In the last decade, writers and music scholars seem to have devoted much effort on the life and music of Chopin. Starting with the 2011 update of Adam Zamoyski’s Chopin, to Paul Kildea’s Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism, and to Alan Walker’s masterful and unsurpassable Fryderyk Chopin: A life and Times, these writers address many aspects of the composer’s life and art.
Most recently, we have Annik LaFarge’s Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions (Simon & Schuster, 2020), a book that is more difficult to categorize, or to write about.
The book grew out of the author’s love of and fascination for Chopin’s famous funeral march, the third movement of his Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35. This is a more personal journey of the writer in trying to understand Chopin’s elusive work, a musical creation that, in spite of its title, had no precedent. Throughout the book, the author, I believe, tries to discuss the relevance of the work, and Chopin’s music in general, in today’s world. If we were able to bring Chopin back to our own time, LaFarge, he would, “encounter a world that has much in common with his own: countries invade their neighbors, people flee their warn-torn homelands, often unable to return; barricades go up in city streets; nationalism rages around the globe; new technology brings wave after wave of cultural and social changes; dictators bloviate; individual voices are amplified.” Chopin, she adds, would find his music being “reinvented and reclaimed in so many surprising ways and unusual places.”
Indeed, ethnomusicologist and folk music specialist Maria Pomianowska and her folk band attempt to do exactly this, to “reinvent” the music of Chopin. Playing with instrumentalists from many different cultures and ethnicities, she explores how his music might sound in today’s multicultural world, with the influences of music from a myriad of inspirations.
In terms of information or knowledge, there isn’t very much here that cannot already be found elsewhere. But then this isn’t meant to be a conventional biography, but an author’s “take” on how Chopin’s music relates to her own life and that of the world around her.
According to the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, “the idea of Poland constituted the nation itself in the hearts of its own people, and that idea could live on, no matter what.” On top of the composer’s genius, the most potent inspiration for Chopin’s creativity is probably the idea of exile, the love of his homeland that is sublimated in his musical creations. This “idea” of Poland permeates every one of the composer’s works, but it is perhaps this very idea that makes Chopin’s music so universally appealing.
The author does address some interesting aspects of Chopin’s art. She devotes some pages to the evolution of the piano up to Chopin’s time, and the composer’s love for the Pleyel piano – perhaps the most famous endorsement of an artist for a brand of instrument. In Chopin’s words, the Pleyel was the instrument for “the enunciation of my innermost thoughts.”
Also important in the current volume’s narrative is Chopin’s love for opera. Chopin arrived in the Paris of Berlioz and Meyerbeer. His love for opera inspired not only his melodic creation but his approach to piano playing. It was, as the author states, also the time of the birth of programmatic music, the year 1830 was the year when Berlioz programmatic Symphonie Fantistique was premiered. For me, it seems ironic that, with all of Chopin’s love for the narrative nature of opera, he resolutely resisted any hint of story-telling in his own music. Unlike his famous contemporary Liszt, none of Chopin’s works carry any programmatic titles. None of Chopin’s compositions would paint any pictures, or tell any story. In this way, Chopin is very much a classicist, leaving the interpreters to draw upon his or her own imagination in playing his music.
Perhaps because she herself is a dedicated piano student, LaFarge is also fascinated with Chopin’s teaching. In the midst of the craze for the piano, Chopin also tried to codified his own teaching by writing a piano method, a project he left unfinished. The author addresses many aspects of Chopin’s teaching, from his emphasis on a singing tone as well as comfort of the hands, the use of the wrist to express “breathing” in a musical phrase, and his aim to foster individualism and freedom in his students.
Naturally, no story involving Chopin would be complete without discussing his relationship with George Sand, their infamous trip to Majorca, and their life together at Sand’s house in Nohant. It was in Nohant that Chopin completed work on the Op. 35 sonata. The author suggests that Chopin’s inspiration and model for the sonata could have been Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 26, one of his favourite Beethoven sonatas, and a work that also included a grand funeral march as its third movement - “Trills on the keyboard evoke drumrolls…and the slowly rising and falling crescendos and decrescendos give the march a sense of dignity and importance” - a description that could also easily fit Chopin’s funeral march. The first public performance of the funeral march was at the composer’s own funeral at La Madeleine church, in an orchestration by the composer Henri Reber, one of the composers to whom Chopin bequeathed his piano method.
There are other personal and intriguing stories surrounding and involving the music of Chopin, and the author should be commended in looking hard for evidence of the relevance today of Chopin’s music. Perhaps she needs look no further than to just think about the enduring popularity of his music. From the struggling amateur pianists to towering artists like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Chopin’s music remains a touchstone of their repertoire.
LaFarge’s book is a personal journal of musical discovery, a result that grows out of her love for the music of Chopin. It is not, nor does it try to be, a comprehensive overview of the composer’s life, but a highly personal glimpse into various aspects of his art, and a book that betrays the writer’s passion and curiosity for the subject matter.