Sunday, November 25, 2018

Best music books of 2018

In today's Sunday Times I've rounded up six of the best classical music books of the year. Somehow 2018 was a bumper year for big, fat, beautiful ones - I've been ploughing through massive tomes on such figures as Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, Boulez, Handel and much more. 
I don't mind telling you that my top choices are headed by Alan Walker's magisterial new biography of Chopin. The other five cover a spread of different music, topics and approaches. I am very sorry that I had to leave out at least four others that really deserve inclusion. 
For some reason, it is not often that so many significant not-purely-academic and not-schlock books about classical music emerge in one year, and I hope this signals the fact that there's a real demand out there for fantastic writing on the subject.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Just in: ODETTE

The new book arrived by van yesterday: a sleek plum-purple volume with white feathers and broken glass around gold lettering on the front cover. Still can't quite believe it's real. (Nor, from the look of them, could the cats - but they were more interested in playing with the cardboard box when I'd emptied it.)

ODETTE in numbers:

1 - beloved Tchaikovsky ballet
1 - rather off-the-wall idea
4 - main characters: Mitzi Fairweather, her brother Harry, her landlord Robert, and Odette herself
2 - scary birds
1 - imaginary town named Cygnford, vaguely modelled on Cambridge
26 - years to write
1002 (approx) - revisions over those 26 years
153 - supporting patrons via Unbound
72,000 or so - words
Lost count of - publishers who turned it down saying, 'ooh, it's a bit quirky for us'
Not going to tell you - age I was when I started it and age I am now
50:50 - proportion of relief to terror now that it's done.
29/11/18 - publication date.

I do hope you enjoy it. Available for pre-order here.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Faithful Journey is up and running

Some years back Roxanna Panufnik was asked to write a choral work mixing the Latin Mass with a selection of Estonian poems. The result was Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life, in which the Latin Mass movements were interspersed with Estonian poems. Her big dream thereafter was to create a Polish equivalent. Now it's here, and its title is Faithful Journey. The piece is the latest in a massive year for her - no better way to celebrate her half-century - so I asked her a few questions about it, and you can hear an extract and preview in the CBSO video above. 

The oratorio is a co-commission from the CBSO and the Polish Radio Orchestra and had its world premiere earlier this month in Katowice. It will be heard for the first time in the UK at Symphony Hall Birmingham on 21 November, with soprano Mary Bevan and the CBSO and Chorus conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (her first concert back from maternity leave). I'll be off to hear it.

Roxanna writes:

2018 could not pass without my marking it in the most significant way I could. I wanted to celebrate both the centenary of Poland’s becoming an Independent State and my own first half century of life with a meaningful tribute to my Anglo-Polish roots. Hence, this oratorio – settings of some of Poland’s finest poets of the last hundred years, in Polish and English, framing a Latin Mass and incorporating traditional Polish folk music and its sometimes soulful, sometimes quirky, elements. Over the summer of 2017 I listened to five hundred and thirty-eight tracks of Polish folk music and you will hear my very favourite eight in this piece.
I have chosen a Polish poem to represent an historical moment from each decade of the last century, with the final one looking, with hope, to the future with a prayer for peace.
Because I am half English and half Polish (physically and legally, having been given Polish Citizenship in 2017) all the poems are performed in both languages simultaneously – the soprano soloist singing in one language and the choir accompanying her with key words from the other. The Mass text remains in universal Latin.
You can read the rest of her programme note online, here:

JD: What is Faithful Journey? Why this, why now?

RP: It's an oratorio, marking a centenary of Poland’s re-Independence after WWI.  

JD: How did the commission come about? 

RP: The concept was my idea (modelled on something similar I did for Tallinn Philharmonic when Tallinn was European Capital of Culture). I also wanted to do something really profound and significant to mark my half centenary this year and my new Polish citizenship.   

JD: What does the title signify? 

RP: It’s taken from the last poem “Save me, Guide me, faithful Journey” but I think beautifully sums up the journey of faith (religious and secular) driving Poles through tumultuous times.

JD: I know the piece is deeply meaningful to you and you’ve been wanting to write such a work for a long time. Did that emotional weight, the sense of e.g. “here’s my dream piece, finally going onto the page...” affect you at all when you were actually writing the music? 

