Review: Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times by Alan Walker

Fryderyk Chopin [2018] – ★★★1/2

This book on Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin is the culmination of a ten years’ research project. Fryderyk or Frédéric Chopin is considered to be the greatest composer of the Romantic period, and this biography details his life from his early education and success in native Poland to his move and conquest of Paris through salon appearances, concerts and published works. Much in this book is about Chopin’s long-term relationship with French female novelist George Sand, but Chopin’s musical masterpieces, technique and piano theories are also dissected. Walker employs an engaging story-format to tell us about Chopin, a composer who was also largely self-taught and perpetually ill, providing invaluable insights into Chopin’s relationships with others. And, this well-researched book would have been a “must-read” biography if not for the fact that it is also over-written, with the author making some insensitive faux pas as he proceeds with his over-zealous narration.

Beginning

Chopin was born on 1 March 1810 in Żelazowa Wola, Poland. He spent his childhood in Warsaw as his father gained the position of a teacher at a lyceum. From the early age, Chopin was deemed a “Polish Mozart” and introduced early to playing for the Polish aristocracy. His music teacher from the ages of 6 to 12 was eccentric pianist and composer Wojciech Żywny who encouraged young Chopin to improvise and compose at the piano and who instilled in the boy the love for Bach and Mozart. Chopin later attended the Warsaw High School of Music, where he was taught by Józef Elsner, and was already composing his great pieces of music. The author even provides some of the quotes from the said Professor Elsner, such as: “one should never expose a pupil to just one method, or just one point of view,” “it is a bad master who is not surpassed by his pupil” and “to think only of playing the piano is a false idea. It should rather be regarded as a means towards a more complete understanding of music” [Walker, Faber & Faber, 2018: 107].

The problem with the book’s narrative here, as elsewhere in the book, is that Walker’s engaging narrative is often lost in too much detail. Just because the author knows this or that obscure detail pertaining to Chopin or his relatives it does mean that it should all be included in the book. However, Alan Walker does precisely that, and we read about everything under the sun related to Chopin, from the tantrums of Sand’s maidservant to Chopin father’s eccentric funeral arrangements.

Chopin departed Poland after his studies in 1930, going first to Vienna and Germany, before landing in Paris.

Chopin, 1849, daguerreotype by Louise-Auguste Bisson

Paris

Chopin arrived in Paris in 1831. He soon found himself in the midst of the Parisian high society, though he did experience a year of financial struggle: “Chopin had barely been in Paris for two years and he was already being compared with the leading pianists of his time. He was only twenty-three years old, was virtually self-taught, and was composing a body of work that has meanwhile found a permanent place in the repertoire” [Walker, Faber & Faber, 2018: 442]. He was friends with Mendelssohn, and was present and played at soirees attended by such celebrities as novelists Balzac and Stendhal, and painter Delacroix. Chopin was also more than acquainted with virtuoso pianist and composer Franz Liszt, but the relationship was “difficult”: “Liszt…had come to represent everything in the sphere of music making that Chopin scorned – shallow virtuosity, the roar of the crowd, and the pursuit of newspaper glory” [Walker, Faber & Faber, 2018: 442].

Chopin continued to teach, and it was his teaching and not concerts or published works that provided the bulk of his money. Alan Walker cites child prodigy Carl Filtsch aged 12 as his most gifted student, and Chopin even said of the boy that he was “the most worthy interpreter of his music”. Sadly, the gifted boy died at the age of 15 in 1845.

Piano Technique

Alan Walker provides many insights into Chopin as a composer (see my posts Chopin: Waltz in A Minor and Chopin: Nocturne op, 9 No. 2) and a music teacher. For one thing, improvisation and composition were indistinguishable for Chopin, and he could not compose away from his piano. He also preferred “intimate” music-making, that kind of playing that is to be found in salons of the aristocracy and for a select few who are able to appreciate the subtle nuances of the composer’s playing [Walker, Faber & Faber, 2018: 55]. It was also interesting to find out about the influence of Italian opera on Chopin’s music, such as operas of Vincenzo Bellini: “one influence on Chopin that held him daily in its thrall: the human voice…Chopin attempted to enshrine the memory of [opera singing] in his melodies. This love affair with the human voice comes out especially in his nocturnes, whose inner spirit comes from the world of opera and that style of singing we call bel canto”[Walker, 2018: 234, 244]. Chopin understood better than anyone that the “illusion of singing” must be created at the piano, and “it remains the case that inside every successful Chopin interpreter is a singer trying to get out” [Walker, 2018: 244, 245].

What distinguished Chopin and his music from other composers is also that he belonged to no music school and subscribed to no dogma. He was not interested in the piano technique as an end in itself. Walker writes: “It was colour, nuance, and phrasing that set him apart and made his playing uniquethe kaleidoscopic range of tone colour that he drew from the instrument was immense” [Walker, 2018: 244, 254]. Another distinctive feature of his playing was “smoothness and ease of execution…his default position [at the piano] was simplicity itself” [Walker, 2018: 264].

