'Fryderyk Chopin' already qualifies as one of the best biographies of the year

English-Canadian musicologist and university professor Alan Walker spent 10 years doing extensive research into vast archives of primary source material on Chopin, allowing him to produce this MRI-thorough biography.

Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times By Alan Walker Farrar, Straus and Giroux 768 pp.

It is well known that Chopin, the Polish Mozart, died at a relatively young age – 39. In fact Berlioz aptly remarked that “Chopin was dying all of his life.” Even his famous lover, George Sand, wrote, ”For nine years, although I was so full of life, I was bound to a corpse.” No doubt Chopin suffered terribly until his death in 1849, but what magic he created in those too-few years of life has filled quite a few volumes, not the least of which is Alan Walker’s latest 700-page-plus biography, Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times.

 Spoiler Alert: If you are an adorer of Chopin’s music and won’t countenance any disparaging words about him for fear that they may knock him off that pedestal you’ve placed him on, or, for that matter, if you’re the opposite kind who enjoys reading about a good hard fall from grace, sorry, neither applies here. And even though Alan Walker’s MRI-thorough biography leaves no letter unopened, no salacious love story un-debunked, no scathing musical criticism untranslated, Chopin’s legacy remains as pure and poetic as his “Polonaise, Op. 53 in A Flat Major.”

Walker has a difficult assignment because he has to write for three audiences: for the Chopin lovers, like this reviewer; for the musicians and musicologists, curious about his style and technique and the various interpretations of his compositions; and for the art historians who relish the hard-cold facts and anecdotal curios that give insight into the great artists and political figures of the early-to-mid-19nth century. Of course, no book can be all things to all readers, so some may consider "Chopin: A Life and Times" dissatisfying in parts. That being said, there is more than enough for everyone at this literary feast, and come awards time, it’s likely you’ll see this book short-listed for one of the top literary biographies of the year.

The story of Chopin actually begins in France, where Fryderyk’s father, Nicolas Chopin, grew up, the son of a winemaker. However, the young Nicolas left the Alsace region of France for Poland, where he had strong ties, and never looked back. Once on Polish turf, he changed his first name to Mikolaj, to sound more Polish, but inexplicably he did not change his last name. (Probably a good thing – imagine a young Polish piano prodigy trying to make his way into the art world during those times with, say, his mother’s maiden name “Krzyzanowska”?) Interestingly, Mikolaj kept his French origins a secret from his sons and daughters most of his life.

From the outset, Walker’s narrative style reflects the very music of his subject: He has a light, delicate touch when making apt inferences, and a soft and rather ornate style when  providing descriptions of the artist. The most luscious part of the biography is about Chopin’s youth. We experience a rich childhood in Poland, full of loving family and friends surrounding a young boy, preternaturally gifted, with a knack for sarcasm and mimicry, who seemed to simply exfoliate music from the very moment he sat down at the piano. By age 7 he had composed a sonata, and within 10 short years, Chopin was, as one violin virtuoso of the times remarked, “a finished artist.” 

How refreshing it is, in these emotionally uptight times, with the shelves at the local bookstore jam-packed with personal-achievement manuals like Amy Chua’s "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom," or virtually all of Malcolm Gladwell’s works, to read about a totally grounded genius with no obsessions, no emotional baggage, no “Tiger Mom” standing over his shoulder.  He was, as Mendelssohn described him at age 23: ”so profoundly original and at the same time so very masterly in his piano playing that he may be called an absolutely perfect virtuoso.”  

But Chopin, the genius, his wonderful, love-filled childhood notwithstanding, had lady troubles throughout his life. His first love was a mezzo-soprano, a Pole, named Konstancja Gladkowska. (“And Chopin loved singers and the female voice. He fell in love with many of them” – Walker.)  As he put it, “I have found my ideal, whom I have served faithfully, for six months, though without saying a word.” This was actually true – he never talked to her. At 19, he was as shy with the opposite sex as he was musical. So nothing came of that. Next was the stunningly beautiful Maria Wodzinska. He proposed to her, but her meddling, “harridan” of a mother nixed on account of his sketchy health.

