Learning Chopin’s Quatrieme Ballade

FOREVER GENTLEMAN-1867 SteinwayWhen the Publisher learned that I am an amateur pianist, with an emphasis on classical music, it was proposed that I combine concertizing with book tours, where possible. The Publisher believed that it would be unique and entertaining to combine reading book excerpts with key compositions that Nathan Sinclair (the protagonist in the book) plays.   I thought it was an excellent idea … at the time. After all, I had performed in public, a few compositions referenced in the book, including Liszt’s Concert Etude (“Un Sospiro”) and a couple of Chopin Etudes.  [NOTE: The picture to the left is a photograph of a Steinway & Sons piano created in 1867, similar to one that Nathan is ultimately privileged to play.]

Now, as some of you know, there exists a vast gap between the professional pianist (who devotes 8+ hours a day to his/her craft) and the amateur pianist, who has probably never played more than an hour or two a day in his/her life, and may be absent from even touching a piano for days, weeks, months and even years. Nevertheless, to the average listener, an amateur pianist may be able to perform a composition that brings much praise and applause, although a discerning listener will invariably notice a significant gap between amateur and professional playing the same piece.

The Publisher suggested that I perform Chopin’s Quatrieme Ballade, since it occurs in the opening chapter of the book shortly after an important exchange between Nathan and a beautiful young lady. I hesitated when asked, recognizing that not only is it a challenging piece, but also that it is quite lengthy. After all, I had tried the opening pages of the Ballade and they weren’t particularly formidable, but knowing a little bit about Chopin, I was well aware that the mysterious middle/ending pages would pose far more of a problem. I had also toyed with, off and on over the years, Chopin’s First Ballade, which is everyone’s favorite—and that piece, despite some exceptionally difficult passages (again mainly near the latter portions)—had seemed conceivably doable, albeit only after far more practice than I was willing or able to devote to it.

The Quatrieme Ballade also happened to be my favorite, because of the incredible diversity of sound, theme, speed and dynamics—which, of course, was why it is included in my book. I’m not alone in this assessment. No less a pianist than the late John Ogden, gave it high praise: “[It is] the most exalted, intense, and sublimely powerful of all of Chopin’s compositions… It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.”

FOREVER GENTLEMAN-Quatrieme Ballade-last page

My “adult” piano teacher—whom I only practiced with for only a couple of years because she was stricken with a terminal disease—was a fantastic teacher! She was a Hungarian lady with vast experience and incredible technique and helped me polish Liszt’s Concert Etude to a nice level. She encouraged me to learn pieces from the back forward, explaining that most amateur pianists learn the opening pages, and play them so often in rehearsing the piece, that the ending pages are often much weaker than the beginning. Since then, I usually learn pieces from the back forward. When I examined the last page of the Quatrieme Ballade—really for the first time with the intent of actually learning the piece—I immediately assumed that it was totally impossible for an amateur pianist of my level. Nevertheless, I painstakingly began playing, at a tortoise’s pace, during idle hours in France, the various measures on that page. After a few weeks of 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there (I was now attempting the last 5-6 pages), I decided it was utterly hopeless. I might eventually be able to play the notes correctly, but never close to the dizzying pace that a professional would play. I also had the misfortune of listening to Khatia Buniatishvili, an incredibly gifted young Georgian pianist, play the Quatrieme Ballade. She plays the piece at something faster than a “dizzying” pace. After listening to her play, I told myself: “Forget it.”

But, I don’t generally give up that easily. I kept plodding along—now working on the last 7-8 pages (I’m not even sure how many pages the piece is, probably 20 or so)—making some slight progress, but wondering if I will ever have the courage to attempt a performance in public.

I finally decided that under optimum circumstances, I might actually try it. When I stand up before my beloved reading audience, I will first ask if there are any professional pianists in the group. If the answer is “Yes,” I will not only dispense with the Chopin Ballade, but also inform the audience (hopefully more than 5 or 6 people have shown up) that my fingers are ill today. If there is no professional pianist present, I will next ask if there are any amateur pianists who have ever attempted the Quatrieme Ballade. If the answer is “Yes,” then I will ask them to stand up and come down to the front. I will then move the bench away from the piano a foot or two and motion for them to sit down and start playing.

If the answer to the first two questions are “No,” then I will then ask if anyone is familiar with Chopin’s Quatrieme Ballade. “If the answer is ‘Yes,” I will ask them to politely leave the room. Only once I am assured that there are no professional pianists in the room, that there is no one who has ever attempted the piece, and that anyone familiar with the piece is not present, then—on a very good day—I might actually consider playing it. (Another possible question will be designed to exclude all but the hearing impaired.) Still I have a long way to go to even be willing to attempt it to a heavily-screened audience. Fortunately, the book launch is not until July and I’ll be in France then. By the time we return from France, it will be mid-August, so I figure I have at least five more months to work on it.

By the way, I will also ask (before I play) if anyone has read this specific blog. If so, they will also be politely asked to leave the room.

 

My historical fiction novel, Forever Gentleman, is available now by pre-order on Amazon. Read more about it here
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About the Author

Roland Colton | Author, Pianist, Traveler.

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