200 Years of Chopin

The Krakow Post spoke to Chopin’s biographer on the eve of the composer’s bicentenary.

Krakow Post: Listening to Chopin today, one of the most striking things is how fresh and modern a lot of it sounds, in spite of being composed 170 years ago.

AZ: Absolutely. Not so much when I put on a disc or a record, but whenever I go to a recital, where one tends to concentrate much more on the music, I always feel blown over, and find myself thinking, gosh, is this guy playing it right? Because it invariably takes me aback and strikes me as extraordinarily modern. It’s not like listening to so much “classical” music. Chopin’s was revolutionary, and will always be revolutionary. It’s a bit like truly great art: each time you look at a Rembrandt, you’re struck by how modern his vision and his paintwork appear.

This may be the reason for Chopin’s appeal outside Europe, and outside the Western world. He’s probably the most played and loved of Western classical composers in places like China and Japan and India, and even Africa. For the very reason that he’s the least grounded in classic “classical” music as it were.

Arguably, to sit through Cosi Fan Tutte, you need a bit of an introduction. It’s pretty foreign to somebody from China – not only the words and the style, but the music. Whereas Chopin’s is so stripped down to bare essentials that it’s got a universality about it that makes it eternally modern and universally accessible.

KP: You originally wrote a study of Chopin back in 1979. What initially attracted you to the subject?

AZ: Well, originally it was an editor at Collins back in about 1976 who liked things I was writing for magazines like History Today, who said, why don’t you write a book on a Polish subject, but one that won’t frighten the horses, so to speak. I asked him what he had in mind. He suggested Chopin. I groaned, because I had a rather sugary image of Chopin, and had always been irritated by the way that, in the Polish world I had been brought up in, Chopin was treated as s sacred cow. So my reaction was – I don’t think so. But I thought I might as well try and find out something about the man, and took about four biographies of Chopin out of the library. As I read through them, I grew more and more annoyed: each one seemed to appropriate him and paint the picture of a man who was quite clearly imaginary, according to the author’s whims and preferences and his ideas on music. It was all so horribly ahistorical that I thought, well actually, this book really needs writing. So I went back to see the guy and said I’d do it. And I resolved to treat it strictly as an exercise in archaeology – to discard every piece of information that was not based on either a contemporary source, or a very reliable and confirmable secondary source.

And the thing is, he didn’t live very long and so much has been destroyed, so it was possible to actually cover every documentary source. When you’re writing about Napoleon, you can’t ever say, I’ve read every available letter he ever wrote, and I’ve covered everything he ever said to everybody that’s been recorded. Whereas I was able to read every extant letter Chopin ever wrote and, in the case of those that are still around in manuscript, to handle most of them. And to read every known contemporary reference to him in a diary or a letter, and indeed to find quite a few unknown ones.

Which was a very nice sensation, because sitting down to write about him, I felt that I was completely on top of the subject, and there wasn’t likely to be some surprise lurking round the corner.

And he turned out to be a joy to write about because he was a great letter writer. On the one hand he was frightfully lazy, so his letters are ungrammatical, he starts a sentence and then cuts it short and jumps to the next idea, but you always catch his drift. He had a wonderful sense of humour, and a capacity to laugh at himself as well as everybody else. He didn’t take anybody or anything that seriously, except for his music, but even there he was quite rude about it. Reading his letters you really warm to the guy. You feel he would have been good fun to be with.

Towards the end of his life, certainly, he would have been a rather tiresome emotional partner, because he became pretty neurotic. But he was clearly a delightful person, and terrific company, not at all pompous, always making jokes about himself as well as others, a good mimic. So he was an easy person to write about, because I felt a fundamental sympathy for him.

KP: You said in your biography that you wanted to cut through the myth. Were there any especially far-fetched stories that amused or exasperated you along the way?

AZ: Well, there were dozens of myths about how when he was young he would get up at night and play the piano in his nappies. And there were myths about a putative affair with a peasant girl in Żelazowa Wola. And that he was supposed to have had some liaison with a Czech girl called Libusa while he was staying in Bad Reinerz.

It’s quite curious this need, felt by various people, to turn him into something he wasn’t. People have a tendency to appropriate Chopin. So the Poles turned him into a totally Polish preserve, and the corollary to that is the view that only a Pole can play Chopin properly. Luckily, you don’t hear so much of that nowadays. And the French appropriated him for France, not surprisingly, given his French ancestry and his presence in Paris. There were also some people who tried to prove that his origins were German, and that he was descended from someone called Choppen. There was even an attempt by a Jewish writer in the 1920s to prove that he was in fact of Jewish origin.

