British Historian Adam Zamoyski’s 2010 book Chopin: Prince of the Romantics proves to be essential in our understanding of the composer, who is still regarded as a Polish national symbol.
It wasn’t Zamoyski’s first publication of Frederic Chopin but a re-working of a 1979 edition. In this updated manuscript he attempts to uncover the myths passed down through the centuries, weaving more information on Chopin’s illness into the narrative from which he was to eventually die. (The cause of death was initially known to be tuberculosis but there is still tremendous debate about the diagnosis.)
Chopin’s music has an immeasurable effect on many non-musicians and musicians alike. In every music conservatoire around the world, it is highly likely one will hear his Ballades, Scherzos, Concertos, or Nocturnes being played. His music seems very personal. Zamoyski writes of his artistic persona:
“[His musical language] transcends everything we know about the man and draws the listener into a world of the spirit which is the very essence of the Romantic artistic experience. And taken as a whole, his life itself epitomises the notion of the Romantic artist – of the ethereal exile from heaven, half man half angel, who comes into this life to inspire mankind, but does not belong here and suffers the torments of a creature out of its natural element.”
Zamoyski’s knowledge in Polish and French provides reassurance when interpreting letters in their originals. Sometimes transliteration cringingly dilutes a more nuanced understanding of a language in context. Chopin’s character is shown by astonishing number of sources – contemporary letters, diaries, and concert reviews. The praise received is of the highest order. Charles Hallé, a German pianist who heard his performance in Paris, wrote:
“…The marvellous charm, the poetry and originality, the perfect freedom and absolute lucidity of Chopin’s playing at that time cannot be described. It was perfect in every sense.”
But it is easily presumed that the focus of praises from contemporaries seems idolatry. Zamyoski balances this out well with unfavourable reviews, one from the German critic, Rellstab:
“Rellstab simply could not bring himself to regard Chopin with anything but horror… When reviewing the Études op.10, he strongly advised anyone attempting to play them to have a surgeon in attendance, as permanent finger damage was likely.”
A 2011 Guardian review by Guy Dammann compliments the book for reminding us of the composer’s extraordinariness but also mentions that he only “half-succeeds in demystifying” the composer. What was the shrouded other half? His compositional process? His intricate thoughts on his own works? His politics? Sex life? In the appendix Zamoyski submits to a crucial point that Dammann seems to have missed. There was a popular biographical writing style in the late nineteenth century which focused on the emotional perspective. According to Zamoyski, it wouldn’t have worked well with Chopin as there was not enough authoritative precedence to make a convincing argument. It could be that Dammann’s critique was aimed at the lack of an emotional side.
The appealing tone of the book comes across as “Here is the evidence. And here are competing ones. Think what you will.” It’s refreshing because of the confidence in his research, and also his humility at times to admit there isn’t enough evidence. His ability as a historian is convincingly displayed in the objectivity.
Chopin composed a verse on his father’s name day in 1818 when he was eight years old: “Dearly beloved father; it would be easier for me to express my feelings in musical phrases.”
If music was a deep personal expression, then his oeuvre is enough for intimacy with the man.
Words by Anthony Cheng
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