Chopin's Funeral by Benita Eisler

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Chopin's Funeral by Benita Eisler

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the 19th-century composer whose short life was dominated by an unhappy affair and the tuberculosis which eventually killed him.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: February 2004
Publisher: Abacus
ISBN: 978-0349116877

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How is Frederic Chopin best remembered today – as one of the leading composers of his time, or as a sickly man who endured an unhappy affair with a man-eating lady novelist and was fated not to survive middle age?

As the title suggests, this book is not a conventional biography. The first chapter is devoted to his funeral in October 1849, where nearly 4,000 mourners packed the Church of the Madeleine, Paris. Many were strangers to Chopin, some mere bystanders who had never even heard of him. Ironically he had been a very private man, yet whose obsequies more resembled those of a head of state.

Little is said about his early life, though there is not much to say other than that he was the son of a French peasant who had left France, probably to avoid conscription into the army, and settled in Poland. Fryderyk, to give him his proper name, was one of four children. From an early age he and younger sister Emilia both showed signs of tubercular infection, and were sent to a health spa when he was 16 and she was 14. Her death left its mark on him, a kind of morbidity perhaps tainted by guilt at his having been the survivor.

The narrative really gets into its stride with his arrival in Paris in 1830, and his meeting with the writer George Sand, later to develop into less than happy infatuation. She appears to have been good for him, though some contemporaries described her as 'a vampire', and was undeniably a cruel, insensitive mother to her daughter Solange. Her unmaternal feelings helped to cause an irreparable breach between them, and the nine-year relationship between Chopin and Sand ended in bitterness. She did not attend his funeral, and there were those who blamed her for abandoning him, even perhaps being responsible for his decline and death.

The book is a poignant read, and becomes ever more so in the last few chapters. Chopin's poor health overshadows the story from start to finish, and we know the end is inevitable. Eisler keeps the themes in perspective. It would have been too easy for her to go into minute detail as regards his music, something which would put off all but the specialist. She has plenty to say about his work as a composer and performer, and occasionally wanders off into purple prose pastures. One of his nocturnes, she tells us, weaves bold experiment into the gentle rocking of a barcarolle; from the first bars, the lapping rhythm of waves emerges from the overlapping, out-of-phase measures played by right and left hand.

Fortunately there's not too much of that. She paints an evocative picture of Paris during the 1830s and 1840s, a time of upheaval culminating in the revolution of 1848. His meetings with other famous contemporaries, notably fellow composer Liszt and artist Delacroix, who painted a flatteringly dashing portrait of him, are described well. The picturesque description of his six-month visit to England and Scotland, arriving in 'the abyss called London' during a cold wet spring and going as far north as a freezing Glasgow, reads almost like a novel, but in the best possible sense. However, by the time he returned to Paris the spark was evidently dimming. He was having increasing difficulty in breathing, the money was running out, and he no longer had the strength to compose. It comes as a relief when we learn his earthly sufferings are over at the age of 39.

Anybody who wants a full life of Chopin and a detailed account of his music will look elsewhere. This fairly short book is written well enough to appeal to anybody with a general interest in nineteenth-century history as well as the music student.

For another 19th-century fine arts-based biography, you might enjoy Sir Henry Irving by Jeffrey Richards.

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