RP: I spent so long researching the texts and the Polish folk music that once I started writing it felt very organic and every part of my heart and soul has gone into this.

JD: You’ve set the words of the Latin Mass many times before. Do you have somehow to "clear out” the echoes of the others in order to create a new version? If so, how do you do that? 

RP: Because I was starting with Polish folk songs for the Mass part I don’t need to “eject” any previous music I’d written!

JD: How close do you feel to the Poland’s musical culture and how is that reflected in this work? 

RP: Poles express themselves culturally through 110% emotion - that’s me, too!

JD: Your father’s escape from Communist Poland was very dramatic and dangerous, and its echoes must have had a major impact on you as you grew up - could you tell us something about that, please? Is there a sense of coming full circle now, or is it more a matter of fresh perspective from 2018 with the Brexit negotiations in, er, the state they're in. 

RP: I didn’t really understand what he had gone through, when I was a child, and its only in recent years when Ive had my own children that Ive really begun to be able to imagine what it must be like trying to look after vulnerable loved ones in times of great danger. When ever I am scared of something, I think about his courage - and it rubs off on me.

JD: How did you choose the texts for Faithful Journey

RP: I worked with two translators who had worked extensively with Polish poetry - we discussed what I wanted from each poem (which depicts a historical or atmospheric moment in time, each decade since 1918) and they’d source poems for me to choose from.

JD: The Polish language is rather challenging [Faithful Journey is sung in Latin, Polish and English, sometimes the latter two simultaneously]. How have you dealt with it? 

RP: Well, I speak a little and therefore have a headstart with pronunciation and prosody - I had hoped it would help my grasp of its impossible grammar but I’m still waiting…! 

JD: This has been quite a year for you: this piece, the Last Night of the Proms commission, the CD ‘Celestial Bird’ being received with open arms, and of course the after-echoes of Silver Birch (Garsington Opera, 2017). Where to next? 

RP: Bed - I’m exhausted! But it has been brilliant and my next ambition is to write a full-length EPIC opera!

Faithful Journey by Roxanna Panufnik is at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Wednesday 21 November. Tickets here. 

Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light - an extract from Roxanna's piece for the Last Night of the Proms

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Why we stand to lose our leading place on the world stage

Today, as Theresa May unveils her Brexit deal at cabinet and rumours of a likely no-confidence vote are running rife, Dame Sarah Connolly, the great British mezzo-soprano - the Fricka to end all Frickas in the Royal Opera's Ring cycle this autumn - has sent me her powerful thoughts about Brexit, the UK's pitiful government and the implications for the music business and, in particular, music education in this country. She puts forward persuasive and, to me, indubitable reasons for a new People's Vote to save us from Brexit. I personally consider Brexit the single biggest act of mendacious folly perpetrated by a state against its own people in a European nation since the building of the Berlin Wall, so I am absolutely delighted to run this important piece.

It's strong stuff. Get yourself a stiff brandy and read every wise, furious word.

Why we stand to lose our leading place on the world stage

Guest post by Dame Sarah Connolly

Dame Sarah Connolly
Photo © Christopher Pledger

“Fuck Business” he said. Presumably Boris Johnson meant all business, including the one I’m in? The one that brings in £4.4 billion in music revenues. The one that is being devalued by the government’s education department by dismissing all arts subjects from EBACC. The one where Russell Group universities claim Arts A levels are not facilitating subjects for general application to university. The one that earns the UK many of the greatest acting, singing, dancing, artistic accolades in the world.  

We desperately need a People’s Vote with remaining in the EU an option on the ballot paper and No Deal not an option, as we stand to lose our leading place on the world stage. The next generation here in the UK is in real danger of being excluded from working, living and studying abroad. While many of us train in the UK at our world class conservatoires, many thousands of American and foreign students are no longer coming to study here which will have a severe impact on the institutions. 

It doesn’t take a genius therefore to see that with our dwindling arts education and lack of uptake of foreign students, the work opportunities for musicians within the UK will be much lower than it is already. So we need work in Europe and have done happily for decades, until now. 

The business of freelancing is complex and is indeed being shafted by those with little interest in, or knowledge of how this process in Europe actually happens. Our world class orchestras also look to European touring for income stream and profile raising, with the added benefit that they are brilliant ambassadors for Britain. Visa restrictions and complex paperwork will endanger this business stream. The idea of a monetised artists’ visa based on income is hugely discriminatory. We are regressing instead of progressing as I believe working visas put up physical, financial and psychological barriers which would skew the great European collaboration in the arts where our contribution is very significant. 

