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The melancholy musician

Chopin's Funeral, Benita Eisler, Alfred A. Knopf: 240 pp., $23

June 01, 2003|Ted Libbey | Ted Libbey is the author of "The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection."

The conditions under which artists flourish can tell us a lot about their personalities and what may lie behind their art but often tell us little about the art itself. For anyone writing a biography, this can be a nasty little problem. Mozart, for example, liked to be in the thick of things. He thrived on social interaction, loved parties, billiards and games, traveled, performed a lot and longed for the hubbub of the opera house. Beethoven, on the other hand -- while he surely craved human contact and fantasized about the kind of domestic bliss Mozart apparently enjoyed -- sought solitude and preferred long walks in the country with a sketchbook as his only companion to rounds of soul-numbing soirees in the salons of Vienna's nobility or lonely dinners in the saloons of its bourgeoisie.

Yet Beethoven's music was often exuberant and joyously extroverted, especially when it sought, as in the Ninth Symphony, to embrace millions, while Mozart's could be dark, introspective and, in certain of his minor-key works, amazingly grim and anguished. Recognizing that it's impossible to talk about the life of an artist without at some point delving into his works, and that it serves at best a narrow academic purpose to examine the works without searching for some context in the life, it's still a rare book that succeeds in giving the reader both a glimpse of the world in which the artist lived and a meaningful overview of his work. Most writers concentrate on one thing or the other, depending on where their skills lie.

Benita Eisler's skills are definitely those of a historian and biographer rather than a musicologist, and "Chopin's Funeral," notwithstanding its rather novelistic title, is clearly intended to be a "life" portrait of its subject rather than a thorough exploration of his life and works. In its sensitive re-creation of the time and place in which Chopin lived, and its painstaking and detailed observation of events -- as though Eisler were writing about things she had seen -- this elegantly slim volume takes its place at the head of, yet apart from, a long list of biographical tributes to the Romantic era's most elusive and hermetic composer. What's more, even though the art is subordinate to the artist here, Eisler, without losing the thread of her narrative, lends a perceptive ear to Chopin's music, which gives her book, if not completeness, at least a satisfying kind of integrity.

Chopin presents the would-be biographer with a special challenge, which may have been what led Eisler to take him on. For Chopin's life was a symbiosis: a mutually dependent union, during the years that mattered most, with the writer George Sand. So, like every biography of Chopin that has come before it, this one is really the story of Chopin and Sand. Eisler has had some experience in this vein, having written a joint biography of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. But what really seems to have helped prepare her for the assignment is her authorship of a biography of Byron -- who, like Chopin, lived his life shadowed by illness, troubled by fame, confused about women and, in the end, celebrated mainly by foreigners ... and whose genius, like Chopin's, burned brightly and quickly.

But where Byron was a man of action, Chopin, the hothouse flower of Romanticism, was perhaps the most passive great artist in history. In this essential trait he differed not only from Byron but also from his friends Eugene Delacroix and Franz Liszt, those titans of the canvas and keyboard who were perpetually stirring things up. While Chopin loved the social whirl of Paris and thrived on contact with other artists, he needed very special circumstances in which to compose. Even though he was a master of improvisation, it took a long time for ideas and pieces to gestate in his mind. And for that to happen, he needed to be in a figurative womb: nurtured by a peculiar kind of companionship and assured of comfort, not of the purely physical kind -- although that was important -- but emotional, at the level of a child who knows his mother loves him. Sand provided it.

In many ways, Sand wore the pants in the family, and the contrast between her temperament and Chopin's is probably what made the relationship work. She was a radical social activist, he a complacent, conservative and devout Catholic. She was a prodigious worker who cranked out potboilers the way a butcher makes sausages. He created a slimmer oeuvre than any of his important contemporaries (to say nothing of Sand's enormous output, almost all of it second or third rate), but every piece he produced was a pearl. She was a world-class organizer and master manipulator, while he was given to fantasies of impotence in which he projected his weakness onto others.

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