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Chopin's Iconic Funeral March
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Chopin's Iconic Funeral March
Chopin's Iconic Funeral March
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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's one of the most famous tunes in music history

(Soundbite of humming)

(Soundbite of song, "Funeral March")

It was written by one of the greatest composers of all time: Frederic Chopin, born 200 years ago today, in Poland.

To celebrate his birth, NPR's Elizabeth Blair examines his legendary piece about death.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Chopin's Funeral March first appeared in the 1830s as the Third Movement in his "Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor," a stunning, haunting work. But forget about that for a second.

(Soundbite of phone ring)

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, I've got to go.

BLAIR: "Beetlejuice," Monty Python, Porky Pig.

(Soundbite of song, "Funeral March")

BLAIR: That iconic melody has been used to embellish morbid humor -seems like forever. Classical pianist Garrick Ohlsson has heard it on his cell phone.

Mr. GARRICK OHLSSON (Pianist): When you're playing 21 against the cell phone, you know, when you lost, it would go...

(Soundbite of song, "Funeral March")

BLAIR: Parodies of funeral marches go way back. Jeffrey Kallberg is a Chopin scholar, and chair of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania. He says, take the march that originally inspired Chopin.

Professor JEFFREY KALLBERG (University of Pennsylvania): Chopin's march is modeled after a march from a Rossini opera, "La Gazza Ladra."

(Soundbite of opera, "La Gazza Ladra")

Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)

Prof. KALLBERG: And that march served as the basis for parodies by Gounod. So that's the funeral march that if you're old enough to remember, it was the theme music for Alfred Hitchcock's show.

(Soundbite of TV program, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents")

(Soundbite of song, "Funeral March of a Marionette")

Prof. KALLBERG: There's another march that's a parody that Alkan - who was a friend of Chopin, actually - wrote, called "Funeral March on the Death of a Parakeet." And it is also based on this Rossini.

BLAIR: But just because some things become a joke doesn't mean it's trivial. In the case of Chopin's "Funeral March," far from it. When played in its entirety by a professional like Garrick Ohlsson, it's a different story altogether.

(Soundbite of song, "Funeral March")

BLAIR: No one knows for sure exactly what inspired Chopin to write the march, but Jeffrey Kallberg says there is evidence that he associated it with the Polish uprising of the 1830s. Chopin, who was born in Poland, sympathized with his countrymen in their revolt against the Russians. He feared for his family and friends in the face of the Russians' violent response. Chopin was living in exile in Europe.

Prof. KALLBERG: It was said by his colleagues that, you know, often he would be playing in salons, and he would play and play and play, and that the only way to get him to stop playing was to ask him to play the march, which turned him very somber and would change the mood, and he would simply have to stop playing after that because he was so caught up in the emotion of it.

(Soundbite of song, "Funeral March")

BLAIR: The pain and grief of an entire nation is what Chopin's first biographer heard in the "Funeral March."

Ms. GABRIELA MONTERO (Pianist): I think it's really one of those masterful moments in Chopin's musical life.

BLAIR: Pianist Gabriela Montero.

Ms. MONTERO: A lot of people have the idea that Chopin's music is meant to be very pristine and romantic and almost untouchable. And I feel that it's so human. And it's so volcanic at times - and so masculine and feminine that it's very much about extremes, in a way.

(Soundbite of song, "Funeral March")

BLAIR: Chopin's march has been played at the funerals of heads of state, including John F. Kennedy's and - ironically - Russian leaders Brezhnev and Stalin. But the very first time it was performed at a funeral may have been the most important: Chopin's own.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Funeral March")

NORRIS: For more on the 200th anniversary of Frederic Chopin's birth, and for a walking tour of his funeral march by Garrick Ohlsson, go to nprmusic.org.

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