Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Biographical Masterpiece

A great composer deserves a great biography. Of great biographies, we can easily think of Henry-Louis de la Grange lifelong devotion to Gustav Mahler and his music, resulting in a magisterial four-volume biography (the first volume has yet to be republished by Oxford University Press, as promised). Of course we also have Ernest Newman’s reams of writing on Wagner and his music. With composers like Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart, we have, and continue to have, countless outstanding biographies. 

In spite of his enormous popularity, Fryderyk Chopin has not been as well served by music historian, at least not in English. We have of course many “music appreciation” type books on the composer, but nothing really that can be counted as a scholarly study on the composer’s life and work. James Huneker’s 1900 book, Chopin, the man and his music, is a highly personal account of the composer’s life and work. Among recent attempts, Adam Zamoyski’s Chopin, Prince of the Romantics, has much to be recommended. 

Alan Walker’s Fryderyk Chopin – A Life and Times(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2018) is one of the best musical biographies I have read in a long time. Certainly this is the best book I have read about Chopin. We all know Walker as the author of the excellent studies on Liszt. Walker devoted ten years of his life into writing the current volume on Chopin, and the result is this absolutely outstanding addition to Chopin scholarship.

With a composer like Chopin, whose storied life (the exile from homeland, the flight to Majorca, and the early death from tuberculosis) and “romantic” music seems to be an open invitation to embellishment and mythmaking. The grossest distortion to Chopin’s story has to be Hollywood’s attempt at chronicling the composer’s life in the 1945 film A Song to Remember. A major challenge when writing about Chopin is to separate the myths from the truth. Another obstacle facing the writer is the fact that Poland, and therefore much of the primary source material regarding Chopin, was for so many decades closed off to the world behind the iron curtain. 

I was taught by a music historian not to read too much of the composer’s life into his music. Which begs the question of, why a biography then? Walker himself tries to answer this question at the outset of the volume with these words, “Chopin’s music everywhere keeps an interest in his life alive.” He went on to say that our fascination with Chopin’s music draw us “to consider the time-honored questions that follow in its wake. What kind of person wrote it? When and where did he live, and with whom? What were the conditions that aroused the creative process from its slumbers, and what induced it to fall asleep again?” It is in the clamor for answers that the biographer takes possession of his field.” Over the course of the next seven hundred plus pages, Walker goes far beyond answering these questions that he posed.

Walker does more than most English biographers in tracing the lineage of Chopin’s origin. In 1787, a sixteen-year-old Nicolas Chopin left his native France and moved to Poland. He broke completely with his past and even kept from his children all knowledge of his French origin. The fact that he was born in the village of Marainville, in the province of Lorraine, on April 15, 1771, would have been obscured from history if it had not been the fact that he was forced to declare them when he had to apply for a pension later. After the first partition of Poland in 1772, the Polish population of Lorraine grew, and a thriving Polish émigrés community was the result. A Polish nobleman, Count MichałJan Pac purchased the château of Marainville, and the industrious and loyal Nicolas Chopin caught the attention of the count’s estate manager, Adam Weydlich and his Parisian born wife. With the count’s passing in 1787 and the sell of his properties, and perhaps fearing the uncertainties of the impending French Revolution, Weydlich went back to Warsaw, and took Nicolas with them. Chopin embraced Poland as his home, and “generated a powerful sense of patriotism that was to become the single most unifying influence in the life of his closely knitted family.” He even adopted the Polish form of his name, Mikołaj, which he never abandoned. This love for Poland was certainly instilled in all his children, and permeated every element of the composer’s creative inspiration. 

The early period of Mikołaj’s life came to an end when he gained a position as tutor to the children of Countess Ludwika Skarbek at her estate at Żelazowa Wola, a place that would forever be associated with Chopin. Countess Skarbek’s eldest son Fryderyk Skarbek would become a man of letters and professor of economics at Warsaw University, as well as Chopin’s godfather.

