in modern phrasing is that rhythm is gesture.[5] Since Turner's day, however, effects of light and shade, rain and shine, dawn, snow, harvest haze, and spring mist belong to the themes oftenest exploited by modern art; all depend on color rather than line, and belong to an epoch in which the human figure has been more or less degraded to the mere artistic necessity of a point to receive the play of high light. Music has experienced the same change. Rhythmic melody in music, in fact, corresponds to the action of the living figure in painting.

Poetry exhibits the same phenomenon. In the beginning, words furnished the metrical material upon which to vociferate the melodies to which people danced, or trod the solemn measures of worship. Thus poetry had in itself the motion of the dance. Look at the vigorous rhythm of a poem as late as Byron's "Corsair," with its fine rhyme and free, manly gait:[6]

Oh who can tell, save he whose heart hath tried
And danced in triumph o'er the waters wide,
The exulting sense-the pulses mad'ning play-
That thrills the wanderer on that trackless way?

Then turn to Tennyson and repeat:[7]

And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hang in sleep.

The delightsomeness of the first example arises from the swing of the meter and the chiming of the rhymes; in the second, alliteration retards the meter to paint the tone-colored picture to which the meaning of the words offers what a musician would call "the program."

Music is the result of the combination of the three elements of rhythm (motion), melody (pitch), and timbre (clang-tint); and of these, rhythm, which arises from the dance, and melody, which cannot exist in an art-form independent of rhythm, have decayed in proportion as tone-color-painting has come forward. Music has yielded up its instinct for rhythmic motion and the correlative dance forms to obtain the prismatic play of color offered by harmonic modulation and instrumental clang-tints. Like the dying dolphin of the Roman feast, superb in its play of color, it is most brilliant as it expires. In proportion as it has fallen back upon orchestration with its clang-tints as its artistic resource, music has lost the vigor and life—the motion which corresponds to the action of the human figure in painting. It is, in fact, degenerate. Compare a nocturne by Jensen with a melody by Rossini or a scherzo by Beethoven, and the difference between the two schools of art at once becomes manifest.[8] The charm of the modern composer resides in the manipulation of delicions qualities of sound; of the elder musicians, in their strong rhythmic melody. Where, in the gradual progress of this great artistic development, is Chopin's place? With Tennyson in the last and completest expression of the orchestral instinct? Or earlier, when tone-color was held at its full valuation, but rhythm still retained its original vigor? To answer this we must recognize that in formal elaboration Chopin was governed by the laws of poetry to a degree shown by no other modern instrumental composer. Contemporary with Liszt and Wagner, he refused to join in their movement against form, and founded his entire creation upon poetical meters. Not the folk-song only, but the polished meters of classic poetry form the rhythmic foundation of his greatest works. The key to Chopin's rhythm is the meter of the poems which inspired him. For instance, compare the French ballades with the four tone-poems to which Chopin has given the same name; compare the meter of Clément Marot's "Chant de May" with that of the Ballade in A-flat, and their substantial identity is at once clear.[9] You can sing the ballade to the opening theme of the Ballade in A-flat:[10]

En ce beau mois delicieux,
Arbres, fleurs et agriculture,
Qui, Durant l'yver soncieux,
Avex esté en sepulteur,
Sortez pour servir de Pasteur
Aux troupeaux du plus grand Pasteur;
Chacun de vous en sa nature
Louez le nom do Createur.

The French ballade meter is required to carry an unbroken idea through each stanza, so that the latter cannot be split into two verses of four or five lines each. Each stanza must close with the same refrain, and the meaning of the refrain governs the meaning of the entire stanza. Each verse repeats the same rhymes (but never the same words) in the same order, and, finally, the envoy of four lines addressed to the person to whom the poem is dedicated must be the peroration and climax of the whole. Chopin, in the Ballade under consideration, while not confining himself to a superficial imitation, contrives to suggest in each stanza the chimes of that which preceded, and sums up the whole in a tremendous peroration. The Ballade in F also opens in a ballade meter, and similarly reiterates the refrain. In his heroic compositions Chopin's important themes almost always observe the principle of complete organization characteristic of classic meters; they do not break up into several shorter stanzas, but require their full development to express their meaning. Chopin is very fond, too, of envoys, as in the Nocturnes, Opus 33, No. 1 and Opus 37, No. 2, which contain a direct address. His method of composition would seem to have been to draw his inspiration from the noblest poetry of France or Poland, to found his melodies upon their meters, and then with a double poetical and musical consciousness to work out his composition. Besides his principle melodies, which he often treated like the grand Italian aria, all the minor elements of his tone-poems may be resolved into melodies, treated in various ways, and sometimes completely disguised. Beneath his wealth of embellishment, or hidden in his modulatory passages, the original folk-song must be discovered if the interpretation is to possess either grace or meaning. Chopin was even accustomed to build upon the close of his theme new melodic passages, forceful and dignified, but on analysis resolving into melodized cadences.