Then there was George Sand whom he met while playing in one of the grande salons of Paris. She pursued him, but theirs was a rocky relationship, platonic in the end; however, she did provide him with the necessary financial and domestic support he so sorely needed at that crucial period in his career. Walker even suggests that Sand helped Chopin “create some of his greatest works, and when the break came nine years later [1845] the music fountain of music started to die within him.” At the tail end of his life there was his British student, Jane Stirling, whose romantic interest in Chopin went unrequited (actually, he found her quite tedious). But it was her munificence and dedication that allowed him to continue composing in his Paris apartment even as his health declined to the point where he could neither teach nor perform.

Savory little anecdotes are peppered throughout the biography, like this one: On his way back to Warsaw from Austria, his diligence stopped in the small town of Zullichau to change horses. Walker describes the scene: “Fryderyk noticed an unlikely old piano in an adjoining room. It turned out to be in better condition than it looked and was in tune. So he sat down and began to improvise. This attracted the attention of his fellow travelers, who entered the room one by one, and soon a full-scale concert was under way.” His improvisations at this performance later turned into “The Grand Fantasia on Polish Airs, for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 13.”

There’s lots of interesting Chopin trivia, too. For example, after graduation from high school, Chopin applied to his government for a grant to travel and perform; after all, he’d been called a genius by many established artists. His application was turned down. Berlioz once complained: “Chopin always keeps himself aloof... Unless you are a prince, a minister, or an ambassador, you might as well give up hope of hearing him.”

Tsar Nicholas wanted him to be “Pianist to the Imperial Russian Court,” but Chopin declined the offer due to his intense love and loyalty to Poland. (It was Schumann who once described Chopin’s music as “cannons buried in flowers” in referring to Chopin’s feelings toward Russia’s annexation of Poland.) As for Mendelssohn and Schumann who were always full of praise for his music....“Chopin was almost completely indifferent to theirs,” Walker writes.  But I don’t want to give away too many gems....

For the musicologists, there are Walker’s descriptions of Chopin’s composing process, which was most often “slow and painful. A glance through his manuscripts reveals signs of serious conflict, with heavy corrections on many pages.” He was a perfectionist in every sense of the word, in his life as well as his music, and when he corrected something “he made sure that the outside world would never know what his first thoughts had been.” In fact, as he lay dying, he demanded that all of his unfinished works be burned. Fortunately his older sister, Ludwika, outlived him and made sure that that did not happen. As for his etudes and Mazurkas, Walker assures us that they “contain a gold mine of advanced harmonic procedures that have been prospected to the point of exhaustion by theorists….  Reaping a random harvest of harmony was ever Chopin’s good fortune….” Of course his touch and finger positioning on the keyboard is the stuff of legend.

Walker remains faithful to his subject, which only 10 years of extensive research into vast archives of primary source material could manifest, as he exposes in understated detail not only the prodigious suffering of his subject, but also the daily grind, if you will, of Chopin’s working-musician life. Many readers will be surprised and perhaps heartened to know that Chopin was as much a teacher as he was a composer. He gave four or five lessons per day throughout much of his career. And it was the income from his teaching and the inspiration and devotion of his students, like Jane Stirling and Julian Fontana, that likely kept him alive and well-cared for throughout much of his career.

And in the end it was his student, ex-roommate, pianist, composer, and author, Julian Fontana, who has through the years provided the most accurate and dependable insights and verifiable facts about the artist’s life, which has remained as a sort of bulwark against the many Chopin hoaxes and anecdotal “stretchers” that have popped up through the ages, most notably Franz Liszt’s biography of him. 

Today, Chopin’s heart rests in state within a stone pillar at the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. (The rest of his body lies in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris). As one cleric noted in his 1945 eulogy to Chopin, “[his] heart is not an object of liturgical devotion, but an object of national devotion, comparable with the remains of kings whom the musical maestro rivaled and even surpassed in greatness.” And as Walker so aptly concludes: “The composer’s posthumous Odyssey will meanwhile continue on its journey into the boundless realms of the future, while his music brings pleasure and solace to generations as yet unborn.”

Richard Horan is an award-winning author of two novels: “Life in the Rainbow” and “Goose Music,” and two non-fiction books: “Seeds” and “Harvest.” His latest work, “Notes from the Nuthouse,” a play in three acts, is in the running for the Relentless Award.

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