The great difficulty for any biographer of Fryderyk Chopin is conveying his mercurial personality. An idea of its elusiveness can perhaps be glimpsed from one pupil’s struggle to understand how Chopin wanted a piece played:
[H]e rose from the couch to play the piece and . . . finished the lesson . . . . I did not want to forget this experience to which I had so religiously listened.
At the following lesson, almost satisfied with the imitative fashion in which I had worked on the piece, I played it again. Unfortunately . . . Chopin once again . . . rose and with a brusque reprimand, seated himself at the piano saying, “Listen, this is how it should go,” and proceeded to play it again in an entirely different way.
Chopin’s evanescence was not restricted to performance questions—it informed virtually every aspect of his character. His first biographer, the composer-pianist and a longtime acquaintance Franz Liszt, ruefully acknowledged this difficulty when he said that Chopin was “prepared to give anything, but never himself.” The problem is compounded by the loss or dispersal of a large amount of Chopin’s personal papers and correspondence. For this reason, Chopin studies have been afflicted by an unusually high level of biographical whimsy. “Scholarship abhors a vacuum,” writes Alan Walker in Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, his new study of the composer, which examines the “speculation, hypothesis, and sheer fantasy” that have affected previous studies.
A good part of the interest of Walker’s book is in seeing how he enlarges the Chopin “scholarship vacuum” by showing us where previous scholars have either got it completely wrong (for example by treating as genuine the freakishly erotic correspondence alleged to have been written by the composer), probably wrong (such as the claim that in his last months of his life he saw ghostly creatures fluttering out of his piano), or merely unverified (his not quitting Paris for London on account of a life-changing invitation to the Rothschilds’ salon).
Another strength is Walker’s technical perspective on the music, often accompanied by short bar-by-bar examples, that makes the book feel like a skillful lecture-recital. But the most important of all is the marvelous perspective he brings to describing Chopin’s milieu. Walker is a master of the long aside and the diverting footnote, such as how an early Parisian neighbor requested, and was granted, the dubious privilege of commanding his own firing squad. We see, among other topics, how tuberculosis, Chopin’s music teachers, Russian imperialism and Polish nationalism, his musical and literary contemporaries, and Paris’s place at the center of European culture all contributed to the making and unmaking of the man and the composer. A Life and Times is an informative and exceptionally engaging read.
The essential facts of Chopin’s life are these: He was born in 1810 in Żelazowa Wola, a tiny village a few miles west of Warsaw where his father tutored the children of the Countess Skarbek, a Polish noblewoman. After Chopin’s birth, the family moved to Warsaw, where his father taught at the Lyceum. When his talent became too obvious to ignore, Chopin began piano lessons from a local violinist, the only instrumental teacher he ever had, and started even as a boy to invent the supple technique that would revolutionize piano performance. At twelve, he began studying composition with another local. By all accounts he was a happy and gregarious young man with a playful sense of humor. Though Chopin’s parents did not want their son to be a musician (then socially akin to being a servant, or worse), word spread about the boy’s talent for improvisation and musical mimicry, gaining him invitations to the houses of Warsaw’s aristocracy, where he developed his self-deprecating charm and social polish. At eighteen, he visited Berlin by which time he had published several works. By nineteen he had finished his formal musical studies and visited Vienna, where his playing was overwhelmingly well received. At twenty, he departed from Poland forever, first to Vienna, then Munich, then Paris where finally, after a rocky start, he settled. After a successful career teaching aristocratic and wealthy middle-class pupils at twenty gold francs per lesson and a comparatively successful composing career, he died in 1849, leaving some 194 individual works in 74 opus numbers and some 40 other works on which his reputation rests.
For all the pleasure he has given us, however, Chopin was an unlucky man. Plagued by terrible health from his early teens and a ravaging sense of guilt about leaving Poland, serially unsuccessful with women, alienated from his great musical contemporaries, leaving no pupils of note, and seeing his musical creativity wither in his last years, he died destitute and unhappy. This is in contrast to the popular image of Chopin as a nattily dressed, dreamy Romantic.
Walker’s biography shows us how disease altered Chopin’s life. As Beethoven contended with deafness, so Chopin contended with tuberculosis. Walker tells us that, during Chopin’s lifetime, around a fifth of Central Europe’s population suffered from consumption (one of the old names for tuberculosis). Tuberculosis killed about 70 percent of its victims, and it claimed a large number of Chopin’s friends and acquaintances. Chopin’s family, though prosperous by the standards of the time, was no exception. His father eventually died of it, and his talented sister, Emilia, contracted it around the same time as Chopin, but survived for only two years. Although he outlasted her by more than a generation, his symptoms worsened until his death in 1849. Consumption is not an easy disease to endure: at least one piano student recalled that when Chopin was ill, the normally punctilious and elegant composer would shout, throw things, and otherwise be downright nasty during lessons.
Chopin’s struggle with tuberculosis appears to have affected his concert-giving. As a young man he enjoyed public performance, but by his mid-twenties this changed, possibly because he found its physical demands too difficult. Even in the salon settings where he was most comfortable, his playing was characterized by its vanishing softness. Walker relates how an audience member once wrote that Chopin’s playing “whispered to [the audience] of zephyrs and moonlight rather than of cataracts and thunder,” and the Irish composer-pianist John Field, who created the genre that Chopin would immortalize—the nocturne—called him “a sickroom talent.” Apart from his suffering from watching the deaths of friends and family, the direct effects of that wasting disease on Chopin’s emotional state cannot be ignored. His health may have also played a part in his deteriorating friendships with Liszt and Hector Berlioz, whose robust and large-scale works so contrasted with Chopin’s intimate style.
