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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice