A very special kind of artistic collaboration is the synergy between artists and their friends, whether they work in the same art, a different one, or no art at all. Such a musical synergy is exploding in the famous beginning of Chopin’s étude Op. 25, No. 11, “Winter Wind” (1836). The first four bars were not part of the original composition but were added just before publication at the insistent advice of Chopin’s close friend and roommate, Aleksander Hoffmann, a highly musical physician.
It was the friend’s idea to open with a sharp contrast between lento and allegro con brio, to jump from tenuto to risoluto!
This memorable example of collaborative music making between musician and friend was recently discussed in “PARA-COMPOSITION,” a conversation between composer John Supko and critic Jeffrey Edelstein posted on the website newmusicbox on October 19, 2015. Here are two excerpts:
“Edelstein: Perhaps we can talk about some of the ways composers draw upon colleagues and friends as they compose, say, the way Chopin’s friend, Hoffmann, suggested the soft, spare opening bars of his Etude Op. 25, No. 11. I can’t imagine the piece without this introduction. It says something about the nature of inspiration and craft: sometimes it’s a highly social activity.
Supko: Hoffmann’s introductory idea [has] to do with the weight given to certain details. It’s a little more than editing, a little less than composing. In the etude, Hoffman convinces Chopin to fix a spotlight, however pale, on his modest skiff of a melody before he sends it into the raging sea. As a result, the music acquires a more vivid narrative element—arguably becomes more communicative—implying things like boats and waves.
Edelstein: That’s a lovely way to describe an etude more commonly known by the nickname Winter Wind. Both metaphors—roaring wind and raging sea—are useful to some and unnecessary for others. But our discussion of your title, Chopin’s friendship with Hoffmann—and another friendship we might have touched upon, Brahms and Joachim—suggest a way of working. It’s difficult to believe that creative work is often completed in isolation. The prefix “para-“ seems the right one for the subsidiary and the assisting: all the things a composer might find talking about their ideas, emotions, and music with colleagues and friends, and yes, by reading critics on their work.
Supko: […] There is undoubtedly a social dimension to the composer’s creative process, but we tend not to discuss it because of prevailing romantic notions about the solitary artist.”
The collaborative work between Chopin and Hofmmann, the two Polish friends living together in Paris, may be illustrated allegorically by the combined work of the two hands in this highly demanding etude. Even though each hand can be considered an etude in itself, the etude No. 11 combines both, asking the left hand to sing the diatonic melody, and the right one to provide the chromaticized figuration with fast scales and arpeggios. They play different roles but work together to create a duet for one performer. The combined work of the two hands instantiates the way friends function as each other’s “other self.”
The 11th etude also stands as an instance of my immanent collaboration with my “other self,” the pianist Pantelis Polychronidis. The very first time I heard him rehearsing the etude I knew he was referencing something special to both of us but could not put my finger on it until I saw his fingers on the piano. I suggested to him then that his playing should segue into the opening of a legendary song by Manos Hadjidakis, Αγάπη που`γινες δίκοπο μαχαίρι/”Love, turned into a double-edged knife”* from the Greek movie Stella (1955). Right after the etude’s first four bars or soon afterwards, in the middle of the first melody, he might switch to another introductory theme:
This combination of etude and song has become one of my contributions to Pantelis’ private repertoire. Obviously he does not perform it in public but, when he plays it for our enjoyment, it is as if he looks straight into Melina Mercouri’s penetrating eyes and makes at the same time the marcato dance and the zeibekiko march.
October 20, 2015
* Αγάπη που ‘γινες δίκοπο μαχαίρι
Agapi pou gines dikopo maxairi
κάποτε μου ‘δινες μόνο τη χαρά
kapote mou dines, mono ti xara
μα τώρα πνίγεις τη χαρά στο δάκρυ
ma tora pnigeis ti xara sto dakri
δε βρίσκω άκρη, δε βρίσκω γιατρειά (δις)
de vrisko akri, de vrisko giatreia
Φωτιές ανάβουνε μες στα δυο του μάτια
Foties anavoune mes sta dio tou matia
τ’ αστέρια σβήνουνε όταν με θωρεί
t’asteria svinoune otan me thorei
σβήστε τα φώτα, σβήστε το φεγγάρι
sviste ta fota sviste to feggari
σαν θα με πάρει τον πόνο μου μη δει (δις)
san tha me parei ton pono mou mi dei
Love, turned into a double-edged knife
once you were giving me nothing but joy
but now you drown the joy in tears
I don’t see a way out, I can’t find a cure
Bonfires are blazing hot in his pair of eyes
the stars go out dark when he looks at me
turn off the lights turn off the moonlight
once he takes me, my pain he shouldn’t see