Of the well-known composers of the 19th century, Fryderyk Chopin (as his name is spelled in Polish, his native tongue) is the only one whose complete works continue to be played regularly—indeed, without cease. Most of the pianists who had major international careers in the 20th century performed and recorded such staples of his catalogue as the A-flat Polonaise (“Heroic”) and the B-flat Minor Piano Sonata (“Funeral March”). They remain central to the repertoires of the rising generation of virtuosi, just as they have always been beloved by concertgoers. Yet Chopin’s phenomenal popularity was long viewed with suspicion by critics, in part because his compositions, without exception, all make use of the piano; in addition, most of them are solo pieces that are between two and 10 minutes in length. No other important classical composer has worked within so tightly circumscribed a compass.
This fact initially caused Chopin to be depicted, especially in Central Europe and Victorian England, as a figure of lesser consequence than his contemporaries, a miniaturist who turned out salon pieces that were wrought with deftness and grace but nonetheless did not deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as the large-scale masterpieces of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. H.L. Mencken summed up this point of view in a 1912 epigram: “Chopin—two embalmers at work upon a minor poet.”
It was to be shared by a small but influential group of 20th-century pianists, the best known of whom were Edwin Fischer, Glenn Gould, and Artur Schnabel, and their pupils and followers, among them Alfred Brendel, Clifford Curzon, and Leon Fleisher. None of them played Chopin’s music in public other than sporadically, if at all. “If I spend the same amount of time with a Chopin [étude] or with some Beethoven bagatelle, I get tired of the Chopin piece sooner,” Schnabel once said.
In addition, it was widely felt that there was something suspect, perhaps even unhealthy, about Chopin’s exquisite lyricism. Nietzsche claimed that “it is not all that rare that his music comes across as pale, lacking sunlight, oppressed, even though elegantly and richly clothed.” Furthermore, some of his ardent admirers seemed not to have fully grasped the nature of his achievement. “People were simply enchanted with Chopin’s music in the United States,” said the pianist Claudio Arrau. “They never considered that he might also be profound.”
All this helps explain why Alan Walker’s Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, which came out in the U.S. last October, is the first full-scale English-language primary-source biography of Chopin.1Best known for his definitive three-volume biography of Franz Liszt, Walker has done an equally thorough and thoughtful job of recounting the life of Poland’s foremost composer, of whose music he is an unstinting admirer. At first glance, Chopin’s life would seem to have been uneventful, especially by comparison with that of Liszt, a gargantuan personality who appeared both as a pianist and a conductor before sold-out crowds in every corner of Europe, renowned as a composer as well as an interpreter of other men’s works.
Chopin, by contrast, was a publicity-shunning introvert who played only his own music and performed mainly in the salons of Paris and England on increasingly rare occasions. He made his living teaching piano to well-heeled students of indifferent ability. He wrote no autobiography, died too soon to make records, and left behind no symphonies, string quartets, operas, or ballets for a later generation of writers to parse at leisure and at length.
By all rights, then, Chopin should have gone the way of the many other 19th-century pianist-composers whose renown did not outlive them. Instead, his music is as familiar today as it was at the time of his death in 1849. It is ubiquitous—but is it truly great?
A child prodigy born not far from Warsaw in 1810, Chopin was doubtless infected in boyhood with the tuberculosis that killed him at the age of 39. In 1830, he emigrated to France to pursue a musical career. He settled in Paris in 1831 and lived there for the rest of his life, never returning to the land of his birth.
Prevented by illness from leading the exhausting life of a barnstorming virtuoso, Chopin chose instead to appear mainly in domestic settings intimate enough to accommodate his style, which was quiet but full of delicate nuances. He is believed to have played in public fewer than 20 times, leading Hector Berlioz to complain that “unless you are a prince, a minister, or an ambassador, you might as well give up hope of hearing him.”
To the extent that he ever became a true celebrity, it was because of his liaison with George Sand, the French novelist with whom he lived from 1838 to 1847. Sand smoked opium-spiked cigars, dressed in men’s clothing, adopted a male pseudonym to advertise her feminist beliefs, and wrote baldly autobiographical novels, among them one about Chopin that she published while they were still together. His fast-deteriorating health—he grew so frail that he had to be carried up staircases by his valet—and her evident lack of interest meant that their relationship soon became all but sexless. But it was still scandalous, which presumably contributed to his lifelong inclination to keep a low profile. While he had famous friends, including Liszt, Eugène Delacroix, and Heinrich Heine, the rarity of his concerts meant that he was known to the public at large solely through his music.
Unlike Sand, Chopin was not a confessional artist. Not only did he give his pieces such blankly generic titles as “étude” and “scherzo,” but no more than a handful have any known connection to specific events in his life. In Walker’s words: “His [études], preludes, nocturnes, mazurkas, and polonaises seem to exist in rarefied seclusion, unfettered by the human condition. … We could almost describe Chopin as a displaced person of musical history—a classical composer in word and deed, condemned to walk in silence among the chattering romantics.”
