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.