Chopin’s mother Justyna was the daughter of Jakub Krzyżanowski, a longtime administrator of the Countess Skarbek’s estates. When Jakub died, the Countess brought Justyna to Żelazowa Wola as housekeeper, where she met Mikołaj. Justyna was a devout Catholic and regular churchgoer, and often took Chopin with her to Catholic services. The author postulated that her singing voice would have been among the first sounds the infant Chopin heard. One of the songs she frequently sang, Jużmiesiąc zeszedł(“The Moon Has Risen”) was later incorporated into Chopin’s Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op. 13. Many years later George Sand commented that Justyna was the only woman Chopin ever loved. Perhaps his own attraction to the more experienced and worldly-wise Sand was his quest for a substitution for a maternal figure in his life. 

Chopin was baptized in the Church of Saint Roch in Brochów, where the curate registered his birth as February 22nd. All his life, Chopin and his family insisted that his birthdate was March 1st. Chopin’s baptismal certificate indicated that the infant was baptized ex aqua, meaning that the baptism would have been carried out, as an emergency, at home with ordinary water, an indication that Chopin’s health was precarious even as an infant. Chopin’s Catholic upbringing would not withstand the onslaught of secular influence once he left Poland. 

There were four children from Mikołaj and Justyna’s marriage – Fryderyk was the only male child. Emilia, Chopin’s youngest sister, and supposedly the family’s other budding genius, died of tuberculosis when she was fourteen. It should be mentioned that tuberculosis was extremely common in Poland at the beginning of the 19thcentury, and it was estimated that one-fifth of the population of Central Europe succumbed to the disease. 

In 1810, there was an opening for a French instructor at the Warsaw Lyceum. Because of the glowing recommendation of Count Fryderyk Skarbek, Mikołaj was offered the position. Seeing the opportunities Warsaw would offer him and his children, he accepted the offer, and the entire Chopin family relocated to Warsaw. Mikołaj’s improved financial situation allowed him to the purchase of a Buchholtz grand piano, which remained Chopin’s favourite piano while he lived in Poland. The young man started piano lessons with Wojciech Żywny, who would turned out to be the only formal piano teacher Chopin ever had. Żywny was a great lover of the music of Bach, and instilled in Chopin a love for his music. Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues would become Chopin’s constant companions. The polyphonic subtleties and complexities of Chopin’s compositions, especially the later works, is something that even many musicians overlook. 

Throughout Chopin’s years of study with Żywny, he was encouraged to go on improvising at the piano and composing. Even as a mature composer, everything he composed began as an improvisation, and he was never able to compose away from the piano. Reportedly, even when performing his own compositions, Chopin made it sound like he was improvising. His first published composition was a Polonaise in G minor, from 1817. 

Because of his obvious talents as well as his later schooling at the Warsaw Lyceum (where his father taught) Chopin had many encounters with the noble families. These encounters, and his lifelong attention to personal grooming, helped mold his character and behaviour, and the polish and refinement of his later years owed much to these youthful experiences. Unlike Mozart, who was treated like a curiosity as a child and a servant as a man, and perhaps because times were changing, Chopin was often treated as an equal, sometimes even as a friend, by his highborn admirers. Even at an early age, Chopin disliked performing in front of a large audience, preferring to play in the intimacy of a salon, and in front of a small (and distinguished) audience.

Of particular importance were his summer vacations to the Polish countryside, often at the invitation of his well-bred schoolmates in the Warsaw Lyceum. His holidays in Szafarnia (1824-1825), Kowalewo (1827), and Mazovia (1828) exposed to the unique melodies and rhythm of Polish folk music. Although Chopin rarely admitted folk music into his composition, the elements, or the essence of music from the Polish countryside became an integral part of his creativity, such that so many of his works sound so unmistakably “Polish”. 