Walker successfully penetrates Chopin’s hard shell of reserve and conveys a clear sense of his private personality, which was fascinating but unattractive. Foppishly vain, sarcastic to a fault, and nastily anti-Semitic, he had no use for the music of most of his fellow romantics, and said so. He reserved his admiration for Bach, Mozart, and Bellini, dismissing Beethoven as “vulgar” and describing Liszt in a way that not only encapsulates his own jaundiced view of musical romanticism but is typical of his acid sense of humor: “One of these days he will be a member of parliament, or perhaps even King of Abyssinia or the Congo—but as regards the themes from his compositions, well, they will remain buried with the newspapers.”
Chopin’s reluctance to play for large audiences, Walker tells us, had as much to do with his stage fright (and, very likely, his snobbishness) as it did with his physical incapacities. He told Liszt that “the public frightens me; I feel suffocated by its panting breath, paralyzed by its curious glance.” Yet he believed devoutly in his own genius, declaring his “noble wish and intention to create for myself a new world.”
That musical world was full of the melting tenderness heard in Chopin’s 21 nocturnes (written between 1827 and 1846), in which he translated into pianistic terms the lyricism of the golden-age operatic sopranos whose singing he adored. It may have been these pieces that inspired Heine to call Chopin the “Raphael of the piano,” going on to say that “when he plays I forget all other masters of the instrument…and sink into the sweet abyss of his music, into the melancholy rapture of his exquisite and profound creations.” Chopin’s music, the nocturnes in particular, had a strongly improvisational quality. But the pieces that were first improvised and then written down were then subjected to a rigorous, endlessly protracted process of revision. The scratched-out passages in Chopin’s manuscripts bear mute witness to his perfectionism.
To be sure, most of them were small-scale, even gnomic utterances, albeit ones that sound emotional depths disproportionate to their brevity. Had their sweet melancholy been all there was to Chopin, though, he would now be remembered as a strictly minor master. But even on the smallest of scales, he was also capable of summoning up the colossal force heard in his “Revolutionary” Étude (1831), into whose two and a half minutes he packed all of the desperate tumult that he had in mind when, referring to the anguish that Poland’s dismemberment by its neighbors at that moment in time created in him, he told a friend that he was “only able to pour out my grief at the piano.” To hear such a piece is to be forced to rethink conventional wisdom about the nature of the relationship between chronological duration and expressive “scale.”
Noteworthy in another way are the 60-odd mazurkas (1825-49), concise pieces in triple meter that are subtly poetic evocations of a Polish folk-dance form that Chopin had gotten to know in his youth. Even more rhythmically vigorous than the waltzes that he also loved to write and play, these wonderfully varied works, many of which contain radical harmonic innovations that presage 20th-century modernism, contain within their modest compass the composer’s very essence.
Just as impressive, though, are the longer single-movement pieces, in particular the four ballades. All written in a distinctively personal adaptation of sonata-allegro form, they are compact yet grandiose utterances of which the G Minor Ballade (1835), one of Vladimir Horowitz’s signature pieces, is the most famous. In it, Chopin gives the impression of telling a wordless “story” whose implications are dire. Had it entered the world as the first movement of a piano sonata, the G Minor Ballade would have left no doubt that he was a great composer. Yet it is complete in itself, needing no companion movements to achieve its emotional catharsis. Robert Schumann had the piano concertos in mind when he called Chopin’s music “cannons buried in flowers,” but he might as well have been thinking of this profoundly, devastatingly tragic work.
On the extremely rare occasions when Chopin did essay multi-movement form, most notably in the B-flat Minor and B Minor Piano Sonatas of 1839 and 1844, the gripping results gave the lie to the condescending bon mot that Hugh Reginald Haweis, a Victorian cleric who dabbled in music criticism, tucked into a once-admired 1871 treatise called Music and Morals: “He was great in small things, and small in great ones.”
In those days, English music criticism was still in thrall of the prudery that George Bernard Shaw curtly dismissed as “ladylike.” Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Shaw saw that Chopin, far from being a mere miniaturist, was an innovator of the first rank, going so far as to invidiously compare a piece by Haydn to the B-flat Minor Sonata: “Nothing was clearer about it than that it beat Haydn’s work in point of form. Yes, I quite mean it: it was as if Haydn had put his bricks into a hod in a set pattern, whilst Chopin had built something with his.”
Shaw’s view is now dominant. The once-conventional critical “wisdom” about Chopin’s music has finally become a thing of the past: He is now recognized as a master for whom no apologies of any kind need be made. And as fine as Alan Walker’s biography is, it is not necessary to read a word of it to know that Chopin was in every way the equal of any of the greatest classical composers who have ever lived. One need only listen—and marvel.
1 Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 768 pages