Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Nine Lives 4: Frederic Chopin!

Our book today is William Atwood’s diverting 1999 study The Parisian Worlds of Frederic Chopin, and it’s a very good example of what I like to call the ‘picture window’ biography, as opposed to the ‘banquet’ biography. I confess I prefer the ‘banquet,’ in which we get the entirety of the subject’s life and times laid out for us in painstaking, elaborate detail, preferably from the first moment that subject’s father fancied that subject’s mother right up until that subject’s invariably unworthy offspring are shipped off to some distant penal colony (usually wiping their posteriors with priceless letters from their parents the whole journey). But that could just be my oft-stated preference for very long books. I’ll certainly admit that even in the greatest lives not all the little details are important – the problem is, readers entirely divorced from those great lives are in no position to know which little details are genuinely unimportant. Even experienced biographers can’t know, which is, I guess, why the field of biography has flourished for so long.

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And my preference for doorstoppers notwithstanding, I do so love a ‘picture window’ biography when it’s done well! These are the (generally shorter) works that give us one static frame through which to view their subject, with the hope that they’ve chosen the frame – and the view – well enough so that the limited range (we don’t see the house getting built, we’re not there on move-in day, etc.) is more than offset by the freshness, the clarity of perspective.

When it works, it’s utterly refreshing, completely delightful. Peter Quennell’s Byron in Italy has already been praised here at Stevereads, and to that you could add many other such titles (Philip McFarland’s Hawthorne in Concord, for instance, or Robert Tanner’s Stonewall in the Valley).

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Atwood’s book might as well have been called Chopin in Paris, and it, too, is an utterly delightful success. Chopin left his native Poland shortly after the November Uprising of 1830 and arrived in Paris in 1831 not originally intending to stay.  He was full of his usual nasal bombast about the terrors being inflicted on his country, his home, and his family by the marauding Russians, at one point writing, “Oh, God, do you exist? … Haven’t you had enough of the Muscovites’ crimes?  - or is it – can it be – You yourself are a Russian!” But he took to Paris well enough for all his melodrama, and of the hundreds of people who left behind reminiscences of him from that period, it must be said that not all of them recall him endlessly sighing and weeping.

If ever there was a city in 19th century Europe designed to forestall weeping, it was the Paris (Chopin’s lucky he never got to Venice –he’d have renounced his Polish nationality altogether) of the 1830s. This was apparent even to a visitor from staid, Puritanical Boston who spent only three weeks in the city in 1833 and almost immediately found himself subsumed in the filth, decadence, and sparkling frivolity of the place (he forever afterward nurtured a dislike of the French, probably because they had succeeded in wasting his time).

The population of the Paris Chopin found in 1831 was fast approaching one million people, although it was a noticeably smaller place. There were only twelve arrondissements – nine on the Right Bank and three on the Left (always factoring in the floating, mythical “fourteenth arrondissement,” where all secret, illicit meetings took place – a philandering man, like Chopin would eventually be with George Sand, was always due to meet his objet d’amour somewhere in the fourteenth arrondissement), but that space was absolutely stuffed with all manner of meeting places. Ballrooms, concert halls, palaces of art and commerce, parks, and of course the famous salons just now coming into their full vogue. And of course counterbalancing all of this splendor was an equal amount of squalor, from gaming houses to innumerable whore-houses to the rampant crime that afflicted even the best neighborhoods at night, as Atwood freely points out:
It is interesting to note here that George Sand’s predilection for men’s clothes in the early 1830s may have stemmed not so much from any lesbian leanings as a desire to protect herself from sexual assault on the dangerous Parisian streets after dark. Besides, men’s clothing was significantly cheaper than the reams of expensive fabric required to outfit a respectable lady of her time.

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It was in this brawling, bawling, captivating city that Chopin came into the full development of his musical talents, and it’s from the time of his residence there that most of his greatest successes – and happinesses – originate. Here he dealt with the great and small of the artistic world, from opera house managers (and censors) to publishers to fellow musicians – the greatest of which, at least in the public’s eyes, was Franz Liszt. Chopin always cultivated the wispy, vaguely ethereal pose so popular with the Romantics, but although he might not have believed Liszt the better piano player, even he had to doff his hat to the sheer mastery with which Liszt pulled off such playacting nonsense. There certainly couldn’t be any arguing with the effect, as Atwood describes:
Both the intensity of Liszt’s playing and the charismatic nature of his personality roused audiences to a frenzy. Ladies rose from their seats, screamed hysterically, and tossed perfumed handkerchiefs onto the stage before passing away in a dead faint. One excited lady even threw her tiara at him, but it fell short (so Berlioz tells us) and landed on the head of a German who was too busy applauding to notice it.

