Poor Frédéric Chopin: so much talent, so much sorrow.
Eisler, a gifted biographer of artists and writers (Byron, 1999, etc.), strikes exactly the right elegiac tone on the first page of this slender volume, which opens with the Polish composer’s funeral in Paris in 1849. Eighteen years earlier, Chopin had arrived in the city an unknown, 21-year-old exile from Poland and immediately thrilled the elite of Orleanist France with two incandescent performances. The elite were just the ones he was after: though his music, like Beethoven’s, has long been considered progressive and even revolutionary, Chopin, writes Eisler, “had a horror of ‘the People’ as a force of upheaval or even change” and was “repelled by marginality: by poor Poles, by Jews, by the ill-dressed and ill-mannered, by coarseness or slovenliness, in art or life.” He was particularly offended by any suggestion that art should serve the cause of social justice or reform, a position championed by one of the most visible and popular artists of the time, novelist George Sand, “the daughter of a bird seller turned camp follower,” with whom the snobbish provincial immediately struck up a torrid affair without having read a word of her writing. Sand was a bit frightening, Eisler tells us, a cigar-smoking terror who all but devoured men; yet she made a perfect balance to the timid Chopin, who was rapidly becoming a superstar—and not just among the elite, but among young amateur pianists who rushed to buy his sheet music, so that the “tender, swaying rhythms of the mazurka became, along with all things Polish, the rage in Paris.” For many reasons, though, and none of them pleasant, Chopin’s and Sand’s love soon soured; each contributed to its collapse, which unfolds in these pages, like so much in Chopin’s life, as an inevitable tragedy.
A sad story superbly chronicled.