Personal Life

In 1829, in Warsaw, Chopin became infatuated with his “distant beloved”, an in-training opera singer Konstancja Gładkowska, and the result was one tormented, but largely unrequited love, which inspired Chopin’s Larghetto movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor. Then, there was Chopin’s infatuation with his ex-pupil and artist Maria Wodzińska and many months’ correspondence, with engaged Chopin considering himself a worthy suitor, only for Wodzińska’s family to break off this engagement. Novelist George Sand entered his life swiftly sometime in 1836, and the pair shared “less than idyllic honeymoon” in Majorca, where they stayed at a monastery in Valldemossa in 1839, and then many summers at Sand’s estate in Nohant. That relationship soon transformed as Sand’s role changed from a lover to a caregiver due to Chopin’s tuberculosis and his need of almost constant care. Incidentally, it is in Majorca and during his depressing stay at a monastery there Chopin wrote most of his heart-wrenching Preludes. Commenting on them (op. 28), Walker says: “Chopin’s preludes are unique compositions…they are poetic preludes similar to those of a great contemporary poet that gently ease the soul into a golden world of dreams and then carry it aloft to the highest realms of the ideal” [Walker, Faber & Faber, 2018: 382].  

Despite the author’s displays of erudition in this book, he also makes some eyebrow-raising statements, and the irony with which he manages to subtly mock most women he describes in his book exasperates. It is George Sand who is a butt of not so hidden ridicule by Alan Walker in his book, and the way he treats the subject of Maria Wodzińska is quite inconsiderate. Walker expresses pleasure that Maria was out of the picture as a wife for Chopin as he says in his book “Maria was an ordinary girl, lacking in sophistication” [Walker, Faber & Faber, 2018: 306]. That is one unfounded statement. In comparison to God-level Chopin, almost everyone will be “ordinary” and “lacking in sophistication”. And, then what is “ordinary”? What is “sophistication”? Who is the judge of that? And, how are both necessary for love and happiness? Maria was beautiful and charming enough to capture Chopin’s heart, doesn’t that count? She was a painter and accomplished enough, having studied piano with composer John Field and art at the Geneva Academy. Her accomplishments must have impressed Chopin, too, and Maria’s portrait of Chopin some consider very true to life. However, Alan Walker does not stop there with Maria and, shockingly, proceeds with the following line: “once a slender beauty (before Walker called her “ordinary”), Maria became stout and matronly in later life”, adding “a photograph of [Maria] taken in her sunset years bears out this observation” [Walker, Faber & Faber, 2018: 307]. Now, this sexist remark is at best insensitive and at worst – quite degrading. No matter how Maria could have emotionally hurt Chopin, there is no excuse in shaming her looks simply because she got old, especially given the times of Chopin. Does Walker think that women who are advancing in their age must forever remain beautiful and slim? Let the author attack Maria’s character by all means if he has enough evidence, but it is inexcusable to attack a woman just on the basis that she lost her looks because of her age and we do not even know the circumstances of Maria’s existence or her mental state of mind to pass a negative judgement on her looks (however, we do know one thing – Maria later lost a son named Tadeusz who was just four years old). So, for Alan Walker’s information, Maria was a living and breathing person and an artist, not an aggregation of relatively-quickly-gone good looks.

The fact Chopin chose George Sand as his life-companion also shows that he valued something more in a woman than just her looks as Chopin was at first quite repelled by Sand’s looks. The author does not even hide the fact that he is pleased with the fact that Maria did not “age well” as she spurned his idol. I am also quite confident that no woman writer could have written such words. Walker concludes on Maria Wodzińska by adding that it is to Chopin that Maria “owes her only claim to the attention of posterity” [Walker, Faber & Faber, 2018: 307]. There are many people mentioned in this biography whose “only claim to posterity” was their connection to Chopin and, yet, it is only Maria Wodzińska, whose life was virtually controlled by her overbearing mother, who gets this line in this book. Unlike so many other people Chopin met in his lifetime, Maria is actually still listed as a “Polish artist” first, even if she is best known as an ex-fiancée of Chopin.

Chopin’s final trip to England and Scotland happened in 1848, and, when he returned back to Paris, his health took a turn for the worse, and he died on 17 October 1849 at the age of 39.

The merit of the book is that it places the life of the great composer in the historical context, providing some valuable commentary on Chopin’s personality, piano technique and his relationships with others. However, these insights are often mingled with much factual and anecdotal trivia, and the result is a book which is thorough, but also over-written, insightful, but also at times quite insensitive.

See also my reviews of other great composers’ biographies – J. S. Bach Music in the Castle of Heaven, Mozart Mozart: The Man Revealed, and Beethoven Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces.

6 thoughts on “Review: Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times by Alan Walker

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