GF Handel: as international as it gets.
Born in Germany, settled in England,
composer of Italian operas and French overtures.
Picture by Benedikt Kobel
We singers are a slightly different breed as our instruments are inside us (!) but we depend upon consistently good vocal, physical and mental health. We spend a lot of time standing on chilly train station platforms at all hours and in air-conditioned airports so we often fall prey to colds and coughs. Eleventh hour stand-ins are very common in many industries including classical music, especially within Europe. The vast majority of musicians are freelancers, used to packing their instruments and heading off, sometimes at very short notice to all corners of the world. 

A few years ago, I stood in at a moment’s notice for Mahler’s Second Symphony in Leipzig for the opening of the famous Gewandhaus orchestra’s Mahler festival. My agent phoned me to say that the great maestro Riccardo Chailly had asked for me to come immediately to Leipzig and replace the ailing singer. It was a really big honour which had me checking flights within a minute, but if paperwork and visa issues had been a problem then like many American singers, I wouldn’t even have been considered, because visas cover specific jobs that need prior notification. At least they do when we work in America. In hindsight, to have missed out on this opportunity would have been a great loss to my career. I have returned many times and it has helped build my reputation in Germany and everywhere else in Europe since this concert was globally live-streamed and recorded for DVD. 

Boris’s irresponsible callous insult made me very afraid as well as mortified. The business of the arts is already under siege here in the UK with arts education being axed and local authorities unable to ring fence money for Music Hubs. In Europe, my musical colleagues cannot understand the monumental self-harm we are inflicting upon ourselves. British homegrown art and artists are hugely appreciated in Europe, and I notice that knowledge and arts education in general is in a healthier state in Europe by comparison.  

You, dear reader may not care for music or any form of the arts in particular and may struggle to find empathy for us given that one in five people live in poverty in the UK, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Indeed the Musician’s Union says only 13% of full-time musicians can expect to earn more than £16k, yet this government expects artists to earn possibly double that before earning the right to acquire an EU visa. 

The vile experience of queueing at 8am on the pavement in all weathers outside the American Embassy for a work permit every time I get a contract in the US (every application costs me and the arts organisation hiring me hundreds of pounds) is not something anyone would choose to do, in order to work in Europe. I also have to hand over my passport for at least two weeks while it is processed. Can you imagine the logistical nightmare of this happening to a busy orchestra, a theatre or dance troupe, a choir, a film crew, etc? I remember the time before we had rights to work in Europe when often the complications resulted in lost opportunities. What about the EHIC? If you haven’t used one, or don’t even know about it like David Davis, and are pro Brexit, why are you slicing away vital privileges? 

So the whole of the pipeline of all our business in Europe is challenged existentially by Brexit, but the people making decisions/deals will not see the consequences immediately. It will take a generation to fix it if they do not ameliorate the situation by placing appropriate priority on Arts Education in early and middle years...seeing and believing in the holistic impacts and benefits it has on our future generations and business prospects. And by the way, not just practising artists, but also the talent coming up for Arts Administration will be compromised. 

Dame Sarah Connolly as Fricka in Die Walküre
© Royal Opera House, photo by Clive Barda
What about related businesses that will suffer? 
-- Computer Gaming (all the music for that and creativity which is huge at present in the UK)
-- Advertising (jingles and creatives)
-- Marketing
-- Film Music (Huge...we will be outpriced)

As I mentioned earlier, our future British talent is massively at risk by this government’s short-sighted lack of investment in arts education and creating barriers. I’m worried that arts organisations in Europe will not bother hiring young inexperienced singers due to the extra paperwork and cost and vice versa. 

My years as a fledgling singer with Philippe Herreweghe, arguably the greatest conductor of Bach’s music, in Belgium and Holland and with William Christie, the much celebrated Baroque Opera harpsichordist and conductor, in Paris has underpinned all that I now bring to Baroque opera performance. Would their managers have taken a chance with an unknown Brit like me if such obstacles stood in their way? Most orchestras are barely making a profit, so can we all afford to pay for visas each time we have contracts abroad? But what about musicians and artists joining UK based international arts festivals like WOMAD or in Edinburgh or Glyndebourne? Those who bring to our shores “unique ways of looking at things” (Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Berlin State Opera and Berlin Staatskapelle).

