The quintessential Chopin gesture is to mark a bass note staccato (meaning: play short) while instructing you to put down the pedal. Why would you play short and then let the sound linger? Many non-pianists, already prejudiced against Chopin because he didn’t care much for their instrument, think this is wasteful, or fussy — but pianists know. It creates a different timbre, and a different meaning: a release that remains. The foundation, the deepest note, is felt as light, pillowy: a perfect analogue to cat’s paws, the sense of grace and lift from below.
Chopin’s refinement of the pedal would be a ho-hum technical achievement, something for pianists to gab about at gatherings, if it weren’t combined with an unparalleled understanding of harmony — he is always ravishing us with his chord changes, even the simplest ones. There are, in a sense, two Chopins: the one who spins gold out of the most obvious, clichéd chords (the famous A-major Prelude) and the constantly lurking, chromatic subversive. You can see the latter on full display in the E-minor Prelude, an iconic representation of Romantic melancholy, with its two lamenting notes over and over in the right hand, while the left hand oozes downward in a series of virtually unanalyzable, alternately tragic and luxurious chord changes.
Even Heinrich Schenker, the renowned dogmatic and German-centric theorist, spent a lot of time on the mystery and craft of Chopin’s modulations, despite their hint of French decadence. And what a trick: As responsible as anyone for the evolution (and gradual collapse) of Western classical harmony, Chopin still remains eternally popular, lovable, at home in a salon. He’s at once a textbook puzzle and easy listening.
Chopin’s catlike subtlety extends to rhythm as well. The great weakness of 19th-century music, for all its emotional paroxysms, is squareness — the Romantics are addicted to symmetrical twos and fours. In the Waltzes and Polonaises, Chopin tends to stick to the dance script, but in the more personal genres — the Ballades, the Preludes — his approach to rhythm is unusually flexible, fluid to the point of dissolution. When he’s really giving in to his ambitions, to his imagination, you can see that he prefers whorls to chunks. He likes ideas that spin off into unpredictable,…