When he began his studies at the Warsaw High School for Music, he had the good fortunate to have as composition teacher Joseph Elsner, who recognized the unusual gifts of his young prodigy and allowed him a great deal of latitude in his assignments. Chopin took six hours of instruction each week from Elsner in harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and composition. The author comments on Chopin’s supposed inability to write for orchestra, stating that, “as a criticism it lacks merit.” Attempts to reorchestrate Chopin’s concerti to change the balance are, according to Walker, unnecessary, since such efforts “do nothing that a sensitive conductor cannot achieve in a single rehearsal.” The author adds, “The piano and its orchestral accompaniment are well matched, the orchestra providing a perfect foil against which the piano is able to beguile us with one virtuosic effect after another.” In writing for orchestra, Chopin was not setting out to be a second Berlioz. 

The composition that attracted outside attention for Chopin, a set of variations on Mozart’s “Làci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni, was actually an end of term assignment for Elsner, who thought highly enough of the work to send it to Tobias Haslinger in Vienna with a recommendation for publication. A printed copy of the work somehow found its way to Schumann, which prompted “one of the most famous imperatives in the annuals of music criticism, ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!’” In the spring of 1828, Chopin also made the acquaintance of Hummel, and forged a warm relationship with the older composer and pianist.

Chopin made his first official performances outside of Poland in 1829, with two performances in Vienna. With these performances, his unique genius was recognized and his reputation secured. In the same year, in a letter to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski, Chopin first made reference to his celebrated Studies, Op. 10, works that, for the first time, bridged the practice studio with the concert hall, and changed piano playing forever. 

Walker offered some insightful words into Chopin’s friendship with the aforementioned Tytus Woyciechowski, a fellow student at the Warsaw Lyceum. In 1829, Chopin had fallen in love with a singer, Konstancja Gładkowska, a romance now remembered as the inspiration for his incredibly beautiful piano concerti. In 1828, Tytus had to abandon his studies to help his family run their large estate at Poturzyn, three hundred kilometers away from Warsaw. This separation between the friends prompted a string of letters that revealed Chopin’s state of mind, and led to some misinterpretation regarding Chopin’s sexual feelings.  Chopin’s letters to Tytus contain sentiments more suited when writing to a lover than a friend, thereby leading some biographers to make the conjecture that Chopin was experiencing some latent homosexual feelings. 

The author explains that the Polish language “lends itself to extravagant forms of address between two men that the rest of the world might regard as uncomfortably sensual. This was particularly true in a bygone age when chivalrous, high-flown salutations were the norm.” The author reminds us that translation also sometimes leads to the loss of a certain amount of poetry, as well as some elements of truth. In addition, Chopin may have been experiencing “a state of psychological confusion”, and “began to divert some of his innermost thoughts of love and even of sexual desire away from his ‘distant beloved’ and transfer them onto his best friend.” He also writes, “It is clear that Chopin had no idea how to handle the emotions surging within him, or to whom he should confess them. In the event, he turned not to Konstancja, perhaps fearing rejection, but to Tytus.”

At the end of Chopin’s farewell concert before leaving Poland (forever, as it turned out), he and Konstancja exchanged rings.  Walker reminds us that, “there is no evidence that this symbolized a betrothal. Eventually Konstancja married into a wealthy family, probably bending to her mother wishes. As an old woman, she expressed surprise when she learnt how much she had meant to the young composer. In any event, Konstancja Gładkowska became one of many names history would have easily forgotten had it not been her association with the composer.

Chopin was in Stuttgart when the Warsaw Uprising broke out. His “Stuttgart diary” revealed his tumultuous state of mind. Walker reveals that when the diary was first published in 1871, its authenticity was doubted. It was thought that, “the fastidious Chopin, who was always so careful to groom himself in word and deed when presenting himself to others, could have penned such violent lines.” It was through handwriting analysis that the diary was proved to be genuine. In the diary, Chopin wrote, “I am…only able to pour out my grief at the piano.”  According to one of many legends surrounding the composer, it was then that Chopin composed the so-called “Revolutionary” Study, Op. 10, No. 12. Even with the violently aggressive mood of the work, historical evidence could neither prove nor disprove this assertion, especially when the composer was silent about the subject. One should remember that Chopin’s music, regardless of the title, is never “programmatic”.