Our integration with European language and culture is integral to who we are as musicians and singers, and as British Europeans. The same can be said for anyone whose work is closely allied to European countries. The speech given at the 2017 BBC Proms by  Daniel Barenboim was visionary and extremely important. Here are several quotes. “There is not enough education about whom we are, what is a human being, and how is he to relate to others of the same kind. The musical profession is the only one that is not national. No German musician will tell you he will only play Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven. This isolation and nationalism in its narrowest sense is something very dangerous. Europe is a place for diverse culture, for different cultures, different ways of looking at things and can only be done with education.”   

Shared culture through education: Daniel Barenboim
Photo: Paul Schirnhofer / DG
To counter some of the hideous xenophobia currently being given free rein of expression, my own experience of cultural diversity from visiting musicians is this: they enrich our lives, expand our musical horizons, appeal to the heart and inspire the soul to seek more of the same, and by doing so, we accept and know each other more willingly, almost by stealth. This is what Daniel Barenboim is getting at: understanding through education and enriching shared culture. 

Jacob Rees Mogg was rightly lambasted by Sir Nicholas Hytner for misunderstanding how the German composer Georg Friedrich Händel was permitted to work in England claiming he didn’t need a passport to come here, (they didn’t exist) but he omitted to mention that an Act of Parliament was passed in 1727 allowing Händel to earn a salary as a composer for George I. Was this ignorance or malicious omission? Either is depressing but both are practiced by Brexiter politicians with alarming regularity. Händel was one of the first true Europeans: born in Germany, worked in Italy and London, wrote Italian operas and French overtures. (see illustration. The drawing is by Benedikt Kobel.)  

Remaining a member of the EU means that we will continue to grow as a nation, offering the next generation easier and free exchange of ideas for the next generation of performers, scientists, managers, writers, parents, teachers and all those who benefit our economy and respect in the world.  It’s time to think again. We need a People’s Vote with remaining in the EU an option on the ballot paper and No Deal not an option, in order to stop a gross act of self harm on the cultural and economic pulse of this nation.

Dame Sarah Connolly CBE, Doc.h.c Nottingham Trent University, FRSA, FRCM, is a mezzo-soprano was made a Dame in 2017 for services to music. 
© Dame Sarah Connolly

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Live stream tonight: Armistice recital from the Wigmore Hall

I hope this works. If it doesn't, please go here instead:

The French pianist Cédric Tiberghien has assembled an excellent, thoughtful and original programme for his 'Armistice' recital tonight, involving works from each year of World War I and music by composers from England, France, Germany, Poland and Russia. I wrote the programme notes, so I can promise you that the musical connections are fascinating in their own right, alongside the historical ones. The 'Wiggy' is now able to live-stream selected recitals and will make it available to view after the event as well, so I'm experimenting here to see whether we can share this broadcast.

  • Aleksandr Skryabin (1872-1915)
        • Vers la flamme, poème Op. 72
  • Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
        • 3 Improvisations for the Left-Hand
  • Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
      • Etudes Book II
        • Pour les degrés chromatiques
        • Pour les agréments
        • Pour les notes répétées
  • Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
        • Twelve Etudes Op. 33
  • Claude Debussy
      • Etudes Book II
        • Pour les sonorités opposées
        • Pour les arpèges composés
        • Pour les accords
    • Claude Debussy
          • Etudes Book I
    • Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
          • In einer Nacht... Träume und Erlebnisse Op. 15

    Wednesday, November 07, 2018

    This man will take your life

    His name is Richard Wagner, and if you let him, that's what he'll do. Of course, you mightn't show him in through the door in the first place, but otherwise, what's likely to happen is set out below. The things to remember are that a) the work is not the man, and vice-versa, and b) the more effort you put into something, the more rewarding it will be. One suspects he knew that – and knew exactly what he was doing in demanding such commitment from his fans. I just went to the whole Ring, in a manner of speaking, mostly by mistake, and the Ring leaves you wrung. But I'd go all over again tomorrow if I could. How, then, does this happen?

