A troubled genius: The truth about Chopin

He was a narcissistic, anti-Semitic fop who betrayed his country and hated his fellow man. The charges levelled against Chopin are as diverse as they are odious.

Everyone has their own idea of Chopin, and it's often wide of the mark. His commodification by advertisers and the serial murder of a few unfortunate pieces by "smooth classics" programmers means his real oeuvre is now almost terra incognita. His character, meanwhile, has been travestied in a thousand ways. Time was when he was written off as effeminate – "one naturally thinks of him with a skirt on" was the American composer Charles Ives' idiotically macho jibe – and he's now customarily depicted either as a heroic Polish patriot or hypersensitive hothouse plant. While neither image fits the facts, a newer one – first proposed by the pianist Andras Schiff – is currently being tried for size: it has superficial plausibility, but on closer scrutiny proves as blinkered and childish as the others.

After researching Chopin in depth for a biographical film, Schiff – who plays his music with rare sensitivity – condemned him as an anti-Semite, a self-invented aristocrat, a social snob, a dandy who hated contact with the rest of the human race, and a man totally without loyalty to his fellow Polish exiles. "A very strange person, very hard to like," Schiff concluded with haughty distaste. In other words, a great composer, but a rotten human being.

The charge of anti-Semitism can be quickly dealt with: though backed by epistolary evidence, Chopin's racial prejudice should be seen in its historical context. He followed the convention among smart Parisians of the 1830s: his attitude to Jews was casually dismissive, and not to be confused with the ideological anti-Semitism of Wagner, let alone the 20th century's psychopathic manifestations. '

There's more substance in the accusation that Chopin betrayed the Polish cause, in a way that led the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz to condemn him as a "moral vampire". Mickiewicz was one of three Polish exiles who called on Chopin in Paris at the height of his fame, expecting a fraternal welcome at a time when the Russians were advancing on Warsaw, and he didn't even deign to answer the door.

Yet Chopin's heart had bled for Poland – and for his family trapped in Warsaw – and his political convictions were nationalist. But the truth was that all thoughts of revolution – indeed, any kind of political instability – horrified him, and the reason for this lay in his own ambiguous status. His father was a Frenchman who had transplanted himself to Poland, and Chopin had made the return journey to France. As a double-exile, he needed the reassurance of a fixed social order; he craved the security of protective institutions such as monarchy, church and family. Inventing an aristocratic pedigree for himself was simply a way of shoring up his precarious psychological defences and trying to recreate the gilded atmosphere of his early years: in Warsaw he'd been a celebrated prodigy – "the second Mozart" – playing his own compositions for an educated, aristocratic elite.

He was a much-loved and happy child, but an insecure adolescent, with an ego too fragile to declare his infatuation with the young singer Konstancja Gladkowska, who was the inspiration for his first piano concerto. In Paris he collected droves of fainting female fans, but little is known about his sex life before his fateful relationship with the flamboyantly mannish writer George Sand. Hence the attempts to embellish the myth, most notably by the "discovery" in 1945 of some scatological letters allegedly sent by Chopin to the charismatic Polish singer Delphina Potocka. Though these are now regarded as music's equivalent of the Hitler diaries, a number of biographers were taken in by them.

Rather, the key to his character lay in the fact that from the age of 14 – when his talented elder sister Emily died – his life was overshadowed by tuberculosis. Watching, among others, his close friend Jan Matuszynski into his grave, and seeing his beloved protégé Carl Filtsch carried off at 15, the empathetic composer was condemned to die again and again, before his own time came. Considered in this light, his famous addiction to solitude and his fanatical dandyism – the exquisitely tailored waistcoats, gloves, and boots – were probably dictated by something deeper and darker than mere vanity (and with his colourless hair, beaked nose, pursed mouth and rabbity eyes, he was far from handsome). As his biographer Benita Eisler argues, this dandyism suggests a flight from rage and melancholy, a denial of the fate he knew awaited him.