Sequences of modulatory chords, bold and stiff, such as other composers abound in, Chopin loved to transform into beautiful themes, by breaking their harmonic structure into rhythmic and melodic motifs. He reversed the principle of Wagner, whose melodies degenerated into motifs; Chopin's motifs became complete melodies; his progressions and cadences, motifs. Even the last two chords of the final cadence at the end of a movement, Chopin loved to include within the limits of a melody, often in song form. His inner harmonic voices are often melodies such as the composer of today would send forth as independent creations. In short, Chopin subjected every note of his composition to the laws of poetical meter; as a consequence, all of it lives and moves—to the despair of the impersonal orchestral pianist of today. It follows that Chopin antedates our orchestral color-painting. His harmonic color is astonishingly transparent and pure. It is as subtle as it is transparent; but he depends upon rhythm for his picture, and on harmonic tints to raise his rhythm to a still higher power. His style is remarkably condensed. His sonatas are complete tragedies: the scene of one of them is laid on the sea, while that of another relates the death, burial, and future misery of a young hero. Wordsworth himself could not sum up an emotion with greater simplicity. Compare the theme of the Ballade in F with Wordsworth's description of "Lucy":[11]

A violet by a mossy stone,
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star when only one
Is shining in the sky.

The sentiment agrees exactly with Rubinstein's statement that Chopin meant in this ballade to paint a meadow flower. So far the two poets are at one; but in the development of the tale Chopin's modern longing for emotional expression parts company with the reticence of the earlier generation. Wordsworth sums up the story in four lines:

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!

The Polish poet breaks into a passionate invective, in which he passes through all the phases of a tremendous inner conflict. In this difference lies the sharp distinction between the earlier and the later art of the romantic period. The period, as a whole, witnessed the unlocking of a springtime of human life and feeling. Little by little, the streams swelled and broke their barriers of habit and principle, until the fundamental passions of mankind surged on in a turbid, brawling, devastating torrent. George Sand, De Musset, and Wagner swelled this muddy stream; but Chopin knew how to observe a noble reticence, the springs of his emotion ran crystal clear, though they rose geyser-like from the heart of a volcanic soil. In view of all this, it is evident that Chopin's place is with Shelley and Keats, rather than with the later orchestral school of Tennyson. Compare Chopin's Waltz in A Minor with Tennyson's masterly example of orchestral poetry:[12]

Break, break, break
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea,
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

This is a famous example of poetic tone-color. Chopin starts off with an undulation equally cold, gray, and forlorn, which distinctly suggests the sea. But in a moment the human figure appears, and the sea is obscured by the lyric, with its alternation of grief and quiescent despair. The waltz is more naive than the poem; more lyric, more varied in mood, comprising as it does a descriptive prelude, a love-song, and a contrasting mood of momentary excitement and hope. On the other hand, Keats often furnishes passages precisely parallel in ideas and method of expression with those of Chopin. Take the passage in "Endymion:"[13]

O Sorrow,
Why dost borrow
Hearts' lightness from the merriment of May?
A lover would not tread
A cowslip on the head,
Though he should dance from eve till peep of day-
Nor any drooping flower
Held sacred for thy bower
Wherever he may sport himself and play.
. . . . .
And as I sat, over the light-blue hills
There came a noise of revelers: the rills
Into a wide stream came of purple hue-
'Twas Bacchus and his crew!
The earnest trumpet spake, and silver thrills
From kissing cymbals made a merry din-
'Twas Bacchus and his kin!
Like to a moving vintage down they came,
Crown'd with green leaves, and faces all on flame,
All madly dancing through the pleasant valley,
To scare thee, Melancholy!
. . . . .
Into these regions came I, following him,
Sick-hearted, weary . .
Come then, Sorrow,
Sweetest Sorrow!
Like an own babe I nurse thee on my breast.
I thought to leave thee
And deceive thee,
But now of all the world I love thee best.