    First of all, you realise that Wagner was probably the most influential composer of any born in the 19th century, with the biggest, most lasting impact on musical history ever since – a quality he shares only with Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring'. So you start investigating. What on earth is so special about Richard Wagner?

    HELP! It's Die Walküre at Covent Garden...John Lundgren as Wotan
     © 2012 Royal Opera House / Clive Barda

    Then you go and hear some. And you get it. If it's Die Walküre, in particular, you get it completely. Wagner doesn't just write music. He manipulates your entire consciousness of time, of intensity, of more. He leaves you wandering through your world wondering where the heck you are and what just happened to you. Twenty years later, you still have no idea how he does it.

    So you go and hear some more. This stuff costs and it doesn't come around all that often, so when it's there, you raid your savings and go running. But so does everyone else, so you have to be quick and organised and you might spend a long time in an online box-office queue or 'ninja-ing' returns by hitting the 'refresh' button on the right page every hour for a week.

    There might be one opera with which you have a bad experience early on. Perhaps you once went to a third-rate performance with indifferent singers and a oboe with a cold in a very uncomfortable theatre with no surtitles and it left you loath to try it again. Then, finally, you do try again and you realise it's actually the greatest thing in the history of the world [btw, it is called Parsifal] and you have to go and hear it every single time it is on, because everything is good after that first one.

    By now you're getting the hang of who the top Wagner singers are and you want to hear them, or you find there are directors who are doing particularly interesting work whose productions you want to see, or conductors who have a special way with the scores - so you might start travelling. You find out where they are and what they're doing, then fork out for opera tickets overseas (which may be more reasonably priced than your local), but then you also have to fork out for the plane, somewhere to stay and things to eat. It'll be worth it, you tell yourself. It will be an experience I'll never forget. Possibly it is - so you do it all over again.

    And then you start spotting the rising stars: you get to recognise a voice that's going places and you want to hear him/her on the up, having the 'Sternestunde', so you book ahead to catch them in their first really big Wagner role, and then you realise it's going to mean travelling through Heathrow on 30 March 2019, the day after f***ing Brexit. (Seriously. I have just got into this situation.)

    Bayreuth Festival Theatre
    Speaking of travelling, there's one big problem with Wagner and it's called Bayreuth. The man built his own theatre for his own music, and if you have serious intentions of becoming a Wagnerite, you need to go and experience it. Bayreuth is a hike. Either you get Ryanair to Nuremberg (Ryanair is a demand too far for many of us) or you fly to Munich and take a few trains, and this is assuming you are able to get tickets by hook or crook in the first place. Again, air tickets, hotel, all adds up. There you sit in the theatre and soak up the sound and you realise what it's all about, and then you probably have to keep your eyes closed because of the frightful productions, unless you're seeing Barrie Kosky's Meistersinger which is totally brilliant.

    But once you've done that, you have to do it again, because it really is special, and then you realise there's one thing you haven't yet done. You haven't seen The Ring at Bayreuth.

    You might think you don't need the whole Ring. It might come to your own town and you don't even bother booking, because it's a massive commitment of time and energy and is it really worth it? But then it comes around and a friend unexpectedly invites you to the dress rehearsal of Das Rheingold and it is bloody wonderful, so you try to get into Walküre and you can't, so you go to the cinema relay and it is so bloody wonderful that you spend the next two days ninja-ing returns for Siegfried and, because you've got into that one, you have to try to get into Götterdämmerung too, and the only seat that comes up that's affordable is in the lower slips, so you spend its six and a half hours craning forward from the hips with your neck on a 45-degree twist and you spend the rest of the week untwisting again, while glorying in the fact that actually you experienced the best sound in the entire opera house, and the question "who would ever design a theatre where such a large number of seats have a lousy view?" fades into irrelevance while you look up books and websites at which you can swot exactly which leitmotif means what, because you've twigged many of them, but there are plenty more...

    The theatre at Bayreuth is not like that. There isn't a lousy view in the house. It's basically designed by a composer, not a socialite, so he wants you to look at the opera, not the people in the box opposite. So now you have to have the ultimate Wagner experience: you have to see The Ring at Bayreuth.

    That's 4 operas, about €300 per ticket, and there are possibly two of you, and you have to be there for at least a week, and you need somewhere to stay, and they no longer let you take cushions into the auditorium (oy!) and there is no guarantee whatsoever that the production will be bearable, or that the singers you're hoping to hear will show up, but you want to go anyway. You spot a big birthday a few years down the line and you circle it in mental red pen. This shall be the year you do it...

