Fryderyk Chopin was born in Warsaw 200 years ago. By the time of his death from tuberculosis in 1849, the virtuoso and composer seemed to float gracefully above his troubled age. He came to resemble a musical "angel", "too fine, too exquisite, too perfect" for this crude world, as his great love, and great torment, the feminist novelist George Sand, once expressed it.
Adam Zamoyski's bicentenary biography brings the angel down to earth without quite banishing his fey allure. As ever, the historian writes with absolute assurance about the politics and culture of his ancestral homeland. Zamoyski's narrative reveals an ambitious and even calculating piano prodigy. Young Chopin fast absorbed Poland's "new national idiom", a blend of folk customs and chivalric idealism. Soon he channelled this Polish "sound" into a trademark piano style.
It enchanted Europe. After 1831, Chopin lived, a celebrity exile, in Paris. He composed and performed in "the kitchen of the Romantic movement", abetted by a galaxy of fellow-chefs: Liszt, Berlioz, Heine, Delacroix, and Sand herself. What a mad duet Zamoyski records! Much more mother-son interdependence than sexual passion, their partnership staggered on through six years of mutual manipulation. Yet this odd coupling gave a charming but controlling "spoilt child" the platform on which he built mature works of ever more finesse, panache and originality.
Zamoyski recounts the private life, and public events, with ringing authority. He never seeks to analyse this elusively "intimate" work at length. Instead, he quotes the cloudy critical rhetoric of Chopin's peers, with their rainbows and moonbeams and piano-playing like "the sighing of a flower". So the music itself slips between the staves of history. The publisher should have included access to downloads from Chopin's supreme interpreters, such as Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich or Krystian Zimerman. Then this fine anniversary account might have ended with the flourish it deserves.