The Austin Chronicle

The Essential Chopin: A Genius Displaced

By Barry Pineo, October 28, 2005, Arts

On Sunday, Oct. 30, pianist Mary Robbins of A. Mozart Fest will present a program of mazurkas, nocturnes, the Barcarolle, and the Fourth Ballade, titled the Essential Chopin. We asked Robbins about Chopin and Mozart, and what makes for essential Chopin.

Austin Chronicle: Hold on. You're "A. Mozart Fest." Why are you doing Chopin?

Mary Robbins: Because he was inspired by Mozart. Composers who were inspired by Mozart we call classicists. The bedrock of the music that Mozart inspired was based on triadic tonality, a system centered on chords that have three notes. This system, which Mozart figured out in an astonishingly complete way, is the basis of almost all classical music since Mozart. There's a wonderful story about him when he was a child. He was composing, and he looked really puzzled and deep in thought one day, and someone asked him, "What are you doing?" And Mozart said, "I'm trying to find the notes that love each other."

AC: So Chopin was heavily influenced by Mozart?

MR: Oh yes. When he was a little boy, Chopin slept with Bach and Mozart under his pillow. For his funeral, he requested that Mozart's Requiem be played. But more than anything else, the classicist nature of Chopin's music is really the way we know Mozart influenced him.

AC: So what makes Chopin essential? Or perhaps I should ask, what makes for essential Chopin?

MR: When we used that phrase, we were talking about Chopin's essence. He was displaced. Poland was taken over by Russia while he was away doing performances, and he went to Paris because of that. He was essentially Polish, and there's a set of mazurkas in this program that are inspired by Polish folk idioms. I'm also playing two nocturnes that contrast each other and are reflections of his musical personality. The first one is very beautiful, warm, and we get lost in the dreaminess of it. The second one is just absolutely "I have got to go kill myself," so melancholy and so tragic that it overrides any sense of rationalization. Chopin's music was a reflection of his nature; he was experiencing his displacement and his genius all at the same time.

Mary Robbins performs the Essential Chopin on Sunday, Oct. 30, 3pm, at a private residence. For more information, call 866/468-7621 or visit

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