Paul Kildea Chopin’s Piano; In Search of the Instrument That Transformed Music, New York & London:W.W. Norton & Co., © 2018, Pp. xiv + 353, ISBN 9780393652222, $27.95; to be released in paperback in 2019. The UK edition, published by Penguin, has the subtitle “A Journey Through Romanticism,” which completely misses the mark.

Alan Walker: Fryderyk Chopin; A Life and Times, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, © 2018, ISBN 9780374159061, Pp. xxiii + 727 (671 text +apparatus), $40.00.

These two books came out, conveniently in the listed alphabetical order by author, in July and October respectively (order in which I read them, though I got them later: Kildea after Veterans Day and Walker after Thanksgiving), making the second half of 2018 a spectacular and historical moment for one of if not the world’s most beloved composer(s) of music for the piano, and great reading for me. They complement each other magnificently, because the instrument makes a huge difference in realizing that music and the way Chopin wanted it to be played and heard, something many contemporary pianists do not take into consideration. In addition, while the scholarship in both is impeccable and as thorough as humanly possible, imaginable, even, previously unknown authentic documents can and do occasionally come to light. In Chopin’s case, there were also numerous fabricated documents that enjoyed committed, if misguided, proponents, whose refutation was challenging: a 36-page “Epilogue” in Walker’s is devoted to some of them (“[…] it shows that the events in Chopin’s posthumous life often exceeded in sheer fascination anything that he experienced in the life that he actually lived.” [p. 666]): fake facts are often difficult to refute. Although eminently scholarly, the texts of both books are not written for academics, but for the general reader, so you don’t need to fear that you won’t understand them, and enjoy them, too. They read as easily as a mystery, with which the first has some affinities, or as a biographical novel, but they are way more satisfying, in part because you can trust them implicitly.

The conceit of Kildea’s is that its title really is the subject around which it is structured: a physical instrument, tho’ more precisely, several pianos which Chopin owned, preferred, and/or used; and its (US) sub-title really is its structure: their fates are traced and current locations identified when still extant. The primary one is the rustic pianino made by an amateur builder on the island of Mallorca (Catalan spelling) where Chopin spent about 10 weeks with his partner George Sand in the horrible winter of 1838-39 (8 November-13 February), during which time he completed the composition of the Préludes (about 1/2 had been written earlier in Paris) and several other major works that are among his most loved and finest, and its journey once Chopin abandoned it (and another: the Pleyel pianino that he purchased [tho’ he paid later] from its maker, Camille Pleyel, a personal friend, before leaving Paris and had shipped there, but that took an inordinate amount of time to reach him [It was held ransom for a time by customs officials.], forcing him to find the rustic one to be able to work while waiting). Many sources get these details all mixed up, and draw incorrect conclusions about many, including the compositions.

There are numerous other players in the story of what happened to the piano(s) after Chopin and Sand left the island, including Sand’s children and Wanda Landowska, who was for a time the owner of the rustic pianino, and the Nazis who seized it, but, even though it was recovered by the Monuments Men after WW II, it is now lost, because Landowska did not have the means to have it shipped to her then home in Lakewood, CT, and the authorities would not ship it there, because the rules said it had to be returned to the place from which it was seized: her home in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, N of Paris, near the Forêt de Montmorency, to which she also did not have the means to return. She did have someone living there to take care of the property and receive it – until that person died, when it subsequently disappeared, but there remains a chance it could eventually turn up.

One of the outstanding features of Kildea’s work is the lavish illustrations, some 119 of them that document virtually every aspect and event of the story, including some sketches by Maurice Dudevant (Sand’s son, who studied painting with Eugène Delacroix [who ultimately became a very good friend of Chopin], and was a talented artist) – but don’t expect any color; they help you put yourself in, follow, and understand it.

Walker’s biography leaves no stone unturned in his search for detailed information, branching out into distant unexpected territory such as the correspondences of many who were not intimately connected with the composer. It goes way beyond any other biography of the composer. He explodes many myths and legends and dispels much mist and fog, and when he can’t find a definitive answer, he admits it, sometimes proffering a logical and reasonable hypothesis. He reproduces pertinent portions of many documents, putting the primary source in front of your eyes so you do not have to simply take his word, thereby inspiring total confidence in what he writes. Many details were never included in earlier biographies, so this is as definitive as it gets at this time (He also wrote a 3-volume one of Franz Liszt that has been called “magisterial” and “monumental”; those words could also apply to this one. Liszt lived to 75 vs Chopin’s 39, and was not seriously ill a good deal of his adult life as was Fryderyk).

Both authors devote words, including quoted ones from Chopin and those who heard him play or studied with him, to the way he played, which has been discussed by many, especially those interested in historical performance practices, and document the instruments that he played as well. I have addressed this elsewhere in these pages; he offers some relevant primary sources about which I did not know or seek out, including comments by some of Chopin’s contemporaries, and essentially confirms, with more evidence, and perhaps, because he plays the piano, in better terms than I. There are many specifics from which pianists themselves can benefit, with appropriate bars of scores reproduced, many readily understandable by music lovers like me. Walker writes about Chopin’s approach to the keyboard as based on its topography and how fingerings need to be planned to best suit it (He left unfinished a study method book.), a theme that repeatedly reappears and is applied to numerous snippets of scores included as illustrations of a different sort in the text (The 57 other b&w ones complement rather than repeat those in Kildea.).

His writing style is enjoyable, enchanting even, with many felicitous word choices and brilliant expressions, such as: “Thinking fingers are always a necessary thing in Chopin […].” (p. 483), or: “[The Polonaise-Fantaisie] is one of the great soundscapes of piano music.” (p. 519) Yet his style is entirely unpretentious in spite of his vast knowledge of the subjects, be it the life, times, or music of Chopin and his contemporaries. There are also occasional touches of wit: “Lest the fact has slipped the reader’s memory, Count d’Orsay lived openly with Lady Blessington after having married her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter.” (p. 561, n. 10), or: “The house [in Scotland] was even reputed to have its own ghost, wearing a red hood, but this elusive spirit failed to put in an appearance during Chopin’s stay there, somewhat to his disappointment.” (p. 576). He also relays some of Chopin’s own wit: “‘I am out of my rut – like a donkey at a fancy-dress ball – a violin E-string on a double bass.'” (quoted from a letter, p. 577). Some academics might raise their eyebrows at these; I think they give wonderful spice to a truly sad story. I cannot praise this work highly enough; I have read many biographies of composers, such as Jan Swafford’s of Ives and Beethoven, and R. Larry Todd’s of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, all of which are engaging and excellent, and which I enjoyed immensely, but this one rises a notch above for so many reasons.

These works are a consummate addition to and expansion of the knowledge and literature of their subjects. They read easily and are “hard to put down”: I read the Kildea in 3 days, doing other things as well; the Walker took longer (about 2 weeks), but I also did even more things, including heavy-duty research with handwritten 17th, 18th, and 19th century documents and writing in my book on a historical subject (in which I, like Walker, include quotes from those original documents) to get the typescript off to the publisher by mid-December. I highly recommend both works wholeheartedly; they are extraordinary.