    Except goodness knows what the tickets will cost and what our hopeless pound will be worth by then. We might be trapped on Brexit island unable ever to leave. We might be dead, either because they can't get medicine into the country any more, or because we've been killed in the resulting civil war.

    And you know something? That only makes the acquisition of tickets for Bayreuth even more urgent! We have to do this while we're alive and while we have the opportunity. Whatever it takes.

    And that is how Wagner will take your life. Over and out.

    Monday, November 05, 2018

    At last, the definitive Chopin biography is here

    In yesterday's Sunday Times, I reviewed a book that is not only the best one about Chopin I've ever read, but maybe the finest biography of any composer I've yet been fortunate enough to encounter. My review was quite general, and not particularly short (you can read it here, £), but there is so much more I want to say about this particular tome that I'm writing a whole other piece here, now.

    (photo source: Wikipedia)
    A few weeks ago there was a thud on the doormat: a large brown box from Faber & Faber. When I opened it I nearly fell over with joy. Alan Walker, whose three-volume biography of Liszt has won multiple, highly deserved awards, has turned his attention to Chopin: this book has taken him about ten years, runs to 768 pages and includes insights, revelations and a sense of absolute authority on every page, indeed in every beautifully turned sentence. It's not just a fascinating study, but great literature: it can be enjoyed by everybody from the "casual" music-lover to professional pianists and academics. (It even includes music examples - hooray.)

    Clear, down to earth, humane, it scotches myths and overturns assumptions, but never without good cause: Walker's assertions are supported by proper evidence. He has taken his time, questioning everything, digging under every patio, seeking the truth. Whether he is describing Chopin's unconventional pianistic techniques - which involved, for instance, crossing one finger over another or playing two notes with one at the same time, and so on - or exploring what really happened that broke up the composer's relationship with George Sand, no stone is left unturned.

    There's a wealth of precision and fascination that oozes out of the facts: for instance, the mechanics of how Chopin and Sand managed their bizarre semi-detached relationship, choosing adjacent or neighbouring apartments rather than living in the same house; or what their journeys to Nohant entailed (a 5am start, four changes of coach and the company of assorted creatures en route which could include Sand's dogs, other travellers' chickens and sometimes Delacroix with his cat, Cupid), and similar exactitude is turned to the details of the politics and society of the time, exploring the who, why and how of the 1830 uprising - and its horrific crushing - that exiled Chopin from Poland. The relevation of facts and figures brings this to written life as never before.

    What myths are scotched? They're countless. Konstancja Gładkowska, the singer with whom Chopin was infatuated as a youngster: calf love, says tradition, but no, says Walker, this was quite a serious attachment and not unrequited. Maria Wodzinska, to whom he was briefly engaged? Meet her ghastly mother. What of Julian Fontana, Chopin's amanuensis, maligned by history? Rehabilitate his reputation, says Walker, he was a good man doing his very best to help, both musically and personally, the ailing composer, who treated him badly. Are the Ballades based on Mickiewicz? Nope. Chopin wasn't literary; he was not interested in reading fiction and poetry, and besides, Mickiewicz turned himself into a questionable, 'messianic' spiritual type in Paris which made potential admirers of his writing give him a wide berth. But yes to the Polonaises' furious, impassioned political drive - and yes, too, to that of the 'Revolutionary' Etude. Despite deep familiarity with the music and its workings, Walker always remains alive to the freshness and wonder of it, and is not loath to stand awe-struck in front of works such as the Sonata No.2 in B flat minor or the Polonaise-Fantasie.

    If Walker gives short shrift to certain popular ideas, it is always with a good, sound cause and a wise perspective. He acknowledges the confusion caused by Chopin's letters to his friend Tytus about Konstancja, so erotic in tone that they've sparked suggestions of latent homosexuality; but if we are confused, he points out, that's probably because the young Chopin himself was so profoundly muddled about it. He nods, briefly, towards the fur-ruffling theory that it was Jenny Lind, not Jane Stirling, who donated £1000 to the ailing Chopin in Britain, but finds no evidence to support the notion; indeed, an exploration of Stirling's will revealed that she was easily wealthy enough to have made the gift herself (and he simply refers us to the relevant book should we wish to explore 'this strange business' any further). Jane Stirling emerges as an absolute heroine, if a slightly sad figure in the long-term.