It would hardly be possible to find a completer key to the mood and to the artistic method of Chopin that this offers. Observe the song form, and the scarcely less melodious description of the tumult of the dance; the refinement of the tone-music; the classic spirit and the delicate balance between classic and modern color; the rapid narrative and the utter absence of Protestant reflectiveness. The very mood itself is Chopin's own. However he might borrow hearts' lightness from the merriment of his May day of life (and now and then he has sung with heart wholly at rest), between the strains of his dancing measures melancholy was ever constant. The Greek spirit and imagery of Keats repeat themselves in the scherzos of Chopin. The majestic hymn and the impassioned narrative occur in both; in both the same sensitiveness to tone-color within the limits of classic form. In habit of mind, Chopin shows himself much nearer akin to Keats than to Tennyson. Chopin is impulsive; Tennyson, philosophic. Tennyson is a landscape-painter; Chopin, a narrative poet. Such a poem as[14]

Where Claribel low-lieth
The breezes pause and die,

with descriptive alliterations, has no parallel among Chopin's creations. His polonaise in which the knights ride from the distance over the moonlit plain, or the impromptu, so like an idyl of harvest-time, or his many nocturnes of shadowy summer nights, are highly suggestive, but none hints at program music, with its literal interpretation of "ideas." If we, on the other hand were to seek the painter most akin to Chopin, we must go to the Barbizon school. There, among the sturdy peasants of Millet, we may find such themes as Chopin delineated in his mazurkas; and in the transfigured grace of Corot's faun-haunted, olive-tinted groves we will thrill with exquisite melodies such as Chopin sang in impromptu and ballade.[15] In point of fact, Chopin never let go of line. He possessed a talent for caricature and a keen sense of the ridiculous in actual life; and shapes musical and intellectual stood out clear and precise upon his mental field. I have said that Chopin was not philosophic; he was intensely religious by temperament, and his religious sentiments were identified in feeling and in imagery with the peculiar ritual and moods of the Roman-Catholic Church. No other composer has brought this element of human life forward in anything like an equal degree. The contrasts between mental suffering and religious peace; religion as the antidote for a disordered spirit; religious chants haunting old convents; churchly hymns of victory; the ritual of the Mass; grim death and ghastly purgatory, are all present unmistakably in his music. The Protestant philosophic spirit of "In Memoriam" is the sharpest possible contrast to the passionate misery of the Sonata in B flat minor.

Chopin has left us mazurkas, fresh and narrative; waltzes, prismatic from the alembic of his refining imagination; nocturnes, the perfection of chivalrous love-dreams; scherzos, tragic to the heart's core; preludes, Wordsworthian in simplicity and charm; études, complete as sonnets; impromptus, full of life or touched with tenderest romance; polonaises, the exquisite expression of the pageantry of his native land; and three sonatas, each a tremendous tragedy—eighty-six opera in all. Not a large portfolio, but potent to withstand the false trend of the modern declamatory piano music and to shape the future of the art in a more normal and vigorous development.


This and all the subsequent notes by Maja Trochimczyk. The article was reprinted from volume 18 of The Century Library of Music, ed. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Fanny Morris Smith and Barnard Boekelman (New York: Century Co., 1902): 585-590. In the text the rare word "subtile" was replaced by "subtle" (two appearances) and "to-day" by "today." Fanny Morris Smith was a pianist and music writer. The current New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians does not have an entry about her. According to WorldCat records she edited a number of books on music besides the Century series: The Music of the Modern World Illustrated in the Lives and Works of the Greatest Modern Musicians and in Reproductions of Famous Paintings, (by Anton Seidl; published in New York, by D. Appleton in 1895); The World's Best Composers: Famous Compositions for the Piano (co-edited with Victor Herbert, and Louis R. Dressler; published by University Society in New York in 1900); The Asra (song arrangement by Anton Rubinstein, edited and fingered by F.M.S., reprinted by Musica Obscura Editions, 1980s). She also wrote A Noble Art (New York: De Vinne Pres, 1892). [Back]

