'Chopin's Piano' profiles an instrument linked to much transcendent music

In graceful prose, Australian conductor and author Paul Kildea explores developments in the history of piano-making, changes in the way pianists have approached their craft, and, most luminously, the music of Chopin.

Chopin’s Piano: In Search of the Instrument that Transformed Music By Paul Kildea W.W. Norton & Co. 349 pp.

Writing to his French publisher in November 1838, Frederic Chopin lamented, “I dream of music, but I can’t write any because there are no pianos to be had here.” The composer was in Majorca, where he had journeyed with his lover, the writer George Sand, and her children. While on the island, Chopin devoted himself to composing. For her part, Sand focused on her writing, her children, and looking after Chopin, who was suffering from consumption.

They were an unusual pair. Sand, 34, wore masculine clothing, had page-boy hair, and was given to smoking cigars. She lived, writes Paul Kildea, the author of this engaging new book Chopin's Piano, “beyond the restrictions and expectations of her gender.” A controversial figure, Sand was praised by Flaubert, who admired her writing, and derided by Baudelaire, who mocked her appearance and morals.

Six years younger than Sand, Chopin was one of the towering figures in the history of 19th-century music. He had met Sand in 1836 in Franz Liszt’s Paris apartment. “Is she really a woman?” he wondered. By 1838, they were lovers, and headed to Majorca in November for a visit that would last a few months. The setting was lovely, but it was not an easy stay, especially for Chopin, for whom writing music was a torment.

According to Sand, when composing, Chopin “withdrew into his room for days, weeping, pacing up and down, breaking his pens, playing a measure a hundred times over, changing it each time, then writing it out and erasing it… and beginning all over again on the morrow.”

Before he left France, Chopin had ordered a piano from a Parisian manufacturer, but it took many weeks until it reached Majorca. Awaiting its arrival, he rented a local instrument made by Juan Bauza, a craftsman about whom we know practically nothing. The keyboard was rather primitive, even by the standards of the early 19th century, and as Sand observed, it gave Chopin “more vexation than consolation.” Indeed, Kildea writes, it was “out of date before it was completed.” Notwithstanding its technical limitations, the instrument would one day prove alluring.

Thus, the stage is set for this appealing tale about a revered musician and the instrument upon which he composed some of the most memorable music of the 19th century: several of his 24 “Preludes,” path-breaking piano pieces that have moved generations of listeners.

In 24 chapters (his homage to the “Preludes”), Kildea, a composer, pianist, and author of a biography of composer Benjamin Britten, tells a sweeping story, which only partly considers the “search” for the instrument upon which Chopin labored in Majorca. In graceful prose, Kildea explores developments in the history of piano-making, changes in the way pianists have approached their craft, and, most luminously, the music of Chopin.

 Along the way, Kildea considers the idea of Romanticism, touches on European history, and offers a stimulating discussion on the evolution of nineteenth-century Paris. The reader also encounters Tolstoy, Rodin, and numerous celebrated musicians from Chopin’s time down to our own. Nor can one forget Wanda Landowska, the central figure in the second half of the book.

Born in Warsaw in 1879, Landowska would become one of the most distinguished harpsichordists of the 20th century, her contribution resting on superb performances and recordings, especially of Bach’s music. But Landowska also adored Chopin. As a teenager, she wrote, “How could I ever live without Chopin, whose… capricious melodies shake one’s soul?”

In 1911, after playing some concerts in Majorca, Landowska made a “pilgrimage” to the village where Chopin had worked decades before. In the small room in which he had composed, she found the instrument crafted by Juan Bauza, which, in Landowska’s mind, was inseparable from Chopin’s magnificent “Preludes.” As Kildea writes, each “historical object illuminat[ed] the other,” and she was determined to acquire the precious artifact. Having done so, she shipped the master’s piano to her Paris home.

Kildea insightfully traces the story of Landowska’s life, from Paris, which she fled just before the Nazi occupation in June 1940, to America, which she reached on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. In surveying her extraordinary career, Kildea also considers the fate of Chopin’s piano, which was looted by the Gestapo soon after Landowska left Paris.

Part of the Nazis’ wartime plunder of precious art and artifacts, the instrument was crated up and shipped east by the Germans. Despite her efforts to recover it after the war, Landowska would never again see the cherished keyboard. Her career in America blossomed, while the piano upon which Chopin had composed such remarkable music, became a memory.

Upon completing this fine volume, one is tempted to shed a tear because the whereabouts of Chopin’s piano remain a mystery. Far better, though, to take comfort from the fact that his music survives. That seems a reasonable tradeoff, though it would be wonderful to find his piano.

Jonathan Rosenberg is a history professor at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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