In 1838, the French writer George Sand took her lover Frédéric Chopin to Mallorca. Escaping the Paris winter, they would both work in peace. The reality wasn’t so rosy. Chopin caught a cold and there were no good pianos to be had on the island. The composer made do with a “local one which [gave] him more vexation than consolation,” said Sand. This shoddy instrument would later fall into the hands of one of the 20th century’s most important performers, and then Nazi looters. It would also allow Chopin to compose some of his 24 Preludes: arguably the most tantalising, mysterious and strangely modern pieces of his oeuvre.
Paul Kildea’s bulging book Chopin’s Piano takes the motif of this piano — “Out of date before it was completed”; its maker Juan Bauza unknown and possibly an amateur — and uses it to tie together various narrative strands in an original, constantly interesting format. As it does it tells the story of Chopin’s work, the development of piano making, and how music became inextricably linked to atrocities in the 20th century.
The first half alone covers Sand’s misogynist reception at the hands of male writers, the civic regeneration of Paris in the middle of the 19th century, and schools of Chopin performance. There are cameos from Baudelaire, Delacroix, Robert Graves, André Gide and Tolstoy. Along with this more popular fare, Kildea — a musician and conductor himself — writes fluently about Chopin’s work, illustrating it nicely without sounding too technical. Chopin’s melodies often seemed to move independently of underlying harmonic progressions; or, in Kildea’s words, he “loosed his music from its vertical alignment”. “The best rubato,” he says of the performance direction in which a player might momentarily slow down before catching up with themselves, “is like a golf ball hovering on the lip of a hole for that interminable moment before it tips in.” This is excellent.
Audiences have always found in Chopin a confidential and subjective quality that chimes with feelings specific to their own experience. The composer’s contemporary, Joseph Filtsch, talked about its ability to “throw us into the darkest recesses of our own thoughts”. The Preludes show this in microcosm. Playing them as a cycle, a practice familiar to listeners now, was inaugurated by performers who wanted Chopin to fit the grand narratives of high Romanticism and do away with his “sickly” and “febrile” image. Kildea wants us to appreciate how radical they might have been considered as separate pieces. Each barely over a minute long, these “ruins”, as Robert Schumann described them, reject form even as they display a crystallised understanding of it. “Music in its purest expression”, says Kildea. But the Preludes, the piano — even Chopin himself — are not the stars of the show here.
Halfway through Chopin’s Piano, the story makes room for Wanda Landowska, a Jewish-Polish pioneer of harpsichord performance, Chopin devotee, and compulsive journal keeper. Like her idol she is both classical and modern. “She was unflinching in recording [her] experiences and transgressions,” Kildea says. In 1911 she went on a pilgrimage to Chopin’s retreat in Mallorca and found the Bauza piano, so far safe from Mainland relic hunters. But, living just north of Paris, she was forced to leave it behind when the Nazis invaded in 1940.
The piano itself features little in Landowska’s fascinating story of brilliance, persecution and restitution. Neither does it do much once it has been looted by the Nazis. There is no evidence to suggest they ever played it or displayed it. And when it is recovered with the help of the son of a musician who played Chopin with Landowska, who died in 1959, then lost again once it is safe, it doesn’t much matter to the story. It is a blow that, having survived such a serendipitous yet tragic history, it should be lost after its rescue. But it is enough that the instrument has prompted this rich, winding double portrait of two musical heroes. Chopin may indeed have intended his Preludes to be miniature: “tiny-great monuments of Western art music,” Kildea calls them. But this book shows us that the story of their legacy, along with their composer’s, is unequivocally rangy and huge.
Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism, by Paul Kildea, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 331 pages
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