Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times
By Alan Walker, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 727 pages, $40
A secret congregation of politicians, religious officials and scientists gathered near midnight on April 14, 2014, in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw to exhume the heart of Chopin. No press was invited and word of the event did not filter out until five months later. The visitors did not open the crystal jar contained in a coffin inscribed with the composer’s name. But they examined and photographed the enlarged organ inside, which had been pickled, probably in cognac. Later, experts would say a whitish film coating the heart pointed to a death from tuberculosis with complications from pericarditis. The archbishop of Warsaw blessed the organ before it was reinterred in a stone pillar bearing a verse from Matthew: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The posthumous reputation of Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) stands in stark contrast to his music. A lifelong agnostic, he — or at least his heart — is venerated like a relic in Poland. He never wrote an opera, but in his afterlife he continues to throw up scenes of high drama. In his works — almost all for piano — he dispensed with the programmatic titles that many 19th-century composers used to evoke fairy-tale landscapes and picaresque quests. Yet almost from the moment Chopin died, in Paris, legends attached themselves to his name like ivy.
There was the handful of Polish soil Chopin was supposed to have hoarded so it could be scattered over his coffin. A forged diary made the rounds. Priapic letters, addressed to a licentious countess, inflamed scholarly minds until Polish criminologists debunked them as fabrications. Even while alive he became a thinly fictionalised character in a novel by George Sand, his partner of nine years.
For a biographer, there’s a lot to untangle. Alan Walker does so brilliantly in Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, a magisterial portrait of a composer who fascinated and puzzled contemporaries and whose music came to define the Romantic piano. (Walker uses the Polish variant of the first name.)
Drawing on a wealth of letters and fresh scholarship, Walker creates a polyphonic work that elegantly interweaves multiple strands. He sketches key events in the history of Poland and portrays the burgeoning society of Polish exiles in Paris in a way that lends depth to Chopin’s oft-cited patriotism. Chopin left Poland just before the Warsaw Uprising in 1830. The bittersweet pathos that would infuse so many of his compositions based on Polish dances — the mazurkas and polonaises — here appears as the musical expression of survivor’s guilt.
Another thread that runs brightly through the book concerns virtuosity, and Chopin’s place in a music scene dominated by stage animals. This was, after all, the age of the devilishly gifted violinist Paganini and of piano wizards with outsize egos that divided critics and fans. With the exception of Liszt their names — Alkan, Dreyschock, Kalkbrenner, Thalberg and many others — have long been forgotten. But it was in opposition to these acrobats of the keyboard that contemporaries experienced Chopin’s playing.
Although gifted with prodigious technique, Chopin stood outside the “flying trapeze school” of pianism. “I really don’t know whether any place contains more pianists than Paris, or whether you can find anywhere more asses and virtuosos,” he wrote in a letter that makes his views on the matter clear. “Is there a difference?”
Illness is a recurring motif that shaped Chopin’s career before cutting it short. Squeamish readers may blanch at the amount of blood-flecked sputum the tubercular Chopin coughs up on the page, and at the procession of doctors with their leeches and milk diets. Unintentional damage came from well-meaning women. It was Sand who organised the creative retreat on an unexpectedly rain-sodden Majorca that weakened Chopin. Years later in 1848, a wealthy amateur pianist, Jane Stirling, led Chopin on a tour of England and Scotland that so exhausted the composer — ill and weighing some 43 kg — that servants had to carry him from room to room.
There’s romance, too — or at least the suggestion of it. Curiously it is here that Walker seems the least confident. The problem begins early, with teenage letters Chopin wrote to a male friend who had been a boarder at the school Chopin’s father ran in Warsaw. “Give me your lips, dearest lover. I’m convinced you still love me, and I am as scared of you as ever,” one missive reads. And: “Today you will dream that you are embracing me! You have to pay for the nightmare you caused me last night!”
This episode brings on a bout of hand-wringing in Walker, who allows for the possibility of a “passing homosexual affair” between the two men but considers it “far more likely” that Chopin’s fervent letters were the result of “psychological confusion.” Around the same time Chopin had fallen under the spell of the mezzo-soprano Konstancja Gladkowska — feelings that Walker thinks Chopin transferred onto his best friend.
Chopin would be romantically linked with other women but his only lasting relationship was with the trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking George Sand. For most of its nine years their relationship was conducted in separate bedrooms, their lack of relations an open secret. Walker is probably right when he speculates that the gaunt Chopin, who erupted in coughing fits at the slightest exertion, wasn’t much fun in bed. But it surely seems plausible, too, that his relationship with Sand devolved into platonic companionship because Chopin just wasn’t wired that way.
Whatever its physical foundation, the odd symbiosis between Sand and Chopin makes for some of the most novelistic and colourful chapters in the book. Much of the time the two artists were like ships passing in the night, Sand emerging from her writing vigils “like a bat coming out of its cave blinking in the sunlight,” as Balzac put it, just as Chopin had his morning cup of chocolate and prepared to get down to work. It seems as if many of their most meaningful interactions occurred in her salon in front of an audience of gossipmongers.
Fastidious, aloof and touchy, Chopin kept even friends at arm’s length. But he was also capable of reducing them to tears with comic impersonations at the piano and his letters show up his caustic wit. Walker offers insightful comments on some of his most important compositions with their pianistic innovations and expressive elegance. But while Chopin’s music opens up emotional worlds it spells out nothing.
The enduring fascination of Chopinian relics is also the subject of a shorter book by Paul Kildea. In his highly readable if disjointed Chopin’s Piano: In Search of the Instrument That Transformed Music (Norton, $27.95), Kildea, a conductor and writer, takes on the fate of a humble upright piano on which Chopin composed many of his groundbreaking Preludes during his fateful sojourn on Majorca. As Walker shows in his biography, Chopin cared deeply about instruments to the point of identifying with them. (In a despondent letter from Scotland he compared himself to an old cembalo.)
This piano, built by a Majorcan craftsman, gave Chopin “more vexation than consolation,” according to George Sand. But it drew some of the most forward-looking music from him. In 1911 the brilliant harpsichord pioneer Wanda Landowska discovered the piano languishing in the same drafty monastery where Chopin and Sand had stayed. Her effort to bring it to Berlin, its seizure by Nazi officers during the Second World War and its subsequent odyssey once again show the uncanny ability of Chopin to write operas — posthumously.
–New York Times News Service