The Influence

Not only did Chopin’s Preludes intrigue Musica Viva’s artistic director Paul Kildea, the piano the composer completed them on captured his imagination as well. By Kate Holden.

Paul Kildea

Black & white photograph of a woman playing a piano as she is surrounded by listening admirers.
Wanda Landowska playing for admirers and students, and Paul Kildea (below).
Credit: Roger Viollet via Getty Images (above), Musica Viva Australia (below)

Paul Kildea is a writer, conductor and classical musician, and currently the artistic director of Musica Viva. A former Young Artist at Opera Australia, Kildea has conducted operas and orchestras throughout Europe and Australia. During his decades abroad he was head of music at the Aldeburgh Festival and artistic director of Wigmore Hall, both locations closely associated with Benjamin Britten, on whose work Kildea has written two books. In 2018 Kildea published Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism, which follows the fate of an instrument through a complicated century. The book was adapted for a cross-artform play, filmed by Richard Pyros in 2021, and now will be staged by Musica Viva, with performances by actor Jennifer Vuletic and pianist Aura Go. It tours Australia this month.

Kildea chose to talk about Frédéric Chopin’s cycle of 24 Preludes (1839) – partly composed on that piano – in particular Prelude No. 13.

Do you remember when you first came upon these beautiful works?

As a music student you start encountering them. And then when you get to university, you start seeing people playing them as a set. So… I’ve known them for a very long time. They’re miniatures: fantastic, astonishingly powerful miniatures. I discovered Chopin late in life; it wasn’t an early love. Then it became this kind of passionate thing.

In 2013 I had just written a book on Benjamin Britten when a friend told me a story about a big warehouse in Vienna in 1950. It was just full of pianos that had been looted or left behind or stolen by the Nazis, or were ownerless because the owner had been murdered. In that moment, I went, “Oh my God, this is a terrible story that we know nothing about.” And I just went, “That’s going to be my next book.” And then in the course of doing my research, I found this one particular piano and it was the piano on which Chopin had finished composing the preludes. I thought, I’m going to write the story of that piano. And what happened to it from 1838, when Chopin encounters it, when [pianist] Wanda Landowska buys it, to when the Nazis loot it, and then what happens to it during the war.

Then the Preludes became just this absolute fascination. And the 13th prelude, which I think is the jewel in the 24, is what got me really interested in internal and external states of Romanticism, and what that meant to composers. So, yeah, it started, I suppose, with an object, that came down to the ephemeral pieces that were written on that object, and what happens to the object, and also what’s happened to those pieces since they were composed and published in 1839.

It’s captivating, this idea of the piano as a lieu de mémoire, a place in which memory sits and is transported through time and through space. All that liquid, fragile, transient music of the Preludes, somehow held in this stiff wooden box.

We know he was waiting in Mallorca for a piano to arrive from Paris, which arrived only a week or so before they very quickly left; so he’d done all the composition, much of which he did in his head. George Sand, his partner, was very rude about the piano, Chopin was rude about it, but it was like some old workhorse, and he managed to write all this incredible music in a very short period of time. So I feel grateful to the Spanish craftsman who had made it, kind of as a hobby piano, because it gave birth to these fantastic works.

Chopin died in 1849. It’s the adoption of his music after his death that becomes really interesting. Because his reputation and stature escalated, it’s no surprise Landowska, one of the great figures of 20th-century music, discovered this instrument in Mallorca in 1911 and just said, I must have it. These objects have acquired so much power, so much potency. And then if she could feel like that, as a musician, who really understood – as a Pole, as a Jew – what Chopin did, it’s no surprise, though I hate to say it, that a number of decades later this instrument became a talisman for the Nazis, who wanted to reclaim Chopin and ignore his Polish heritage. So it’s an amazing transition from this fairly impoverished Polish musician in the 1830s into this commanding figure of universal Romanticism that the Nazis liked. It’s like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark: “I must have that piano. I must have that piano.” It just points towards the vacuousness and the absolute intellectual paucity of the Nazis. Whereas with Landowska, it was, “We can learn something.”

The story has Chopin ill, tormented, working with an insufficient instrument, storming around in anguish over his composition. Does this triumph through adversity chime with your career? Have you survived the inferno?

We know it was a struggle for him. He was that classic mixture of inspired genius and tortured soul. My career was never planned. And it was always kind of lovely opportunities coming my way. And me going, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” And doing that. I didn’t realise actually that I’m more naturally a writer by disposition than I am a showman in character. So, yeah, just good opportunities. I somehow have a mix of confidence and self-doubt. I think that’s necessary to get inside. And be true to a piece of art.

I always wonder how much artists make their art for themselves and how much for others. There are some artists who are very propelled by a sense of urgency to message or persuade or confront, and other people who feel, “I just want to make it for myself, I want to read the novel I’m going to write, I want to hear the music. I want to play the piece, because I love playing it.” How does that sit with you?

I think if you get it right, if you get it correct, you can write for yourself, but if it captures the imagination of a much bigger audience, then you’re being true to your artistic principles. So I think that’s what I try and do. Writing about Chopin was very intimate.

What is it like to play, or to listen to, or to write about, Chopin’s Preludes?

The thing I love about writing about music is that it’s a huge challenge – the whole “dancing about architecture” analogy. But I completely enjoy it, because I’m a practising musician. And I go, “How does the impact of playing this piece, or conducting it, filter me, and how do I transfer those feelings into prose in a way that will help people understand these pieces?” If you think of the 13th prelude, I’ve come up with this idea of the interiority of those middle eight bars, and I talk about the wonderful music boxes from the 1830s and the idea of discovering interior worlds. Being a performer takes me down a very different route when it comes to finding the prose to help readers.

Chopin stood outside time, because he just wrote – not like Schumann or Schubert, he didn’t even really chime with Beethoven, he didn’t understand the late Beethoven sonatas. I think he was just writing for himself. He had no expectation that these works would last. I think he’d be stunned beyond belief by what’s happened to his music.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "Paul Kildea".

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