Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times. Alan Walker. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2018. Picador Paperback Edition 2019. 773 pages.
Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism. Paul Kildea. Penguin Books 2019. 349 pages.
Chasing Chopin. Annik LaFarge. A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions. Simon and Schuster, New York 2020. 210 pages.
BOOK REVIEW – Although Chopin spent only a few months on the island of Majorca, in the winter of 1838-39, all three recent books on the composer spend an inordinate amount of time discussing this episode. It is true that Chopin composed there a few of the Préludes and several other pieces, but the time spent on this Belearic island was peripheral to the arc of his life. Majorca is an exotic location, to be sure, but Warsaw and Paris are of much greater importance in any consideration of his life and work. Kildea’s book goes even further in distorting our portrait of Chopin by focusing attention on the ramshackle local piano that Chopin used in Majorca for only a few weeks. This pitiful Bauza instrument becomes the undeserved centrepiece of Kildea’s survey of Romanticism. Nonetheless, while occasionally and maddeningly digressive, all three books offer much to ponder, and time and again had me reaching for a score or a recording to follow up.
Some years ago, Alan Walker offered what is generally acknowledged to be the best scholarly work on Liszt that we are ever likely to see. His three-volume study is without equal in its biographical detail, supported by meticulous research. But in addition Walker provides voluminous musical analysis that helps us understand the music as never before. Walker has done it again with Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times.
One of the most remarkable facts about Chopin as pianist and composer is that he had so few teachers and mentors. Chopin’s mother and father got him started and he also had lessons from Wojciech Żywny. Walker notes that after reaching the age of twelve, “Never again did Chopin take a formal lesson from anyone.” And he goes even further in asserting that everything Chopin knew about piano playing “he had discovered for himself.” As a personality, we have come to know Chopin as a man who loved to dress well but also as reserved and fragile, partly due to his frequent ill health. But Walker reminds us that the composer had a well-developed sense of humor and a gift for impressions. In his youth and later in evenings with George Sand and their friends he often entertained them not only with his inspired piano playing but also with hilarious depictions of all sorts of characters including pompous lecturers, beggars, and moneylenders.
It has often been remarked that if Chopin had little formal musical training he also had few compositional models. From his earliest years and throughout his life he pointed to Bach’s “48” as being his veritable musical Bible. Few other composers past or present held his attention or inspired emulation. But Walker notes that the influence of Paganini is worthy of mention. The great violinist spent two months in Warsaw in 1829 and like everyone else the nineteen-year-old Chopin was enthralled. In fact, one of Paganini’s party pieces was a set of variations on the Italian tune “Carnival of Venice,” and Chopin dashed off a set of variations himself for solo piano. Walker notes that the work clearly echoes Paganini, and thus Chopin began to work his way toward what became his own distinctive style of keyboard writing. Walker also points out that this “Souvenir de Paganini,” as Chopin called it, did not make its way into print until 1881, and thus was not available to scholars until long after Chopin’s death.
There have been numerous Chopin biographies, but few of them offer as much detail about the composer’s life as Walker’s book. And, as always, Walker is meticulous about making use of the latest editions of scores and letters and time and again questions or corrects long-held misconceptions. His discussion of Chopin’s relationships with Konstancja Gładkowska and Tytus Woyciechowski is particularly insightful. Chopin was nineteen when he met the young singer Gładkowska, daughter of a “manager of a tenement building in Old Warsaw.” Chopin already had a considerable reputation in musical circles in his home town, and the young man was, in Walker’s words, “in the midst of his first sexual awakening.” But Chopin was also shy, and while he was clearly infatuated with Konstancja he couldn’t bring himself to make advances. He did express his feelings about her to his classmate Tytus. But more than that, in the same letters Chopin apparently took the opportunity to express his love for Tytus and in highly erotic language.