    Chopin's 'late' style, meanwhile, turns out to be occasionally deceptive. He explored increasingly experimental forms, for sure, but it seems that the dates that have previously been ascribed to certain pieces were not quite right; certain ones we thought late were early; and that 'last' mazurka - through which so many pianists over the years have drooped, dreamed and suffered as if on the point of expiring - is nothing of the kind. Yes, his last work was a mazurka, but not that mazurka. Quite an innocuous one, as it happens.

    The characters who populated Chopin's life form a glorious cavalcade. Liszt - to whom Walker has devoted so much of his life - is here reincarnated as a weaselish, gossipy, amoral, immoral presence, the antithesis of everything Chopin stood for. Once he asked to borrow Chopin's apartment - and used it to seduce the wife of Pleyel, Chopin's favourite piano maker. You get the picture. And his mistress Marie d'Agoult is even worse. Every time they appear you know there's going to be trouble. Meanwhile the bumptious pianist Kalkbrenner is gloriously lampooned: apparently he liked to try to improve his friends' table-manners. And - wait for it - the singer and composer Pauline Viardot, with whom readers of JDCMB will be familiar, had a full-blown love affair with Sand's son, Maurice, a couple of years after she married Louis Viardot, oh yes indeed.

    And Chopin himself? We often think of him as a neurotic, narcissistic dandy, hideously anti-semitic, making his friends' lives a misery, and so forth. Well, he was very ill for most of his adult life. He did like beautiful clothes and decor, and he probably was a bit of a narcissist. And he did treat Fontana, who lived with him, rather poorly. But Prince Karol he wasn't, or not only. His anti-semitism, Walker suggests, was no more or less than anyone else's at that point of history - that's simply how it was in those days, sad but true. Yes, there are some anti-semitic side-swipes at his publishers, but this wasn't extraordinary or unexpected in the unfortunate context of the time. Chopin also inspired loyal friendships and was a man of high principle and strong character with a vivid and sometimes vicious sense of humour and a gift for mimicry which, Walker says, would not have disgraced a professional actor.

    The break-up with Sand is strongly drawn and heart-breaking: Chopin was in Paris, had no idea of the physically violent confrontation that had made Sand throw Solange and the vile Clésinger out of Nohant (Clésinger punched her in the chest and Maurice ran off to look for a gun) and when the pregnant Solange appealed to him for help, Chopin didn't hesitate to lend her his carriage and words of sympathy. He didn't know what had happened. And Sand's reaction - slamming the door on the relationship - seems excessively cruel. Though, as her Lucrezia Floriani suggests (and you should definitely read that too - oof!), there must have been trouble brewing there for a very long time.

    I have one question which remains unanswered - yes, really. Chopin was not literary, yet he lived with one of the most celebrated novelists of the day for nearly a decade. How did that work? Did he never read her books? Didn't she mind if he showed no interest in her work? Presumably the likelihood that he never actually read Lucrezia Floriani was a good thing - he was spared the pain, and if she knew he wouldn't read it, she could let rip all the more with the hideous character of 'Prince Karol'. But if that book shows what she really felt about Chopin, why had she not split from him sooner? Walker shows us a vivid portrayal of Sand burning her correspondence with Chopin after his death. There are things we will never know.

    The chapter that follows the fortunes of Chopin's unpublished works, letters and preserved heart after his death is every bit as gripping as those about his life. He died intestate (yes, this man who suffered from tuberculosis all his adult life and must have known his days were numbered never actually made a will!) and his insufferable brother-in-law forced his sister Ludwika to sell off his belongings. Much was lost from his sister's apartment when it was ransacked by the military, who threw his piano out of the window and destroyed manuscripts that probably contained implicitly worthwhile unpublished works. And do you remember that instruction he is supposed to have given that his body should be 'opened' after his death so that he would not be buried alive? That wasn't him. It was his father.

    I don't believe I have ever read a biography of any composer that I have loved as much as this one, nor would I expect to do so again any time soon. It's a marvel and a treasure-trove. If you love Chopin, do yourself a favour and get a copy right away. You can wait for Christmas if you really want to, but personally I wouldn't. Order here.