His perennially grim health also contributed to his difficulties with women. Though Chopin’s unrequited love for the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska can perhaps be explained as youthful gaucherie (decades later she described him as “temperamental, full of fantasies and unreliable”), his engagement several years later to Maria Wodzińska was, to his great chagrin, broken by her mother on account of his ill health. On the rebound, Chopin fell in with the gregarious authoress George Sand, becoming one in her long, long line of lovers (or, to adapt one of Walker’s best lines, a fortunate successor to his fortunate predecessors). Yet, as Walker shows, during their nine years together Sand kept Chopin alive and stimulated, midwifing many of his great works—the préludes, the two last sonatas, and many of the impromptus, nocturnes, mazurkas, waltzes, and ballades. But even at the beginning of their time together, when they took their famous honeymoon-in-all-but-name to Majorca, Chopin became so ill that, in Sand’s words, he was “coughing up bowls of blood,” and their relationship quickly became chaste at Sand’s insistence. The immediate cause of their breakup in 1847 was the constant fighting among Sand, her children, and her son-in-law, the unscrupulous sculptor Auguste Clésinger, into which Chopin was drawn. But the long-term cause was probably the collateral emotional damage caused by the inexorable pace of his illness. Perhaps the saddest evidence of this was Sand’s roman-à-clef, Lucrezia Floriani, about a relationship gone bad: “what happens to the rapture and love when he, who is the object of it, behaves like a raving madman,’’ she wrote. After their break, Chopin went into physical and musical decline, writing hardly anything, and dying just two years later, forever remembered as the consumptive “poet of the piano.”
Chopin’s music, says Walker, was shaped by his love of bel canto singing, particularly the pure and sensuous arias of Bellini. “You must sing if you wish to play,” he told his students, and the emphasis in his music on cantabile voicing and a sumptuous legato create an intense emotional response in the listener. It was this effect that Robert Schumann perhaps had at the back of his mind when he described Chopin’s mazurkas as “guns buried in flowers.” Chopin was essentially a miniaturist, at his best in intimate salon settings where his delicate, subdued progressions and revolutionary harmonies were at their most powerful. Not that these traits were universally admired—he was described by one critic as “someone who had written some rondos and dance tunes.” At heart, Chopin’s art is improvisatory. Walker explains that he composed relatively little in the classical sonata or concerto forms favored by other musicians, but raised the prélude, the mazurka, the polonaise, and the ballade—musical genres that he effectively invented—and the étude and nocturne—genres that he radically transformed—to the highest art. Schumann claimed that Chopin’s style was so distinctive that he could publish works anonymously and people would still know they were his.
Perhaps this inwardness explains his rather unconventional views about other composers. Chopin thought the violin playing of Nicolò Paganini, another genre-inventing virtuoso, was perfection itself. He preferred Hummel to Beethoven, not because Hummel was the greater composer, but because he was less musically rambunctious. And he was largely indifferent to the works of his great contemporaries, finding these men more of social than musical interest. One possibly apocryphal story (but typical of his sly humor) has Chopin claiming that Berlioz composed by flicking ink onto ruled music paper. Walker tells us that after Schumann dedicated his Kreisleriana to Chopin, all Chopin could find to admire was the design on its front cover. Mendelssohn did not fare much better. And after Louis-Philippe sent the pianist Ignaz Moscheles an elegant traveling case in thanks for a command performance, Chopin commented that the gift was a thinly veiled hint that Moscheles had better get out of town.
Then there is Chopin’s extraordinary treatment of Liszt. After Chopin arrived in Paris, Liszt befriended him and introduced him to a number of musicians and literati, including George Sand. Liszt revered Chopin, reviewing him favorably, publicly performing his music, and occasionally sending him pupils. His kindnesses were not reciprocated. Though he agreed with many of Liszt’s musical judgments (“Liszt is always right,” he once told a pupil) and could be deeply moved by his playing, Chopin was profoundly envious of him. Examples abound, but one is particularly telling: Wilhelm von Lenz, a former Liszt student, introduced himself to Chopin and asked for lessons. When Chopin asked to hear something, von Lenz played him Chopin’s own B-flat mazurka. After he finished, Chopin whispered, “He [Liszt] showed it to you—he has to put his stamp on everything . . . he plays for thousands of people and I rarely play for one!” But although relations between Chopin and Liszt cooled over the years (accelerated, perhaps, when Liszt let himself into Chopin’s apartment for an interlude or two with Berlioz’s ex-fiancée, Camille Moke, leaving, as one confidante later recalled with a grimace, “evidence”), Liszt, who understood Chopin better than most, championed the man and his music until his own death in 1886.
Early on, Walker quotes Somerset Maugham’s observation that “There are three rules for writing biography and nobody knows what they are.” In his own field, the author seems to have found a few sound guidelines. First, pick an interesting composer, preferably one whose music has “timeless power to move its hearers to a better place,” and who lived in a fascinating time. Second, weave hundreds of little accounts and personal histories of that time into a colorful description of the composer’s setting. Third, tell the story in stylish but elegant prose with clear and forthright judgments. But perhaps that can be expected with all the practice Walker has had. Years ago, he published a collection of essays by various authors on Chopin’s life and work, still read with pleasure, which has matured into this book. In 1966, he brought out a similar collection about Liszt which evolved into his marvelous three-volume biography. Finally, in 1972, Walker published a last collection on Schumann. With Liszt, and now Fryderyk Chopin, so well cared for, one can but hope that Walker will try for the hat-trick.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 5, on page 69
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