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Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger – Following in the Footsteps of Chopin’s Legacy

January 25th, 2024 in Articles by

Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, a universally recognized profile for his Chopin research and lifelong dedication to teaching, graciously accepts to answer the questions of this interview for Cremona Musica, where he received the Cremona Music Award for Communication 2023.

His professional career is filled with prestigious positions: he is an emeritus professor of Musicology at the University of Geneva, has taught at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and various North American universities. His numerous and important publications, translated into several languages, are essential for scholars in the field. Titles such as “Chopin seen by his students” and other works on the great Polish composer constitute a point of reference. It is no coincidence that Eigeldinger was also a member of the jury of the XIII Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition.

The first Italian edition of “Notes for a Piano Method by Chopin” was just published by Libreria Musicale Italiana (LIM). Translated by the attentive Luca Ciammarughi, a concert pianist, radio host, and essayist, the edition was curated by Eigeldinger in 1993 and revised in 2020, representing a significant demonstration of interest in the didactic aspect and the existence of a possible project for the construction of a Method by Chopin himself.

Salvatore Sclafani: We should be grateful to those, like you, who continue to question and delve into areas and composers on which seemingly everything has already been said. Thanks to your study of sources, what have you discovered about such a well-known pianist and composer like Chopin? What do we learn from the testimonials of his students and his own writings?

Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger: The testimonials about and from Chopin always contain important documentary elements. Chopin was heard in numerous private circumstances, including the lesson, which represents one of the most frequent contexts in which he expressed himself, a privileged space in his habitual teaching practice. While working on the new critical Peters edition of the Etudes, I noticed that it is impossible to find a true Urtext of the work, a definitive text that can be considered as an incontrovertible correct version. Essentially self-taught as a pianist, Chopin was also a brilliant improviser. This could explain why his manuscripts show different variations of the same piece. It is important, in the study of chopinian sources, to pay attention to the relationship between published works, the composer’s private sphere, and Chopin’s commitment as a teacher.

SS: From studying the sources, what emerges about Chopin’s pianistic language and the performance practice of this repertoire?

J-JE: Certainly, among the interpretive aspects that emerge from private testimonies, there is the concept of “rubato”, which is related to Chopin’s figure as an improviser. It could be a musical version of καιρός, the “critical time”. Chopin practiced it differently depending on the case, a form of “rubato” that derived from the ancient Neapolitan belcanto tradition (which Mozart also knew): a practice consisting of an orchestral part marked by measure, with the singer’s free variations interpolated. This form of singing is attested, moreover, by the Italian theorists of the 18th century themselves. In Chopin, there is a sort of revitalization of a similar praxis, which becomes extremely natural in his language.

SS: What is Chopin’s legacy for piano practice, from a didactic and interpretive standpoint? And what can be observed from those who have absorbed his teachings?

J-JE: The number of “Chopin’s school” students is quite significant. Among them is Karol Mikuli, and indirectly, among others from subsequent generations, Aleksander Michałowski and Moritz Rosenthal stand out. We have recordings of these musicians, in some cases, even multiple interpretations of the same composition, made in different eras: extremely relevant sound documents.
Chopin left sketches of a piano method, a practical work never completed. We have only a few pages or some notes transmitted to his students: sources that are now scattered all over the world. These include both treatise-like writings and practical exercises. However, it is not possible to reconstruct a true, defined plan from them. On the contrary, we can capture ideas, significant elements that reveal Chopin as a teacher. In addition to these tangible materials, the testimonials of the students, to which I alluded earlier, allow us to further delve into this aspect of his multifaceted musical personality.

SS: “Notes for a Piano Method” is a reference point in literature dedicated to Chopin and the piano. What does the translation into Italian of the volume you curated mean to you?

J-JE: Reviewing the text in 2020 allowed me to work on some improvements. I am also fascinated that the book has been translated into Italian. I say this as a lover of belcanto, aware of how much Chopin admired it. We are well aware of his passion for Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini… This can be seen, for example, in his compositions, with the presence of forms such as nocturnes, barcaroles, tarantellas, linked to Italian musical sensibility. I also appreciate the Italian piano tradition following in Chopin’s footsteps: since the time of Stefano Golinelli in Bologna, Italy has had immense love for the music of the Polish composer.

SS: What do you think is the evolution of musicological studies in recent years? And what, in your opinion, are the most suitable paths for the future of this discipline?

J-JE: This question goes beyond my expertise. However, it seems to me that, in general, the ethnomusicological element is bringing new and valid content. I would also like to add a reflection on historically informed interpretations on period instruments, which are widely discussed in academia today; it is a practice that attracts me: I myself enjoy playing Chopin on a Pleyel piano. However, in the scientific field, the risk of such an approach is that performance practice becomes forced, overly cerebral, excessively “techno-logical”. As one of Chopin’s most brilliant students, Princess Czartoryska, said, we need not so much tradition as intuition. This truly allows us to preserve the relevance of a performance and integrate it into the present moment.

SS: How do you embrace the award received at Cremona Musica?

J-JE: It is a great honor to receive this recognition from an institution that has been awarding prestigious musical figures for decades. It is an event that deeply affects me. I am also pleased with the award ceremony taking place in the city of Stradivari, a coincidence that brings to mind cellist Auguste-Joseph Franchomme, who owned a Stradivarius instrument, purchased in the 1840s. Franchomme was a friend of Chopin and collaborated in the composition of the Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, Op. 65. While Chopin was writing his final work, a Stradivarius cello resonated!

Read more about the award on cremonamusica.com.

Author: Salvatore Sclafani

This article is a contribution from the Italian online magazine TG Music through Piano Street’s International Media Exchange Initiative and the Cremona Media Lounge.

TG Music TGmusic.it is an online magazine that covers, observes and reports about music in all its aspects, especially the classical world. Editor of the magazine is Mr. Salvatore Frega, Italian composer. Interviews, reviews, rubrics and partnerships with international festivals make TGmusic.it one of the most followed and read magazines in Italy.

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