I just finished Alan Walker’s epic biography of Chopin a couple nights ago. It had stood dutifully by my bedside for almost two years, and took at least two tries to finish. I don’t typically reach for biographies, preferring to escape into fiction and the occasional self-improvement manual, and biographies of composers feel a little too close to work to qualify as relaxation. This book held a lot of sway for me, though, and I will not be surprised if more biographies find their way to my nightstand.
There is so much to admire in this work. First, there is the scholarship. Every detail is scrupulously attended to, and the trust that is built through this process cannot be underestimated. I was hanging on every word in every footnote. Second, there is a seamless weaving of the biographical facts with the music, with the historical and political context. Walker really puts the reader into the world of 1830’s-40’s Paris, and sets the imagination on fire with descriptions of the settings in which this beloved music was first heard. Third, there is no flowery rhapsodizing. I love Walker’s sharp wit, and his ability to parse mythology (and there are so many myths regarding Chopin!) from fact. He also succeeds in exposing some of the less savory aspects of a human who was definitely far from perfect, without ever approaching the tipping point where we lose empathy. This is miraculous!
I probably haven’t played as much of Chopin’s music as I should. Reading this book brought back all kinds of first experiences as a student. In middle school, I played waltzes, nocturnes, mazurkas, and etudes. In high school, I played the G Minor Ballade (obsessively), and a handful of other pieces. Throughout college, I only played two works that I can recall: the glorious D-flat Major Nocturne, and the F Minor Ballade (the second-most nasty coda in my repertoire, Schumann Fantasy mvmt II being first). Considering I was in school for more than a decade, this seems like a big drought of Chopin! As a professional, I have programmed his music a few times, but not frequently. Right now, I’m enjoying working on four of the Preludes I have never played or taught as part of a program of 24 Preludes by various composers. This biography makes me regretful that I haven’t studied more works, but hungry to learn more. I see the Cello Sonata, a Mazurka or two, and a Scherzo in my future.