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Chopin and the Singing Voice, From the Romantic to the Real
  • David Kasunic, Occidental College
This study projects Chopin's wordless piano art onto the background of the practice and reception of singing in 19th-century France. At issue in this reception is the legacy of 18th-century philosophical materialism in 19th-century biological materialism. Singing ceases to be an exclusively human activity, and someone sings only when one both hears and sees that person sing. Hence Chopin as Singer was at once heard and seen. The introduction sets the stage for this sensory interdependence by showing how tuberculosis became a disease of listening---a musical disease---with the advent of the stethoscope. Hearing Chopin thus meant registering his disease; tuberculosis rendered Chopin's piano-singing a displaced singing by default. The desire to make his piano sing is the subject of the first chapter, which identifies the mimicry of singing in the nocturnes as constitutive of Chopin's art. Advancing a theory of landscape art allied to the subjective real, the second chapter explores how this singing voice materializes as a singing landscape, the sound of both Poland and the Polish mother. An interlude, presenting evidence of Chopin's playing and borrowing from the piano-vocal scores of contemporary French opera, serves to introduce the third chapter, which situates Chopin's ballades within the salons and opera houses of 1830s Paris. As a vocal genre that made telling a story thematic, the ballade retained its narrative cast in Chopin's piano versions, and his stories in sound, combining song and dance, amounted to opera's aesthetic equivalent. The fourth and final chapter examines how ideas of a musical canon, one's legacy, and the both permanence and reproducibility suggested by the medium of photography---all dovetailed with Chopin's awareness of his fatal disease and steered him towards rethinking the act of notation, and the content of the music he was notating. Confronting death, Chopin began to rethink his singing aesthetic, so contingent on his presence,as it was.
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Citation Information
David Kasunic. "Chopin and the Singing Voice, From the Romantic to the Real" (2004)
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