As Heinrich Heine (who knew and liked Liszt) put it, he seemed to make the very piano keys bleed.

Atwood is uniformly excellent in describing the whole breadth of the arts Paris boasted during this period, as for instance when he discusses the opera of the day:
During much of the early nineteenth century, opera in Paris was actually two vocal arts rather than one: besides the French school there was an equally important Italian school. The former represented the old bombastic declamatory style, which had been popular on the French stage for well over a century. It was particularly adapted to what Mrs. Trollope called “the dry heavy recitative.” The French themselves called it hurlement, which can be translated (depending on the dictionary one uses) as roaring, yelling, bawling, bellowing, screaming, wailing, or howling like a wounded animal.

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Fanny Trollope, who heard quite enough hurlement to last her a lifetime, remarked “that which is not worth saying they sing.” She might have added that their singing seemed to make the very notes bleed. As Atwood diplomatically points out, it’s not to everybody’s taste.

He’s also diplomatic on what at first looks like an essential contradiction: one the one hand, the fairytale airs so many of the Romantics put on, bursting into tears at the flicker of a candle, embracing someone with wild acclaim if all he did was make an interesting observation about Tacitus at dinner, etc. – and on the other hand, their often ruthless business dealings. I doubt that F. Lee Bailey could have danced more neatly around this point than Atwood does:
The burden of personal freedom imposed on the Romantics by their cult of individuality was clearly enormous. Those who were able to shoulder it, though, experienced not only intellectual and aesthetic rewards but often economic compensation as well. If some scorned financial gain (as a compromise with bourgeois materialism), many like Hugo, George Sand, Balzac, and Dumas were not the least bit squeamish about driving a hard bargain with their publishers. Others in the fields of music, painting, and sculpture could be equally aggressive when it came to money. Chopin, usually a model of gentility and decorum, often lashed out at his publishers in vituperative, even vulgar language. Liszt, Paganini, the actress Rachel, and a host of contemporary prima donnas shamelessly sold their talents, while painters and sculptors could be conniving and cutthroat in their scramble for government commissions. Such a crass concern for money, which seems so inappropriate among artists dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual values, was, in fact, a simple extension of the Romantic demand for individual liberty in the financial sphere as elsewhere.

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But as much as I like having Atwood’s company throughout his nimble little book, one of its strongest draws has nothing to do with his prose at all: it’s the absolute profusion of black and white spot illustrations found throughout the text. Virtually every major and minor character we meet in the text we also see, at some point, looking back at us from the pages – looking handsome (as in the case of Polish poet Juliusz Slowacki or, oddly enough, James Fenimore Cooper) or hugely insightful (as in the case of celebrated salon hostess Betty de Rothschild), or lively and intelligent (as in the case of poor George Sand, whose works are still under-appreciated among English-language readers), or else so immediately real that you expect them to turn towards you and speak their own stories (as in the case of Victor Hugo’s longtime mistress Juliette Drouet or the American force of nature Samuel F. B. Morse). Any reader with half a brain will immediately see that YouTube enjoys no superiority over such a presentation.

Which isn’t to slight Atwood – his accompanying little picture-tags almost always shine with his delight in his subjects, as in the case of the aforementioned pretty boy:
One of the triumvirate of great Polish Romantic poets, Juliusz Slowacki was a morbid, introspective individual, given to delusional fantasies toward the end of his life. At one time he and Chopin had been in love with the same girl, Maria Wodzinska, who spurned them both. Although the two men had some  social contact in Paris during the early years of their exile, Slowacki later accused Chopin of being a peacock, to which the musician responded by calling the poet a numbskull.

Hee. We must all call a poet a numbskull, from time to time. Nice to know Chopin had the same predicament.

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He ended up staying in Paris until his death in 1849, and Atwood has opened a marvelous picture window on the whole time.  There have been vastly larger and more wide-ranging ‘banquet’ biographies of Chopin, of course (and the vast Correspondance is endlessly enjoyable on its own), but you could scarcely do better than this (comparatively) slim volume just the same.


JC said...

Consider my perfumed handkerchief yours! I swoon.

JC said...

Bravo! Encore!

GW said...

Another great post!

I think the reason Atwood couldn't name his book Chopin in Paris is because some hack named Tad Szulc had already taken the name for a book he published the same year. God, was it awful. To paraphrase someone who wrote here once, he managed to suck the pathos out of a man dying of tuberculosis. And he didn't know anything about the music, to boot!