Naturally, Chopin biographers have wondered whether Chopin was gay and having an affair with Tytus. Unfortunately, no letters from Tytus to Chopin have survived. Walker doubts that there was a homosexual affair and puts the blame on the peculiarities of the Polish language. On the other hand, Chopin is often described by friends and acquaintances as having feminine qualities, and his long relationship with George Sand raises all sorts of questions about Chopin’s sexuality. Many of Chopin’s friends in Paris were homosexual, and his relationship with Astolphe de Custine, a prominent aristocrat who made no secret of his homosexuality, has yet to be fully explored. Annik LaFarge is the only one of our three authors to look more carefully at this unusual man and his remarkable family. She rightly observes that “His life illustrates in almost equal measure the liberations and oppressions of the Romantic era, a time when cross-dressing female writers and aristocratic homosexuals could enjoy freedoms that were unimaginable even a decade or two earlier.”
But the best part of Walker’s book may well be his lengthy discussion of the music, especially in the chapter headed “Chopin and the Keyboard: The Raphael of the Piano.” The description of Chopin as “the Raphael of the piano” comes from poet and critic Heinrich Heine, and Walker very much approves of this description as it relates to the composer’s mastery of light and shade, as well as his consummate subtlety of expression at the keyboard. But Walker also gets into illuminating detail about Chopin’s advocacy of “finger individuation” as opposed to the “finger equalization” favored by Czerny and others, Chopin’s highly idiosyncratic fingering and pedalling, and above all his rejection of the Paris Virtuoso School. Walker also reminds us that while Chopin attempted to write a piano method – it was left unfinished when he died – “he had no great pupils to carry on his tradition.” The most prominent among them was probably Karol Mikuli, who produced his own edition of Chopin’s music, and “left some useful personal observations about Chopin’s playing.” But it is Paul Kildea who notes in his book that Mikuli’s pupil Raoul Koczalski made some important Chopin recordings, some of them on one of Chopin’s own Pleyel pianos. One can easily reference these recordings on YouTube.
Chopin had a mostly happy childhood growing up in Poland, then spent most of the rest of his life in Paris. For seven years the love of his life was the French writer George Sand. She was a controversial figure, often dressing like a man and smoking a cigar, and taking many lovers. But she was also devoted to Chopin first as a lover and then as a caregiver as he battled tuberculosis. She has often been severely criticized in the Chopin literature, but much of it is undeserved. She recognized his talent and gave it a place to flourish and supported his fragile physical and emotional well-being as best she could, all the while turning out a huge amount of published writing to support herself, her children, and Chopin. The sojourn to Majorca occurred near the beginning of their relationship; it was conceived as a kind of honeymoon. In Walker’s words it ended up as “a fiasco.” Walker gives a very fair account of the Majorcan episode both in his book and a three-part series on YouTube (“Chopin: A Winter in Majorca”). Incidentally, Sand herself left us a valuable memoir called Winter in Majorca, and it was translated by the great poet and novelist Robert Graves.
Kildea’s book Chopin’s Piano is ostensibly about the piano, or more accurately pianino, that Chopin was forced to use for a few weeks in Majorca in 1839 until his own Pleyel arrived from Paris. This instrument was made by a man named Juan Bauza in Majorca. Chopin, who always composed at the piano, made use of it to write some of the Préludes. When the Pleyel arrived the Bauza was abandoned, and when Chopin, George Sand, and her children left Majorca a few months later, the Bauza was left behind. Years later the pianist and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska visited Majorca and decided she had to have the Bauza. She was able to buy it in 1913, had it shipped to Berlin where she was living at the time, and later to Paris, and finally to her studio-estate in Saint-Leu-la Forêt outside Paris. During the turmoil of World War II, it disappeared and hasn’t been seen since.