From George Sand he got the stability and maternal love he needed: their ill-starred winter sojourn on Majorca, where the rain and cold they had not anticipated exacerbated the symptoms of his tuberculosis, resulted in a rich crop of compositions, of which the "Raindrop" prelude was a small part. Meanwhile, Chopin's behaviour towards Sand's children gives the lie to the myth that he was uncaringly self-centred: for Maurice and Solange, he became the ideal father figure. Sand's suffocating love for her son was balanced by vindictive cruelty towards her daughter, and time and again it was Chopin who bandaged their emotional wounds.

But he couldn't bandage his own, as Sand began systematically to rob him of all dignity, before banishing him for ever with breathtaking callousness. He died destitute at the smartest address in town, publicly shunned by a lover to whom his devotion had never wavered; and, in the midst of his death-agony, planning the programme – led by Mozart's "Requiem" – which his female friends would sing over his body (but not knowing that ecclesiastical rules would bar them from view).

Chopin certainly gets no brownie points for his treatment of his friends Schumann and Liszt: condemning a (great) work which Schumann had humbly sent him as "no music at all", his attitude could be sadistic. Liszt was for a while his flatmate and principal champion, but Chopin's growing envy of his success, and contempt for the "vulgar" cadenzas Liszt inserted into Chopin's concertos, killed their relationship. But given their musics were poles apart – Liszt's splashy profligacy vis-à-vis Chopin's exquisitely honed economy – that relationship could never have endured.

Yet they were brought together by their enthusiasm for the same musician – Niccolo Paganini, whom Chopin first heard in Warsaw when he was 19. Deciding to write a piano work to parallel the violinist's virtuosity, he embarked on his first set of études, which he dedicated "á son ami Franz Liszt". But then their paths diverged: while Liszt revelled in the new art form of the piano recital, Chopin had a phobia of crowds, and was happiest performing for intimate gatherings, shaping his art. Schooled in the counterpoint of Bach, imbued with the music of Mozart, and drawing on the Polish folk songs he'd heard in villages, he pushed music's rhythmic and harmonic boundaries beyond anything previously achieved, with some of his works attaining an almost 20th-century atonality. Seizing the moment in a city full of pianos and pianists, at a time when the piano was being as rapidly upgraded as computers are now, he became the greatest revolutionary in pianistic history. As that noted revolutionary Debussy later put it: "Chopin is the greatest of us all, for through the piano alone he discovered everything."

From the epigrammatic poetry of his preludes and mazurkas, to the mysterious sound-world of his nocturnes and the majesty of the scherzos and ballades, everything Chopin wrote had exhilarating freshness and irresistible charm, and his playing could leave audiences speechless. "His hands would suddenly expand to cover a third of the keyboard," said his rival Ferdinand Hiller. "It was like the opening of the mouth of a snake about to swallow a rabbit whole."

His sound was small, but shaded with infinite subtlety. "Mould the keyboard with a velvet hand," he told the students he taught. "And feel the key rather than striking it. Since each finger is individually shaped, it is best not to seek to destroy the particular charm of each, but... to develop it. As many different sounds as fingers." Once they knew a piece from memory, he said, they should practise it all night in the dark. "When the eyes can see neither notes nor keys, only then does the hearing function with all its sensitivity." Such words should be emblazoned over every recording studio and conservatory door.

Shopping for Chopin

Two big labels have been quick off the mark with budget collections of recordings by various pianists: Warner's Chopin Masterworks (above left, two five-CD boxes) and EMI's Chopin 200th Anniversary Edition (16 CDs). The former includes Maria João Pires and Boris Berezovsky; the latter, Claudio Arrau and Daniel Barenboim.

For definitive editions, get either Vladimir Ashkenazy's box (Decca), or that of Samson François (EMI); for his études, Berceuse, and Second Sonata, get the god-like Maurizio Pollini (Deutsche Grammophon); for his Preludes, get the coruscating Grigory Sokolov (Opus 111); for the Waltzes, the expressive Artur Rubinstein; for the concertos, Martha Argerich or Krystian Zimerman (both DG). Giants from the past include the velvet-pawed Dinu Lipatti and that peerless showman Vladimir Horowitz.

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