KP: Like Mickiewicz…

AZ: Exactly – everyone’s had a go. Another curious thing about Chopin is that in a rather mysterious ways he exerts a sexual fascination on a lot of people. Some of those who have written about him weren’t that normal, I think.

When I was researching the book, I looked up the chairman of the Chopin Society of Paris. He told me he used to go once a week to give Chopin’s grave a brush-down – a bit of housekeeping. And that every week he would find the tomb festooned with letters – stuck on with sellotape or tucked into the crevices. He would remove and read them, and at first he was so horrified by them he chucked them away. But after a while he started collecting them. He had dozens of box files full of these letters, and he showed me some of them – they were quite extraordinary. They were all love letters. And some of them were highly erotic. Most of them were from women but quite a few were from men. And the underlying tenor of all of them was that the writer really understood Chopin, and that if only Chopin had had the good fortune to have met him or her, the writer that is, then he would have known true happiness and fulfilment, and he would not have died miserably young.

KP: But don’t you think that that’s quite touching in a way – that his music connected with people in such a personal way…

AZ: Yes. Well, I think there’s also something about his personality, because he was very reticent, and quite self-contained, and quite diffident in many ways, and put up barriers. Although he was very jolly with people in company, he was quite difficult to get very close to for a lot of people. You feel this, reading about him. And I think that somehow speaks to something in people.

KP: They wanted to reach out and console him….

AZ: Yes: whether it’s his music or whether it’s his person is difficult to tell, but there is something about Chopin that does seem to elicit some pretty odd reactions. When you have a book published, you tend to get letters from readers. In the case of most of my books they tend to be letters saying how much they enjoyed a certain aspect. Or else, as it was with The Forgotten Few [about Polish Airmen], I received letters from people whose mother had known a Polish airman or who had discovered that their real father was a Polish airman. Or thought he might have been one. I got dozens of letters like that.

But in the case of Chopin, the letters I received were invariably tinged with something a little unhealthy. Some of the writers wanted to make friends with me in a romantic way of one sort or another. Often they started off wanting to talk about Chopin, but it would quickly become obvious that there was something else going on there.

There were also quite a few from real weirdos. There was a lady who wrote me a sixteen-page letter from Canada, saying that one day she had realised that she was in fact the reincarnation of Franz Liszt. And that it just so happened her lesbian lover was the reincarnation of Marie d’Agoult. Intriguingly, their best friend turned out to be the reincarnation of George Sand, and Chopin also turned up in the area. I was so fascinated that I made the mistake of writing back. That led to a spate of letters describing a bizarre reincarnation of Romantic Paris in the wilds of Canada – even figures such as Delacroix materialised, in the shape of the milkman or the refuse collector, I forget which.

KP: Of course Chopin is often talked about as a national composer. When speaking to Jan Pienkowski about the Warsaw Rising of 1944, he recalled how Chopin’s music – which had been banned by the Nazis – was played by the Poles when they re-conquered parts of the city. On an emotional level, it seems impossible to downplay the power of his music to Poles – especially of that generation.

AZ: It most certainly does. And it is undeniable, that in some way I cannot even begin to explain or define, when I hear Chopin, I do get the feeling that it is quintessentially Polish – that I am hearing something that is being played in Polish.

Which is not entirely surprising, because he did very much create a musical vision of Poland, which was then used by subsequent generations of Polish patriots to help forge the new nation. It became part of the national canon, the curriculum on which every Pole was brought up, just as Mickiewicz did, and I think it’s become somehow encoded in the national identity. Whether he created music that was quintessentially Polish, or whether the music he created was accepted as the quintessence of Poland, doesn’t really matter. The fact is that it is indelibly linked with Polishness.

I’m sure that because Ma Vlast has been used as a sort of cultural Czech national anthem, when a Czech hears it, he feels he is listening to Czech music. And I suppose an Englishman would think of various pieces of Handel or Elgar, or of “Jerusalem” as being quintessentially English, simply because they have been turned into just that.

But I cannot think of any other music that can be equated with national identity to the extent that Chopin’s is with that of Poland. It is the result of an extraordinary combination of associations linking Polishness with him, and him and his music with Polishness.

KP: And so do you subscribe to the oft-quoted view about his music that “there are guns buried in these flowers”?

AZ: Up to a point. Things are what people make of them. The fact that certain regimes felt that he was somehow subversive and that his music was a threat meant that he was a threat, however veiled. It certainly did not have the same directly galvanic effect as Verdi’s did in the case of the Italians.

