Thursday, 23 May 2013

SOME BOOKS ABOUT… Frédéric Chopin


Before reading this post, you may like to take a few minutes to listen to FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN's Nocturne No. 16 in E Flat, Opus 55, No. 2 performed by my favourite interpreter of his music, the 'other' Polish genius IGNAZ FRIEDMAN.

Nocturne No. 16 in E Flat, Opus 55, No. 2
Performed by  
(Recorded December 1936)   

Dover Publications, 1988
FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN Chopin's Letters (1931) Collected by HENRYK OPIENSKI and translated, with a preface and editorial notes, by E.L. VOYNICH     

Reading the letters of any great artist can be a mixed blessing.  While examining their correspondence can be a rewarding and even valuable experience in some respects –– showing you how their minds worked and how some of their greatest works were conceived, created and even directly influenced by what went on in their daily lives –– it can also be a disillusioning pleasure, a case of 'too much information!' which can often leave you feeling that some things are, as they say, best left to the imagination.  
A book like Chopin's Letters falls somewhere between these two extremes.  Chopin was indisputably a genius, but he was also a vain, imperious, chronically unhealthy, self-centered, opinionated and, on occasion, staggeringly selfish human being who was not averse to treating his closest friends like doltish personal servants.  If you revere the composer and his music, then reading his letters may upset and even depress you.  On the other hand, it can be refreshing, even inspiring in a different sort of way to learn that Chopin was a bit of a prig who bossed people round like a Sergeant-Major and could be wickedly funny at the expense of those he deemed to be fools or, worse, talentless pretenders.  It seems to bring him closer to us as a person, making him a more accessible, more sympathetic figure than the somewhat remote 'Romantic genius' whose most famous portrait (painted by his friend Eugène Delacroix) adorns the cover of this collection. 

'Even if I could fall in love with someone, as I should be glad to do,' he wrote to his friend Wojciech Grzymala from London on 21 Oct 1848, 'still I would not marry, for we should have nothing to eat and nowhere to live.  And a rich woman expects a rich man, or if a poor man, at least not a sickly one, but one who is young and handsome.  It's bad enough to go to pieces alone, but two together, that is the greatest misfortune.  I may peg out in a hospital, but I won't leave a starving wife behind me.'  These are less the words of a divinely-inspired genius than those of a man who was intimately familiar with the damage that years of illness and unrelieved mental and physical suffering can wreak upon frail human flesh.  Unlike most of us, however, Chopin discovered a way to transform that suffering into art.  But perhaps the most affecting words of all are the last he scribbled down only a day or two before he died:  'As this cough will choke me, I implore you to have my body opened, so that I may not be buried alive.'  His father had been terrified of the same thing and the fear had clearly, and sadly, been inherited by his son.   

Chopin's Letters was last reprinted by the Dover Press in 1988 and is probably still available via your local library, bookstore or favourite online retailer. 

Abacus UK/ Time Warner Books, 2003
BENITA EISLER Chopin's Funeral (2003)  

Anybody interested in separating the realities of Chopin's life and personality from the romantic myths which all but engulfed him after his death (at the age of thirty-nine, from a still undiagnosed disease which could have been tuberculosis of the larynx, cystic fibrosis, miral centosis or a rare viral infection) should seek out a copy of Chopin's Funeral.  The book's opening chapter –– which cleverly contrasts the facts of Chopin's life and his status as 'The Tragic Romantic Genius' with the events leading up to and inspired by his self-planned Paris funeral in October 1849 –– is a tour de force, with Eisler doing a superb job of revealing that the composer was, in every sense of the term, the preeminent 'spin doctor' of his day, a performer capable of provoking universal grief in the hearts of wealthy Parisians and 'commoners' (people he neither trusted nor respected) alike even though few of them were personally acquainted with him and were even less familiar with his music.     

Chopin's funeral was much more than just a straightforward religious farewell ceremony.  It was a kind of populist theatrical event, stage-managed by him from beyond the grave to guarantee the maximum amount of emotional and social impact and ensure that his name would not be quickly or easily forgotten.  What makes this all the more remarkable, from a socio-historical perspective, is that the composer had only been living in Paris since 1831 and had suffered something of a downturn in his career following the breakdown of his widely-publicized relationship with the novelist George Sand (the pseudonym of Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dudevant, née Dupin).  Estranged from Sand, he died alone and nearly penniless (albeit in a luxury apartment in the best part of Paris paid for, in large part, by a wealthy Scottish ex-pupil of his named Jane Stirling) in the arms of Sand's daughter Solange – a woman who had also fallen out of favour with her famously 'libertarian' mother for marrying a man she did not approve of and for being, frankly, a bit of a tart.   

