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Biography Review Print



The Most Recent Chopin Biography

October 10, 2020 - Easthampton, MA:


Coping with crisisAnnik LaFarge, Chasing Chopin; A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020, ISBN 9781501188718, pp. xxx + 210, $27.00; the book has a dedicated web site that offers downloads of musical examples.

I received an invitation to a virtual launch event of this book in August, but was, regrettably, unable to attend. I put a hold on it in my public library system when it appeared there; it arrived here on Friday, two weeks ago, so I picked it up on Saturday morning, and read it over the weekend. The author is a NYC native and an amateur pianist who has been studying since 1996 with Rafael Cortés-Colon.

Although LaFarge has done a lot of reading and research, hers is not an attempt to produce a definitive biography, but rather recount a personal pilgrimage of sorts to attempt to understand the composer and his life through significant specific works that he wrote: the Sonata in b minor, Op. 35, "Funeral March," and the Prélude, Op. 28, No. 15, "Raindrop," for example, by visiting the places where he resided while composing them, discussing what influenced their form and content, and sharing her discoveries and experiences with the reader.

The chapter titles are revelatory: 1) "In a Word, Poland" [pp. 1-24]; 2) "Pianopolis" [25-51] (a creatively coined word to characterize the Frederick Collection that is the center of its focus); 3) "Teach with Love" [52-70] that focuses on his planned "Méthode" and the peripatetic travels of the manuscript pages he did jot down; 4) "Interlude with a Vampire" [74-82]; 5) "Toujours Travailler Bach" [83-107]; 6) "Pulling out the Pickaxe" [109-132]; 7) "Death Comes to the Funeral March" [133-157].

Number 1 begins (pp. 1-3) now, in the 21st century, with a discussion of the creation of Frédéric: The Resurrection of Music, the video game created in 2010, the bi-centennial of Chopin's birth, by Zbigniew (aka 'Zibi') Dębicki. Number 2 is the longest, and includes a lot of text that is similar to what I have written in one of my articles in these pages (See below), and includes mentions of people whom I know, descriptions of concerts in whose audience I was also present, and of recordings that I own, some mentioned or reviewed in these pages.

A person, whose importance in Chopin's life I had not before appreciated, Astolphe marquis de Custine, who, although married and with a son, Enguerrand, lived 'under the same roof' with an English male lover, Edward Saint-Barbe, as an open homosexual, has a central appearance in Chapter 4. Chopin had a standing invitation to his home, Saint Gratien, NNW of Paris, and visited him occasionally, including the evening before he left to join George Sand and head for Majorca in 1838, and they later occasionally went to concerts together. LaFarge says (p. 79) he was "magnetically attracted to" Chopin; it was he who wrote in a letter that George Sand was a vampire (p. 81; reprinted verbatim in Zamoyski [See below.]: "… the woman has the love of a vampire. (…) with a Ghoul as a travelling companion.", p. 161).

Number 5's title refers to JSB's The Well-Tempered Clavier/Das wohltemperierte Clavier that Chopin worshipped, played from often, and whose form and structure were the model for his Op. 28 préludes (without fugues), the only score he took along to Majorca, that Yuan Sheng calls "the perfect desert island book for a pianist/composer" (p. 103). Number 6's is a quote from George Sand concerning her difficulties in writing (p. 116). Number 7 deals with Chopin's funeral and the disposition of his body and heart. Sources of all quotes are given in the Notes, pp. 167-190, arranged by the p. # on which they appear. An index of proper names occupies pp. 201-209, so while this is not a scholarly work in form, it is in content. It reads very easily and enjoyably, which it is well worth doing.

Paul Kildea's Chopin's Piano; In Search of the Instrument That Transformed Music that I reviewed in these pages in December 2018 is not in her "Selected Bibliography" on pp. 191-200. Neither is Adam Zamoyski's Prince of the Romantics, which I reviewed and added in March 2020 to the Chopin Addendum in Part 4 of my long article about Chopin's heirs: "A 'Mighty Handful' of French Pianist-Composers, Their World, Their Pianos, Piano Music, and Playing Styles" that was first posted in 2012. [He plays down the role of Custine.] There are, on the other hand, numerous works in it that I have not (yet) read or even known about, including André Gide's Notes sur Chopin, that I have already ordered in from Smith College to tackle as soon as it shows up – not an easy task during the pandemic, when you can't just walk into the library to take it off the shelves…

This just goes to show that searching and reading far and wide always turns up things that one has not yet come across, and that the absolutely complete and final story is eternally elusive, without even considering newly re-discovered items that were thought to be lost. LaFarge mentions many people, pianos, places, and things that I mentioned in the above article that I began writing 8+ years ago, which I've updated numerous times since, and began reading about the subject long before that, and listening to and becoming familiar with Chopin's music longer ago still, though on period instruments along the way, because the period-instrument movement only started in the late 1980s.

She also mentions (pp. 118-19) the magnificent, not to say stupendous, 1st-ever Delacroix exhibition in the USA at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018 that I, too, saw (although she somewhat exaggerates the number of his visits to Nohant [pp. 118-21] according to the tally I made from a biography and his Journals and Letters, and she does not mention his role in Chopin's funeral, and his choice of the music for it, as does Zamoyski, who gives many more details of their friendship and relationship). Here's another perspective on this latest significant, even if not definitive, biographical story; its author mentions the piano that was the subject of the Kildea book that LaFarge doesn't.