The young composer’s original destination was not Paris but London. The visa on his passport contains the phrase – Passeport en passant par Paris àLondres. After settling permanently in Paris, he often used the phrase facetiously, saying to his friends that he was only in Paris “in passing”.

After the Warsaw Uprising and its aftermath, Paris became home to many displaced Poles, including among them many poets, journalists, painters, musicians, aristocrats, statesmen and generals. For the rest of his life, Chopin would feel most at home amongst members of the Polish diaspora, and enjoyed a high profile among his compatriots. Within this group, two names would be most associated with Chopin – Julian Fontana and Wojciech Grzymała. 

Fontana was a talented musician and pianist, “who became Chopin’s trusted amanuensis, his chief musical copyist, and the editor of his posthumous works”, not to mention all purpose gofer. 

Wojciech Grzymała had lived a colourful life, having participated in the Decembrist movement to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I. He was at one point director of the Bank of Poland. When the Warsaw Uprising broke out, he was in London, where he aligned himself with the rebel government. Condemned to death in absentia by the Russians, he moved to Paris in 1831, and became chairman of the Polish bank , president of L’Avenir Maritime Insurance Company, and co-founder of the Polish Literary Society. Probably Chopin’s most trusted friend and confidant (this is something that most Chopin biographers agree on), the more than seventy letters he received from the composer reveal to us much about his life. He also played an important role in bringing Chopin and George Sand together.

With letters of introduction in his hands, Chopin set out to meet members of the Parisian musical establishment. Two figures that Chopin met deserve to be mentioned here. Fredrich Kalkbrenner, one of the leading pianists of the day, whose proficiency at the keyboard was only exceeded by the size of his ego. Kalkbrenner proposed that Chopin become his pupil for three years, during which time he would acquire a “solid foundation” and would emerge as a “finished artist”! Even after Chopin (tactfully) turned down this outrageous offer, Kalkbrenner’s early support turned out to be helpful for the young composer. Through Kalkbrenner, Chopin also met, Camille Pleyel, the piano manufacturer whose instruments became closely associated with Chopin. 

Chopin’s initial prospects in Paris were bleak, and funds were quickly running low. The turning point came after a successful appearance, as a substitute for an ailing Kalkbrenner, at Salle Pleyel. One member of the audience was a twenty-two year old Franz Liszt. Walker dispelled the myth that a close friendship existed between the two artists. In the words of the author, “Whatever camaraderie existed between them in the early years was of brief duration and ended in discord…Nor were the musical links between the pair particular profound.” Chopin was also critical of Liszt’s role as a grand seigneur, when he was wowing audiences all over Europe with his virtuosity. Again in Walker’s words, “The ‘triumph of spectacle’ dismayed Chopin and dampened their friendship.”

As Chopin became better known in Paris, he became much in demand as a teacher to the aristocrats, or simply the wealthy. This “teaching mill”, as Walker calls it, not royalties from his compositions or proceeds from playing concerts, became Chopin’s major source of income. When Chopin’s health deteriorated in his last years, he was forced to cancel his lessons, and his finances became precarious. In any event, by 1832, a link with the Rothschild family, one of Europe’s most powerful banking families, was established, and Chopin’s prospects had been transformed.