But I discovered just the other day (although I haven’t had time to research it fully) that the Austrian censorship, during Chopin’s lifetime, forbade the dedication by another composer of a piece of music to Chopin. So he obviously was seen as dangerous in some circles.

KP: In the biography there’s a reference to his presence at a Polish émigré ball in London, in 1848, and you get this sense that those Poles really felt that he a rallying point – a champion of their culture.

AZ: Yes, he was determined to do his bit for the cause. And he saw that as being so.

KP: 18 years earlier, in 1830, he had been caught outside Poland when the anti-Russian insurrection broke out. Do you think that he later felt guilty about not having gone back to Poland to fight with his peers?

AZ: Not later, but at the time he felt not so much guilty as embarrassed. He realised full well that he wouldn’t be of any use in the fight, but going back to Warsaw would have been a gesture of solidarity. Also, sitting around in Vienna he felt very spare. And for that reason, when he reached Paris, he does appear to have taken part in some demonstrations. And certainly taking part in the concert in 1848 was his way of declaring his solidarity, and doing his little bit for the cause.

At the same time, I don’t think he ever felt guilty that he hadn’t done enough, and I think he realised that he was doing what he was supposed to do. He resisted with deep conviction all suggestions that he should write the great national opera that would rally everyone to the Polish cause. There can be few artists as quietly convinced as him of the fundamental worth of what he was doing artistically, and of his absolute dedication to his own idea of Poland. His conviction that he was following the right road was unshakeable.

KP: He was a regular visitor at the Hotel Lambert, the Parisian mansion that was in a sense the court of Poles in exile. Its owner, Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, was your great-great grandfather.

AZ: Yes, it is curious how from his childhood he was taken up by the Czartoryskis and the Zamoyskis, and was treated by them almost as one of the family for the rest of his life. Many members of that extended family were his pupils and several became real friends, and they were very much a part of his life.

What is extraordinary is that Prince Adam Czartoryski’s wife and various other members of the family would sit up at his bedside at night when he was in the last phase of his illness. It would not have been a pretty or salubrious context: he was suffering from diarrhoea, he was very ill, there were the smells of a dying person – it was all quite intimate, so they must have regarded him as one of their own.

This has raised questions about a possible illegitimate connection to the Polish aristocracy, which would explain his extraordinary ability to cross social barriers, but they remain idle speculation.

KP: Are there any anecdotes that have been passed down through the family?

AZ: Well, there was a Pleyel piano that I took possession of in the 70s when the Hotel Lambert was being sold. It had been the house piano, and it had always been known as Chopin’s piano. But to my annoyance, when I checked the serial number, it was actually made in 1851, so it had missed him by a couple of years! But his presence was very much there – and there were various other mementos of him…

KP: One of the key figures in Chopin’s life was his long-term lover and companion, the writer George Sand, a somewhat controversial figure. Do you think that all things considered, she was a positive force in his life?

AZ: Undoubtedly. What she did was to provide stability and a family life, which is what he needed more than anything else so that he could get on with his work. And he reciprocated – his presence lent her a certain security and respectability. I think it worked extremely well for both of them for most of the nine years they were together.

In a sense, the fact that it came to an end probably precipitated his death, because while he was quite good at looking after himself, he would let himself go and became extremely depressed on his own, and, given his state of health, this had a disastrous effect.

It always strikes me as very sad that it all came apart, because although she was in many ways an insufferable woman, there was something very brave and positive about her. She could be very tiresome and opinionated, and she had silly political views. But she was a feisty lady, and she was good, not to say motherly, to those she loved. So she did provide him with something that I don’t suppose anybody else could have, because he did need a kind of family life and the warmth that only a wife or a partner can supply, yet he wasn’t really capable of supporting a wife or a family, so it was the ideal solution to a difficult situation.

KP: Finally, do you have a favourite piece of Chopin’s music?

AZ: I don’t. Every time I think I’ve decided which one I think is the most wonderful, I hear another one and think gosh, that’s extraordinary. They’re all so very different and special.

I have quite a sneaking affection for a lot of his juvenilia, because it’s so wistful. But on the other hand, the one that I would perhaps choose as my desert island disc would probably be the Sonata for Piano and Cello that he wrote right at the end of his life, and which cost him a great deal in terms of effort. I think it’s endlessly listenable. But tomorrow I’ll hear something else and change my mind again.

See also: Chopin, Prince of the Romantics review
Chopin & Hugh Grant

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