Alan Walker has insisted, at the very beginning of his massive new biography of Chopin, that the composer has today a unique global reputation and appeal. And when we consider the evidence that justifies his claims, we must admit that this evidence is most impressive—and also that some of it is the opposite: doubtful and even disturbing. Chopin has been butchered by Tin Pan Alley, by Hollywood, and by Liberace. Those are only some of the cards that we may regret were ever shuffled and dealt. Even so, Walker’s larger point is valid.
That larger point is that Chopin is hardly the possession of the Poles, being as well-known to the Russian and the French, not to mention the Japanese and the Chinese, et al. Chopin’s works are well-known and even understood by thousands of people today, and certainly by most who take music seriously. Even his most challenging works, some of which are virtually overwhelming in their demands upon the listener, not to mention the performer—even these are a part of the legacy. And I know of no one who is more suited to the task of expounding the life behind the works than the present author and international researcher.
Walker himself has worked wonders as a biographer of musicians, and he has no intentions of letting us down. I must say that his three-volume treatment of Franz Liszt and also his volume on Hans von Bü low are the best books about musical performers I have ever read until now. I am therefore proclaiming that it is Walker, not even Chopin himself, who is the prime reason for immediate engagement with this latest of his notable projects: Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times.
A professor emeritus at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Walker has a way of totally immersing himself in his material, so that he becomes a re-creator of vanished environments, reconstructing the fullness of ghostly or ghastly situations. One of his most vivid strengths is his ability to discredit people when such treatment is long overdue. Not every witness or actor is, after all, to be taken at face value. As we know from the slice of contemporary life that is our lot, not everyone is to be trusted or taken altogether seriously. Walker’s projections of the usual human shortcomings are convincing, and what is more, they are effective in enabling us to imagine the realities that are “gone.” But they are not gone while we are reading his book—quite the opposite! Through such absorption in his material and through all the elaborated detail, Walker succeeds in writing thoroughly researched biographical expositions that have some of the effects of the best fiction.
Among other things, Walker reminds us that the story of Chopin’s life is bizarrely improbable. We have to be shaken awake to realize that the “fastidious” man fell a bit short of the meaning of fastidious by having anything whatsoever to do with George Sand; and that anyone but Chopin would have seen that she would never let him be a part of her “family.” On the contrary—she actually ridiculed his tuberculosis, though she did at one point recognize his creative accomplishment. But ultimately, we find her in Walker’s account no better than she should be. Walker’s exception to the idolatry that Sand demanded then and has received ever since is greatly appreciated by this reader.
An incidental pleasure of Walker’s richly endowed biography is his account of the longtime chief music critic of the London Times, J.W. Davison. I single him out because Walker did, too. Walker wanted to show what Chopin was up against in England—a problem unrelated to the ladies who fawned on him, yet one showing the status of music criticism in Chopin’s life and times. J.W. Davison actually derogated Chopin violently, contrasting him with Mendelssohn—even though Mendelssohn admired Chopin. So Chopin’s English publisher commissioned Davison to write a panegyric pamphlet praising Chopin, and the deal was done as soon as the cash was deposited. So much for the integrity of the press!
I daresay that Chopin’s compositions were not mandated for Walker to judge today, in the sense that they are a given, and the respect accorded to them is undisputed. Even so there was a need for Walker to sort out the products that Chopin was selling, and so there had to be some evaluation or classification. Similarly, there is a need for Walker’s readers today to sort out Chopin’s works to suit themselves. So there is a certain amount of evaluation in Walker’s accounting, which may remind us all that we have to sort things out so that we can live with them, or even without them.
The question with Chopin is not which pieces are invaluable to the individual, but which are not. I mean that he is a favorite composer for many people. But that does not mean that we want to hear all of his oeuvre, all the time. Or to put it another way, Claudio Arrau once declared that Chopin’s nocturnes represent the composer as well as, if not better than, any other type of composition, and he had a point. The tragic Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1, is a piece that cannot be permitted to escape our need for it, and come to think of it, the D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, you just can’t live without. And the next thing you know, you will need them all, all the time.
Chopin’s 27 études are superior compositions, beautiful things indeed—yet their purposefulness itself compromises them just a bit. I love them, but the 25 preludes are more perfectly representative of Chopin’s identity and personality.
Isn’t anything Chopin wrote dispensable? To be strict about it, the impromptus are not so good—they are not compelling. Perhaps a polonaise or two could be spared—the most famous of them, I can do without. But the Polonaise-fantaisie is a polonaise never to be forgotten. The 60 mazurkas are Chopin’s favorite medium, or so it seems; and the better the pianist, the better the mazurka. The waltzes, not to change the subject, are not as good as their reputation. I don’t particularly want to hear them again.
But to consider what Huneker called “the greater Chopin,” we must address the scherzos, the ballades, and the sonatas. I am an enthusiast for the scherzos, but I don’t like the Fourth, so at least that helps me reduce a long list of needs. The ballades are probably Chopin at his best, but the great Fourth Ballade is apparently unplayable at the end, which is too bad. And the sonatas are something else. I see the B-flat minor Sonata, Op. 35, with the “Funeral March” as one of his most provocative works, if not the finest. I am less enthused by the B minor Sonata, Op. 58, but I know it has its adherents.
I am feeling a great sense of indebtedness—a cultural obligation, perhaps. To those who appreciate a source of the best music, there is no doubt that there was a being who, in a life of suffering, did what he could to enrich the lives of others as well as to fulfill his own destiny, before he left this world at the age of 39. And we now know more than we did before of his career and environment, owing to the extensive research and years of investigation of an informed analyst and a gifted writer. The resulting synthesis is the best biography of Chopin in English, and probably the best in any language.
The debt to Chopin has been paid and discharged in many ways, but I submit that the debt to Alan Walker will be satisfied in the only way that matters: that much of the reading public will enjoy, peruse, and acquire the result of more than ten years of labor on the trail of a reconstruction not only of the life of a genius, but also of his musical and social environment. After all, the subtitle tells us that the result is “a life and times.”
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