Another significant name associated with Chopin was the pianist and composer John Field. Chopin attended three of Field’s appearances in Paris in 1832. He was “curious to hear the Irish pianist with whom he had so often been compared.” Probably Field was by then passed his prime, because Chopin found his playing “dry and colorless.” On his part, Field made no attempt to meet Chopin, dismissing him as a “sickroom talent”. Although many today downplay Field’s influence on Chopin, no one could “take away from Field his crowning contribution to the history of piano music, the nocturne.” Suffice it to say that Chopin took from Field’s invention and infused it with his inimitable genius. Whereas Field’s nocturnes are pretty, every one of Chopin’s pieces with the same title is a unique miniature tone poem. In a letter to Elsner, Chopin wrote the prophetic words about his goals in music, “To create for myself a new world.” To that end, he certainly did.

At this point, Walker took a hiatus from Chopin’s life, and devoted an extended chapter titled, “Chopin and the Keyboard: The Raphael of the Piano”, where he highlights and discusses the many unique features of Chopin’s piano writing and his approach to piano technique. For today’s musicians and music lovers, Chopin’s music has become so familiar to us that we forget how original, groundbreaking and utterly exotichis music must have been to his contemporaries. It was Heinrich Heine who eulogized Chopin as the “Raphael of the piano”. Heine pointed out that what distinguished Chopin from the keyboard acrobats of his day was his lack of interest as an end to itself. He added that Chopin “belonged to no school, he subscribed to no dogma. Everything he knew about piano playing he had discovered for himself.”

What was interesting in a discussion of Chopin’s compositions lies not only in what he does, but what he does not do. Four things stand out here. Chopin never uses the tremolando in his compositions, an effect that was used extensively by Liszt, especially in his operatic paraphrases and transcriptions. Likewise, we never find in Chopin “those quick-fire single-note reiterations that Liszt turned into a signature effect.” Nor do we find that thundering “alternating octaves which Liszt made so much his own that they bear his name: ‘Liszt octaves.’” Lastly, we search in vain in Chopin’s music for the glissando, another effect that abounds in the music of Liszt. As a composer, Chopin’s aesthetic and musical outlook was uniquely different from composers that came before or after.

Then there was also the question of how much Chopin was influenced by Bellini. Chopin did not hear any of Bellini’s music in Warsaw. In 1832, he heard Il pirataand La sonnambulaat the Paris Opera. Reportedly, Bellini’s music had a powerful effect on Chopin. Ferdinand Hiller revealed that during a performance of Normathey attended together, “Chopin had tears in his eyes as he heard Giovanni Rubini singing great cantilenas towards the end of Act II. Walker postulated that in Bellini’s music Chopin would have recognized his second self.

Although Chopin was briefly engaged to Maria Wodzińska, daughter of a wealthy landowner whose brother was Chopin’s classmate at the Lyceum, the one romantic liaison in the composer’s short life has to be his association with George Sand. Walker traced Sand’s family line in some detail, and we learned that her father, Maurice Dupin, “could trace his ancestry from a bloodline going back to Frederich-August of Saxony, who became King Augustus II of Poland.”

Sand heard Chopin play on October 19, 1836, at one of Marie d’Agoult’s soirées, and was enraptured by Chopin’s playing. Chopin was at first repelled by her appearance and manners. Sand certainly pull out all the stops in pursuing Chopin. She made several attempts to entice him to her country estate in Nohant. After hearing Chopin play again in April of 1838, she sent him a note, saying, “I adore you.” Chopin “seems to have held himself in reserve for an unconscionably long time.” Nevertheless, by July of 1838, they had become lovers. 

So much has been written about the Sand-Chopin romance, not the least of which by Sand herself in her autobiography, Histoire de ma vie, that it is now difficult, not only to separate myth from truth, but to look at the relationship objectively. Walker points out that even though many biographers paint Sand in a totally negative light, George Sand “gave Chopin exactly the right domestic environment in which to compose. During their long liaison he was to create some of his greatest works, and when the break came the fountain of music started to die within him.” In addition, we must remember that as Chopin’s health continues to deteriorate, their relationship soon transformed from lovers to one of caregiver and patient. Scholars have conjectured that by the summer of 1839, Chopin and Sand had already ceased having sexual relations.