Jean Ingelow *1820-1897) was an English poet. According to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907-21), vol. 13, The Victorian Age, Part One, "if we had nothing of Jean Ingelow's but the most remarkable poem entitled Divided, it would be permissible to suppose the loss, in fact or in might-have-been, of a poetess of almost the highest rank. . . Jean Ingelow wrote some other good things, but nothing at all equalling this; while she also wrote too much and too long." The way Fanny Morris Smith approaches the poets seems to be indebted to Our Living Poets: An Essay in Criticism by H. Buxton Forman (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1871), with the following allocation of poets: Idyllic school: Alfred Tennyson, Menella Bute Smedley, Jean Ingelow — Psychological school: Robert Browning, William W. Story, Augusta Webster — Preraphaelite group: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Gabriela Rossetti, Coventry Patmore, Thomas Woolner, William Bell Scott — Renaissance group: Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris, Richard Henry Horne, Henry Taylor, George Eliot — Appendix: John Payne and Arthur W. E. O'Shaughnessy. [Back]

Smith is citing a a term referring to timbre and introduced in Sound by John Tyndall (1820-1893), published in New York by D. Appleton in 1896. Tyndall also published Fragments of Science; A Series of Detached Essays, Addresses, and Reviews, (New York: D. Appleton and company, 1897); The Forms of Water in Clouds and Rivers, Ice and Glaciers, (New York, D. Appleton and company, 1896); and Lectures on Light. Delivered in the United States in 1872-'73. (New York, D. Appleton and company, 1873). [Back]

J. M. W. Turner (1755-1851), Romantic painter known for his treatment of light and impressionistic maritime imagery. [Back]

Smith is referring to the American textbook Practical Guide to the Art of Phrasing. An Exposition of the Views Determining the Position of the Phrasing Marks. . . by Hugo Riemann (1849-1919), trans. Carl Dorius Johann Fuchs (New York, G. Schirmer, 1890). Rieman published two other books on phrasing, Musikalische Dynamik und Agogik. Lehrbuch der musikalischen Phrasirung auf Grund einer Revision der Lehre von der musikalischen Metrikund Rhythmik (Hamburg, D. Rahter; [etc., etc.] 1884) and Vademecum der phrasierung (Leipzig, M. Hesse 1900). [Back]

Lord Byron (1788-1821) wrote The Corsair in 1814. The poem is divided into long cantos, with citations from Dante's Inferno serving as mottos for each canto. The poem is in 11-syllable verse, with sequential rhymes (aabbccddeeff). [Back]

Cited from Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), The Lotos-Eaters--Choric Song (pt. I): "Here are cool mosses deep, / And thro' the moss the ivies creep, / And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep, And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep." [Back]

Adolf Jensen (1837-1879), German composer mostly of piano music, inspired by Schumann, Chopin, and Wagner. [Back]

Clément Marot (1447-1544), French Renaissance poet; "Chant de May" is properly titled "Chant de Mai et de Vertu" and consists of three strophes of eight lines each, with rhyme structure: abab bcbc. [Back]

English translation by Marek ¯ebrowski: May-Song

During this month of much delight, / Trees, flowers, cultivated fields
That, during anxious winter, / Dwelt in sepulchral underworld,
Arise to bloom as pastureland / Of the Great Shepherd's vast domain:
Each one in its own way / Doth praise Creator's name. [Back]

William Wordsworth (1770-1850), English Romantic poet; the quote comes from poem CLXVII: The Lost Love, one of the many poems about Lucy (Wordsworth's Beatrice). [Back]

Break, break, break, a poem about the sea in four four-line strophes, the first and last with the "Break, break, break" incipit and rhymes between "O Sea!" and "to me."[Back]

John Keats (1795-1821), Endymion: A Poetic Romance, long narrative poem in couplets, written in 1817. [Back]

Tennyson's Claribel with the first cited line serving as a refrain (21 lines in total), was written and published in 1830. [Back]

Barbizon School is a name applied to a group of French landscape painters active between 1830-1870 and led by Théodore Rousseau. Named after a village of Barbizon, the group did not formally include Jean Baptiste Corot (1796-1875), a realistic painter, nor Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), also a realistic painter with humanitarian interests. [Back]


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Copyright 2002 by the Polish Music Journal.
Editor: Maja Trochimczyk. Assistant Editor: Linda Schubert.
Publisher: Polish Music Center, Winter 2002.
Design: Maja Trochimczyk & Marcin Depinski.
Comments and inquiries by e-mail: polmusic@email.usc.edu