A sorrowful life redeemed by music
The affair between Frédéric Chopin and George Sand was as tempestuous as any sonata
Benita Eisler's misleadingly titled but compelling biography begins, quite cinematically, scanning the 3,000 to 4,000 people in attendance at the by-invitation-only funeral of Chopin.
This spectacular homage at the Church of the Madeleine to a composer who died destitute after a long struggle with tuberculosis attracted all of artistic and aristocratic Paris in 1848. But the one person who had mattered most in Chopin's life was missing from the funeral: George Sand.
The tempestuous relationship between Sand and Chopin lies at the heart of Eisler's book, which might have been more aptly titled "Sand and Chopin: A French Romance."
The love affair between the Warsaw piano prodigy and the most notorious woman of her time has hardly been ignored by biographers, and while Eisler's story offers no new revelations, it nevertheless provides a psychologically compelling account.
Well researched and well written, "Chopin's Funeral" covers much of the same material found in Tad Szulc's excellent "Chopin in Paris" (1998), interestingly omitted from Eisler's lengthy bibliography.
Born Amandine-Aurora Lucile Dupin in Paris in l804, Sand took her masculine pseudonym to secure publication of her 80 novels which supported her family and, for a decade, Chopin. "When it came to depicting herself in letters and memoirs," Eisler writes, "she produced one of her most memorable heroines." In her fiction, she questioned sexual identity and traditional stereotypes, which resulted in the French Senate banning her works from public libraries.
Noted for her friendships with Balzac, Flaubert, and Liszt, and her many love affairs (including the poet and dramatist Alfred de Musset), Sand wore trousers and smoked a pipe. Eisler explains that Sand's love of music and theater dictated her masculine clothes, as she was unable to afford expensive seats in the orchestra or loges and, as a woman, forbidden to sit in the balcony.
Introduced by Franz Liszt and his lover, Countess Marie d'Agoult, who wanted another couple around as a foil, Sand and Chopin became lovers in l838, two years after they met. Liszt, the matinée-idol pianist of his age, did much to help out the 21-year-old Chopin when he arrived alone and unknown in Paris, an exile from "his trampled homeland," Poland.
"Reserved, proud, mysterious," Eisler writes, "Chopin inspired love by withholding its expression. He gave, Liszt observed, 'everything but himself.' "
A cruel, unfair mother, Sand ended up operatically banishing the ailing Chopin from her household after he made it clear that Sand had grievously failed her daughter Solange, "a failure out of which all her own miseries flowed."
To Eisler, Chopin was a composer of "obsessive perfectionism" fortuitously situated at the right time and place. The piano had just replaced the "aristocratic" harpsichord and clavichord, and was the rage in Paris. An l845 survey of the city estimated that l00,000 people were able to play piano - one tenth of the population! Chopin was the first artist, Eisler claims, to devote himself to exploring the vast possibilities of the piano and to inventing more.
She writes beautifully about Chopin's music, and sees him as the least romantic of artists, a composer who clung to the past. She marvels at Chopin's "Berceuse," which "surprises us, like happiness itself," containing "lyric tenderness lofted with such ease as to suggest that its intricacies and inventions were as natural as breathing." Chopin's "Polonaise in F-sharp Minor," "a boa constrictor of a work," seems "to have swallowed pieces of waltz and mazurka ... getting longer in the process."
She notes how in his "First Scherzo," he "retreats to the tender harmonies of a Polish children's carol. Stranded in childhood himself, its raw emotions ... remained available to his art." To Eisler, Chopin's 39 years of life - sorrowfully marked by exile, solitude, and illness - were, nevertheless, "a failed life redeemed by art."
• Susan Miron is a freelance writer and harpist in Newton, Mass.