Sand and Chopin’s infamously ill-fated trip to Majorca was first suggested to Sand by a friend, in response to concerns for Chopin’s health in the coming winter months. Never did she consider the inconveniences and barriers they were to face in this still largely unfamiliar place. According to Walker, the island’s “mystery was all part of its appeal and once the idea was fixed in her mind she rationalized away every objection.” The trip was to be their “honeymoon”, and also one way to get away from the gossip of Paris, and to keep news of their liaison from reaching Chopin’s very devoutly Catholic family. 

We have come to associate Chopin’s many masterworks during this time with the Pleyel piano he had ordered to be delivered to him on the island. The truth was that the Pleyel was still languishing in the Palma custom in December of 1838, and did not reach Chopin until January of 1839. Most of the Preludes(Op. 28) had been composed on “an inferior local piano”. The story of this local piano is well told by Paul Kildea in his recent book, Chopin’s Piano – A Journey Through Romanticism(Penguin Books). All he did when the Pleyel finally arrive was to put finishing touches on the Preludes. By January 22nd, only about a month later, Chopin had already sent the manuscript to Fontana for copying and preparation for publication.

As the weather on the island took a turn for the worse, Chopin became gravely ill, and Sand was forced to plan a return trip. But it was not until June 1st, 1839 that they all arrived at Nohant. From that point on, until their final separation in 1847, Chopin was to compose some of his great mature works. For this, we again have to credit for her role as Chopin’s caregiver.

Between 1839 and 1843, Chopin’s financial situation continued to improve. He continued to be a sought-after teacher (his fee was 20 francs a lesson), and his manuscripts were sold to various publishers for considerable sums. Publication of his many works further bolstered his image, and his reputation as a teacher. Those who could afford his fees would all flock to play these beautiful compositions for the composer. Although many of his pupils became his students only because they could afford it, he did teach some that were genuinely talented. Some of the names of notable pianists who studied with Chopin include Friederike Müller, Karol Mikuli (who later published his own edition of Chopin’s music), Adolf Gutmann (the dedicatee of the composer’s C-sharp minor Scherzo), Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (whose playing supposedly most resembled the composer’s, but was prevented from having a musical career because of her elevated societal position), and perhaps mostly notably, Károly Filtsch. Filtsch’s talent was so obviously great that Chopin did much to promote his young protégé amongst his aristocratic supporters. Filtsch was the only pupil to whom Chopin gave composition lessons. Preserved for posterity is an “assignment” Chopin gave Filtsch, “to compose an impromptu of his own, based on the one in G-flat major by Chopin that he knew so well.”

The death of Mikołaj Chopin in 1844 gives us a glimpse into not only the Chopin-Sand relationship, but also the societal mores of the 19thcentury. Apparently Chopin’s grief was so great that he found himself unable to write to his sister Justyna, and Sand wrote to Justyna on Chopin’s behalf. In the letter, there was no mention of any romantic attachment between her and Chopin. She refers to Chopin merely as “my dearest friend”, which to Walker almost implies that she considers Chopin as one of her children. In Justyna’s reply, she uses the same vague language, and entrusted Chopin to Sand’s “maternal care.” Justyna implores Sand to be Chopin’s guardian angel, “as you have been an angel of consolation to me, and accept our respectful gratitude, which you may be sure equals your invaluable devotion and care” - interesting words that skirted around the ménage àdeuxthat must have been all too well known to Chopin’s family.

The eventual dissolution of the liaison between Chopin and Sand had had a long evolution. It began in 1845, when Chopin was forced to let go of his Polish manservant, who had been quarreling with Sand’s maidservant. Tension continued to simmer, and often confrontations happened over seemingly trivial matters. The final rupture took place because Sand had accused Chopin of taking sides in Sand’s daughter’s (Solange) marriage to Auguste Clésinger, who turned out to be nothing more than a fortune hunter.

