At the moment I’m listening to Chopin’s Etude Op. 25 No. 10, called “The Winter Wind” for the way it evokes the howling wind of a winter storm. I’ve listened to Chopin for many hours in the past three days, since I finished reading Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions by Annik LaFarge.
This wonderful short book is a love letter to Chopin. It’s not a biography, although you will learn about the composer’s life and relationship with his longtime lover, the novelist George Sand, nom de plume of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. It’s also not a book of musical criticism, nor is it a treatise about the difficulties of playing Chopin’s music. LaFarge starts by recounting a visit to a friend who was dying. The next piece of music she heard, at a jazz club, quoted Chopin’s “Funeral March” and she was jolted by the coincidence. The “Funeral March” becomes the thread that ties the various parts of the story together. (Although a number of Chopin’s pieces have programmatic names, Chopin himself hated this practice; all the names were supplied by others.)
LaFarge visits all the places where Chopin lived to recapture the atmosphere and history he might have experienced. One of the most moving sections of the book is set on Majorca, where Sand and Chopin lived for a while in 1838-9. Chopin was in Paris, very ill, coughing up blood and Sand wanted to find a place of warmth and light where he could regain his strength. The trip was not altogether a success: the weather in Majorca was cold and rainy and it took almost six months for Chopin’s piano to arrive. He had ordered a Pleyel pianino to be shipped to Majorca and it was held up by bad weather and extortionate customs fees. Chopin, Sand, and Sand’s two children ended up living in Valldemossa, in the hills northwest of Palma in a abandoned medieval monastery. The locals didn’t welcome this unusual couple–one with tuberculosis, the other a strange genre-bending woman. The sun and warmth they initially encountered quickly turned to cold and rain. It was not the most salubrious place for Chopin, but he wrote some of his most beautiful pieces there.
LaFarge visited the monastery, now a Chopin museum, which contains the Pleyel pianino and some of Chopin’s handwritten manuscripts. Many other music lovers and pianists have made the trek but maybe none so devoted as Nobuyuki Tsujii, a brilliant blind pianist, who stayed overnight on a cot in the room next to Chopin’s studio. LaFarge has a companion website, www.whychopin.com keyed to the book’s chapters, where you can listen to recordings of all the pieces she mentions, many of them on period instruments like Chopin’s Pleyel. I especially recommend listening to Nobu (as he’s known to his fans) and Tomasz Ritter, both Chopin competition winners.
Pleyel’s pianos were the intermediate instruments between the harpsichord and our modern piano. The harpsichord plucks the strings, somewhat like a guitar, thus the pressure on the keys doesn’t translate to how loudly or softly the instrument will play. Pleyel and a few other piano makers in the early 1800s tried other methods of striking the strings and were able to bring more resonance and color to the instrument’s tone. These were the first steps towards our modern piano action. The new pianos must have felt miraculous to a composer like Chopin, whose compositions are so flowing and dynamically varied.
LaFarge visited Paris, of course, and also Nohant, where Sand had an estate. Ever mindful of the need for silence and space for Chopin to compose, Sand built a beautiful soundproofed room for Chopin in Nohant. She took good care of him until she didn’t; not too long before his death she left him and although her daughter was at his deathbed, Sand was not. Ah, the vicissitudes of love! Of course, the “Funeral March” was played at his funeral.