Frederic Chopin's reputation as one of the Great Romantics endures, but as Benita Eisler reveals in her elegant and elegiac biography, the man was more complicated than his iconic image.
A classicist, conservative, and dandy who relished his conquest of Parisian society, the Polish emigre was for a while blessed with genius, acclaim, and the love of Europe's most infamous woman writer, George Sand. But by the age of 39, the man whose brilliant compositions had thrilled audiences in the most fashionable salons lay dying of consumption, penniless and abandoned by his lover. In the fall of 1849, his lavish funeral was attended by thousands--but not by George Sand.
In this intimate portrait of an embattled man, Eisler tells the story of a turbulent love affair, of pain and loss redeemed by art, and of worlds--both private and public--convulsed by momentous change.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Biographer Eisler, whose last book was on Byron, has moved to much more heavily trodden ground with this one, and it is to her credit that she manages to make the brief arc of the exiled Polish composer's life so affecting. She begins with a journalistic close-up of Chopin's funeral, which ironically was a lavish affair, though in his last months of sickness he was neglected by most of his society friends. Eisler then proceeds to the familiar story of his triumphant arrival on the Paris scene and the swift liaison with the notorious George Sand. Wisely skipping over the couple's disastrous and endlessly dramatized winter together on Majorca, Eisler focuses her well-researched attention on the closing years of the composer's life. She has an excellent chapter on Chopin's unhappy time in England and Scotland; and she writes with real vigor and sympathy of the byzantine family politics that embroiled the Sand household, both at the country retreat Nohant and in Paris, where the novelist turned away from her daughter Solange and rested her hopes on her far less worthy son, Maurice. In the end it was Solange who comforted the dying composer after Sand had ruthlessly thrust him from her life. Chopin's failings-his rigid conservatism and snobbishness, his political timidity and frequent financial selfishness-are made clear; but Eisler, deeply sympathetic to the quality of the music, also shows that he never ceased to struggle, despite perpetual illness, to expand his extraordinary gift into areas where no musician had previously ventured. The book adds little to the sum of Chopin scholarship, but is a skillfully written and mercifully brief overview that hits the right notes.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 07, 2004
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Excerpt from Chopin's Funeral by Benita Eisler
On a sparkling Paris morning, Tuesday, October 30, 1849, crowds poured into the square in front of the Church of the Madeleine. The occasion was the funeral of Frederic Chopin, and for it, the entire facade of the great neoclassical temple had been draped in swags of black velvet centered with a cartouche bearing the silver-embroidered initials FC.
Admission was by invitation only: Between three thousand and four thousand had received the black-bordered cards. Observing the square with its crush of carriages, the liveried grooms and sleek horses, the throngs converging on the porch, Hector Berlioz reported that "the whole of artistic and aristocratic Paris was there." But another who surveyed the crowd, the music critic for the Times of London, suspected that of the four thousand who filled the pews, a large number had been admitted just before noon, strangers to the dead man, mere bystanders even, "many of whom, perhaps, had never heard of him."
If death is a mirror of life, Chopin's funeral reflected all the disjunctions of his brief existence. The most private of artists, his genius was mourned in a public event worthy of a head of state. Canonized as "angelic," a Shelleyan "poet of the keyboard," Chopin seemed to personify romanticism, and before he was buried, its myths had already embalmed him: a short and tragic life; an heroic role as Polish patriot and exile; doomed lover of the century's most notorious woman; and finally, his death from consumption, that killer of youth, beauty, genius, and of courtesans foolish enough to fall in love.
In reality, he was the least romantic of artists. While the generation that had come of age just before his own in France, including the Olympian Victor Hugo, had defined romanticism as a holy war of the "moderns" (themselves) against the "ancients" (their literary elders), setting off riots in theaters to make their point, Chopin clung to the past. His musical touchstones were Haydn, Mozart-but especially Bach. He harbored doubts about Beethoven's lapses of taste, was incurious about the music of Schubert, and generally contemptuous of his other contemporaries: Schumann, Berlioz, and Liszt, towards whom his feelings were further tangled by rivalrous friendship. In art, he preferred the marmoreal neoclassicism of Ingres and his followers to the radical inventions in color and form of his friend Delacroix. Socially and politically, he was still more conservative.
The same aristocratic circles that had embraced Chopin the child prodigy in Warsaw were waiting to welcome the twenty-one-year-old sensation of Paris. Chopin arrived in France in 1831. One year before, revolution had replaced the Bourbon Restoration with the Orleanists swept in by Louis Philippe and his July monarchy. It was still a world of fixed hierarchies: of titles, birth, and breeding, buoyed by a flood tide of fresh money coined by the financiers and industrialists whose entertainments outshone the Sun King in splendor, if not in style. Chopin made some friends among the professional middle class-a less grand banker or diplomat, a few fellow musicians. He had a horror of "the People" as a force of upheaval or even change (which he dreaded in any form), and he was suspicious of those who championed their cause. He was appalled by that quintessentially romantic belief, whose most ardent proponent was George Sand, that art must serve the cause of social justice-or, indeed, any other cause except itself.
Like many who have thrived as "exceptions," propelled by talent from modest origins to a place among the privileged, Chopin was repelled by marginality: by poor Poles, by Jews, by the ill-dressed and ill-mannered, by coarseness or slovenliness, in art or life.
Most likenesses of the composer suggest that he was far from handsome. He had pale, colorless hair, a thin, hooked nose, a pursey mouth, and rabbity, lashless eyes. In these images, Chopin bears only a glancing resemblance to his famous portrait by Delacroix-the portrait of romantic genius itself, with his tousled chestnut mane and burning inward gaze. Chopin's famous dandyism, then, must be understood as another labor of creation, like his music an imperious quest for perfection. The dandy enlists distinction-in dress, speech, manners-along with distance, to create a masterpiece: himself.
What appeared to many-then and now-as the snobbery of a provincial, self-invented aristocrat and aesthete, had deeper sources. Chopin needed the reassurance that a fixed social order provides.