Sand’s way of dealing with their dying romance was to write a novel, heavily slanted to her favour, out of “the dying embers of their love affair”. The story, Lucrezia Floriani, is an old-fashioned romance, a veiled account of her years with Chopin. It turned out to be a book that did well financially, but did nothing to further her literary reputation. Surprisingly, Chopin, who read the manuscript of the novel, could not (or chose not to?) recognize himself in it. In the final letters they wrote to each other, Chopin left the door open for some form of reconciliation, but Sand “had closed it with a vengeance.” She tried to dismantle everything around her that reminded her of Chopin. In a seventy-one page (!) letter she wrote to a friend, she said, “For nine years, although I was so full of life, I was bound to a corpse.” Other than a single chance meeting, the two were never to see each other again. 

Naturally, his friends rallied around him. Among his friends, he saw much of the Czartoryskis, Delacroix, the painter whose portrait of Chopin is now synonymous with his image as a romantic figure, and he deepened his friendship with Alkan, a highly original and famously reclusive composer. Between 1847 and 1848, he taught whenever his health permitted him to. He also began to suffer periodic financial hardships.

Chopin gave his first public concert in six years on February 16th, 1848 at the Salle Pleyel. All three hundred seats were sold within hours, and six hundred people were placed on a waiting list.  At the recital he was surrounded by friends sitting around the piano on the platform. On February 22ndrevolution broke out in Paris, and Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen King”, was deposed. George Sand traveled to the capital to celebrate the proclamation of a republic with her left-leaning friends. Chopin was strictly a monarchist, and regretted the chain of events taking place around him. With the revolution, many of Chopin’s wealthy left Paris for safer environs, and Chopin found himself with a depleted income. He decided to accept a long-standing invitation from his Scottish pupil Jane Stirling to visit and give concerts in Britain. This last journey of Chopin, richly documented, was to prove detrimental to his health. He gave his first appearance in London on May 10th, using his own Pleyel grand rather than the Broadwood, with whose firm he had an agreement to use their instruments exclusively for his tour. Apparently Chopin had not yet gotten used to the heavier action of the Broadwood. Chopin also performed in Manchester and Glasgow, in public spaces as well as in stately homes, all arranged by Jane Stirling. 

Chopin gave his last public concert on October 4th, the only concert in his career in which there were no supporting artists. By the end of his visit to England and Scotland, Chopin was physically exhausted, and he felt suffocated by Stirling’s mothering and overbearing kindness (the language barrier probably did not help either). Chopin left England on November 23rd, and arrived at his home after a difficult journey. He had been away for seven months.

In the now famous photographic portrait of Chopin, a daguerreotype taken by Louis-Auguste Bisson in 1847, we see a man already worn down by illness, one who was seemingly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, a far cry from the idealized, almost Byronic, image created by Delacroix. 

Upon returning from England his state of health had deteriorated to such an extent that he could no longer teach. Chopin was so weak that he had to be carried up a flight of stairs. He continued to have the company of good friends; Jane Stirling and her sister continued to provide financial as well as practical support to his everyday needs. Stirling was very much in love with Chopin, but her feelings were not reciprocated, and their friendship remained very much platonic.

Walker conceded that it is difficult to reconstruct Chopin’s last days, not because of a paucity of witnesses, but because there are too many. Eyewitness account of Chopin’s death by Ludwika (Chopin’s sister), Grzymała, Solange (George Sand’s daughter), Adolf Gutmann, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska, Pauline Viardot, Delfina Potocka, and of course Jane Stirling, “have burdened posterity with so many contradictions that the biographer proceeds at his peril.” Walker feels that that only accounts by Ludwika, Grzymała, Solange, and Czartoryska, who were all actually present at the moment of Chopin’s death, can be totally trusted. As with the death of any celebrity, there would have been curiosity seekers hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous composer. Chopin requested that Delfina sing for him, but even what she sang became a matter of some conjecture. According to Walker, the story of Chopin’s deathbed return to the Catholic faith is dubious.

