Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times

By Alan Walker

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 727 pp. $40

Reviewed by Tim Page

An ideal composer biography should combine several qualities: a deep knowledge of the artist’s life and milieu fortified by a reexamination of all available sources; an intimate understanding of the composer’s personality (and, when possible, some affection for it, too); and an ability to speak of the creative work in a manner that will edify both scholars and non-scholars and take us all back to the music.

Alan Walker’s Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times (he uses the Polish first name Fryderyk throughout) manages this hat trick very well indeed. Walker, a professor emeritus at McMaster University in Canada, is best known for his triumphant multivolume biography of Franz Liszt, on which he worked for a quarter-century. Even for those of us who don’t particularly like most of Liszt’s music, Walker proved such a compelling storyteller and advocate that we would brighten when a new installment was set to arrive. And now he has moved on to Chopin. This is now the best biography of him — meticulous, scholarly, and well-told.

After a brisk preamble concerning the composer’s undimmed and near-universal popularity, Walker turns to a purported statement by Hector Berlioz: “Chopin was dying all his life.” This sets the grimly appropriate tone, for Chopin was tubercular by his mid-teens. “We know that there were times when it was a simple inconvenience and he could go about his daily business with energy to spare,” Walker writes. “But there were others when his activities came to a virtual standstill, because the leaden weight of his symptoms — chronic tiredness, incessant coughing, inflammation of the larynx, breathlessness and neuralgia — proved to be such a heavy burden that he could hardly function.” He died at 39, after what must have seemed an eternity of close calls.

One may wonder whether Chopin’s physical frailty limited his creative choices, inspiring him to concentrate on only what he did best. Most of his works are over in less than than 10 minutes, and virtually all were written for the piano alone. (Indeed, he never learned to orchestrate with any panache.) Moreover, though there are flashes of wit throughout, especially in the waltzes and mazurkas, the abiding mood is one of elegant and poetic contemplation.

Yet within these limits and despite his ailments, Chopin wrote some perfect music. Has any other composer ever understood melancholy so completely? If he stayed mostly with the piano, he attained such command as to forever change our understanding of its capacities. Unlike other great composers, such as Bach, whose music will usually be effective on whatever it is played, there are few successful orchestral arrangements of Chopin’s work: It seems to belong exclusively to the instrument for which it was made.

Chopin may also have been the most adventurous harmonist of his time, and Walker’s tour of the music makes us remember once again how radical he really was. Every beginning pianist learns to play through some of the Preludes, Opus 28, but nobody really outgrows them. Within the bounds of these 24 extraordinary little works (which range from about 30 seconds to five minutes), one finds music of astonishing richness and variety compressed into the most economical of forms.

Chopin is one of those masters whom one wouldn’t necessarily have enjoyed as company. He was removed and dismissive of most of his composer friends (including those who were vital supporters), and he harbored a deep strain of anti-Semitism, even more than was common in his time and place. His genius was relegated mostly to his work.

Chopin’s long affair with the author and feminist George Sand has become legendary. Their breakup, painstakingly traced by Walker, did credit to neither party. Sand went so far as to write a mean novel based on her sickly lover, but it should be remembered that she also took fierce care of Chopin during some of his most dreadful days.

Whatever the composer’s shortcomings as a person, his music grows only more moving. As the poet Heinrich Heine, who was born a dozen years before Chopin and who survived him by the better part of a decade, once put it: “Chopin is the great and genial poet of sweet sound, who should only be named with Mozart, or Beethoven, or Rossini.”

Tim Page, a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California, won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 for his writings about music for the Washington Post, where this review originally appeared.