Aware since adolescence –– the time when his symptoms first revealed themselves, as did the knowledge that his illness was incurable that he was doomed to die young, Chopin took advantage of his long wait for the Grim Reaper to plan out every detail of his demise, including what music (much of it his own) should be played at his funeral and exactly who should perform it.  He insisted, for example, that Pauline Viardot – a close friend and the most famous operatic diva of her time –– should sing Mozart's Requiem at the ceremony even though she was obliged to do so behind a black velvet curtain so as to conform to an archaic Parisian law which forbade women from singing in public in any of the city's churches.   In showing that his funeral was, in a social sense, one of the pivotal cultural events of the nineteenth century, Eisler also reveals that the cult of celebrity –– often perceived, erroneously, to be an exclusively twentieth century phenomenon –– had already become a dynamic social force by the mid-1840s, capable of turning an obscure emigré pianist from Warsaw into an internationally-mourned superstar.  The author is also particularly good when it comes to explaining Chopin's often convoluted relationships with Sand and her children – a fascinating, sometimes distressing subject which deserves closer analysis in a book of its own. 

Chopin's Funeral is still in print and still available via your local library, bookstore or favourite online retailer. 

DaCapo Press, 2000
TAD SZULC Chopin in Paris: The Life and Times of the Romantic Composer (1998)    

This is another essential biography of Chopin, written by a Polish/American New York Times journalist whose books (of which there are many) also include biographies of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II.  It's a thoroughly researched, extremely readable study of the composer's post-Warsaw life, focusing on the eighteen years he spent living in (and artistically conquering) the French capital, and attempts to explain the appeal of his music in emotion-based laymen's terms rather than in the drily academic language employed by musicologists and earlier, so-called 'expert' biographers.  It's very much a personal voyage, an attempt by Szulc to understand an artist he always felt to be an 'elusive personage' despite having grown up in a household where his music was part of the furniture thanks to a piano playing grandfather (to whose memory his book is lovingly dedicated) who passed along his love of Chopin's work to him at a very early age.      

The great advantage Szulc has over, say, Benita Eisler, is his ability to speak fluent Polish and therefore explain tricky but crucial Polish concepts like 'zal' (pronounced 'jahl') –– defined by him as a word which 'conveys to the Polish ear and soul sadness, longing, nostalgia, regret, resignation, contrition, resentment, complaint, and even anger.  Zal therefore fits Chopin perfectly as a person,' he notes, 'as well as with reference to his music.  It is the common thread throughout his works.'  (Szulc refers to him as Frederyk throughout the book rather than using Frédéric, its Gallicized equivalent.)  Like Eisler, he also does a fine job of explaining Chopin's complicated and often stormy relationships –– not only with George Sand and her troubled (and troublesome) children, but with faithful Polish friends like Wojciech Grzymala and the cellist Julian Fontana, men upon whom he was almost entirely dependent following his arrival in Paris as a sickly, utterly obscure emigré in the autumn of 1831.      

Szulc's discussion of the composer's personality is well-balanced and largely sympathetic, revealing him to be the supremely gifted but deeply unhappy, sexually conflicted, manically-depressed individual he undoubtedly was.  Unlike other biographers, he doesn't view Solange Clésinger as the 'second woman' in Chopin's life after her mother George Sand.  He bestows that honour on Jane Stirling, the Scottish noblewoman, six years Chopin's senior, who became his pupil in 1843 and probably remained in unrequited love with him right up until his death.  It was Jane Stirling who provided much of the money that allowed the composer to remain in his apartment on the Place Vendôme during his final illness and who efficiently and uncomplainingly cared for him despite his oft-repeated protests to other friends that she 'bored him to death.'  It's touches like these, which speak volumes about the man and his milieu, which make Chopin in Paris perhaps the one Chopin biography every non-specialist music lover probably needs to own.    

Chopin in Paris is still in print and still available via your local library, bookstore or favourite online retailer.       

You might also enjoy:    
POET OF THE MONTH #3: Wislawa Szymborska  
POET OF THE MONTH #9: Julian Tuwim    

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