Chopin died on October 17th, 1849, at two o’clock in the morning. He was thirty-nine years old. His heart was removed, placed in a crystal jar and preserved in alcohol, and taken to Warsaw, to its final resting place in the Church of the Holy Cross. Another request was to have the Mozart Requiemperformed at his funeral service. This expensive undertaking was underwritten again by the ever-faithful Jane Stirling and Mrs. Erskine, her sister. Here, Walker dispels one more myth, that there is no truth that as his coffin was lowered, an urn of Polish soil was sprinkled over his grave.

The one wish of the composer that was, thankfully, not carried out, was for his unpublished compositions to be burned after his death. Ludwika brought the manuscripts back to Poland with her, and the Chopin family entrusted Julian Fontana with the publication of these works. If not for her efforts, the world would have been deprived of the Fantasie-Impromptu, 8Mazurkas, 5 Waltzes, 3 Polonaises, the Nocturne in E minorFuneral March in C minorRondo in C major for two pianos, and 16 Polish Songs.

Within two weeks of Chopin’s funeral Ludwika received a letter from Liszt, expressing his desire to write “a few pages” in honor of Chopin’s memory. Liszt supplied Ludwika with a “questionnaire” about the composer’s life. She felt this to be intrusive, and passed the questions on to Jane Stirling, who did her best to answer Liszt’s questions. Liszt’s book on Chopin turned out to be more fiction than fact, and perhaps served to further his own reputation than that of Chopin. 

Walker outlines the attempts by many to write a Chopin biography. Unfortunately, many biographers merely continued to perpetuate the myths. It was only until Frederick Niecks’ book that “Chopin’s biography was removed from the realm of imagination and fantasy and placed firmly in the field of musicology.” His book, Frederick Chopin as Man and Musician, published in 1888, was up to that point the most reliable book written about Chopin. Walker also credited Ferdynand Hoesick’s books on Chopin, Chopin: Życie I twórczość(Chopin: His Life and Work, in three volumes) and Chopiniana (Chopin’s correspondence – comprising letters to his family and friends). Hoesick never did manage to get his work translated into English, perhaps because, as Walker says, the book is “not just exhaustive but exhausting.”

The author also devoted pages to the controversial issue of the Chopin-Potocka letters, long believed to be genuine correspondence between the composer and Delfina Potocka. The letters are unusual because of the language does not fit that of the usually very refined Chopin. According to the author, “Some of the fragments are openly scatological, containing erotic passages and sexual innuendos of a kind that cannot be found elsewhere in Chopin’s published correspondence.” Walker outlines the heated debate surrounding the provenance of the letters. It was not until forensic analysis of the letters that proved beyond a doubt that the letters were fabricated. 

While reading this biographical masterpiece, I was completely engrossed by Walker’s passion on the subject, his invaluable insights into the composer’s life and work, and his skill as writer and storyteller, making this astounding book a compelling read. With this book, we get a three dimensional picture of, and a revelatory examination into, the man and the composer, his contemporaries, as well as the times in which he lived. I believe this to be the finest English language biography of Chopin available today. Certainly this is the most thorough and detailed examination of the composer’s life and work I have seen. The present volume rather makes previous biographies pale by comparison, and the high standards set by Alan Walker will make it a tall order for future biographers to better. I know that this is a book I will be returning to many times. I am certain that I will learn something new every time I read it.

And how fitting it is that on this, the year Poland celebrates the 100thAnniversary of its regained independence, to have such a masterful biography of the composer whose music has come to embody the spirit of Poland.

If you are a lover of the music of Chopin, a pianist who loves to play Chopin, or if you have a love for 19thcentury music or history, run out to your nearest bookstore and buy this book. Read it; study it. I promise that your efforts will be richly rewarded.

Patrick May

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