Poet and Painter: Connections Between Chopin and Debussy

By JOHN VAALER

MICHAEL BORENSTEIN
Affiliate Artist Natasha Koval Paden prompts reflection with her performance.

The Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) once glumly wrote to a friend, “It is dreadful when something weighs on your mind, not to have a soul to unburden yourself to. You know what I mean. I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.” Such emotional power was put on full display on Sunday, Feb. 17, when Natasha Koval Paden, an Affiliate Artist with the Music Department of Middlebury College, hosted a piano recital in Robinson Hall at the Mahaney Arts Center. The free concert, “Connections: A Musical Journey With Debussy and Chopin,” had an audience of about 60 attendees, including locals and college students.

The concert was comprised of two halves, one for each of the eponymous composers. The half devoted to the music of Frédéric Chopin was spectacularly Romantic with rich melodies and unbridled zeal. Paden then swept the audience into a forty-minute daydream with the concert’s enchanting Debussy portion.

“My favorite pieces were spread throughout,” Jonah Edelman ’20.5 said. “(The music) made me want to let my mind wonder and imagine something different than the typical monotony of Sunday studying.”

Assistant Professor of History Rebecca Mitchell, whose research explores musical metaphysics, illuminated the connections between the two composers. 

“Many of the musical textures that Debussy explores develop out of Chopin’s compositional style,” Mitchell said. “Chopin was a master of piano composition and helped to develop the full range of its expressive possibilities, something that Debussy continues to explore in his preludes for piano.”

Paden began the Chopin segment with the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23. Composed in 1831, Ballade No. 1 is often considered a masterpiece, rivaled perhaps only by Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F Minor.  

Ballade No. 1 in G Minor is not for the timid. Paden delicately controlled the Ballade, accentuating the gloomy countermelodies in the opening “heartbeat” sections. Her controlled pace allowed the music to breathe.

In the viruostic last sections of the Ballade, however, Paden shined with pyrotechnic glee.  Her fingers zinged across the keyboard and lashed out the final, jaw-droppingly tricky coda of the piece. There are videos on Youtube of even Vladimir Horowitz, one of the greatest pianists of all time, struggling a little with the Ballade’s final bars. Paden held her own and conquered this pianistic Mount Kilimanjaro.

Paden next played Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66. The pianist played the composition’s first and last sections with gusto, using soft dynamics to highlight the tenderness of the song’s middle.  

Fantasie-Impromptu is a dark and rebellious piece. Mitchell commented on the revolutionary aura of Chopin’s music: “Chopin left Warsaw just before the November Uprising of 1830 in which Polish nationalists tried to regain independence from the Russian Tsar. He never returned to Poland, but remained close to other Polish emigres. He glorified Polish nationalism in his compositions for piano.”

The crowd heard Chopin’s exiled loneliness at the end of the concert’s first half; the final chords died softly.

The music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is an enigma of otherworldly grace and polish.  Paden expressed the strangeness of Debussy through subtle dynamic shifts and delicate color choices.  She first played three preludes: “Bruyéres” (“Heather”), “Ondine” (“Mermaid”) and “Feux d’Artifice” (“Fireworks”).

“Heather” offered a calm look at the titular flowers. Paden demonstrated a careful pith in coloring the musical landscape, offering fresh purples and exciting blues through each chord she played.  

If the first prelude was a pleasant detour into the French countryside, “Mermaid” was a splashy thrill-ride through Les Champs-Élysées. Paden nailed the work, cranking out Art Tatum-esque glescendos that rollicked up and down the Steinway D-274 in Robison Hall.  

The 2.74 meters-wide instrument is worth noting. The massive Steinway’s unrivaled power worked perfectly with these preludes: a listener first heard a Debussy arpeggio then its pedaled echoes, then a mixing lilt from the piano’s soundboard that floated through the hall like a ghost.

The audience began to see why Debussy is often called an Impressionist in the vein of Monet. Paden melted and changed the sonic landscapes of these preludes, questioning the very form of classical music itself. The last prelude, “Fireworks,” if not a literal showstopper, certainly earned its explosive title. The pianist highlighted Debussy’s influence of Japonisme through her speedy rendering of the pentatonic scale in the her final prelude.  

Paden finished the evening with Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse” (“The Isle of Joy”). Debussy might have found this piece joyful, but it is first and foremost spectacularly weird. Abrupt shifts of time and tone abound. The sensation of listening to the piece is like reading Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness:” mysterious and draining, but often fun. “The Isle of Joy” ended with Paden crashing a tsunami of chords onto the archipelagos of the piece’s beginning, rejecting any sense of structure that the Chopin half tried to make.

On the performance as a whole, Paden’s interpretation of Debussy and Chopin highlighted the two composers’ similarities in color and technique, but also their stark differences — Chopin’s restlessness, Debussy’s obliqueness. A proverb of classical music goes, “Bach is God’s word; Mozart, God’s laughter; Beethoven, God’s fire.”

Mitchell expanded this analogy: “I think that you could add that Chopin is God’s poet and Debussy is God’s painter.”

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