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CHOPIN IN PARIS: The Life and Times of the Romantic Composer.\o7 By Tad Szulc (Scribner: 444 pp., $30\f7

April 26, 1998|TED LIBBEY | Ted Libbey is the author of "The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection" and the forthcoming "NPR Encyclopedia of Classical Music." He is heard every week on National Public Radio's "Performance Today."

From the moment he arrived in Paris--in September 1831--to the day he died there 18 years later, and ever since, Frederic Francois Chopin has been, both in musical circles and among historians, the subject of much interest, admiration and misunderstanding. Even the name of his birthplace in Poland, the little village of Zelazowa Wola outside of Warsaw, at one time acquired a misplaced significance in the lore surrounding its most famous son. Translated erroneously as "Iron Will," it was taken by some to be a kind of portent, a cosmic harbinger of one of the elements that would play most noticeably in the composer's character. In fact, Zelazowa Wola was plain old "Ironville."

But very little in the life of Chopin was plain, especially after he settled in Paris, which by the 1830s had become the undisputed center of European culture, a hotbed of new thinking in arts and letters and the focal point of Romanticism in music. After a sensational debut at the Salle Pleyel, the concert hall of the Pleyel piano company, early in 1832 (with Liszt, Mendelssohn and Cherubini among those in the audience), the young Pole, a week shy of his 22nd birthday, instantly took his place as one of the most celebrated figures in the rich cultural life of the French capital. He would never again return to his native country, and Poland's loss was to be Paris' gain.

During his remaining years, in spite of emotional ups and downs and recurrent illness, Chopin produced a remarkable body of compositions for the piano, works unrivaled both in their poetic feeling and in their sensitive exploration of the instrument's tonal capacities. Chopin's talents as a pianist were beyond emulation and had an impact on other musicians out of all proportion to the number of concerts he gave. As a creator, he interacted with the great artists of the day, forming particularly close friendships with Delacroix and Liszt. His own art reached a new plateau in the late 1830s as a result of his involvement with the writer Baroness Aurore Dudevant, a woman six years older than he who in 1832 had taken to calling herself George Sand. Some of Chopin's greatest works emerged as a result of the emotional contentment he felt in the early days of their nine-year liaison.

Yet of all his generation, which included Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Verdi--the vanguard and main army of Romanticism--Chopin was, and remains, the most mysterious and impenetrable, as great a challenge to would-be biographers as to the generations of pianists who have sought, with occasional success, to interpret his music. So it is interesting that where music historians have largely feared to tread, the ubiquitous Tad Szulc has stepped in with a portrait of the composer's life and times that pulls a great many hitherto loose threads together. Despite the Byronic ring of its title, "Chopin in Paris" is a sober, well-researched and carefully constructed chronicle of the events and experiences that figured most prominently in the composer's life, at once a biography of the artist and a history of the social setting within which his art emerged. Without doing much to elucidate Chopin's music, it sheds new light on the man and his milieu.

Szulc set himself a difficult task in this undertaking as the author of books on John Paul II and Fidel Castro, he is used to big challenges. Less is known about Chopin than about any of his major musical contemporaries. Chopin, the expatriate, traveled less than they did. He wrote fewer letters, and fewer of the letters he wrote survived. He was neither a cult figure, as was Liszt, nor a feuilletonist, as was Berlioz--let alone a combination of both, as was Wagner. As Szulc points out, Chopin gave only 30 public performances in 30 years of concertizing, and much of his music was not published until after his death. When it comes to his life and work, then, the solid documentary evidence that musicologists customarily rely on is in short supply. This lack of material, combined with the fact that he was guarded even with his friends, makes it hard to know what went on in Chopin's mind, hard to answer some of the questions that have persistently nagged musicians and biographers about his character, emotional makeup and sexuality.

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