Fryderyk Chopin by Alan Walker review – romance, rage and swooning admirers

An authoritative, accessible biography details Chopin’s personal turmoil and captures his true musical significance

Chopin is one of those great composers – Debussy is another – whose supreme qualities have tended to be obscured by the wrong sort of popularity. Partly, I suppose, because he wrote almost exclusively for the piano, his music was for years ghettoised by amateur pianists and sentimental music lovers who found all they thought they needed in his nocturnes, mazurkas and waltzes. The “Chopin recital”, Alan Walker reminds us, “remains as popular as ever”, while at the same time, the frail tubercular Pole has gone on being reinvented by novelists and film-makers and assorted fraudsters, fake diarists, letter manufacturers and all the other parasites of Romantic art.

Walker’s is not the first biography to hack through this jungle of misinformation, but it is by far the most thorough and authoritative (in English, at any rate), and, for all its length, by no means the least readable. The broad outlines are familiar enough: the childhood and early triumphs in Warsaw, the first trip to Vienna aged 19, the second (and as it turned out final) departure from Warsaw three weeks before the November uprising (1830-31), the long years in Paris in steadily declining health, the affair with George Sand, the many private and few public performances, the miserable death in 1849 in the Place Vendôme apartment surrounded by a (disputed) handful of close friends, its vestibule crowded with photographers, newsmen, swooning countesses and chattering souvenir hunters.

All this Walker describes with the narrative expertise one would expect of the masterly biographer of Liszt, a lesser composer but hardly less complex personality. Some of the terrain is admittedly the same, though Walker scotches the myth of Chopin’s intimate friendship with the great keyboard and sexual athlete, who came to represent everything he most detested about Parisian musical and social life.

More importantly, the book gives significantly more weight than its anglophone rivals to Chopin’s first 21 years in Poland (after all, more than half of his 39 year total). It’s so easy, when writing about an eastern European artist whose productive life was spent almost entirely in the west, to skate over the formative years, especially when they require knowledge of a Slavic language.

Walker, however, paints a vivid and detailed picture of the composer’s early family life and schooling, in what he makes clear was a culturally rich period in the Polish capital, before the Russians – an occupying force – put down the November rising with brutality. Chopin had a loving home life, with parents who believed in and provided a disciplined, rounded education. He left Warsaw only because it could no longer offer a platform for a musician of his brilliance, but it always remained close to his heart.

The image of an expatriate composer whose contacts with his native land were confined to the writing of a few mazurkas and polonaises and a tangential involvement with the Polish diaspora in Paris was killed off long ago in the specialist literature but still lingers on in the lay mind. Polish friends were crucial to him throughout his Paris years; he corresponded with his family, holidayed with his parents in Carlsbad – a spa town in what is now the Czech Republic – in 1835, and when his sister Ludwika came to Paris with her husband in 1844, felt, he told a friend, “a happiness enough to send one crazy”. She came again when her brother was dying, and stayed to nurse him, to her jealous husband’s undisguised fury.

The long affair with Sand and its horrendous conclusion also get their due. Walker is excellent on its background and not afraid to digress in the interests of context. But he is at his best in the whole ghastly affair of Sand’s illegitimate daughter, Solange, and her marriage to the fortune-hunting sculptor Auguste Clésinger, which culminated in a scene at Nohant worthy of a penny dreadful, with Clésinger threatening George’s son, Maurice, with a mallet and Maurice grabbing a shotgun.

This is also a musical biography that makes clear why, after all, we should bother to read a book about Chopin. Far from being a salon miniaturist, he was a major artist, a true heir to Bach and Mozart (as well as Beethoven, though he wouldn’t have liked it said), a creator of new forms, new modes of expression, and new keyboard techniques and sonorities. Walker rightly indicates Scriabin and Fauré as direct musical descendants, and Debussy as heir to Chopin’s discoveries about the piano; and since Debussy drew a new language partly from these findings, Walker might well have claimed (though he doesn’t) that Chopin lies behind a good deal of modern music, too. How’s that for a salon miniaturist?

The book makes no attempt to discuss every work, but goes into detail on salient pieces, with music examples, and some perhaps curious omissions – nothing, for instance, on the Ballade in F minor, one of the greatest of all piano works post-Beethoven. Smaller pieces, on the other hand, come through strongly. The strange harmonic effects that abound in the mazurkas appear early on and evidently come from a sense of release from the textbook when dealing with folk materials. Above all, Walker is brilliant on piano technique and its musical consequences. These passages are like talk of pigment and brushstrokes in a book about painting: technical in a sense yet free of jargon, easily understood, even perhaps by someone who has never laid hand on a piano keyboard.

With all this, Chopin himself remains an elusive figure: taciturn, discreet, undemonstrative, only completely comfortable at the piano. The most meticulous craftsman imaginable, and a performer of such refinement that his playing could barely be heard from the back of a large concert hall, he seems almost to float through the turmoil – political and personal – of his short life. “Without the music,” Walker admits, “the hollowed-out character that remains would contain little to interest us.” In fact, this life is compelling.

Stephen Walsh is the author of Debussy: A Painter in Sound. To order a copy of Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times by Alan Walker (Faber, £30) for £26.40, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Stephen Walsh

The GuardianTramp

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