In pursuit of “Chopin’s Piano,” Kildea necessarily tells us a great deal about Landowska. He also tells us about a great many other things in endless digressions. But Kildea is a man of remarkable erudition, and his digressions are nearly always engrossing. In fact, “Chopin’s Piano” provides a very shaky structure indeed for a book; even the subtext, “A Journey Through Romanticism,” lacks a steady throughline. Nonetheless, Kildea is totally engaged with his many subjects and often illuminating. He is very good, for example, in trying to put into words why Chopin preferred the sound of the Pleyel pianos to all others available to him. Chopin admired “the soft attack, the hazy harmonics, the fine gradations between dynamics, the woody, burnished sound in one register, the bright, glistening tone in another, the way the hammers’ hard inner layers pushed through and changed the tonal colour in louder passages. Chopin preferred these qualities to those of the more even, powerful pianos of Pleyel’s great contemporary Erard, which he thought too forceful, too insistent, the double-escapement action inhibiting his technique.”
While Kildea’s primary subject is ostensibly Chopin, his narrative is at least equally valuable for what it reveals about Wanda Landowska’s life and career. She was a pioneer in her time for properly understanding the harpsichord as an instrument and for appreciating early music generally. Kildea’s book is lavishly illustrated with musical examples, paintings, and documents, and many of them are a great asset to understanding the text. Unfortunately, in the paperback edition they are so poorly reproduced it is almost impossible to read them or see what is depicted in them.
If Alan Walker is scholarly and rigorous in his treatment of Chopin, and Paul Kildea is knowledgeable but scattered, Annik LaFarge is an enthusiast and a popularizer. Like Kildea, she has an obsession. In her case, it is the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, and in particular, its famous funeral march. LaFarge was so struck by this piece that she wanted to know more about the composer. Thus began her journalist’s trek around the world to all the places that Chopin lived and worked including Valldemossa, the site of that former Carthusian monastery in Majorca where Kildea, too, found so much to tell us about the composer. But while LaFarge sometimes puts a little too much of herself in the narrative, she often finds interesting ways to bring her Chopin travels to life. For example, in Valldemossa she tours the town and the monastery with Gabriel Quetglass, director of the Chopin Museum there and a descendant of the family that had purchased Chopin’s piano when he and Sand left the island. She also tells of a visit to Cell No. 4, where the Chopin party lived in the monastery, by the Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. “Nobu,” as he is known, was there to make a documentary about his love of Chopin’s music. Chopin’s Pleyel piano is still there in the museum but not playable. Instead, Nobu had a Steinway set up next door to Cell No. 4 and made a recording of the “Raindrop” Prélude.
LaFarge also visited Nohant, George Sand’s country home about 180 miles south of Paris, but prefaces her visit with a recollection of seeing Delacroix’s painting George Sand’s Garden at Nohant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Delacroix was a frequent visitor to the estate and a close friend of both Chopin and Sand. LaFarge’s narrative illuminates aspects of all three artists in her search for the essence of Chopin. It was at Nohant that Chopin completed work on his Op. 35.
LaFarge greatly enhances her book on Chopin with a website called www.whychopin.com. There are links to recordings of music mentioned in the text, and many of the recordings are made on period instruments such as the Pleyels Chopin preferred. There are also numerous other resources on the website relating to the author’s travels and Chopin’s influence on popular culture.
For something more…The wonderful thing about all three books discussed in this review is that the reader is surely left with an overwhelming need to listen to Chopin’s music – and as quickly as possible! There are plenty of fine Chopin recordings available, but YouTube also provides an invaluable resource, and it is free. Video as well as audio-only performances abound on YouTube, but more than that, many of them have follow-along scores attached. You can listen to Yundi Li playing all four Scherzi while reading the score, with pages turned automatically – a great way to listen for the serious music-lover. There are plenty of fine Chopin documentaries to be found there, too, and in other places. Medici.tv offers to its subscribers a superb 2010 documentary by Gérald Caillat called The Art of Chopin. In addition to a number of rare historic video clips, Garrick Ohlsson offers one insight after another into Chopin’s technical genius.